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Winner of the one and only AMCO 1000

As a newly married young bloke battling bureaucracy to establish a peat farm near Bombala on the New South Wales south coast, John Atkinson was introduced to the joys of motocross by the local sawmill owner. He quickly discovered a 90cc Suzuki ag bike wasn’t particularly competitive, even in local events with the Sapphire Motorcycle Club. But the experience led to the purchase of a pair of Husqvarnas – a 250 and a 400.

“I recall racing back-to-back events at Amaroo Park,” says Atkinson. “The first with a right-hand side gear change and the second with a left-hand side change. This caused a lot of damage to
feet and legs.”

With the realisation that he was a B-grade motocrosser at best – despite an outright win in the 1972 Rotocarna Scramble – Atkinson found his talents better suited to enduros, with a win in the Wallaroo Run Enduro held in the Jellore High Range near Mittagong. And when the Light Car Club of Victoria established both the Mallee Rally and the BP Sunraysia Rally in the early ’70s, John was hooked. Despite their formats favouring the four-wheel contestants, outright podiums and class wins followed in those immensely popular rallies.

So when the 1975 AMCO 1000 – a cross-country race from Broken Hill to Renmark and back again – was announced, John was one of the first to sign on. Despite the best intentions of the organisers, between a botched start, lack of communications and the course marking vehicle breaking down, Australia’s first true cross-country was a shambles. Less than half of the 97 entrants made it to the finish line and there were eight hospitalisations, but John found his way to the Renmark Showground for a cold and fitful night’s sleep, then back to Broken Hill to claim the winner’s trophy and $1200 cheque – big money back in 1975.

Atkinson was on top of the world, until a crash the following year at a cross-country event near Oberon.

“I was at top speed when I came to a section where the gum trees had been cleared and I landed in a crabhole where a large tree had been felled. My injuries were horrific and I was carried out face-down on an electrician’s ladder.”

He spent 10 days on life support at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital with a shocked lung. Despite numerous broken bones the only remedy was 24-hour physio, which meant being constantly rotated and pounded, literally, within an inch of his life.

Yet the passion for bolting across the landscape at speed remained, though now relatively safe within a roll cage. First in a Ford Cortina, then an Escort, then a Nissan Stanza SSS, in which John – and navigator Steve Robinson – won the 1980 NSW Rally Championship. During his rallying days John introduced his two sons Ben and Chris to the sport, with Chris eventually progressing to the World Rally Championship with the Subaru factory team.

Not that he renounced two-wheels entirely, as he regularly tours the Gold Coast hinterland and beyond on his BMW R 1200 GS Adventure, a machine that replaced his KTM 990 Super Duke. He has, however, given up more extreme adventure riding after a recent jaunt through the Himalayan mountains on a Royal Enfield.

“The altitude sickness at 16,000ft was bearable,” Atkinson says. “But the Delhi belly was the end of me. Just imagine having all your riding gear on, waterproofs and gloves, and you’ve just gotta go. Down by the river, scouring like an old cow and standing in everyone else’s shit. No, I’ll stick to weekend rides on the Beemer from now on.”

It’s not that John doesn’t have other means to enjoy his need for speed in his position as Director of Driven Training, a Commercial Driver Training Organisation. And piloting his helicopter across the country on business, plus a light plane purely for pleasure. Both would be considerably more comfortable than bashing through the bush on his old 400cc Husky.

Peter Whitaker