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

The Way It Is/ Ode to an orphan--Formula Atlantic's wayward story

by Gordon Kirby
This year's Atlantic championship has developed into a fierce battle with five different winners in the first seven races. Two Atlantic races were run at Road America last weekend and Jonathan Bomarito took the championship lead by winning the first race then finishing a strong runner-up to Jonathan Summerton in the second race. Summerton put in a great show in race two, coming though from a poor starting position to steal the lead from Bomarito with two laps to go.

This is Bomarito's fourth year in Atlantic and at Road America the 26-year old Californian became the first man to win more than once this year. With four races to go in this year's championship Bomarito leads the series from Canadian James Hinchcliffe and Finnish Atlantic rookie Markus Neimela with Elkhart race two winner Summerton fourth in points.

Next weekend the Atlantic series runs its big event of the year at the storied Trois Rivieres street circuit in Quebec and you can be sure all these guys will be pumped to the maximum as they race on the track where Gilles Villeneuve paved the way for his legendary leap to Formula 1 by beating world champion-to-be Alan Jones and defending world champ James Hunt plus a bunch of other F1 stars back in 1976 during Formula Atlantic's glory days.

In a number of ways, today's Atlantic series is a couple of generations removed from those days. The long-standing Cosworth BDA-powered cars of Gilles's time were replaced in 1989 by Toyota-engined machines. A spec chassis from Swift was introduced in 1998 and the Toyota era came to an end after eighteen years when Champ Car revitalized the series two years ago. A $2 million champion's prize was also introduced in '06, but with Champ Car's final failure last winter the Atlantic series once again found itself an orphan, much like it was thirty years ago when Villeneuve made his improbable leap.

The Atlantic Championship has been salvaged by the ever-resourceful Vicki O'Connor who's run the series, through thick and thin, since 1991 and in partnership for six years before that with the ECAR and WCAR organizing bodies. O'Connor and her small but dedicated staff moved a few miles out of town this summer from Champ Car's former offices in northwestern Indianapolis to new digs in Brownsburg. As it was in Gilles days--partially and briefly at least--this year's Atlantic series is sanctioned by IMSA and runs as a support event at two ALMS races, two Grand-Am races, one IRL race and the final Champ Car race at Long Beach, plus a couple of stand-alone events at Trois Rivieres next weekend and next month at the brand new New Jersey Motorsports Park.

Thanks to O'Connor, the Atlantic series survives, but its role in the ladder system has once again been muddied. The rebranded Indy Lights series is the IRL's primary feeder series and the Atlantic championship seems destined to take a back seat at best in the IRL's plans. With the additional loss of the $2 million champion's prize which provided such a significant boost for the series in '06, the Atlantic Championship is caught in another period of transition.

Without a clear role or identity, or any serious financial inducements, will the series continue to attract the impressive brace of young drivers and their sponsors who gave the series a healthy boost over the past three years? If neither Hinchcliffe, Summerton, Bomarito, et al. are able to use their success in Atlantic as a springboard into a top team in a major open-wheel category in the United States or Europe, and if the series continues as an orphan, racing hither and yon without any clear parentage or lineage, Atlantic is destined merely to survive rather than enjoy a thriving role in American racing, as it has and should.

Atlantic formally celebrates its thirty-fifth anniversary this year, but the series really is forty-one years old, going back to the SCCA's creation in 1967 of a five-race professional single-seater road racing championship for a combined field of Formula A, Formula B and FC cars. In '67, Formula A meant F1 (unrestricted three liter engines) but the series was dominated by the smaller 1,600 cc Formula B cars which comprised the majority of the starters. The inaugural championship was won by Texan Gus Hutchison in a Lotus 41C Formula B car.

In 1968, the SCCA expanded Formula A to include five-liter American stock-block-based engines and new Formula A cars were built by Eagle, Lola, McKee and Jerry Eisert, among others. Almost half the field in '68 were Formula A cars and what is now considered the USA's first Formula 5000 championship was won by Lou Sell driving an Eagle-Chevy. The best-placed Formula B drivers were Fred Stephenson (aboard a Lotus), Mike Hiss (Brabham) and Mike Eyerly (McLaren), who were tied for eleventh in the championship behind ten FA cars.

