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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Meet John Edwards, Atlantic champion

by Gordon Kirby
This year's Cooper Tires/Mazda Atlantic champion is John Edwards, an eighteen-year old from Cincinnati. In fact, Edwards and Newman/Wachs teammate Jonathan Summerton, 21, finished one-two in the championship, both young men winning four races. Edwards took the title because he finished second in four other races, one more than Summerton.

Edwards has been racing cars since he was fourteen and won last year's Star Mazda championship in his first and only year in the series. John won the Red Bull Driver Search in 2004 which took him to Europe to race karts, then Formula Renault in 2005 and '06. At 14, he was the youngest driver to hold an FIA licence. Red Bull brought Edwards back to the USA in 2007 to join Canadian teen-ager Robert Wickens in Jerry Forsythe's Atlantic team before successfully tackling Star Mazda in '08 and winning a ride, courtesy Mazda, in this year's Atlantic series.

Edwards and Summerton trailed Swiss lady Simona De Silvestro for most of the season. De Silvestro won three of the year's first five races and went into the season finale at Laguna Seca atop the point standings. But she crashed on the opening lap trying to pass 2008 champion Markus Niemela, enabling Edwards and Summerton to race for the championship.

"Going into the last race, Simona, Jonathan and I each had a DNF and we couldn't afford one more, and Simona got one more," Edwards comments. "That's what put her third in the championship instead of first. It was very good for us, but unfortunate for her because she had done a great job all year. I needed her to fall out at Laguna for me to win the championship so it really fell into place for me. We needed a lot to fall into place for us at Laguna Seca and it did."

© Atlantic Championship/Phil Sedgwick
Edwards has great respect for De Silvestro.

"I wish Simona the best," he says. "She was very quick this year. She was very fast in the first part of the year at Miller and New Jersey in particular, and at the Three Rivers street circuit she was definitely dominant through qualifying."

Team owner Eddie Wachs ran De Silvestro in 2008 and is also a great admirer of her talent.

"Given the opportunity," Wachs remarks. "I think she could probably put Danica on the trailer pretty quick in road racing at least."

Edwards enjoyed working with teammate Summerton this year.

"We were teammates helping each other, but when we go out on track it's very important for us to beat each other," Edwards comments. "We're both Americans and we're at the same level trying to move up. Trying to go to Europe or to IndyCar, a lot of times they don't want to take two people molded from the same background.

"So we raced each other pretty intensely and it was interesting that we were able to help each other off the track. I think seeing data and video from the other car really helped each of us. It certainly helped us in the middle of the year compared to Simona who didn't have anyone to compare data with."

Team owner Wachs reports that going into the Laguna Seca season finale the team discussed the possibility of using team orders.

"I think we had about three pages of options that we reviewed on the morning of the race," Wachs remarks. "We talked to the drivers about team orders. It wasn't a very palatable thing but we said to John, 'If we need to, we may ask you to let Jonathan by on the last lap.' If we were in a position where John could win the race, but not the championship, and Jonathan could win the championship for the team, we would ask John to give up his spot. We said we would only ask him to do it if we needed to.

"Well, he didn't take that very well at all. He went and called his father and they talked for a while. John's father is a very nice guy. He's quite a well-known surgeon in Cincinnati. His dad told him that the team had done it for him and if he had to do it for the team then that's what he had to do. Luckily, we didn't have to use team orders after Simona got herself into trouble on the first lap."

© Atlantic Championship/Phil Sedgwick
Wachs started racing in 1962. He raced SCCA production sports cars for four years and went U2L Trans-Am racing in 1966 with his friend Horst Kwech who won the first Trans-Am championship. In the seventies Wachs raced both a Lola Super Vee and a USAC stock car. Between 1982-'85, Wachs and Kwech raced a pair of converted Toleman F2 cars in the Can-Am's under two liter division. Twenty years later Kwech turned the cars back into F2-spec machines and Wachs has driven them in SVRA races in recent years.

"We didn't run this year because our schedule didn't permit," Wachs says. "But I'm sure we'll be back next year."

The Newman/Wachs shop is located in Mundelein, Illinois, about five miles from Newman/Haas/Lanigan in Lincolnshire. The team enjoys a creative form of sponsorship from Nuclear Cleanair Energy, the Nuclear Energy Instutue and the electric power and energy supplier Entergy which is the second largest nuclear generator in North America with plants in Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York and Vermont.

