Part 2: Interview: Cody Crocker – Australian rally driving legend
Many may not put him in the same league as Chris Atkinson or Ross Dunkerton, but Cody Crocker is arguable Australia’s most successful rally driver of all time.
After winning a competition for junior rally drivers in 1994, Crocker was then picked up by Subaru Australia and went on to win an incredible 11 national or international championships in 12 years.
Four Group N (production) titles in the Australian Rally Championship were followed by three outright ARC wins, before an unprecedented four Asia Pacific Rally Championships in succession from 2006 to 2009.
Spending years as the understudy to the legendary Possum Bourne at Subaru helped to shape Crocker’s rally career and his life.
In this enthralling interview with RallySport Magazine, Crocker speaks of his early days in the sport, the thrill of being selected to drive for Subaru, the brutal conditions in the APRC, and his life post Subaru.
This is the second instalment of our exclusive three-part interview.
Read Part 1 HERE:
RSM: You were in the most successful team in Australian rallying history. What was it like working alongside Possum Bourne, and how much of an influence was he on your career, both in and out of the car?
CC: So here I was, part of the Subaru works rally team. What a change from scrabbling to get tyres mounted on rims (and we did that in the workshop at home with a completely manual machine) at 11pm, and a rally car loaded on a trailer at midnight to head to a rally the next morning at 5am.
Now we were sent a movement schedule from Possum’s sister, Kristine, a week before each rally which outlined our flights, who was picking us up from the airport, where we were staying, test schedule and all our media commitments – it was almost minute-by-minute.
We had gone from booking two caravans in the closest park at each rally for around eight people, to a team of over 20 requiring (for example, at the 2003 Forest Rally in Perth) 61 flights! (I still have that movement schedule and I had to count the flights twice).
That’s what it took to be the best. Everyone had an important role – including me. I tried getting in and helping the boys out at one service, only to be told by team manager, Simon Curry: ‘The best help you can be is by being over there’, as he pointed to a chair over in the sitting area.
At the heart of all of this was Possum. He orchestrated everything; car builds, sponsors and media commitments, tyres, development testing, team dynamics and general morale. He was an amazing man who seemed purpose-built for being a rally driver.
He was the Lowndes, Brock and Johnson of rallying all in one, everyone loved him – and – he was my team-mate! I can’t overstate the significance of what Possum instilled in me over the seemingly short 5-year period.
From the first rally in 1998 in WA we became good mates, and whilst Greg and I were floating on cloud nine, we felt completely at home and felt like we fitted in to this close-knit team.
I still remember waiting under a tree at the start, just ‘hanging out’ with Possum and the team, joking and talking crap. All the while I’m thinking ‘Wow, I’m actually here – part of the biggest team in the sport!’.
Possum was the easiest person to learn from because he was the same person all the time. Most of my learning came from observation. Just watching him was enough to teach you a lesson, whether it be how he greeted fans or how he approached the pressures of having to push harder than ever to win a rally.
He rarely ‘sat me down’ to have a mentor session or explain something, he really didn’t need to because he could pass on so much information just in a few minutes of conversation. He had nothing to hide and would never keep advantages to himself, he shared everything and Greg and I tried to be sponges during any chats.
Often after a meeting or chat with Possum we’d dissect the conversation and try to work out what lessons we could take from it. I always used to say ‘When Possum speaks, you listen’. He had so much experience to pass on.
I honestly believe that I gained about 20 years of experience in the time I spent with Possum.
My composure during the remainder of the 2003 season after Possum’s death was a direct result of trying to emulate him. I can’t count how many times I asked myself ‘how would Possum do this’ or ‘what would Possum do next’.
Often, between stages, we’d chat about how our cars felt, how the tyres worked and compare how we approached corners. Rather than Possum telling you what you should do, he would tell you what he would do, a subtle difference that for some reason resonated with me. It made me feel that he wasn’t just my mentor, he was primarily my team-mate.
He was genuinely happy for others to do well. At the service park after the Forest Rally in ’03, where he DNF’d with a blown engine, he dragged me out from under the car, heaved me up in the air and congratulated me on winning – because it was a team victory and that was as important to him as winning himself.
I’m totally convinced Possum gave me all the mental tools I needed to see me through a fantastic career. While I might have dreamed of achieving success and winning championships, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been quite at the same level without all of those little lessons gifted to me throughout the years with Possum.
RSM: Your career was primarily in Group N Subarus. How did the cars evolve over that time, and how much did the speed increase from the start to the finish of your career?
CC: I’ve always tried to be mechanically sympathetic and tried not to be hard on the gear. This might have helped me drive Group N cars as they do need some ‘nursing’ through stages. You can’t hit everything flat out like the World Rally Cars do or you’ll break stuff.
A good example was Rally Australia in 1998. We did the second biggest jump at Bunnings (to Colin McRae) but we broke two drive shafts in the process (what was I just saying about sympathy?).
Fortunately the cars progressed a long way in the years following, both in reliability and speed. Group N started out as literally a production class where you even had to keep the rear seats and carpet in the car – including in the boot! Hard to believe.
