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Matos ready for final step on Mazda ladder

Rafael Matos

In winning the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda, Brazilian racer Raphael Matos served as a prototype of sorts for the Mazda Motorsports Ladder.

While Mazda unveiled its approach to promoting drivers through the open-wheel racing ranks earlier this year, Matos proved in 2007 that by following the steps on the Mazda Motorsports Ladder, reaching the pinnacle of the sport is an attainable goal. In 2008, the 26-year-old from Belo Horizonte, Brazil will take the final step into the Champ Car World Series armed with $2 million toward a Champ Car ride as part of Champ Car’s significant commitment to graduate Atlantic champions to the next level.

Following in the footsteps of many other great drivers from his home country, Matos made his way to the United States to continue his racing career after a successful start in Brazil. His first step in 2002 was in the Skip Barber Midwest series, where he finished second in the championship and earned series Rookie of the Year honors. From there, it was onto the Formula Dodge National Championship in 2003, where he claimed his first U.S. championship.

From Formula Dodge, Matos stepped into the Star Mazda Series and finished seventh in the 2004 championship race. One year later, Matos claimed his second American title, this time in Star Mazda, in a championship season that was bolstered by victories in each of that season’s first four races, the first three of which came after starting from the pole position.

Matos took the next step on the ladder in 2005, moving to the Champ Car Atlantic Championship with Sierra Sierra Enterprises. He showed a front-runner’s pace on a consistent basis, as evidenced by the fact that he tied American Graham Rahal for the series lead with four pole positions. However, victories were much harder to come by for Matos in his rookie Atlantic campaign, as he was forced to wait until the ninth round of the 12-race season at San Jose to score his maiden victory in Atlantic competition. He wound up fourth in the championship.

Much like his Star Mazda career, however, Matos returned for his second season of Atlantic competition loaded for bear. He got the year started on the right foot with a victory in the inaugural Atlantic event to be held on the streets of Las Vegas. He carried that momentum into Round 2 at Long Beach, where he started from the pole position and led every lap en route to a second consecutive victory, and put the entire series on notice that he would be a fixture in the championship battle with a third-straight win in Round 3 at Houston, where he again started from the pole position and led every lap.

While they were solid results to be sure, runs of fourth and sixth, respectively, in the doubleheader at Portland International Raceway proved to be the “low point” of the season for Matos. He rebounded nicely with another pole-to-checkered triumph in Round 6 at Cleveland to reassert himself once again as the man to beat for the 2007 Atlantic crown. While rookie Franck Perera cut into Matos’ points lead with back-to-back wins in Round 7 at Mont-Tremblant and Round 8 at Toronto, Matos kept the Frenchman within sight with podium results of second at Mont-Tremblant and third at Toronto.

Matos still held a comfortable lead in the championship heading into the season’s second and final doubleheader at Edmonton. As a rookie in 2006, Matos appeared to be well on his way to taking his first career Atlantic victory in Edmonton, only to crash while leading with just eight laps remaining. Matos got redemption in a big way in his Atlantic return to the Canadian airport circuit in 2007, as he claimed his fifth and sixth victories of the season in a doubleheader sweep. More importantly, Matos put a stranglehold on the championship and simply needed a strong result in the penultimate round of season at San Jose to wrap up the crown.

While Matos was unsuccessful in his attempt to score a repeat Atlantic victory in San Jose, his fourth-place performance was more than enough for him to clinch the 2007 title with one race still remaining on the calendar. He finished out the year with a fine, second-place run at Road America.

In all, Matos earned a series-leading six victories and five pole positions. He also topped the series in laps led with 140 orbits at the head of the field, and was one of three drivers (the others were Perera and Canadian rookie Robert Wickens) to complete all 407 laps of Atlantic competition in 2007. He never finished lower than sixth, and finished on the podium a total of nine times in 12 starts, beating Perera—who became the first driver since 1996 to finish every Atlantic race of the season inside the top-five positions—to the championship by a final count of 341-310.

While 2007 was another dream year for Matos, it’s highly unlikely that we’ve heard the last from this Brazilian rising star. More likely, we’ll be hearing from him—and future graduates of the Mazda Motorsports Ladder—for many years to come.

The Champ Car Atlantic Championship continues to be the premier open-wheel development series in North America. Recently completing its 34th season of competition in 2007, the championship is noted for its long history of graduating its stars into Champ Car competition and has helped produce past Champ Car champions Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Bobby Rahal, Danny Sullivan, Michael Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve. Current Champ Car competitors Alex Tagliani, Katherine Legge, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal and Alex Figge are established Atlantic graduates. All Atlantic competitors utilize Swift 016.a chassis powered by a 2.3-liter Mazda-Cosworth engine while riding on Cooper Tires. Brazilian driver Raphael Matos earned the 2007 championship and the unique $2 million Champ Car series champion's bonus on the strength of six victories and a total of nine podium results in the 12-race season. For more information on the series and its broadcast details, please visit www.champcaratlantic.com.

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