Atlantic Championship forced to reinvent itself after open-wheel unification

Updated: October 1, 2008, 11:59 PM ET

AP Photo

Vicki O'Connor had her work cut out after the IndyCar Series swallowed up the Champ Car World Series.

Atlantic: Survival season ending with three-man title chase

The open-wheel racing world finally healed its years-long rift in late February when the rival Champ Car World Series and IndyCar Series unified. Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George, once dueling owners of the competing entities, shook hands at Homestead-Miami in a symbolic gesture of a challenge met.

Yet, at that moment, Vicki O'Connor's challenge was just beginning.

While Champ Car dissolved under the IndyCar banner, Kalkhoven vowed that the Atlantic Championship, the 35-year-old open-wheel developmental series, would continue. Never mind that the Atlantic schedule virtually evaporated with Champ Car and its season was less than two months away.

"Hardest thing I've ever done," said O'Connor, the Atlantic president since 1985. "I say when we get to each racetrack, 'Ah, another minor miracle.'"

O'Connor adds a chuckle, which she can afford now. The series pressed on with an 11-race schedule -- one fewer than it had last year -- that concludes Friday at Road Atlanta with a three-man race for the title.

Third-year Atlantic driver Jonathan Bomarito has an eight-point lead over fellow American Jonathan Summerton. Markus Niemela of Finland is just 10 points back.

"The racing has been good. Since everything happened so late with the merger, all the teams were still intact," said Bomarito, a resident of Monterey, Calif. "All the drivers, all the guys that committed are still here. From a racing standpoint, it's very similar to the last two years, maybe even more competitive than ever before because it's the third year with this car [the Swift 016.a chassis, powered by a Mazda-Cosworth engine]. Everyone has it figured out."

Figuring out this season wasn't so easy for management, which had the April Champ Car finale weekend at Long Beach, Calif., set in stone but little else in terms of a schedule in February. O'Connor pounded the phones and managed to secure another 10 dates at a variety of venues, only three of which (Mont-Tremblant, Quebec; Edmonton; Elkhart Lake) had been on the schedule the year before. Road Atlanta, for example, had not hosted an Atlantic race since 1993, which Jacques Villeneuve won.

Atlantic served as an undercard event for the IndyCar Series' stop at Edmonton, a Grand Am event in Utah and a number of races alongside the American Le Mans Series, which like Atlantic is sanctioned by the International Motor Sports Association (IMSA). Atlantic also took what it could get in terms of television exposure. The Speed Network announced Tuesday that it will air Atlantic Championship events on Sunday afternoons in November and December, months after the races would have been contested.

"I never considered it as not being doable -- maybe I'm just an incurable optimist," O'Connor said. "To me it was just, 'Let's roll up our sleeves. Let's go, figure out how we do this.' That's what we did."

One hole that's harder to fill for a feeder league that lost its parent is how to reward a champion. Under the Champ Car umbrella, the Atlantic Championship was able to dangle a huge carrot to drivers: a $2 million prize toward a Champ Car seat. Simon Pagenaud cashed it in after a 2006 title to run the 2007 season for Team Australia in Champ Car.

This year the top three drivers will receive cash prizes of $250,000, $150,000 and $100,000, but that doesn't necessarily go far toward another job.

"As far as the champion goes, that's not going to help you get to the next level," Bomarito said. "Now it's pretty much the champion is in the same boat as every other champion. Whether you come from Indy Lights or Atlantic, it's a great thing to have on your résumé but you're still fighting for a ride at the next level.

"I really like the fit with American Le Mans. If they could figure out maybe a way to get the champion into an LMP2 season, maybe some of those teams will take note of the series more. All the feeder series need to keep developing that path, that if you can win this, win this, win this, boom, then you'll have a ride here at a top level of racing. Atlantic and Champ Car had that until Champ Car went away. Now they need to work on putting that back into place. If they can, then it immediately becomes a place where everyone wants to be."

For 35 years, drivers have used the series as a stepping stone to greater things. Its champions have included the Villeneuves (Jacques and father Gilles), Michael Andretti, Patrick Carpentier, Buddy Rice and AJ Allmendinger.

"We continue to do what we do -- recruit, educate and graduate. It's a pretty impressive list that have moved on to other careers," O'Connor said.

"When I speak to teams that are involved in sports car racing, they always say they look to Atlantic for their talent. We'll keep aligned with ALMS. That showcases our drivers to manufacturers, [and] that's a very good thing, especially in today's climate of how drivers move. It might take a little longer -- people forget that Carpentier had five years in Atlantic. Drivers may stay longer in Atlantic waiting for the right opportunities to come along."

