Atlantic: Survival season ending with three-man title chaseThe 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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