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Aussie rally driver Andrew Pinker got his first taste of rallying in a 'win a drive in Rally Australia' competition back in 1992.  Since then, he has travelled the world to pursue his love of rallying, and recently just missed out on clinching the Rally America title.  Pinker spoke with RallySport Mag after the season finale.

It’s been an interesting journey from Australia to the US via Wales and Spain.  Can you tell us how a guy from Perth came to be contesting the Rally America title?

It’s kind of the way I’ve lived my whole life, moving from place to place to place. I didn’t want to just stay in Australia, and while the European scene is really big, I wasn’t really finding anything that interesting there, so we decided to do something else.

We were watching what was going on in America and wanted to come out here. When the time came and we thought it was right, we shipped the car that we had in Europe out and got on a plane and flew over. We shipped a bunch of other stuff, bought a trailer and a truck, filled her up, and drove to the first rally. It’s the same as doing a rally anywhere – just a little bit more travel and a few more shipping costs.

Your rally career kicked off when you won a drive in Rally Australia back in 1992 whilst still a teenager.  Was this your first taste of rallying or was it a sport you had grown up following?

That was my first real taste. I don’t come from a rallying family like a lot of people do. My father is very good at playing the piano, not driving rally cars. I followed it as a kid as far as wanting to watch it on TV when the car racing was on and getting people to take me to rallies to stand in the forest and watch when I was 15 and 16. Once I was old enough, we found a way to do it.

After winning the Daihatsu Challenge in ’94, and finishing runner-up in the Australian Rally Championship Formula 2 title in ’95, you headed to Wales.  What brought about the move?

I went to the UK originally with a little bit of an offer from SEAT. I went to Spain for one rally with them, a world championship rally, but it was with the team – not driving. I drove for them in Rallly GB, and then stayed, basically. I got a passport and three days later, I flew out.

How different was it competing in the UK compared to what you were used to in Australia?

Back then, it was quite a step up. The pace was very hot in the UK. It took us a couple of years to get on the pace in the UK because basically, they’re the same roads that everyone has been rallying on for the last 20 years and the same stages, so everybody knows the stages very, very well. Until you’ve got that familiarization with the rallies, it takes you a while to get on the pace. Anyone who’s done the British championship will tell you that. It was good. It felt a lot bigger, and it was a lot more international. Back then, there were a lot more international drivers in it. It was exciting.

1996 must have been a pretty special year for you, helping to claim the World 2 litre Championship for SEAT.  What did the season entail and how did your drive with the Spanish manufacturer come about?

It came about in a very strange way. They actually came to us about six months before the rally and wanted some logistical support for the event, to run their World Championship team. Basically, the relationship evolved, and they asked us if we wanted to drive one of their spare cars, which was a practice car in Rally Australia. We did that in ’96 and did fairly well. We scored some valuable points for them towards that World Championship. The relationship grew from there, and we went to Spain with them. They asked us to come and drive the car again in Rally GB. I actually had a contract to drive that same car again in about eight World Championship events the next year, but during that winter break, the FIA changed the rules and the car that I was going to drive was no longer viable to score points. So that fell in a hole, unfortunately. That could have been a really big deal, but that sort of stuff happens. We went onwards and upwards from there and wound up competing in the British championship that next year (1997). Within two months, I was living in Yorkshire and starting my first event with Terry Harryman co-driving for me in a Honda. Things change pretty quickly in this game.

In the late ‘90s you returned to Australia to compete in our round of the WRC, as well as contesting Rally Finland and Rally of Great Britain with Terry Harryman alongside.  What did you learn from a co-driver of Terry’s experience?

Terry was there to kind of coach me through the early part of my career. He stopped me from going too crazy and wrecking half a dozen cars in a year, which seemed to be the ‘in’ thing to do at the time. He helped me along with learning speed, but on the conservative side, to just get a lot of results and get as many miles under our belts as we could. That was really his job at the time. After Terry, I had his son co-drive for me for two years. I became an adopted Northern Irishman.

From the UK, you then headed to Spain.  What prompted the move to a non-English speaking country and how did you get your foot in the rallying door there?

We had a little bit of business involvement out there, and we were looking for something new, competition-wise. We were very disgruntled with the British series because there was no consistency in the rules. I had a look at a few places: I had a look at the French championship, and the Italian gravel championship, and really wanted to do some proper European stuff. We spoke to Octagon, who were managing the Spanish championship, and they got very excited about having a foreign competitor. I guess they figured an Australian in Spain was about as foreign as they were ever going to get! They enticed us with a bit of a deal to go and compete there. We got involved with Subaru España, and they gave us some support. It was really good. Plus, it’s a beautiful country. Sunny, nice places to go, and we could run it all from our base in London. I used to pack up the truck in London, leg it across the water, then all the way down into Spain, run the car in the rally with a few mechanics, do the event, hopefully celebrate later, and then drive all the way back again.
 
It was certainly a successful period for you, which resulted in you winning three consecutive events in the Spanish Rally Championship.  What did you drive in the Championship?