What's important is that drivers have that place to race and wait. Atlantic is poised to continue to be one of those stations, having survived an unusual 2008 season.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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MotoGP: Title No. 6 for Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Rossi

Unlike two weeks ago at Indianapolis, Valentino Rossi didn't have to battle winds and debris while winning. Sunday at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, he could savor the final laps of victory -- and another championship.

The Italian legend needed only to finish fourth at the A-Style Grand Prix of Japan to clinch his sixth MotoGP title, but he pulled away from Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa to a fifth consecutive win, eighth of the season and record-extending 70th overall.

"It's difficult to compare titles, but this one definitely feels great," the Fiat Yamaha rider said. "The battle was very tough this year, especially with Stoner and Pedrosa. It has been a long season with a lot of hard races."

It's not over yet. On Sunday, the series moves to Australia, and it has two more races after that. Should Rossi win them all -- not an improbable scenario -- he would tie his 11-win championship seasons of 2002 and 2005.

ARCA: Allgaier wins on road course

The first ARCA road-course race in seven years might have been very interesting had it not ended 19 laps early, with a number of road-tested drivers poised to chase down Justin Allgaier.

Allgaier had never turned a lap on a road course until five days before Sunday's event at New Jersey Motorsports Park, yet pit strategy found him in the lead just before the skies opened. Ten of his 14 laps led were under caution as officials waited for rain to stop, but it never did. And with that, the Penske Racing development driver nabbed an unlikely fourth win of the year.

"I've got to hand this one to my crew chief, Jim Pohlman," Allgaier said. "He was up late [Saturday] night rewinding the race in his mind so he knew exactly when we needed to pit for fuel and still make it to the end. As it turned out, it also put us in position to win the race. Then we got some help from Mother Nature. I would have rather won the thing under green, but we'll take it this way, too."

Andy Lally, a seasoned sports-car racer with TRG Motorsports, sat on the pole and led the first 29 laps before pitting. He finished fourth. Scott Speed, the former Formula One driver soon to balance Sprint Cup starts with an ARCA title chase, spent much of the race in second but faded to eighth after being sent to the back for running over equipment on pit road.

Colin Braun, another right-turn ace with Roush Fenway, finished second after a hard charge from the rear as a replacement driver. He stepped in for second-in-points Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Lap 3 in a planned switch, as Stenhouse remained sore after a midget-car crash a week earlier at Eldora Speedway in Ohio.

"I'm disappointed, just the way the whole race ended up," Braun said. "We definitely had something for Justin, but it was a good day for points. That was the goal here, to try to get Ricky up in points."

Stenhouse trails Speed by 65 points with two races remaining, at Talladega Superspeedway on Friday and Toledo Speedway on Oct. 12.

AMA: Spies second in final start

There are season finales, and then there was Sunday's AMA Superbike finale at Laguna Seca, Calif. This was the end of a rivalry, of an era, of a series.

Suzuki teammates Mat Mladin and Ben Spies again finished first and second, respectively, underscoring a season of domination. Both accounted for the wins in all 19 races on the schedule, with Spies owning a 10-9 lead and a title (his third consecutive) clinched before the final weekend. In 14 races, they claimed the top two spots.

Spies' runner-up was a somewhat distracted one, as he rode knowing it was his last race in the series. On Wednesday, the Texan will be officially announcing a move to World Superbike, which he will run for the Yamaha Italian factory team.

"We made a lot of passes so it was pretty fun résumé we just made it our Sunday farewell cruise," Spies said. "I had a lot of thoughts. I'm looking forward to everything that's coming up."

The series Spies is walking away from will be different next year. AMA Pro Racing was bought by Daytona Motorsports Group, of Daytona Beach, Fla., and questions remain about the rules and manufacturers that will be in play for 2009.

Weekend spotlight on: ALMS

The spotlight event of the American Le Mans Series calendar is Saturday with the 11th annual Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and a number of IndyCar Series regulars will join established P2 teams for the 10-hour endurance race.

Dario Franchitti, returning to open-wheel racing next year after a failed attempt to make a new career in NASCAR, will jump into the middle of a points battle in the P2 class. Scott Sharp and David Brabham are four points out of the lead and taking on Franchitti as a co-driver in their Acura.

Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas lead the class in a Penske Porsche, and they'll have a sister car at Road Atlanta driven by IndyCar Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.

Reigning IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Scott Dixon will put in time in the de Ferran Motorsports Acura with 2003 Indy 500 champion Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud. Another Acura, belonging to Andretti Green Racing, will feature AGR IndyCar teammates Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti pairing with Franck Montagny.