Every year the cars got faster with more freedoms, no more rear seats and carpet. Both Subaru and Mitsubishi were focussed on Group N and were developing their cars every year. In 2001 we actually lead Rally SA after the first few stages, ahead of Possum and Neal in their World Rally Cars. It was only a few seconds and it didn’t last, but was a great indicator that these cars were getting quick.
There was a slight glitch in the speed of our cars in around 2004 when we moved away from forged pistons back to the more fragile cast ones. We actually ran the MY02 bug-eye WRX in 2003 even though the MY03 WRX had changed shape, simply because we couldn’t develop the same power from the ‘03 engine.
By 2005 we had developed an incredible car and I think that was possibly the best Group N car I drove. The engine was strong, but we’d made huge gains in suspension through an engineer who lives in France by the name of David Potter. We used to test the rally car in NZ and data log everything we could on the car, then send that to David in France.
He would analyse the data and design the internals for the dampers, set spring rates and centre diff settings all on a computer, then send back the specs to Possum Bourne Motor Sport for them to build. Then we’d test again and be blown away by how good the car was.
We usually ended up running the suspension settings within one click of his recommendations. The dampers were three-way adjustable with around 20 clicks on each, so it was pretty remarkable.
We used David Potter’s set-up from 2003 right through my APRC (Asia Pacific Rally Championship) years, so the results speak for themselves. We were on to a good thing.
Subaru have kept some of the rally cars over the years, and I’ve had a chance to re-drive my ’98 car and the ’04 car. That’s when you realise just how far things have come. So much has changed, from seating ergonomics to vision and driveability.
In the early days we still had cable throttle which meant to get anti-lag to work, the intake butterfly had to be cranked open slightly, which meant the cars drove like a dog on transport sections between stages, but they also had a really cool sounding lumpy idle, which was music to my ears.
Later they lost that appeal, but became far better to drive.
RSM: Four Asia-Pacific titles followed your ARC success, but was the international series tougher than the Aussie one? Can you compare one with the other?
CC: The APRC era was an amazing time for me. It was an adventure from the moment you left home. The conditions were far tougher in the APRC, but the competition was tougher at home.
That said, the level of competition was equal. In the APRC we fought against Jussi Valimaki and Katsu Taguchi – who was an APRC champion and extremely experienced driver with many wins in many countries. In the ARC, in the peak from around 2002 to 2005, we had sometimes 8-10 rivals who would take your podium spot if you sneezed.
In 2004, while leading Rally SA, I ‘sneezed’ by turning into a driveway (brainfade) and lost 20 seconds. I finished 5th, just 18 seconds off first. It was tight and you couldn’t afford to run wide on a corner because you would lose a place.
By contrast, for most rounds of the APRC, I could have driven one minute slower in each heat without affecting the overall championship result. Mind you, this is in hindsight and I’m sure if I did drive slower, I would have lost!
The biggest difference by far is the heat in the APRC, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. They are without doubt the toughest events I’ve ever done, by a long way. At least half a dozen drivers would end up in hospital on a drip from heat exhaustion.
We used to use cool vests and we would use one per stage, so Ben (Atkinson) and I would sometimes take an esky bag with eight frozen vests into a group of stages.
Alister McRae was driving a Proton in one of the rounds and was heading past us to a stage that we’d just finished, he’d just lost power steering. He saw me hop out of the car and I was near exhaustion and obviously looked it. He pulled over, and out of the rally. He knew if I looked that bad, he wasn’t going to make it – and he’s far fitter than me.
It’s hard to comprehend when you’re sitting in air-con reading this, but it’s hard to describe what the conditions feel like when you’re in 38 degrees and 90% humidity. It’s exhausting just getting your helmet and gloves on and belting up in the car before you start a stage.
It would be far easier to do two or three Rally Oz’s back-to-back than one of these events.
RSM: You had success in New Zealand in the WRC round, but never got the chance to head further afield to contest WRC rounds. Did you ever come close to landing a drive in events in Europe?
CC: Rally NZ has mixed memories for me; the good was 2005 winning Group N, and the bad was our fairly famous crash in 2001, which we calculated was five and a half rolls at around $20,000 per roll.
In around 2000 I tried to reach out to a few teams at some of the WRC rounds that we were at. I spoke to Malcolm Wilson at one point, who was fairly reluctant to speak with us at all, let alone have anything to do with an Australian bunch.
It seemed all too hard and fit in with my belief that cold calling just doesn’t work, you need to know someone and have an in.
That’s not entirely true, but certainly is in some cases. I wasn’t prepared to put it all on the line and head overseas. I was pretty lucky to be where I was and focussed my attention on that.
I spent some time in China with a great team in ’04 and ’05. That ended when I became a seeded FIA driver following the ’05 Rally NZ win. China doesn’t allow seeded drivers and I had just done a deal to get paid $20k per rally over there in ’06. That all ended the moment the seeding list came out.
- In Part 3 of our Cody Crocker interview, the Subaru days end and Cody finds himself driving a Polaris in Side By Side events. But when Simon Evans is in the same field, you know things aren’t going to be easy! And what’s next for him? Could we see a return to rallying in the future?