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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

August 15, 1997

Fifty years ago, the road to professional auto racing had two paths in this country. Road one started in the midget ranks, those tiny-but- quick quarter-mile oval track that raced eight times a week. Hopefully you would culminate your career by racing with the American Automobile Association at the Indy 500.

Road Two was to start by driving almost-stock clunkers or moonshine delivery cars on dirt "bull rings" in the Deep South and eventually find a place on the then-emerging NASCAR circuit.

Things are different today and there is a myriad of different types of grade one racing venues that attract hundreds of aspiring young race car drivers from around the world every year. The road to the top is usually long and arduous and it takes lots of experience, talent and luck to get there.

Auto racing today is a lot like other professional sports in that a driver has to participate in the minor leagues in order to grab the attention of scouts looking for up-and-coming talent. New bright talent might boost a floundering racing team into the limelight where it will attract corporate sponsorship for an infusion of big money to keep the team in the big leagues.

The Kool/Atlantic Championship is one of those "minors" that can lead to a shot at the big time and provide tight, exciting racing for spectators at the same time. Atlantic single-seater cars are "spec" racers in that they must conform to a very rigid set of specifications. The engines are all race-prepared non-turbocharged Toyota 4A-GE four cylinder powerplants built within a very tight set of specifications. While there are several chassis builders offering Atlantic cars to the various teams, the British-built Ralt models RT-40 and 41 are the most popular choices. In the recent Atlantic race held at Trois-Rivieres, Canada, 23 of the 28 cars entered were Ralts and they occupied the first 13 places.

Another rigid specification for Atlantic cars is that they must all run on one particular type of Yokohama tire, that company being one of the primary sponsors of Atlantic races.

The Atlantic series has had a somewhat checkered career in that it has gone through several sanctioning bodies since its inception in 1974. Originally powered by Ford four cylinder racing engines, the Atlantic series was so popular that in the early '80s it even had an international FIA designation and was supposed to be the stepping stone to Formula One Grand Prix racing. That only lasted for one year and it was in 1989 that the floundering series was rescued by Toyota Motor Sales, USA, which came on board as the title sponsor and supplier of all the engines for all the cars.

The graduates of the Atlantic series over the past 24 years reads like the Who's Who of open wheel racing. Ex-world champion Gilles Villeneuve as well as his son Jacques who is currently the hottest driver in Formula One, were grads. So was Keke Rosberg, another ex-F1 champion, and Indy 500 winners Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Michael Andretti, and Scott Goodyear, as well as Jimmy Vasser, Geoff Brabham, Tom Gloy and a host of other notables too numerous to list.

The Sports Car Club of America is the current sanctioning body of the Kool/Toyota Atlantic Championship and provides Atlantic races as warmup events for such events as the Canadian Grand Prix as well as CART races, and SCCA Trans Am competitions. Atlantic cars run on closed road circuits and street courses as well as on ovals in order to give the blossoming drivers a wide variety of driving experiences.

So keep your eye on such Atlantic drivers as Alex Barron, Memo Gidley and Alex Tagliani. They're all in the running for the Atlantic Championship and if one of them takes the crown, you may next see his name on the roster of a big-time team anywhere in the world.