A Subaru Impreza. I drove the same car that I’m driving here in America. It’s my baby. She’s done four seasons with me now. I think it’s probably time to get a new one next year.

Did you ever compete against Dani Sordo or Xavier Pons?

No. They’ve gone back and done that championship this year. My main competition was a guy called (Oriol) Gomez, who used to be a WRC driver, and some local guys. They do very well. They’ve actually been giving Sordo and Pons a run for their money this year.

2006 saw you hit US shores.  How did the move to America come about?

I got excluded from a rally in Spain because they changed the rules right before the rally. A lot of European rally championships have got a bad reputation for being a little bit corrupt. We’d just won three events in a row, and they exclu ded us from a rally in Madrid for – believe it or not – an underwear infringement. Basically, we said, ‘If you’re going to exclude me rather than letting me win on speed, we won’t compete here anymore.’ But we were already looking at America at that stage, so we probably would have had only two or three rallies left in the Spanish championship, anyway. We sent a lot of apologies to Subaru Spain, because they were the ones who lost out because of all of it, but they’re still happy with us. They still want us to come back out there and do some more events. If we were ever to try to tie something else in with the American championship, it would be to go and compete there again, as well. Even though that happened, I did have a lot of fun out there. I had a lot of friends, as well, amongst the competitors. All the competitors were very good. And fair. It was just the officials who I guess liked to see Spanish people winning, not Australians!

Going to America was obviously a great decision from a rallying point of view as you were right on the pace from the start, taking class wins in three of the four rallies you contested, and overall victory in only your third Rally America event.  How difficult was it to adapt to the American roads?

By that stage, I had a lot more experience in going somewhere new. I’d done the same thing in Spain: I went somewhere new and managed to win there the first time. With those rallies, you got to do a one-pass recce, so it made it a bit easier. Here, some rallies, it’s been easy to do – it’s been easy to learn the roads very quickly. On other rallies, I’ve struggled to do it, to be honest. I’m looking forward now to next year, to going to events that I’ve done at least once.
 
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced rallying in America?

I don’t know. I don’t want to say it’s been easy – there have been challenges. We’ve had a few curve balls thrown at us occasionally, but it’s been alright. I guess it’s competing and getting on the pace in these events in the second half of the year that the other guys have done a few times. There are some really, really high-speed, big-commitment stages that to go flat out over the first time is a little bit edgy, with no reconnaissance or anything. That’s been a challenge.

You competed in this year’s Rally America Championship in a privately-backed Subaru against Subaru America’s drivers Ken Block and Travis Pastrana.  How does your car compare to the factory-backed cars?

Obviously, we haven’t got anywhere near the funding that they’ve got or the full-time employees that work on the cars in between each event. We balloon our staff out quite heavily so we’ve got enough people at rallies, but they all turn up the day before the rally and leave the next day. One of the challenges is all of the stuff that’s unseen in between events – the repairing of cars, the rebuilding of cars, and the preparing of cars to make sure that they are ready to go when they get there.

How big is the profile of rallying in America compared to Australia?

The profile of rallying in the States is as big as it is in Australia, if not bigger, but there are a hell of a lot more people in America. You could say that, by a straight comparison, rallying in America is bigger than rallying in Australia, but per capita, it would be a lot smaller. The Rally America series is a big championship and there’s a lot of following, but that doesn’t mean that everybody you speak to in the street knows about rallying. But we also have the X Games, and that adds a massive amount of exposure to everything that we do.

If the United States were to be awarded a round of the WRC in the future, what do you think the potential of rallying is in the sports crazy ‘States?

A WRC event here would be good. It would be huge, but I don’t think it’s the most vital thing. I think the popularity of rallying is going to increase in the States, regardless. It’s going to happen. It’s very much marketed here as an extreme sport, rather than just a motorsport, and that attracts a different genre of people, as well.

The 2007 Rally America championship came down to a three-way battle, and you finished runner-up to Travis Pastrana by just 12 points. Looking ahead, what are your plans and aspirations for the future?

To win the Rally America Championship next year is obviously the number one priority. Our plans? We have some, but none of them are official yet. We are right in the midst of that at the moment. The number of weeks of work we have until the next rally, at the end of January, is really small. It’s not really like the season stops. You don’t end the season and come January, you start thinking about the year, which is how it is in most championships in Europe. Here, we need to be out the door on the 10th of January and on our way to the first event. It’s only weeks away.

Having been away from home for so long, what is it you miss most about Australia?

My mum and dad, and my brother and sister. My cousins and my nieces and nephews. The laid-back lifestyle. London is a very, very busy, hectic, crazy place to live. Being in America is something in between. In California, it’s sunny and nice, and I can go to the beach if I ever get time off. It’s got all that sort of stuff, but it’s also quite busy, as well. It may be the best of both worlds of what I like.

Are we likely to see a return to Australian rallying of Andrew Pinker any time soon?

I would love to. We had a sponsor mention that a little while back. If that ever happened, I would be stoked, but no immediate plans.


 

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