For the 36 years that Formula Atlantic has existed, under various names (Toyota Atlantic, Champ Car World Series Atlantic) and owners, there has been one constant: Vicky O’Connor.
Her husband was one of the original drivers in the series and when it faltered in the mid-80s, she took it over. Over the years, she has owned it, and when she hasn’t owned it, she’s run it.
She’s been at the helm through good times and bad. It’s been, over time, one of the best open-wheel development series in the world. Look at the names of the drivers – many of them Canadians – who have raced and dominated in that series:
Bill Brack, Gilles Villeneuve (it was because of his performance in the Atlantic race at Trois-Rivieres in 1976 that Gilles made it to Formula One), his brother Jacques Villeneuve and his son Jacques Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti, Scott Goodyear, David Empringham and Patrick Carpentier and the famous names go on and on.
There have been banner years (in fact, in the mid- to late-Eighties there were so many cars that there were U.S. East Coast and West Coast divisions) and not-so-banner years.
But through it all, thick or thin, Vicky O’Connor soldiered on.
The Atlantics are on the American LeMans Series support program this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California and although they have a marvelous three-way fight going for the championship (Simona De Silvestro, Jonathan Summerton and John Edwards), great story lines (Simona could become the first woman champion of a major open-wheel series; Edwards – at 18 – could be the youngest champion) and all the other things that have made Atlantics great over the years, you really have to wonder if this is going to be the end of the road.
Yes, Atlantics have re-upped to run mostly with the ALMS again in 2010, and Mazda has confirmed its continuing participation, and ownership is strong (the well-to-do Ben Johnston), not to forget the leadership of O’Connor and her very able staff, but that final race at Laguna Seca this weekend is going to see only seven or eight cars start.
I don’t believe so few cars have ever started an Atlantic race and it doesn’t – on the surface – bode well for the future.
However, they’ve said that before about this series and it’s always managed to keep its head above water and so, when O’Connor was at Mosport in August, I asked her how come?
MCDONALD: What is it about Formula Atlantic that has given it such amazing staying power?
O’CONNOR: It’s the perfect formula. What drivers learn in an Atlantic car, they can take anywhere – sports cars, a higher level of open wheel or they can stay awhile and just enjoy what they’re doing.
The cars are fun to drive, they’re perfectly balanced (the right balance of power to weight), the series has got a great staff that puts it all together – and we’re a family. Part of that is that everyone recognizes Atlantic for what it is. As Brian Till said, it’s the most fun he had in his life and all the drivers make their friends here. The car’s perfect.
MCDONALD: Don Panoz (owner of the American LeMans Series) thinks there are too many development series, that you’re all (Atlantics, Star Mazda, Indy Lights) after the same small pool of talented drivers with money. Is he correct?
O’CONNOR: I think you have to be careful how many (series) there are and you have to separate one from the other by . . . something, whether it’s horsepower (Indy Lights) or road-racing only (Atlantics).
It does get a little confusing. It would be nice if there were less – but there aren’t. And the people who own the series are committed and are doing a good job and they have every right to do what they want.
MCDONALD: You mentioned Indy Lights, what’s the difference?
O’CONNOR: They do ovals, we don’t. It’s a different type of car; it has more horsepower. They’re two different disciplines. You can step out of Indy Lights into Indy cars but you can step out of Atlantics into anything.
It’s the opportunities that are the problem. As I explain to some of the drivers, not everybody becomes an NFL quarterback either. So many things have to fall into place for a driver to progress, whether he has his own money or whether he’s singled out on talent. There aren’t that many open seats anywhere at the moment so you have to deal with it.
MCDONALD: Atlantics have been up and down and up and down. Here at Mosport, you don’t have many cars. What do you have to do to increase the interest?
O’CONNOR: I think the interest is there. Two things happened – we were orphaned when Champ Car and IRL got together so we were pretty much put out on our own again, so to speak. Then a new owner came in and people are waiting to see our staying power.
The other thing is the U.S. economy, We’re not the only ones (suffering). Other series – Indy Lights had 16 cars at Chicagoland – everybody is down a tad and maybe we’re hurting more than others but it’ll turn around.
This isn’t the first time. 2001 was 12 cars. It goes in cycles.