"We're the only Atlantic team that's got a major sponsor," Wachs says proudly. "They're using this almost purely as a tool to get students involved in nuclear science and engineering. We take the show car to colleges to their engineering recruiting day. This year we went to fifteen major colleges.

"The nuclear industry is not interested in winning motor races or selling anything to the general public. They're trying to get identification and exposure. So we go to these engineering day sign ups and it's amazing how effective it is. We went to Purdue, for example. Two years ago they signed-up six young men and when we were there with the race team they signed-up sixty people!

"We're sitting there with a flashy-looking race car and driver. So it gets plenty of attention. It's worked very well."

Wachs says the late, great PL Newman wasted no time in agreeing to become a partner in his Atlantic team.

"In 2006 I went to Paul and said, 'Paul, do you think you and Carl would be interested in running an Atlantic team?' I said we'll run it together. I'll share the cost with you and let's see if we can give some new drivers that can't afford to pay for their ride an opportunity. I said maybe we can put a little back into the sport. And Paul, of course, was all over it. He thought it was just great. He said he was in.

© Atlantic Championship/Phil Sedgwick
"We had been friends a long time and he said, 'We can get this done.' He said, 'Let's go after it.' So we did. We bought four race cars and put together the equipment. But before we had any race cars we wanted to test some drivers."

Newman/Wachs tested six young drivers, including talented Frenchman Simon Pagenaud who was fastest of the half-dozen aspirants.

"I anguished over that a good bit," Wachs recalls. "I was getting an awful lot of pressure from Simon's French-speaking engineer who came with him to the test. Simon wanted us to put his engineer on the team. But the engineer didn't speak any English and I thought this would end up being Simon's own private team with our name on it.

"I said, 'I can't have that.' I told Paul what my problem was. He said, 'Well, that would be a problem. But the Frenchman is pretty good and I certainly like the Frenchman (Bourdais) we've got working for us.' So we hemmed and hawed about it for a couple of days. Finally, Paul said, 'It doesn't make any difference to me. Take whoever you want. You make the call.'

"Well, I decided against Pagenaud and he won the Atantic championship with Derrick Walker. Every race we went to Paul would say, 'Now, what was that guy's name who we sent down the road?' He was just merciless about it, but we had a lot of fun with it."

Newman/Wachs ran one car in 2007 for J.R. Hildebrand and fielded two cars in '08 for Jonathan Summerton and Simona De Silvestro.

"J.R. didn't win the championship but he certainly showed a lot of promise," Wachs remarks. "It got him into a ride in Indy Lights and, of course, he won the Indy Lights championship this year. So we're kind of proud that we helped give J.R. a start because that's what this team is all about.

"The next year we ran Jonathan and Simona and certainly they've come along well. So we feel pretty good about that, too. I felt pretty good about having Simona on our team. We didn't win the championship that year either, but in the four years that we've done this I think we've done a lot for these kids. I think we brought a different program to the Atlantic series.

"I was hugely naive going into it," Wachs adds. "It really wasn't until this year that we had our shit together."

Key components in this year's success were engineers Nick Harvey and Don Halliday. Harvey engineered Edwards' car with Halliday taking care of Summerton.

"It was special to have those two guys working together," Edwards says. "Don comes from such an experienced background and they're both very good at interpreting our feedback. Sometimes we feel something and we don't know quite what we're feeling but they're very good at asking the right questions and extracting the right information out of us to make the right calls on the car. Nick and Don don't just look at the computer and say this is the right thing. They understand the feel of a car and what may work for one guy doesn't necessarily work another.

© Atlantic Championship/Phil Sedgwick
"That showed through the season, I think, when we struggled in New Jersey and worked to analyse what was going on. We eventually reached a conclusion, and that worked at the next race at Lime Rock and helped us throughout the year.

"I think qualifying at Laguna was the magic part of the year," Edwards adds. "It really showed the development we had achieved throughout the year when Jonathan and I were within half a tenth of each other and four or five-tenths ahead of third place."

John has been on a steep learning curve throughout his teen-age years, starting with his European experience in go-karts courtesy Red Bull.

"That was like nothing I had done," he relates. "I had driven four-stroke engines here with my dad as my mechanic. But in Europe, I was a factory driver with a two-stroke. The big thing was tuning the carburetors and I knew nothing at all about how to do that. And everyone spoke Italian so nobody could tell me.

