With Great Anticipation
Another season is upon us. I look forward to this one with great anticipation. New up and coming drivers. Returning favorites. Strong teams. Great personalities. Let's drop the green flag now!
Oh, I'm not talking about the Champ Car series. Not at all. This is a transition year for the series continuing it's climb back from the brink. Next season will be Champ Car's breakout year.
I'm referring to what is now called the Champ Car Atlantic Championship. It has been a long, long time since I have looked forward to the start of an open wheel racing series like I have for this year's Atlantic series.
Granted, I'm a bit biased. I have always loved the Formula Atlantic class. More so than any other class of open wheel cars, including the heyday of what was then Indy Cars run under CART. The Atlantic series has always been to me the perfect match between fast, nimble cars driven by hungry pilots in ultra competitive fields.
Though I've always enjoyed watching the cars run in club racing, I first truly fell in love with Atlantic cars when I saw my first professional race with them at Bridgehampton in 1979. Then, it was called the North American Formula Atlantic Championship Series.
That race contained a who's who of racing from that era -- Tom Gloy, Kevin Cogan, Jeff Wood, Bob Earl, Howdy Holmes, Jacques Villeneuve (the Uncle), Dan Marvin, John Paul, Jr., Bobby Brown, and Bruce MacInnes.
Twenty-seven cars lined up for the standing start, the first I ever witnessed. Watching those cars take advantage of the ultra fast swooping course amidst the sand dunes of eastern Long Island was as close to heaven as one could get. I couldn't imagine at the time a more exciting race with a more exciting type of car. And, I still can't.
Granted, it's hard to beat the turbo charged whine of a Champ Car. Certainly, the Champ Car is faster and ultimately driven by some of the best in the business. There have been years where Champ Car has been unbelievably exciting. And, I would by lying if I said I don't get a special feeling in my gut before a Champ Car race.
However, it's not the feeling I get after watching a great Atlantic race. Like any open wheel series, especially a ladder series, the Atlantic series has had its ups and downs. It has also changed quite a bit, following the evolution of open wheel series throughout the world, going from a combination drivers and manufacturers training ground to a spec series aimed at training the driver only.
Fields waxed and waned as did the competitive level. However, while other series came and went (Formula Super Vee, Indy Lights, U.S. Formula 3, etc.), the Atlantic series, thanks to the yeoman efforts of Vicki O'Connor, has outlasted them all.
The 1970s and early 1980s were perhaps the highlight of the Atlantic series producing such drivers as Gilles Villeneuve, Bobby Rahal, Keke Rosberg, and Michael Andretti. The 1976 Trois-Rivieres race was the most famous of all Atlantic events as Formula One drivers were brought over to compete. They were James Hunt (that year's World Champion), Alan Jones, Vittorio Brambilla, and Patrick Depailler. None of them won. Gilles beat them all.
After the series nearly died, splitting into East and West regions to be able to stay alive, it was brought back together and had a resurrection of sorts. Since then, it continued to produce noteworthy drivers: Richie Hearn, Patrick Carpentier, Alex Barron, Buddy Rice, Jon Fogarty, and A.J. Allmendinger.
This year, the Atlantic series has been brought to a level it may never have seen before. The combination of a completely new car designed with a clean sheet of paper, lower chassis and engine costs, and a whopping $2 million scholarship bonus towards a Champ Car ride has caused a feeding frenzy before the first green flag has even been dropped.
Forty cars were immediately ordered. New teams popped up including ones owned by current Champ Car owners. Drivers, very good drivers, came out of the woodwork to line up rides. Even an old veteran, Alex Barron, is returning to the series.
Remember these names, because in the future we may look back at this field as a who's who of this era of racing: Jonathan Bomarito, Joe D'Agostino, James Hinchcliffe, Kyle Kelley, Leonardo Maia, Raphael Matos, Richard Philippe, Graham Rahal, Alan Sciuto, Dan Selznick, Justin Sofio, and Andreas Wirth. Just to name a few.
With great cars, large fields, talented drivers, and hungry young drivers seeking an unprecedented prize, the races will clearly be the highlight of Champ Car weekends. I may have the privilege of acquiring press passes, but I would be willing to pay good money to sit in the first turn at Cleveland (and I get to see them twice there) or Turn 3 at Toronto and watch this massive testosterone filled field try to negotiate through them on the first lap.
They say nothing can match your first kiss. I do remember the first pro Atlantic race I witnessed at Bridgehampton with all the awe and romanticism of a virgin.
However, I get the feeling that I will be experiencing the thrill and excitement of being born again when I watch the Champ Car Atlantic Championship this year. All the cynicism and bitterness of living through the travails of open wheel racing the past decade will wash away during those one-hour sprint races.
My heart is racing at full tilt just thinking about it.
Copyright © 2006 by Russell Jaslow and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.