With his good looks and his blistering speed, this Ulster racer is a hit both on and off the track, says Stephanie Bell
Colin Turkington has the beautiful babes from Atomic Kitten to thank for giving him his big break in the high-speed world of British Touring Car Racing. Currently poised to realise his dream of winning the British championship for the first time with Team RAC, Colin was just 19 when the chart-topping girl band signed him up for their MG ZS team in 2002.
Now a celebrity of the sport in his own right, Colin is attracting attention not just for his skill behind the wheel but for his smouldering good looks.
Very much the heartthrob of the British touring car circuit, it is not unusual on race days to find this unassuming Portadown man mobbed by adoring female fans.
It is an adulation that he modestly shrugs off: “The sport is massive in England.
“There are many hardcore fans who go to every race and people are passionate about it and so you do become very popular.
“It is great to be part of it, but at the same time it is nice to come home to Northern Ireland and just be Joe Bloggs again.”
Racing is in Colin’s blood. His dad, well-known businessman Trevor Turkington, raced karts and rally cars.
Colin started racing karts for fun with his older brother Gary when he was 10.
“It was a hobby for five years and not something which I thought of as a career,” he says.
“Then when I was 15, I got the chance to race cars at Bluestone in Craigavon and I did some stock car racing. Racing cars in a muddy field is a good place to learn the trade.
“Then the opportunity came to race in England and it was a real eye-opener. The level of competition was so much higher and there was so much to learn, with 10 circuits as opposed to just one in Northern Ireland.
“It was at that point I started to take it more seriously and decided I wanted to make a career of it and get to the British Touring Car Championships.”
At 17, he started to race in the Ford Fiesta Championship, which was a step below his goal of the BTCC.
Winning the championship in 2001 catapulted the young Colin into the limelight and led to his selection for Team Atomic Kitten.
His BTCC debut with such a famous sponsor saw the teenage Colin thrust into the full glare of the media spotlight.
“I really landed on my feet although it was a massive step into the unknown for me in terms of the profile,” he recalls.
“Here I was racing for this huge team with this huge name behind it and because the band was very big at that time, we got a lot of attention.
“Going from being an unknown junior driver to the headline series, everyone wanted to know everything about me.
“At 19, I still felt like I was only a wee lad. The first time I met the band at MG Headquarters I had no idea what to expect.
“There I was with the other driver in this room with these three really attractive stars and it was just so bizarre.
“It was one of those moments and hard to describe — it felt like a big culture shock with the band and the huge entourage which came with them. The girls were a lot of fun and there was plenty of craic.”
Colin made the massive leap to the big league of British tour car racing while studying for a business degree at Stirling University.
“It was something to fall back on and to keep mum and dad happy,” he says.
“It was tough going because the racing was like a full-time job and I was also a full-time student.
“I shared a flat with eight other students and I was living in this real party atmosphere but had to train hard and make sure I got enough sleep and watch what I ate.
“I missed out on a lot of student partying but it felt like quite an easy sacrifice to make and I just had to keep my goal in my head and not get distracted.
“I did have to skip a lot of classes and had to cram hard to make up for it. I finished my degree in four and a half years instead of four, which wasn’t too bad.”
His first year in the British Championship was a tough learning curve.
He says: “There were flashes of speed but not much consistency. I had so much to learn but I got one podium and finished 13th. I had done enough to prove to the team that I had potential.”
Atomic Kitten’s sponsorship of the team finished after that first year, but Colin had done well enough to move up to the manufacturer-backed team for 2003, winning his first race at Brands Hatch and finishing 8th in the championship that year.
He has continued to rise to the very forefront of the sport, winning the Independents Championship for the past two years and, in the new BMW 320si this year, he is again leading the championship.
He also got the chance to prove himself against the best in the world with a wildcard entry to the Brands Hatch and Macau rounds of the World Touring Car Championship in 2007.
At Brands, he finished third in the first race on the ‘virtual podium' and finished fourth in the second race.
In Macau, he finished 14th and eighth in the two races. It was the first time ever a privateer racer had got a podium in a world race.
He says: “It was incredible, the best weekend’s racing of my life. I had absolutely no idea where I was going to fit in and was stunned in the first practice session to be the second quickest.
“All the time I was waiting for the other guys to leave me behind and then I finished second again. I was feeling good and the car was working better than ever and I finished third in the first race and four in the second race.
“It really shot my name to the forefront and for the whole team it was a massive high.”
While the world championships are a long-term goal, Colin is concentrating in the meantime on achieving his dream of winning the British title, which is closer than ever this year.
His Team RAC, who have been consistent front runners in the British Championship, are currently sitting in second place for 2009, just six points off the lead. The season ends in October.
“Winning the overall British Touring Car Championship has been my goal ever since I started racing the Fiestas and I feel this year I am getting much closer to it,” he said.
“I hope if we do win this year that I can continue with Team RAC and do it again next year.
“The world championships are where I would like to end up but in the meantime I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.”
Colin divides his time between races in England and his home in Portadown. He has a girlfriend, Louise Robinson, whom he has been dating for two years.
She is a self-employed digital marketing specialist and goes to some of the races with him.
At home in Northern Ireland he likes nothing better than to escape up the Mournes with his four dogs.
“I love the peace of the Mournes. The time passes so quickly when I am up there and it is a great place to train and keep fit.”