(by Marshall Pruett speedtv.com 8-12-09)
If you’ve read my column, you know I have a soft spot for the Atlantic Championship. I’ve spent my fair share of time with Ralt RT-1s, RT-4s, Swift DB4s, and Swift 008s as a mechanic or an engineer. It remains one of the most important series for a young driver to build or solidify their skills.
The Swift 016.a launched with great fanfare under ChampCar's ownership. Without the protective cover of ChampCar now a thing of the past, the Atlantic Championship could be in trouble if the IRL's plans go forward. (LAT) » More Photos
And all of that could be changing if what I heard last weekend in Mid-Ohio comes to fruition. IndyCar is reportedly interested in building its own ladder to straighten the path for young drivers to follow step-by-step as they work upwards towards the IRL. Sadly, Mazda’s Atlantic Championship isn’t in their plans, possibly making it the final casualty in the open-wheel wars.
More than a few owners, drivers and journalists involved in open-wheel racing have argued that a lack of a properly established ladder is what’s keeping more drivers from making it into IndyCars. And if what’s being discussed ends up taking root, all that could change for 2010.
“There are just too many junior series out there to choose from,” one IndyCar official told me. “The Atlantics are cool little cars, but we need a clear path. Having cars that are too similar [on the same ladder] doesn’t do anybody any good.”
With their plan in place, a hand would be extended down through the junior formulas to build a progression that starts with F2000, moves to the somewhat faster Star Mazda class, makes a significant leap to Indy Lights and then, hopefully, into to the IndyCar Series.
And their plans aren’t as simple as tagging existing series with an ‘official ladder series’ moniker; their plans are to align the rules, driving standards, officiating and the curriculum to steer kids towards IndyCars as smoothly as possible.
F2000’s have a rich history of running on ovals, and the Star Mazda series visited ovals twice this year. IndyCar’s plans would call for drivers to get a stronger oval education before graduating to Indy Lights – something the Atlantic Championship doesn’t offer.
While I think IndyCar should be commended for their efforts to straighten a path that’s become painfully crooked, I don’t believe their ladder gets stronger by leaving Atlantics out of the equation.
It's fair to say IndyCar’s decision to leave Atlantics out of their ladder follows the “It’s business, nothing personal” adage, and there’s plenty of history to support their position. The Indy Lights series is owned by the IRL – it’s no great surprise they’re backing their own horse rather than the privately owned Atlantic Championship.
Prior to ChampCar going bankrupt, the ChampCar Atlantic Championship was their pride and joy. While it simmered below the surface, the rivalry between Lights and Atlantics was just as strong as the one between IndyCar and ChampCar.
And It wasn’t so long ago when Indy Lights (under CART ownership) was regarded one notch above Atlantics. Its budgets were also higher. Over the past few years, much of that has changed, making the two classes far too similar. Today, according to two of the top Lights and Atlantic team owners, the costs of running a proper single-car effort in either series is nearly identical. As a result, and with car counts on the decline across the whole of motor racing, Lights and Atlantics now find themselves fighting over the same customers.
Grids have been deleted almost everywhere in 2009, but Indy Lights have remained one of the stronger feeders series. Their ranks could swell in 2010 under IndyCar's new ladder system.
Let’s be clear – the Atlantic Championship wouldn’t automatically disappear if IndyCar leaves them off of their designated ladder system, but faced with the question of where to spend $700,000 on your child’s open-wheel career, where would you put your money?
Would you go with the series that’s owned and sanctioned by the same people that own and sanction the IndyCar Series, or do you spend the same amount on a series that has been publicly shunned by IndyCar, and has no direct support or ties to North America’s only top-tier open-wheel series?
“It’s business, nothing personal.”
All isn’t lost for Atlantics – not at the moment, at least. Series owner Ben Johnston is reportedly talking with the FIA about becoming a recognized step in the European ladder system – the official American path to GP2. For parents with kids hoping to make it in Formula 1, it could be the salvation the series needs, but unless an agreement is made and announced quickly, Johnston could have a mess on his hands.
