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Those Daring Young Men in Their Driving Machines
Indy Lights and Toyota Atlantics 2001 Preview

Two support series. Thirty-something drivers. A drama thatís a mixture of Starsearch and Heartbreak Hotel. This is pretty heady stuff. Personally, I couldn't wait for the Indy Lights and Atlantics press conferences at Sneak Preview to begin. It was tough, though, because so many other members of the media trampled out of the Media Room as if someone had yelled "free food." We were left with a small group of press who were either too slow to sprint out or, like us, able to spot a terrific story that didn't have to be spoon fed to the press.

In this article, we'll make some comparisons between the two series and give you an idea who to watch, and most importantly, who to jump up and cheer for at this yearís races. In the words of the immortal Bette Davis, "Fasten your seatbelts!"

Of the two series, Dayton Indy Lights is the newer kid in town, having started in 1986. Corporately, Lights seems to occupy the spot of the junior executive trainee, that talented kid that you're not quite sure what to do with. Lights shares offices with big brother CART, and its graduates include the likes of Tracy, Herta, Kanaan, Moore, and Castro-Neves before he dropped his hyphen. Lights runs with Lola chassis and GM engines that have roughly twice the horsepower as Atlantics do.

The seriesí biggest problems seem to be attracting a sufficient number of entrants to make for an interesting field and the ladder system not really working. In fact, without the recent influx of Mexican drivers, and Mexican sponsor dollars, Indy Lights would be in rough shape. So, Viva Mexico! Over one third of the field in the opening field is either Mexican or Mexican sponsored. And Mexico is proving more open minded than Brazil when it comes to sponsorship. A Mexican team is sponsoring Irishman Derrick Higgins. Go ahead, name a non-Brazilian sponsored by a Brazilian sponsor.

One of the drivers to root for is Mexicoís Rolando Quintanilla, if you're both a racing fan and a fan of higher education. Rolando combines a full time race career with a full time academic career at Malibuís Pepperdine University. Itís a balancing act almost worthy of a single mother, trust me on this. Rolando is obviously very bright and talented, so do keep him in mind.

With such a tiny field of entrants (an unlucky 13 as this is written), all the drivers must be considered at least nominally as "championship contenders." And, the championship is really what these series are about. Truthfully, Itís not about winning the short sprint races (no pit stops unless the car is in trouble, thank you very much). Itís actually more about winning the championship, which is supposed to translate into a CART ride. This worked for the 2000 champion, Scott Dixon, whose PacWest team signed him to a ride for their own team in 2001. Good job, Bruce McCaw. Maybe Bruce can give Chip Ganassi some tips about supporting the support series?

With the graduation of Dixon, and the loss of future star Casey Mears to the IRL (for shame, for shame, Chip Ganassi), the odds on favorite for 2001 has to be Townsend Bell. Bellís chances look excellent due to being on a top team, having natural talent, and frankly due to less competition. Jason Bright and Jonny Kane, who were tough competitors last year, won't be returning to the series. If Townsend coughs, keep your eyes out for Great Britainís Daniel Wheldon. Oh, then thereís that Irish bloke, Higgins who won the Mexico opener. Itís a Starsearch situation for sure.

Keep those seat belts fastened for Toyota Atlantics. Where Lights feature ever shrinking fields, Toyota Atlantics, who have been around in one form or another since before CART was formed, usually have a robust field of competitors. This is not altogether surprising, as Toyota Atlantics have an unfair advantage over Indy Lights. While their Toyotas have less horsepower, the brilliant Vicki OíConnor runs this series. If heís interested, CARTís Joe Heitzler can prove himself a visionary by assigning Vicki the Great to head up all of CARTís support series. In the meantime, VTG continues to attract sponsors and talented young drivers to Atlantics in far greater numbers than does Lights. The results are highly entertaining.

2000 Atlantics Champion Buddy Rice is off to race in Europe, as is Danís son Alex Gurney. Runner up Dan Wheldon moved up the ladder to Lights. All of this movement, so expected in a ladder system, means there is no clear Atlantics front runner. Long Beachís opening race should prove to be exciting -- not to mention unpredictable!

I'll be reporting from Long Beach as this article is going to press. Hopefully, I'll be able to secure some interviews with these rising young stars. In the meantime, be sure to tune in! The sprint races are short, but itís not too difficult to see glimmers of future championships as those daring young men go Ďround in their driving machines!

Copyright © 2001 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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