With a cold wind blowing off Lake Huron in late May 2003, alcohol funny car driver Rob Atchison teed up his Pontiac Firebird for a duel against five-time International Hot Rod Association world champion Mark Thomas.
The tree blinked green, and Atchison hammered down the throttle, sending 3000 horsepower pulsing through his 526-cubic-inch V8. Just 5.727 seconds later, Atchison had tripped the win light a quarter mile down the track. He rolled into victory lane to pick up his first career ‘Ironman’ trophy in one of the IHRA’s premiere divisions at his home track, the Grand Bend Motorplex.
In winning his first event, Rob came within 4/1000ths of a second of setting a world record. What’s more, he did it in a Chevrolet-powered machine – a landmark achievement at a Funny Car national meet.
It was the start of an incredible campaign for Rob, as he ripped through the competition during the 2003 season, collecting six more final round wins in eight attempts, and posting a .860 winning percentage. He was the fastest qualifier at nine events, set seven track records, and powered his Erickson Manufacturing-backed car to the IHRA’s World Championship in a class dominated by Hemi-powered machines.
The 28-year-old from London, ON captured one of the most prestigious titles in drag racing last summer, in just his fourth full season with the IRHA. He’d be the first to admit that the entire season was like one big highlight reel.
“That win at Grand Bend was the biggest win of my career,” he says. “We race at a lot of tracks that are far away, which makes ‘The Bend’ special. It’s our home track, and it’s also the place where I started racing. We had so many family members and friends at the race. And we ran awesome.”
On Clarke Sideroad in London, behind the walls of a three-building complex lie many secrets of speed that the Atchison family has developed and used – not only to make their wicked-fast Funny Car fly down the track, but to look after their customers’ motors on a daily basis.
Rob’s father, Bob started Atchison Machine in a downtown location in 1964, but moved to the present location a few years later.
“He wanted to provide decent engine work to help people with their cars,” Rob explains. “He worked on street cars, but it was spurred on because of racing. Dad’s always been a racer, and there just weren’t many places around that looked after racers.”
The business boasts 12 employees, and like the race team, Atchison Machine is a real family affair.
“My Mom works here, and she’s the boss,” he jokes. “Then there’s myself and Dad. My uncle, Dennis Smith, runs the front desk, and my aunt, Rose Swanson, works in the back where she finish hones blocks. Plus my cousin Shelly Miller is the office manager. When we head to the race track, it’s always Mom, Dad and I. Shelly goes on the road with us and handles the merchandising, while another cousin, Steve Smith, works on the car. Dennis looks after the team’s marketing and public relations, and my sister Darlene goes to the Canadian events.” Rob is proud of the company’s 40-year history, and the type of work that goes on during a regular day.
“About 50 per cent of our business is diesel, while 30 per cent would be regular engines, and about 20 per cent is work for the race track.” Over the past few years, during the present recession, the diversity of the business has been a definite asset.
“The racing world has been hurt – even at the top levels like the Pro IHRA guys, and NASCAR. That has trickled down to the weekend warriors that race street cars. We’ve seen a little drop-off in business because of that, but on the flip side, our success on the track has helped us gain customers and offset that.”
Each building has its own application. The main shop is where a majority of the customer work is done, but there are two smaller buildings off to the side. The major feature of the first shop off the beaten path is a flow bench.
“We use this shop for a lot of different work, including assembling transmissions,” explains Rob. ”We’re now a Lenco transmission distributor. There were no dealers in Canada, and guys had to ship all their stuff back to California. Now we can support Canadian racers at the track. There are a lot of people supplying U.S. teams, but not much north of the border.”
The third building, with a pair of CNC machines, is the research and development shop – playfully dubbed “Dad’s play shop.”
“This is where a lot of our secrets are hatched,” he says.
“Over the winter, we come up with a number of different ways to improve on our package, and map out a game plan to develop a number of them at the race track,” he explains.
The latest innovation – a new header design – was first tested at Rockingham, NC. The weekend started on the right foot as ‘Atch’ came out of the box with the fastest qualifying time, but the weekend turned sour late Friday night. “I got food poisoning,” explains Rob. “It pretty much wiped me out. They hooked me up to a few IV bags, and we just sat on our qualifying time all day Saturday. The time held up and we were still number one going into Sunday but we got knocked out in the first round.”
Though the team had only two runs with their new innovation, they crunched the computer data that had been gathered at the event. It all suggested they were on the right track with the new headers, so they’ll stay on the car… at least, until they can come up with something even better.
They rely heavily on computer generated performance reports.
“Our system records many aspects of the car during a run, allowing us to fine-turn any number of things at the track. It tells us the RPMs, crank speed, exhaust gas temperature from every cylinder. It also records the fuel flow, the G’s throughout the run, blower pressure, fuel pressure, fuel pump pressure, manifold pressure, and oil pan pressure. After the race we can examine the raw data and make any adjustments for the next run.”
Tests like this, and the data feedback have led the Atchison Racing Team to use their own custom-built rockers, as well as a number of ‘home made’ items in the valve train.
Drag racing isn’t the only form of motorsports that the Atchison’s Machine Shop specializes in. They do machine work for CASCAR teams, USAC teams, and dirt teams, but as Rob explains, the list doesn’t stop at cars.
“We do go-kart motors, some Sea-Doos, Harley Davidsons, and even some mud bog racers. They’re all different forms of Motorsports, but they all used the same applications. What we learn on our race car trickles down, and it’s information that can’t be taken away. We have proper cross hatching, and better clearances, and that’s all a result of what we’ve accomplished racing. When you’re dealing with horsepower and engines, knowledge is everything.”
Atchison cracks a smile. “About the only thing we don’t do is lawnmowers, and that’s only because racing them hasn’t really caught on in Canada.”
The item that really stands out about Atchison’s flopper is what’s under the hood. “When we first rolled it out with a Chevy wedge motor, people initially thought it was a joke,” says Atchison. “The other guys would take turns cutting on us. With a hemi motor, you can just purchase the information needed to make it go fast. After what we accomplished last year, we’ve got so much respect from a lot of the other guys. It took a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of trial and error to get where we’re at now, but it was worth it. Only four teams competed in the IHRA with wedge motors last year, and we were the only team to do the full schedule.”
As for his future aspirations, while Atchison might dream of the more glorious world of the NHRA, he’s in no hurry to leave the IHRA. “Yeah, I guess it would be great if John Force gave me a call and needed a driver, but we’re pleased with where we’re at now. We’re one of the highlights of the show as opposed to being downplayed versus Nitro Funny Cars.”
With the 2004 campaign two races old, Atchison sits third in points, chasing his new arch rival, Mark Thomas, in the standings, but as the Canadian swing of the tour fast approaches, the entire squad is getting geared up for more success on their home turf.
Atchison is clearly looking to repeat his world championship. If he can succeed, the phone might ring a bit more at Atchison Machine. It could be another racer looking for some of the horsepower secrets hidden in the team’s R&D lab… or it may be John Force, looking for a driver.