The thought of establishing itself as the pipeline to GP2 has its merits, but I’d wager that while most young American open-wheel drivers dream of going overseas, the serious ones move to Europe and join the familiar ladder system there.
Going back to an earlier point, the Atlantic Championship isn’t helping itself by offering a calendar without oval racing. IndyCar teams owners can’t afford to hire a kid straight out of Atlantics with little or no oval experience. Teaching a GP2 or F1 driver the ropes is one thing, but that’s not an exception they’re likely to make elsewhere.
Team owners don’t want to waste their time and money writing off cars or finishing last while their Atlantic graduate earns the education they should have gotten prior to the IndyCar Series.
It made sense when ChampCar owned the series and both raced exclusively on road courses, but with ChampCar now a distant memory, leaving oval racing out of an Atlantic driver’s education is part of the reason why Johnston’s series is being pushed out of the marketplace.
Speaking of Johnston, he didn’t do his series any favors last weekend when he made a highly visible visit to the Indy Lights paddock in an attempt to entice Lights owners to defect to Atlantics.
The IndyCar Series told me Johnston’s trolling the Lights paddock didn’t bother then, but I can’t help but think it only served to shift their mindset from “It’s business, nothing personal” to "hell yeah, it’s very personal."
I can’t blame Ben for trying – Atlantic car counts have been around 12 at each round -- but his ham-fisted (and very public) cruise through the Light paddock on an Atlantic Championship golf cart was always going to end in tears. After listening to Ben’s pitch, most of the Lights owners made a beeline for the IndyCar transporter to make series officials aware of the predator in their midst.
Tony Cotman was reported to then raise hell with Johnston and the Atlantic officials, which likely sealed the door shut on being ever being considered in IndyCar’s open-wheel ladder plans.
I’ll admit that I don’t have the answer for the Atlantic Championship right now. How the series attracts drivers to pay their teams to put cars on the grid in 2010 is an even bigger uphill battle than it took to get 12 cars this year. While the FIA angle is promising, Johnston is reportedly tired of writing big checks to bankroll the series.
He deserves immense praise for stepping up to purchase and support the series, and he has a well respected staff that run the series for him, but if the Atlantic Championship is to continue, leaving the Indy Lights recruiting trips to Vicki O’Connor would be a wise decision. Not only would Vicki have avoided such a public display, she’d have drawn on decades of relationships to pose a compelling argument for Lights owners to consider.
Provided all of this plays out next season, the impact in the Atlantic paddock could serious. It’s filled with quality teams like US RaceTronics, Newman Wachs, Condor, Genoa, and others that have made the series their home. A lot of people make their living in Atlantics – it’s how mortgages, car loans and daycare is paid for.
So why don’t Atlantic teams just sell their cars and make the switch? The economy is keeping Atlantic teams where they are because no one is buying used Swift Atlantic cars, and as a result, they don’t have the extra cash to buy a Lights car. Johnston and company are currently trying to get the current Swift chassis accepted by the SCCA for Club Racing use, and if that goes through, a used car market could open up. If and when that will happen is unknown.
Atlantics weren’t picked up when unification happened in 2008, and now that the IndyCar Series is looking to ‘unify’ the open-wheel ladder, my favorite junior formula appears to have some incredibly tough times on its horizon. From an entirely selfish standpoint, I grew up loving CART but that’s gone. I grew up loving the IMSA GTP series and that’s also gone. I really hope I won’t have to say the same about the Atlantic series.
As if they didn’t have enough hurdles to overcome, there’s one more problem that’s troubling the Atlantic Championship – the supposed $1,000,000 prize money the 2009 championship is due to receive.
I’ll save that story for the last page.
I’ve had the Rolling Stones’ song “Satisfaction’ playing in my head all week whenever I think of the complete cluster-bleep the Atlantic Championship is facing with its year-end prize money situation.
