The Atlantic Championship is the longest running junior formula series in North American history. It is currently in its 36th year of competition. The series is highly regarded as one of the best developmental programs in the world.
I saved this installment of my Junior Formula 101 articles for last, for a couple different reasons. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that the Atlantic Championship has a very storied past. The history behind the series is quite complex, so once again, I will work on creating a synopsis of the historical details for you. The second reason I saved this piece for the end is that the Atlantic Championship is considered, by many, the top-rung of the North American motorsports ladder. Several readers may argue that the Indy Lights series is the top step, and it probably is in many ways, but, I chose to write this piece last. I hope you enjoy.
The series wouldn’t exist today, at least not in its modern form, without the creation of the Formula B class by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America). The Formula B class, which originated in 1965, featured open wheel formula cars– powered by an engine with 1600cc or less. The SCCA ran a very successful Formula B program from 1969 to 1972 in North America. With increasing popularity, the ideology of the Formula B race car spread across the Atlantic, hence the name, to England where John Webb created the first Formula Atlantic series in 1971. Webb set out to create a car with performance capabilities similar to the F2 race cars, but at a lower cost. He wanted a car which could be run on a budget similar to that of an F3 car.
(photo:1969 Lotus Formula B-copyright-Mark Manroe/courtesy of OldRacingCars.com)
The UK Formula Atlantic series was based on the SCCA’s Formula B class, but featured a few differences. The UK series used a few different 1100cc-1600cc production based engines without fuel injection, whereas the U.S. based Formula B class allowed fuel injection using an 8-valve twin-cam engine. In 1968, the Ford Motor Company— in association with Cosworth (an automotive engineering company based out of England)— invented the Ford Cosworth BDA (Belt Drive A-Type) engine. The engine was designed for use in a Ford Escort on the street and was homologated at 1601cc. In order for the BDA engines to be approved for competition in the UK, they had to be modified (by shortening the engine block) to meet the 1599cc requirement. Despite the required modification, the powerplant proved to be the best option of the bunch for both performance and reliability in the long run. The SCCA didn’t allow the use of the 16-valve BDA engine (four valves per cylinder), choosing, instead, to stick with the 8-valve engine (two valves per cylinder).
The Canadian Automobile Sports Club (CASC), was impressed by the new Formula and decided to start their own Formula Atlantic championship featuring the BDA engines. With financial support from Player’s, a Canadian tobacco entity, as well as television coverage from CTV, the new program really took off. The series would be termed the Player’s Challenge Series. The first Atlantic event in North America was run on May 26, 1974 in British Columbia at the Westwood Circuit. The race was won by American driver Allan Lader, who had previously won the 1971 SCCA Formula B Championship.
After the initial success of the Player’s Challenge Series in Canada, the IMSA (International Motor Sports Association) created their own Formula Atlantic series for the 1976 season, which was held in the United States. Both series carried the same sponsor in 1976, as Player’s continued their support of the program. Another interesting note is that both 1976 championships were won by the same driver; Gilles Villeneuve. In 1977, the SCCA decided to take over the United States races, while CASC maintained the Canadian Formula Atlantic Labatts Championship. The following year, 1978, CASC and the SCCA decided to join forces and conduct the series in a joint effort. The partnership was maintained for the next five years. In 1983, the series was changed to the Formula Mondial North American Cup and was sanctioned by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile). The FIA had intentions of creating a worldwide Formula utilizing the Atlantic ideology. The attempt failed miserably and the FIA dropped the series; leaving the North American Atlantic scene in shambles.
