CHRIS ATKINSON: "RALLY IS NICE TO DO BUT THE RALLYCROSS IS THE PRIORITY"
(L.Olsen- 5/1/2018) While many racing series around the world have already started their season at the beginning of 2018, the green flag finally dropped mid-April for the first round of American Rally Association(ARA) at Portland International Raceway (PIR) in Oregon. Known as the Oregon Trail Rally, or OTR as it is fondly called, it is one of the most popular rallies on the schedule. The first of the three-day event commenced at PIR where the rally fans got a chance to look at the cars up close, meet with the competitors, and get to know other rally fans from the area. Friday evening consisted of four special stages that gave spectators a chance to watch the cars in action on a combination of asphalt and dirt. The well-organized and contained setting on the PIR race grounds make it super easy for the fans to watch much of each stage. A little walking from one side of the grounds to the other affords a chance to see drivers get air, back it into a dirt corner, and fly past at over 100mph, often while gripping the asphalt on only three howling tires. RX360 was invited by Subaru Rally Team USA for a private tour of the Subaru service area. That gave us a chance to see the team's two race cars up close, ask questions of the crew and hear more than a few entertaining stories. Piloting the #55 Subaru WRX STI in the Open Class for the Subaru Team, Chris "Atko" Atkinson has been racing for the past two years with Subaru Rally Team in the Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship. He entered that series for the last three rounds of the 2016 season and continued with a full campaign in 2017 finishing 7th overall. This season, Chris will be dividing his race time between ARA Championship in select rounds and the newly formed ARX (Americas Rallycross) series which will consist of four rounds. Atkinson is a well-seasoned rally driver with an extensive resume. Beginning his race career as a co-driver for his brother Ben, he quickly realized he had a talent for driving a rally car and switched seats, thus setting the stage for becoming one of the stars in WRC with 41 stage wins and six podiums. Atkinson had never competed in stage rally in the United States until this season. As we mentioned earlier, he will race in a few select rounds of ARA, one being the OTR and the others are yet to be announced.
RX360: You've never rallied in the U.S. and here you are for round one of ARA at one of the most well known and well liked rallies on the schedule. As someone who has competed in different parts of the world, what is your opinion about the Oregon Trail Rally? CA: The stages are good. I expected there to be less to them than there is. You hear that the roads are really fast but they are actually really quite technical and tricky, and you have to have good pace notes to be fast. So, that was a bit of a surprise. To be sure, there is probably more work going into my notes than I expected. RX360: Do the stages remind you of other places you have competed around the world? CA: I think there is a bit of a mixture between the fastest stuff in New Zealand and Mexico. **Knives in the road's surface and grip levels** so somewhere between those two places. I know it's going to be difficult to be on the pace that we will need to be on to beat David [Higgins]. It's going to be pretty quick. If we get in a good rhythm and have a good feeling then we should be in the mix, otherwise you never know. He's pretty quick and it's going to be a bit of work, for sure. RX360: Subaru has put together a really good team. There is, of course, David Higgins and Craig Drew who have dominated the series for several years. But, then are three other great drivers, Travis Pastrana, Patrik Sandell and you, dividing seat time in the team's second race car. It's a very strong group. CA: It was always a bit of a plan for Vermont SportsCar and Lance [Smith] that if you have four guys that can rally and rallycross it gives more flexibility for the team. So, if Travis couldn't do a rally then there are two [other] rally drivers sitting on the rallycross team who could jump in with no worries and vice-versa. If there is a need for a rallycross driver, David or Travis can jump in. I think that works very well. RX360: How does it feel having Stephane [Prevot] back as your right hand man (co-driver)? CA: I can't remember when we did a rally last time. We did some rallies in China together so it has been a few years. No problems. RX360: So you guys just kind of clicked back together? CA: Yeah, he's very professional, so there are no issues there. RX360: Besides ARA are there any other rallies on the schedule? CA: At the moment the rallies and RX are the only plans. I'm not sure about anything else. We will wait and see what happens. Focus on the rallycross is the priority. The rally is nice to do but the rallycross is the priority and we need to make sure we get that into a winning position. RX360: Do you guys ever share information, such as pace notes, with other team members? CA: No, they are so personal. You ask questions like, "Have you taken that jump flat," but it's not always wise to do that. You can't really compare because I'm not going to gain much from looking at David's pace notes. Mine are so specific to me and what I want to do. RX360: What do you like to do in your spare time? CA: This is my main job, so just focus on that with training and getting ready for events with testing. And, we are always traveling, so..." RX360: Do you have any hobbies outside of racing? CA: I do a bit of cycling, golf and wake boarding.
Atko's weekend at OTR didn't go as smoothly as planned. The second day ended on stage 7 after a fire under the hood caused an end to the day giving he and Prevot a substantial time penalty on day three, putting them out of contention for a win. Thank you Subaru Rally Team USA for the opportunity to hang out with you and report back to the RX360 followers and fans. We look forward to the next round on our home turf in Washington State at the Olympus Rally May 19-20.
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Photo Credit: Subaru Rally Team USA