The word ‘legend’ is all too often overused, but in the case of Per Eklund, it is entirely appropriate. This is a man who has raced against – and beaten – some of the biggest names in the sport, conquered the iconic Pikes Peak hillclimb and gruelling Safari Rally and won the FIA European Rallycross Championship. In just over two weeks’ time, he will return to the series for the Euro RX1 season-opener at Höljes. At the age of 75.
Eklund’s name is synonymous with both rallying and rallycross. A Saab factory driver in the 1970s and works Toyota driver the following decade, he reached the rostrum on his FIA World Rally Championship debut on home soil in 1973 and went on to add 12 more WRC podium finishes to his résumé – including a popular victory in the Swedish round on the schedule in 1976 – with a total of 73 stage wins from 83 event starts.
Amongst his other rallying accolades are Swedish and British domestic titles and a top five finish in the final World Championship standings in 1982, but more recently, the Swede’s focus has been very much rallycross-based.
His participation in the discipline actually dates right back to its early days in 1971, and he went on to win both Sweden’s first-ever rallycross event at Hedemora later that same year, as well as Höljes’ inaugural rallycross meeting in 1976.
Sustained success, however, came later, as Eklund was crowned Euro RX Champion in the headlining Division 1 (now Euro RX1) category behind the wheel of a Saab 9-3 T16 4x4 in 1999 and placed inside the top three in the overall classification every year from 1998 to 2003.
The 2004 Swedish Rallycross Champion’s last full season came in 2009, but he has continued to race sporadically since, and last year climbed back into the cockpit of his beloved Volkswagen Beetle for the first time in half-a-decade to contest selected Euro RX and RallyX Nordic outings.
Revealing that his 75th birthday celebrations in June were the impetus behind his entry into the 2021 Euro RX1 curtain-raiser at Höljes, ‘Pekka’ – as he is affectionately known – still speaks with a boyish enthusiasm about the sport and circuit that he so dearly loves.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at Höljes during my career,” acknowledges Eklund, who remains resolutely young at heart and is looking forward to measuring himself against the cream of rallycross’ current generation.
“I helped to build the circuit almost 50 years ago and then won the first rallycross event to be held there, so it’s somewhere that holds a lot of very fond memories for me and I feel a real connection with the place. It might not be my closest circuit, but it’s like a second home – for me, quite simply, Höljes is rallycross.
“It’s this wonderful little track in the middle of nowhere that never fails to produce exciting, high-quality action, and as a spectator venue, there’s nowhere better. It was a strange experience racing in front of empty grass banks last summer, because the fans are such a huge part of the whole Höljes appeal – their enthusiasm creates that unmistakeable atmosphere that makes it all so special, and it’s fantastic to have them back again this year.”
The event will be the first time that Eklund has competed in 2021, although he stops short of saying it will be the last. Is there another chapter still to be written in such an extraordinary career? Never say never.
There’s just one thing, he cautions.
“I haven’t told my wife I’m racing yet.”
Sorry, Per. Your secret’s out now...