This past July the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix honored Kate Gundlach as our 2021 Grand Marshal. The story of how this came to be, stretches back to the early 80’s. The Corvette Club of Western Pennsylvania (CCWP) did quite a bit of autocross events. Not many realize that longtime PVGP volunteer leaders Danny Yanda and Cathy Dernorsek were part of that group along with John Walko Jr. Danny Yanda did most of the work in his Irwin garage on a Corvette that he and John Walko Jr. built as a track car. That ‘Vette prompted a 14-year-old John (Johnnie) Walko III to take an interest in the mechanics of racing.
In 1983, Danny Yanda recruited many of the local Corvette club members to respond to an ad requesting volunteers to the first Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix. For the 1984 race, CCWP provided the crowd control personnel, convincing the City Department of Public Safety not to cancel the event in its 2nd year. The Walko’s were part of that group, with John Walko Jr. as the president of the PVGP organization for many years, coming up with ideas such as the Walnut Street Car Show.
In 1993, Corvette was for the first time, named Marque of the Year. At that time, John was running the original Corvette, after making some changes to the set-up, eventually winning a national autocross event. Son Johnnie began driving in the SCCA Club Formula Ford class and in 1995 won the Season championship starting from last on the grid. In April 1997, he started John Walko Racing.
Kate Gundlach started working with John III in 2004 and became the right hand of the team’s success until 2009. “I grew up with motorcycle racing,” Gundlach said. “I’ve been around it longer than I can remember. I fell in love with car racing, though, when I joined the University of Pittsburgh’s Formula SAE team,” sparking a future in the sport.
“I wanted to get into auto racing, but I didn’t know where to start,” she said. “My Dad knew Danny Yanda from his track time at BeaveRun (today’s Pittsburgh International Race Complex). He introduced me to Danny who gave me Johnnie Walko’s card, I took it straight back to my dorm room and gave him a call”.
“I had her start the next day,” said John III, “We were in growth mode at that point, running three F2000 cars, two Formula Enterprise cars, a club program with Formula Continental and a Formula Ford, and a two-car Pro Mazda effort. It was a lot of balls in the air and she kept it running. People in motorsport are hard to find like that. It’s not a regular job. You are constantly working to a deadline. It’s never, ‘We’re not going to make that race’. It takes a special person. Kate is all of that.”
“Kate was always a very sharp young lady. We hired her at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for a few years and now we compete against her, but that’s always the case with racing” said Bobby Rahal, who was the PVGP Honorary Race Director in 1999 and appeared this year as well.
In 2018, Kate, along with Danielle Shepherd, became the first woman to win an Indycar Series championship from the engineering stand, working with Scott Dixon from Chip Ganassi Racing. Now, entering her second year with Arrow McLaren SP as a Performance Engineer, Gundlach is continuing her success with driver Pato O’Ward. She is competing against her old teammate Scott Dixon and Alex Palou both at Chip Ganassi Racing. Pato and Alex are in close competition for the points leader in the Indycar series as we go to print, with her former teammate from John Walko Racing, Graham Rahal, not too far behind in the points.
In September 2005, driving for Walko, at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course during the first day of racing at the 2005 SCCA National Championship Runoffs, then-rookie Graham Rahal, set a new race lap record and took top honors in Formula Atlantic – exactly 30 years after his father, Bobby, won the Formula B Championship in 1975. And that began his rise up the ladder to Indy Cars. “Graham still holds the overall track record for the Pitt Race North Track,” commented Walko.
What started with Corvette and an ad in the paper asking for volunteers led Johnnie Walko III to a career in racing which in turn has had an impact on the careers of Kate Gundlach and Graham Rahal and Indy Car history. In 2021 we brought many of those same elements together. Take a look around. Do you see the glint in some teenager’s eye admiring the cars? We could be writing about them in 10 or 20 years.