Both Formula A and FB gathered plenty of steam in 1969 and '70 as the SCCA renamed the series the Continental Championship featuring concurrent but separate races for both categories. There were thirteen races in both years and each of the FA and FB races enjoyed big fields, sometimes numbering as many as thirty cars. Tony Adamowicz beat David Hobbs and Sam Posey to the 1969 FA championship while Mike Eyerly won the '69 FB title driving a Brabham BT18. Eyerly won six races and handily beat Fred Stephenson's Lotus 59B and Skip Barber's Tecno to the championship.

In 1970, the FA championship went to John Cannon who raced an Eagle for Carl Hogan, while Eyerly upgraded to a Chevron B17B run by Fred Opert's team and dominated the FB series. Eyerly won eight of thirteen races, beating Allan Lader's Brabham BT29 and Jacques Couture's Lotus 69 to the championship.

The 1969 and '70 seasons were memorable times for Formula A and B with tremendously exciting races for both categories each weekend providing a real feast of open-wheel road racing. But it was too good to be true. For the '71 season, the SCCA formally adopted the European Formula 5000 moniker for Formula A and sold L&M cigarettes on sponsoring the F5000 series. But Formula B was cast away to run on its own, orphaned for the first time.

There were only six professional SCCA FB races in 1971. Three were run with F5000 races, and the other three ran alone. Allan Lader drove his Fred Opert Brabham to the '71 FB title after a titanic battle with New Zealand ace Bert Hawthorne. Lader and Hawthorne each won three races, Hawthorne aboard Allan McCall's original Tui. The following year eight pro FB races were run, only two in company with F5000 races, and the largely unheralded '72 FB title was taken by Chuck Sarich who won just one race in a March 722.

During this time a few non-championship pro FB races were run in Mexico and South America, but the SCCA had lost interest in Formula B. Only one pro race was run in 1973 at Watkins Glen. It was won by Bertil Roos' Brabham BT40, but the SCCA didn't care about the category and dropped FB entirely in '74, save for SCCA national and regional racing.

Meanwhile, the CASC in Canada started its own FB championship in 1971 sponsored by Player's cigarettes. Jacques Couture won the CASC's Player's FB title in 1971 and Brian Robertson and Bill Brack took the Canadian FB titles in '72 and '73. The following year the CASC changed FB slightly to become Formula Atlantic by adopting the European rules for four-valve Cosworth BDA-type 1,600 cc engines rather than the two-valve engines used from 1967-'73.

Thus was born what is now considered the modern Atlantic era, although most of the races from 1974-'77 were run in Canada. The only Atlantic races run in the USA in those days were three non-championship races in 1974 and six IMSA races in '76. Indeed, this was the classic orphan era for Atlantic and yet it turned out to be the most productive and spectacular period in the formula's history.

Bill Brack won the first two Atlantic championships in 1974 and '75. Brack continued to race his well-developed Lotus 69 in '74 before switching to a more modern Chevron. He beat a pair of Carl Haas Lolas driven by Bill O'Connor and Tom Klausler to the '74 championship and edged Bertil Roos, Klausler and Elliott Forbes-Robinson in '75.

The '75 season also saw Gilles Villeneuve score his first Atlantic win in pouring rain at a remote airport circuit in Gimli, Manitoba. Villeneuve spent four years racing in Atlantic, starting in '74 with Kris Harrison's Ecurie Canada team. Gilles broke his leg in a crash at Mosport midway through the '74 season, ran his own car in '75, then rejoined Ecurie Canada for a pair of championship-winning seasons in 1976 and '77. His victory at Trois Rivieres in '76 propelled him onto the international map, but he had to fight fiercely to win his two championships.

In '77, while completing negotiations with Ferrari two run two Grand Prix races at the end of that year and a full season in '78, Gilles crashed two cars during practice and qualifying for the final championship race in Quebec City. But he came back to win both the race and the title. Today, it's impossible to imagine an Atlantic driver attracting the attention of any F1 team, least of all Ferrari and McLaren with whom Gilles started his F1 career at the British GP in '77.

