Chris Atkinson gears up for rallycross season with Subaru Rally Team USA.
Talk about starting early: Chris Atkinson rode in his first rally car when he was about four years old.
“My dad used to race and actually drove for the Subaru dealer team in the New South Wales Rally Championship in the early ’80s,” says native Australian Atkinson, 37, known as “Atko” on the circuit. “One day, he strapped my kid’s seat in with me under the harness and took me down one of the test stages. I remember hitting this jump and thinking, ‘How cool was that?’”
Fast forward several years, and Atkinson was living a pretty good life. He’d attended Bond University in Queensland on an academic scholarship and graduated in two years. After getting his diploma, he lived with some friends in Brisbane and was making a good living as a stockbroker at the tender age of 19.
Something was missing, though – an itch that needed to be scratched. So Atkinson started navigating during rally races for his brother Ben, and that was … nice. But then he took the wheel in 2000 for the final round of the Queensland Rally Championship (QRC), and it all came back – the speed, the passion. It was love at first rally. (They finished 1st in class and 3rd overall.) “Finding something that I was also reasonably good at was the key for me, and then being a competitive person just topped it off,” he says.
Boom! Goodbye desk job. Hello, life as a professional racer.
Finding something that I was also reasonably good at was the key for me, and then being a competitive person just topped it off.
A ridiculous amount of success ensued. In his first Australian Rally Championship (ARC) season, he finished in the top 10 of Group N and well inside the top 20 in every round he raced. With Ben in the co-driver seat, Atkinson finished 9th outright and was crowned Privateer Champion. He caught the eye of a team in the Asia Pacific Rally Championship (APRC) and won the Super 1600 class in 2003 and 2004.
Seeing that Atkinson was a natural behind the wheel, Subaru World Rally Team (SWRT) brought him into their racing fold full-time in 2005 − making him the first Australian to be a full-time World Rally Championship (WRC) driver. The move paid off big time as he took 6 podiums in his three years with the team. In 2007, he set the fourth-highest number of fastest stage times and landed just outside a podium spot.
Subaru Rally Team USA rallycross driver Chris Atkinson. Photo: © Ben Haulenbeek, subaru.com/rally 2016
Over the years, Atkinson has brought home enough medals to fill several shelves. But now he’s getting behind the wheel in rallycross races, a new format for him. After joining SRTUSA for the four final races of 2016, he's now prepared for his first full season of rallycross.
Typically, he isn’t the least bit nervous. “The speed of the cars is so cool,” he says. “The first
time I got on the gas at the test, I nearly went off at the first corner. The car just kept accelerating so hard, which you don’t get in a restricted rally car. It still puts a smile on my face.”
Atkinson says he tends to drive in a “neat and controlled” manner, which he believes will carry over well to rallycross. “The rally skills that really help are in the tricky sections, like quick change of directions into hairpins,” he says. “I would have done this thousands of times in rally, so it makes it easier compared to the circuit guys. But, then, they have the advantage from years of track racing on the more normal corners. Because GRC cars are more like a rally car in terms of feedback and movement, though, rally drivers can get to grips with them pretty quickly.”
Unsurprisingly, Atkinson is a bit of a perfectionist. Like every surfer who thinks the perfect wave is just over the horizon, Atkinson believes his next race might well be his best one. “I don’t feel like I ever nailed a race last year,” he says. “Pole position in Los Angeles was so awesome and unexpected. On the race side, I think the final in Seattle was cool. I was on the front row, which was already pretty good, but got the worst start ever. We were last by 100 meters going into the first turn, but from there in the 10 laps, we got back to 6th place, which was a nice comeback.”
Subaru is such an iconic rally brand − it’s the company everyone wants to drive for.
Atkinson says he feels right at home with Subaru, as it is the gold standard in the rally world. “Subaru is such an iconic rally brand − it’s the company everyone wants to drive for,” he says. “The great thing about their road cars is that they are so closely related to the rally cars, so you can hop in a new WRX STI and it drives and behaves like a rally car. That is such a cool feeling.”
Personally, Atkinson says his ideal Subaru is the 22B: “I would love to own one of those,” he says. “They have huge guards and just look mad on the road.” But when he’s not racing through the heat and the dust, he is a husband and father of two daughters − which means he drives a different model of Subaru to get around. “When we were in the USA for the end of the GRC season, my family had a Subaru Outback for the road trip, which was awesome,” he says.
With a promising racing career still ahead of him, Atkinson says he occasionally looks back and chuckles at his former life as a desk jockey. In the end, he’s got to admit things have worked out pretty well behind the wheel. “I wonder where my life would have gone,” he says. “But it would be pretty hard to beat what I have gotten to do, and the life I have lived so far.”
Subaru Rally Team USA rallycross driver Chris Atkinson pilots the #55 WRX STI. Photo: © Ben Haulenbeek, subaru.com/rally 2016