"Then, all of a sudden, at 14 years old I was driving a Formula Renault. I was the youngest FIA-licenced driver in history. That's a great title to have but it was a huge step. It developed into something that was good and I had success, but in the beginning it was a huge step. It was very tough.

"There were between thirty and forty cars on the grid and it was a very intense championship. When I look back on it, I think about how I would have liked to have had more experience before I did that. But I learned invaluable lessons while I was there. I had a couple of podiums in my second year as well as one win in the wet at Anderstorp."

Edwards came home in 2007 to race in the Atlantic series with Jerry Forsythe's team.

"I made another huge step to Atlantic when I was sixteen," John says. "I had one podium that year and I can say that I was the youngest ever to have a podium in Formula Atlantic. But at the same time, I had a lot of bad results. At the time, I didn't think it was anything to do with my age. I felt mature enough to be there. But after a year of Star Mazda and my second year in Atlantic I realize I've come a long way from that first year in Atantic. I got huge experience but was always hindered by my age and inexperience. I certainly was not as capable as I am now.

"In Star Mazda I got the experience of learning what it's like to win races and race for a championship and what it's like to come back from bad races. That experience is entirely different from going into a series saying, 'I'm here to learn to drive and get experience.'

"When you're going after a championship you're pushing one hundred percent every time you go out. You're trying to learn everything you can about the car and yourself to improve. It's a very different attitude to being the new guy and trying to learn."

The million-dollar prize for winning the Star Mazda title helped provide Edwards with a first-class program this year with Newman/Wachs.

"I had probably the best budget of anyone in the series and was fortunate enough to win the Atlantic title," John remarks. "I realize that we made the right choice to go back a step to Star Mazda in order to move forward in the long run."

Wachs is impressed with the progress and maturity Edwards has demonstrated.

"I think he has done some pretty serious growing up and learned from it," Wachs observes. "I think John benefitted greatly from working with Nick and Don, and also from Jonathan. I think Summerton was a huge help to John. I think John raised his game substantially with Jonathan coming on board. It helped him a lot. Don insisted on them sharing the data and I think they both did better because of that, and they really did share."

Wachs is impressed with the resourcefulness of his fellow Atlantic team owners in these difficult economic times.

"I have a lot of respect for these guys that run Atlantic teams," Wachs says. "They don't have sponsors and aren't really looking for sponsors. They're young, small businessmen running businesses providing and building race cars. They all work on a shoestring. The drivers might have sponsors but they're never able to bring all the money they need. To tell the truth, I don't know how they make it. But for the most part, they are making it and I've got a lot of respect for that."

After four years, Newman/Wachs is unlikely to return to the Atlantic series next year. At this stage, Wachs has not been paid any of this year's championship prize money.

"I'm afraid we probably won't be back in the Atlantic series, although we're not selling our cars yet," Wachs says. "We haven't heard anything from the Atlantic people about the points fund. We're not sure whether that's real money, or not."

But Wachs is committed to running Edwards next year and it looks like it will be in an Indy car.

"Weve got an obligation and an offer with John to move our nuclear promotional budget onto his race car," Wachs explains. "We've alerted Entergy and the nuclear group that we could very easily be changing series. We'll be testing John in an IRL car in about a week. We will probably siamese onto an existing team. My sponsors have indicated they would go along with that but it's going to take a few more days to work the details out.

"John is pretty young to do that, which is okay. It would be great experience for him. I don't think it would be a winning car, obviously. We would have to detune him on the ovals, but on the road courses I wouldn't count him out. If he has a good engineer he's comfortable with, I think he could hold his own, just like Graham Rahal has done.

"I feel just as strongly about Summerton, too," Wachs adds. "I didn't offer him a continuing ride. I did with John because he brought the Mazda money to our team and that was valuable. So we offered John a second year with the nuclear sponsorship. They like him, too. He sells well at the university events."

The late Paul Newman and his old friend Eddie Wachs have provided young drivers like Edwards, Summerton, J.R. Hildebrand and Simona De Silvestro with a definite leg up. It's a sad comment on the state of the sport that a guy like Wachs should be driven out of the Atlantic series. But it's a good thing that John Edwards enjoys Eddie's continuing support and advice as he moves into the next phase of his burgeoning racing career.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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