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Only The Strong Survive

Atlantic Championship Pulls Together an 11-race Schedule in Tough Times

The Atlantic Championship, North America’s oldest open wheel racing series, was practically “orphaned” earlier this year when its parent Champ Car organization disappeared. But after a lot of scrambling, series officials have kept it alive and, although few people have seen it, the 2008 season has been one of the most competitive ever. With luck, the races might even be shown on SPEED before the end of the year.

The first five races of the season produced five different winners and as the 11-round series nears its midway point, Canada’s James Hinchcliffe is the overall points leader. The 21-year-old from Toronto, ON has had three podium finishes, including a win at Laguna Seca.

Yet on Feb. 22, the day it was announced that Champ Car was being absorbed by the rival Indy Racing League, the future of the Cooper Tires Presents the Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda — to give the series its full title — appeared to be in serious doubt.

“It (the merger) was a surprise. We didn’t know it was going to happen. We received the news the same way as everyone else when we saw the press release,” said long-time Atlantic managing director Vicki O’Connor, who has overseen the series since 1985.

The IRL already had its own development series, Indy Lights, so Champ Car’s former principals, Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe, announced that they would continue to own and operate Atlantic, originally created in Canada in 1974. “We were thankful that they stepped up to own the series,” said O’Connor, even though a host of new challenges awaited her and her staff.

Suddenly, there were virtually no scheduled races any more. The Atlantics usually ran as support races to the North American Champ Car events and the only ones that the IRL was retaining for 2008 were Long Beach and Edmonton. Gone were such traditional venues as Toronto, Cleveland and Portland. The start of the season was imminent and most other race promoters had their schedules already fixed.

“There was a lot of phone calls to promoters to see what was available and to look for open dates,” said O’Connor. “Many of them wanted Atlantic races, but their schedule was full. In between the scheduling, we were also keeping in touch with our teams and sponsors. It was a lot of long days and nights. While it was difficult, we made it work out.”

At the start of April, a new schedule of 11 races at nine venues was announced, including doubleheaders at Edmonton and Elkhart Lake. The Atlantics would run twice each with the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am, once with IndyCar, once with Champ Car in its last-ever appearance at Long Beach and would top the bill three times, including two events in Quebec, at Mont-Tremblant and Trois-Rivieres.

“There was definitely a time when we questioned Atlantic’s existence,” said driver Hinchcliffe. “To build an 11-race schedule from nothing at the 11th hour is a huge credit to Vicki and her staff. I don’t think that’s ever been done before. And we’ve got a really cool selection of race tracks.”

Series officials also confirmed that they would continue to offer prize money of $100,000 per race, although the much-touted $2-million scholarship for the champion driver was gone. As it turned out, this scholarship was only ever awarded once, to Simon Pagenaud in 2006. It was dependent on the driver moving into Champ Car and 2007 champion Rafael Matos opted instead for Indy Lights.

The season kicked off at Long Beach on April 20, a race that produced headlines when Swiss teenager Simona de Silvestro became only the second woman to win in Atlantic. But still challenges remained for the Atlantic staff. They had to move out of the former Champ Car offices, relocating to Brownsburg, just west of Indianapolis, and they still had to find a sanctioning body.

As well as providing legitimacy with the F.I.A., a recognized sanctioning body also facilitates licensing and insurance issues. Several bodies were interested in Atlantic, said O’Connor, who eventually chose to go with the International Motor Sport Association. IMSA also oversees the ALMS and Star Mazda series.

Still, Atlantic is clearly lacking in one area in 2008 and that’s TV coverage. For many years, its races were seen on SPEED, available in Canada as well as the US. In 2007, the series moved to ESPN2. But so far in 2008, no races have been televised. Mazda has arranged for every race, except Mont-Tremblant, to be filmed. It is hoping to have them shown on SPEED, but probably not until the fall when the season is over.

“It’s tough to approach sponsors without a solid TV schedule,” noted Hinchcliffe. “Television is a large selling point for sponsors at our level.”

The car count is also down slightly from recent years. There have generally been about 20 cars on the grid — although just 17 started at Mont-Tremblant — but O’Connor noted that many other American series are also seeing a decline in the count due to the US economic downturn.

On the other hand, the US financial woes and low dollar make the series attractive to overseas drivers with Euros in their pockets. The 2008 field includes drivers from such countries as Finland and Holland, as well as the Swiss miss. “It’s cost-effective for these drivers to race in the US,” said O’Connor.

Finland’s Markus Niemela, currently second in points, and Holland’s Junior Strous have been among the frontrunners all season, although De Silvestro — who drives for Paul Newman’s team — has not got close to the podium since her historic Long Beach win.

Canada’s Hinchcliffe got off to a slow start at Long Beach, finishing just 10th. But a change in engineering staff at Forsythe/Pettit Racing seemed to work wonders at Round 2 at Laguna Seca. With Tom Brown as the team’s new technical director and Mike Pawlowski as his new engineer — two men with considerable Champ Car experience — Hinchcliffe took the pole and led all the way.

After finishing fourth at Mont-Tremblant — behind winner Strous, Niemela and Carl Skerlong — Hinchcliffe had the pole again for the first half of the doubleheader at Edmonton. He led most of that race before slipping to third in the late laps behind winner Jonathan Bomarito and Niemela. He was third again in the other Edmonton race, behind Jonathan Summerton and Skerlong.

“So many people are capable of winning races this year,” said Hinchcliffe. “I’ve got so many rivals. There’s been no repeat winner and no-one has led the championship for more than one race in a row. We’ve had some bad luck at times, but we still find ourselves leading the championship. It feels great, although it’s more important to be leading it at the end of the season.”

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