On his way to F1 Villeneuve faced serious competition from guys like Bill Brack, Tom Klausler, Bobby Rahal, Keke Rosberg, Price Cobb and Elliott Forbes-Robinson. Klausler was a shy, hard-working engine builder from Illinois who raced in partnership with Vicki O'Connor's husband Bill. Villeneuve had tremendous respect for Klausler and he tried to no avail to convince Ferrari to give Klausler a test.

The humble Klausler went on to win the first 'new era' Can-Am race at St Jovite in 1977 aboard the unique Schkee coupe. He also started two CART races in 1983--Elkhart Lake and Riverside--finishing sixth at Riverside and then quietly vanishing from the scene although he continued to build engines for many years for McLaren's US engine shop in Detroit.

Looking back, it's incredible that the only reason the Atlantic series survived through this epochal period was because the competitors paid to underwrite the costs of running the series through a surcharge on engines. The 'self-financing' program was created and put into action in 1977 by Ecurie Canada boss Kris Harrison and Doug Shierson who was the US importer for March racing cars at the time. Shierson was a great supporter of the Atlantic series for many years, running as many as five cars in the mid-seventies. Shierson's team won the Atlantic championship in 1978 with Howdy Holmes and with Jacques Villeneuve Sr in 1980 and '81, and Doug was the effective godfather of the series through these years.

The Harrison and Shierson plan made the dominant Cosworth BDA the series spec engine and doubled the retail cost of each engine. The prize money for each race was paid from these extra costs and Harrison sold Labatt's brewery on sponsoring the series to replace the departed Player's.

On a roll in 1978, the Atlantic series added some American races, including a season-opener at Long Beach. Atlantic raced at Long Beach for five years through 1982 before being tossed out for a few years in favor of Super Vee and then Indy Lights. The Atlantic series returned to Long Beach in 1989 when Toyota--the race's primary sponsor--started its eighteen-year run as Atlantic's engine supplier. The series has continued to race every year at Long Beach since then, usually sharing second-billing with the Indy Lights series which was created in 1986 by CART team owner Pat Patrick and Miami GP promoter Ralph Sanchez.

With the arrival of the original Indy Lights, or American Racing Series, as it was then known, a constant tussle carried on for many years over which series was the key stepping-stone to Indy or Champ car racing. Finally, after years of squabbling and as the CART-IRL civil war unfolded, the Indy Lights series moved over to the IRL (originally as the Indy Pro Series) and the Toyota/Atlantic series staggered on in increasingly unhealthy shape as CART's primary feeder formula.

When Toyota finally pulled-out of Atlantic, the series was adopted by Champ Car and transformed for the 2006 season into the current Swift-Mazda/Cosworth series. The new car and engine was a very nice package and the $2 million champion's prize attracted plenty of interest from young drivers around the world.

The revitalized Atlantic championship enjoyed a brief blip in 2006 and '07 as Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal battled for the '06 championship, and Raphael Matos and Franck Perera fought it out last year. But then Champ Car went out of business and Atlantic became an orphan yet again.

Given its variable history, it's difficult to say what Atlantic's future will be. It's interesting that most of the great Atlantic drivers are from the seventies or eighties. The most recent big stars to graduate from Atlantic and make a name for themselves in F1 or Indy cars were Jimmy Vasser, Jacques Villeneuve (Jr), Patrick Carpentier, Alex Tagliani, Dan Wheldon and Graham Rahal.

Also, it's sad that Atlantic no longer races in Montreal after an almost unbroken thirty-year run, starting with the first race at the track in September of '78. But after Champ Car's demise and the arrival of NASCAR as the year's second big race weekend to F1 at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the track that spawned so much Atlantic history seems unlikely to run another Atlantic race for many years to come, if ever.

Thank god therefore, for Trois Rivieres and St Jovite's continued support of Atlantic. The series enjoys a tremendous history in Quebec but with the arrival of NASCAR in Montreal and the likes of Villeneuve, Carpentier and Andrew Ranger departing open-wheel racing for NASCAR's greener pastures, you have to wonder if Quebec and Canada as a whole will continue to spawn its long line of successful open-wheel drivers, most of them trained and developed in Atlantic cars.

Will the Atlantic championship ever find the right home for it to serve its proper purpose in American motor racing as something other than an orphan? Your guess is as good as mine.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page