(photo: Bobby Rahal (1977)- copyright- Fred Young/ courtesy of OldRacingCars.com)
With the Atlantic series about to perish in North America, a few Atlantic faithful jumped in and created the WCAR (West Coast Atlantic Racing) series for the 1984 season. The following season, 1985, saw Vicki O’ Connor form the ECAR (East Coast Atlantic Racing) series. With two coastal Atlantic programs running, the Formula began to rebuild and flourish. Four years later, in 1989, the series picked up a new sponsor: Toyota. Toyota’s sponsorship created a bright light at the end of the tunnel for everyone who had worked so hard on rebuilding the Formula after the 1983 season. As the new primary sponsor of the series, Toyota supplied a new powerplant—the Toyota 1600cc 4A-GE kit engine. The East and West coast series unified in 1991 as the Toyota Atlantic Championship. Toyota maintained their loyalty to the series for 17-years, which brings us to 2006.
In 2006, Mazda came onboard as the series sponsor. Working with Cosworth, Mazda introduced a 2.3-liter, 300 horsepower engine—which remains in use today (2009). In fact, the duo recently signed a contract that will put Mazda power in the car through 2011. The current car features a five speed sequential gearbox. The engine is placed on a Swift 016.a chassis and weighs in at 1,415 lbs. with the driver. The naturally aspirated engine runs on high octane VP- C12 racing fuel—which is rated at 108 octane. As stated above, the engine produces 300 bhp at 8,500 rpm and makes 200 ft-lb of torque at 5600 rpm. The engines are provided to all teams/competitors by Cosworth in a sealed state. The powerplants are rebuilt every 2,000 miles at Cosworth’s Torrance, California facility. The race car utilizes Cooper tires (slicks and wets) on BBS wheels. A modern Atlantic Championship car is capable of running over 175 mph and has an incredible amount of downforce produced by front and rear wings.
The series typically focuses on road and street courses, but has also run a few oval races in the past. Standing starts are utilized at all facilities with the exception of oval events.
The required budget for an Atlantic Championship driver runs at approximately $700,000-$850,000 USD. Obviously, this number can go up or down depending on what’s included in the package and how much testing the driver plans to do.
* Dave McMillan of New Zealand was the first overseas driver to win the North American Atlantic Championship. (1982)
* Michael Andretti is currently the youngest champion in series’ history.
* Jocko Cunningham won the series’ first oval race in 1988 at the Milwaukee Mile.
* Graham Rahal became the youngest race winner in Atlantics history at the age of 17.
* Katherine Legge was the first female to win an Atlantic Championship race.
* Simona De Silvestro became the second female in history to win an Atlantic race.
* Mark Dismore has won the most Atlantic Championship races to date (15).
* The IMSA returned as the sanctioning body in 2008.
* Dick Smothers
* Frankie Muniz (current driver)
To be honest, this list it too large to publish in this article. You can view an impressive list of Atlantic competitiors here.
Past Atlantic Champions
2008- Markus Niemela
2007- Raphael Matos
2006- Simon Pagenaud
2005- Charles Zwolsman
2004- Jon Fogarty
2003- A.J. Allmendinger
2002- Jon Fogarty
2001- Hoover Orsi
2000- Buddy Rice
1999- Anthony Lazzaro
1998- Lee Bentham
1997- Alex Barron
1996- Patrick Carpentier
1995- Richie Hearn
1994- David Empringham
1993- David Empringham
1992- Chris Smith
1991- Jovy Marcelo
1990 East- Brian Till
1990 West- Mark Dismore
1989 East- Jocko Cunningham
1989 West- Hiro Matsushita
1988 East- Steve Shelton
1988 West- Dean Hall
1987 East- Calvin Fish
1987 West- Johnny O’ Connell
1986 East- Scott Goodyear
1986 West- Ted Prappas
1985 East- Michael Angus
1985 West- Jeff Wood
1984- Dan Marvin
1983- Michael Andretti
1982- Dave McMillan
1981- Jacques Villeneuve
1980- Jacques Villeneuve
1979- Tom Gloy
1978- Howdy Holmes
1977- Gilles Villeneuve
1976- Gilles Villeneuve (CASC)
1976- Gilles Villeneuve (IMSA)
1975- Bill Brack
1974- Bill Brack
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For more information on the Atlantic Championship, please visit their Official Site.