Portland, Oregon (April 18, 2018)
Last month, Subaru Rally Team USA announced that 2017 American Rally Association Champion Travis Pastrana would only run a limited schedule in 2018, leaving his seat vacant at several events this season. Not content to let Pastrana's Subaru STi sit and gather dust, the team announced at the same time that SRTUSA Rallycross drivers Chris “Atko” Atkinson and Patrik Sandell would drive the car at select events.
This weekend's Oregon Trail Rally will see Atko and his co-driver Stéphane Prévot slot into the car and compete against a strong Open 4WD class at this year's rally. Though his focus is now on rallycross, Atkinson is a seasoned stage rally professional; for three years between 2005 and 2008, the Australian rallyist competed in the World Rally Championship as a factory driver for the Subaru World Rally Team.
Recording 41 stage wins and 6 WRC podiums, Atko has seen world-wide success at events such as Rallye Monte Carlo and Rally Mexico, but this weekend will be a first for him - his first stage rally in the United States.
“I think its pretty exciting for both me and Stéphane,” said Atkinson. “We haven't done a rally in a while and I hear good things about Oregon. There's also a huge amount of skill in the team. So it's pretty exciting.”
“Obviously when the team suggested it, I wasn't gonna say no to running OTR. It'll be great to do some rallies in the US and especially up in the Pacific Northwest region where there's such a huge Subaru fanbase. It's gonna be really cool.”
Atkinson has competed in Red Bull Global Rallycross as a member of Subaru Rally Team USA for the past two years, scoring several podium finishes for the team. SRTUSA has seen drivers crossover from rally from rallycross in the past, with both Travis Pastrana and David Higgins running several one-off events for the team, but the Oregon Trail Rally will be the first time a Subaru rallycross driver sits in the Open-spec Subaru rally car.
“I think the team is in quite a fortunate position,” Atkinson continued. “They have four talented drivers across the two different sports, especially in rallycross where we can easily cross over. Travis and David have both done rallycross while Patrik and I have both done rally a lot in the past. I think it's always been a clever choice to have drivers like that. When the chance came by of Travis not being able to do the whole championship, then it's quite easy to slot either me or Patrik into one of the rally cars.”
In the World Rally Championship, all competitors are required to write their own stage notes; JEMBA or event-supplied notes are not provided to teams. Being able to come into a new event essentially blind to the roads and write detailed pace notes is a valuable skill, one that Atkinson leans into.
“I don't know exact stages, but I've seen quite a bit of footage and obviously I've seen the stuff from launch control and the battle that Travis and David had there last year. The roads look awesome. I start studying exact stages a little bit closer to the event. I'm just having a little bit of a look for now. Until you do a proper recce and see the stages for themselves, its hard to get a real idea of how they are and how they flow. But from everyone's report, it sounds like an awesome rally.”
Though his career recently shifted to rallycross, Atkinson still considers himself a stage rallyist at heart. Even while competing for Subaru Rally Team USA in the US rallycross circuit, he has made it a point to get at least a few stage rallies a year under his belt. Over the past few years, Atkinson and Prévot have competed at several rally events in China and last year ran two events for Subaru Rally Team China in the Vermont SportsCar-built Subaru XV Crosstrek.
“I guess rally is my main thing, that's what I grew up doing, and that's where I made my name – in stage rally. The fact that I evolved into rallycross just happened to be where my career went, but I've never stopped doing stage rally over the last 15 years. So its always been there. Definitely my main focus is the rallycross, but its always cool to do a rally. And of course when you go out to compete, any time you compete, you want to do well.”
As preparation for the Oregon Trail Rally, Atkinson has had several testing sessions in the SRTUSA vehicle. Just last week, the team had a large pre-season test on private roads in Washington State.
“I've driven the car a few times, and it's similar to the car i've driven in China. The car seems quite easy to drive, so then it'll just be on me getting the flow and making sure I've got the confidence in the pace notes that we've written to attack. And for me, you drive the speed you go and you drive at the limit, thats the idea. Try not to damage it, and hopefully thats fast enough.”
Experience plays a big part in success at stage rally events. Though Atkinson is a highly experienced driver, he's never run the Oregon Trail Rally before, while teammate, David Higgins, has won in Oregon eight times. Atkinson, like all professional drivers, is out to win stages and to win the rally. However, he's taking a measured approach to making claims about his potential pace.
“If I have a good feeling in the beginning I'll push on,” he admitted. “Whether that's enough, I don't know. David and the other guys know the stages well and have competed at Oregon for a lot of years. And me, I'm a bit of a rookie in the American rally scene. But if we can write some good pace notes and we have confidence in the car we'll have a good time.
“We're not going there to win the championship, we're there to have fun and put on a good show.”
Photo Credit: Subaru Rally Team USA