Atlantic series sinksby Gordon Kirby on 8th March 2010
It was no surprise when the announcement was made last week that this year’s Atlantic Championship has been “put on hold”. Following the demise of Champ Car in the winter of 2007-08, the supporting Atlantic series has struggled to survive, and with fewer than 10 drivers committed to the series the organisers have decided not to attempt to run any races this year. There are some hopes that the series can be revived next year, but it’s unlikely.
Founded in 1974, the roots of Formula Atlantic in North America go back to 1967 when the series first ran as the SCCA’s Formula B championship. The category’s heydays occurred in the mid-70s when Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan all battled for the championship, using the series as a springboard to Formula 1 or Indycars. Back then most Atlantic races were run in Canada and over the years the series never enjoyed much, if any, support from the American sanctioning bodies. For most of its life Atlantic was the orphan of American racing, shuttling from one sanctioning body to another as it suffered a long, slow decline.
The series was kept alive by Vicki O’Connor, who ran the championship from 1985 until the end of last year. Without O’Connor’s unflagging support the series probably would have failed many years ago. The Champ Car organisation revitalised the Atlantic series in 2006 with a new Swift chassis, Mazda/Cosworth engines and a US$2 million champion’s prize, but when Champ Car failed the Atlantic series found itself once again an orphan. Nor did the $2m bonus survive. The Atlantic series was sanctioned in 2008 and ’09 by IMSA and ran as a support event at a motley collection of ALMS, Grand-Am, IRL and other races. But without a strong calendar or a clear identity, and with the loss of the champion’s prize, the series fell into steep decline.
O’Connor hung in there but near the end of last year she finally threw in the towel and went to work for Bobby Rahal’s new Historic Motor Sport Productions operation. Vicki’s departure heralded Atlantic’s death knell. New series owner Ben Johnston hired some marketing types to try to keep the series going, but without O’Connor’s passion and commitment it was clearly on a road to nowhere.
“It’s just survival,” said O’Connor last autumn. “Hopefully things will turn around. There are a bunch of Atlantic cars that are just sitting around. People haven’t sold them. They’re keeping them but nobody’s running them because there’s so little sponsorship.”
Last week Johnston admitted defeat. He says he will keep the Atlantic series office operating and hopes to revive the series next year, but with no serious support from any of America’s sanctioning bodies and amid today’s glum economic climate the series is all but dead. A sad turn of events for American racing.