Crikey’s grand prix insider, Racy Rachel, tells of what it was like working for that Red Terror, Ron Walker, back in the days of those early GPs.
It seems such a long time ago. It was in the early days of the grand prix when I was one of the backroom girls at the grand prix office.
The Albert Road office was heavily populated with girls as I remember, most of them linked through family or school connections with Ron Walker or one of his close mates. Our chief executive in those days was also female, Judith Griggs, a young Adelaide-trained lawyer who had worked for Berni Ecclestone on contracts in his London office. Apparently, her being made CEO was part of the deal with Bernie, that way Bernie could keep track of his interests.
In a way, she set the tone of the office – lots of nervous energy, lots of desperation and a pretty scatter-gun way of making decisions. You really never knew where you stood. Judith was a great one for staff meetings but it often seemed that all they did was add to the confusion – decisions taken one day were frequently over-ruled the next. Judith had her good points, she is basically a very decent person but was far too nervous and it was contagious. If left to herself she probably would have done a much better job but the constant presence of Ron Walker, the chairman, undermined her confidence and her relations with many of the staff.
Enter The Red Terror
Ron would walk in, always dressed to the hilt in his classy dark pin-stripped suits with a bright handkerchief flowing out of his top suit pocket. We used to call him the “red terror”, his colour- enriched red mop being the first thing you noticed. He’s a giant size-wise, he must be almost 7 foot tall, and whenever he was stalking the office you could feel the tension in the air. He would usually make for Judith’s office first and when he was around Judith would tense-up and she would seem to lose her natural charm. Ron was always courting her in a way, part paramour, part tyrant. He would send her red roses and sometimes gave the impression of a protective uncle, at other times, as a few of us quietly observed, it was as if he harboured a more pressing kind of love.
Someone told me that Ron had been made “father of the year” by some group. It stayed in my mind because I couldn’t quite put it together with the way he treated people in the office, he was most abrupt and rude except when there was some important person around. And I will never forget the day he humiliated his young daughter, who was working for the public relations firm IPR at the time (and of course IPR did the GP’s publicity), dismissing her as stupid in front of a whole gang of people in the office (some of them school friends). I never liked him after that and I never believed the flattering propaganda, which he was probably behind, portraying him as such a nice guy.
Save Albert Park And The Public Forum
The public flak from the Save Albert Park people in those days was something else, not a day went by without some kind of crisis and it really did feel sometimes that we were besieged. Some of us girls were threatened and a couple of the staff cars were damaged – whether this was the work of the SAP we never knew (they denied it), but it was always Ron’s instinct, voiced by the premier in the media the next day, to blame them and curse them for whatever happened even though there was never any proof. I remember the office got into a terrible mess over its supposedly community-based “forum”, set up in a moment of desperation, which included people like Frank O’Connor who decided to resign in front of the media cameras at their first meeting. Another member was Tim Costello, Peter’s brother, who hated the whole idea of the grand prix and did his best to embarrass the office. After the first awful meeting which drew terrible media coverage, Ron put Elizabeth Proust into the job of chairman of the “forum” and all the girls felt she was hell to work with. She seemed to have no idea why the forum was set up in the first place. I notice that she went on to become head of Jeff Kennett’s department a little while later – a good achievement given that she was once John Cain’s chief of staff.
At the media launch of the grand prix at the Hyatt, which cost a bundle and was done by the son of one of Ron’s and Jeff’s mates (over $100,000 if I remember correctly), the whizz-bangery of it all got too hot and the stage caught on fire. Whatever could go wrong in those days did, a situation which wasn’t helped by the appointment of a close pal of Judith’s from Adelaide to handle the publicity, who seemed to spend his time either having affairs or getting stoned out of his mind.
His cosy relationship with Judith soon crashed and he went back to Adelaide. John Harnden, the project manager in those days and now the CEO, was another Adelaide import. A young foggy he had in those days the enthusiasm of a rather nerdy type with his first mechano set. He was very capable but my guess is his deference to Ron counted for more when it came to naming him Judith’s successor.
Cronyism, Nepotism And A Government BailouT
You could say that cronyism and nepotism ruled the roost in those days but I guess in the end it didn’t matter because we knew, and it was always the unspoken assumption, that Jeff would bail us out no matter what. I stuck it out past the first grand prix and I suppose the excitement of the real thing compensated for all the nonsense. All of that said, I enjoyed my time there but I also learned a few hard lessons about a few hard people.