Someone with a bigger brain than mine (and a bigger wallet) will need to come up with a plan to pay one of these three the $1,000,000 prize that was announced for the Atlantic Championship. (Phil Sedgwick/Atlantic Championship) » More Photos
Without rehashing much of what I wrote earlier, the 2008 Atlantic season happened at the last moment and only through some extraordinary efforts by Ben Johnston, Vicki O’Connor, Mazda, Cooper Tires, the teams, and a few other sponsors to keep it alive when it wasn't retained during unification.
IMSA was eventually drawn in to sanction the series, a TV package was assembled, Johnston put up a solid prize money package for each round, and off it went.
The series and the season were salvaged.
In case you missed it, and many did, a young Finn named Markus Niemela won the title, but in an ugly dispute with his team over prize money, he came away with little to show for his efforts. He's back in the series again this year, but isn't likely to repeat as champion.
With an air of stability going into 2009, and despite the financial crunch felt throughout the racing world, an idea was hatched – one that came from the teams. It would prevent another 'Niemela' situation where the title winner only has the prize money from each race to use to move up with. Their plan was to create a separate payday for the series champion. They vowed to put up a seriously impressive prize for the 2009 titlist of (say it in your best Dr. Evil voice): One Meeeel-ion dollars.
$1,000,000 would not have impressed anyone back when ChampCar owned the series, but now in private hands, it is a big deal. The $1M prize figure was arrived at after consulting a GP2 team, with the aim to create a prize that could be used to buy a ride overseas, but there were no restrictions placed on where the money could be spent.
And how exactly would that big prize fund be generated? Here’s where the Atlantic Championship fills the boilers with coal and aims for the nearest iceberg.
The owners hatched a plan where each entry would contribute $50,000 to the pot, and with the wildly unrealistic hope that 20 cars would show up in 2009, they allowed themselves to believe their champion would be cashing a check for One Meeeel-ion dollars to take to GP2 or Indy Lights. They even figured 22 to 24 cars would appear, and everyone would get a rebate of sorts when that surplus of cash came in.
If we step back from fantasy land and look at the 12 cars that started the Mid-Ohio race last weekend, and accept that 11 to 12 cars have been the norm in 2009, the math leaves us well short of the announced $1M the champion is supposed to receive eight weeks from now.
But that’s not even close to the reality they're facing. I couldn’t get exact figures, but one entrant says that as soon as teams realized they wouldn’t get close to the 20 cars needed, those that originally offered to fork over the $50K tore up their checkbooks and abandoned the program.
The prize money scheme – and that’s all that it is, a scheme – should have been nixed from the beginning. So here we are with the open-wheel equivalent of a raffle with with no tickets sold and a big announcement made that the 2009 champ would have the financial horsepower to buy a bigger ride in 2010.
Let’s be clear – we can’t blame this one on the series. They made the bonehead move to go along with the plan and to put out the press release announcing the big $1M prize, but this situation is FUBAR thanks to the entrants.
So how does this get solved? Great question – no one knows at the moment. I’m told it’s being worked on, but what that means isn’t really clear.
As I’ve already mentioned, Johnston is tired of writing checks, and it’s unfair to expect him to take the hit on this one. Mazda’s done everything short of harvesting and selling their internal organs to keep the Atlantic Championship afloat, and Cooper Tires has no real need to empty their wallet anymore than they already have.
The teams hatched this Three Stooges-esque ‘get rich quick’ scenario, but at the moment, it looks like the one to pay for that mistake will be the kid that wins the championship and walks away empty-handed.
How this problem gets fixed is one of the biggest questions in open-wheel that doesn't have an immediate answer. Three of the strongest Atlantic drivers we’ve seen in years now face the possibility of earning a title that’s worth little more than the paper it’s printed on.
How they get the real paper -- One Meeeel-ion dollar’s worth -- is beyond me.