Sad days endure in American open wheel racing, as the long-standing Atlantic Championship is no more.
Series owner Ben Johnston and team owners made the decision yesterday to cancel this year's season, according to Auto123.com. The season was set to open in just over two weeks at Sebring, but only one driver and team combination had been announced, although a news release on the series' official website from last week suggested that 10 teams were in place.
As with many recent failings in the motorsports world, this cancellation was driven by economic factors, particularly the loss of many sponsorship programs. The series lists primary sponsorship deals with Cooper Tires and Mazda on its website, but only three contingency sponsors. Many of the teams that competed last year only had minor sponsorship deals.
To make matters worse, last year's championship team, Newman Wachs Racing, left the series, taking champion driver John Edwards with it to sports car racing. Second-place Jonathan Summerton sits on the sidelines looking for a ride in any major professional series.
Johnston has, however, laid out rough plans for a Winter Series towards the end of the year, if financially viable for the organization and its team owners. In a best case scenario, the Winter Series would lead to a relaunched championship in 2011.
The series was first established in 1974, and has always been recognized as an affordable development option for young open-wheel talent. From 1985 to 1990 two separate championships were conducted on the east and west coasts. The series provided the stage for some of the top North American drivers of the past thirty years to establish themselves, and launched many drivers into successful CART (and later Champ Car) careers.
Because it did produced driving talent of a similar caliber and at a similar rate to CART's Indy Lights series, it was adopted as the official feeder series to CART in 2002, with Indy Lights being cancelled. In response, a handful of old CART Lights teams switched series. Beginning in 2006 the series offered a $2 million scholarship for its champion, put towards securing a ride in the Champ Car World Series, CART's successor. That year, Simon Pagenaud took the deal and went to Walker Racing. However, 2007 champion Raphael Matos passed on the money to drive in the IRL's Firestone Indy Lights.
With Champ Car's dissolution in 2008, and the presence of Indy Lights, the Atlantic Championship became a stand-alone feeder series for the past two years, launching talent but dropping off in terms of car count and popularity. Johnston purchased the series in late 2008 after previously attempting to start a "Green Prix" series that would have utilized former Champ Cars in an attempt to build an environmentally-friendly racing series.
The series persevered with some interesting scheduling choices over the past two years, mostly supporting sports car races, but with a few feature events thrown in. A makeshift calendar was drawn up in 2008 after Champ Car's dissolution, as most Atlantic races were run in conjunction with that series, and many race weekends were cancelled. Unfortunately, as was the issue with Champ Car, many races that the Atlantic folks scheduled themselves fell through over the past few years, such as a potential support race with Formula 1 in Montreal, Canada in June of this year. To fill out the schedule, a number of race weekends (especially the features) were designed as doubleheader events.
Combine those scheduling issues with the lack of direct sanctioning, and the Atlantic Championship's demise is easy to understand. Sadly, its 36 years of history - making it the longest running feeder series in North America - looks to be a closed book for now, with no driver set to add his name to the illustrious list of Atlantic champions in the near future.