Atlantic Graduates Enjoy Another Great Year in 2008 For the past 35 years, it has been well documented that graduates of the Cooper Tires Presents The Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda are extremely prepared to be successful at the highest levels of motorsport all over the world.
Through the years, Atlantic graduates have gone on to win Formula 1 World Championships, Indianapolis 500s, IndyCar races and championships, as well as races and titles in the world’s most prestigious sports car series. The 2008 season was no exception, as Atlantic grads once again proved that the experience they gained in the North America’s longest-running open-wheel driver development series prepared them for fruitful careers.
Here’s a quick look at what several former Atlantic competitors did this season:
Indy Racing League
By choosing to compete in the Atlantic Championship, it only stands to reason that many drivers would aspire to reach the top of American open-wheel racing, and the 2008 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series saw impressive performances from several graduates of Atlantic.
Leading the way was undoubtedly Dan Wheldon. The 2000 Atlantic graduate had already established himself as a bona fide IndyCar superstar prior to 2008, but it was more of the same for the Englishman this season. Wheldon earned a pair of victories—at Kansas Speedway in April and at Iowa Speedway in June—and totaled 10 top-five results to finish fourth in the championship standings with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Next year, Wheldon has rejoined Panther Racing with an eye toward adding to his impressive total of 15 IndyCar victories and a second IndyCar Series championship.
Just before Wheldon scored his victory in Kansas, Danica Patrick—who used the 2003 and 2004 Atlantic seasons as her springboard to superstardom in the IndyCar Series—set the racing world on its ear with her first career victory at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. Driving for Andretti Green Racing, Patrick earned a total of three top-five results on her way to sixth in the IndyCar Series point standings.
April was a particularly good month for Atlantic graduates in IndyCar competition, as teenager Graham Rahal, who finished second in the 2007 Atlantic Championship standings, immediately delivered an IndyCar victory for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in his first-ever series start at St. Petersburg. Most pundits agree that the best is yet to come for the son of another Atlantic graduate, three-time IndyCar champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal.
Driving for Rahal Letterman Racing, American Ryan Hunter-Reay, who competed in the 2002 Atlantic Championship, also did his former series proud with an impressive victory at Watkins Glen International in July. It was Hunter-Reay’s first career IndyCar win; coming in just his 15th series start. He finished the regular season eighth in the series point standings and also scored a third-place result in October’s not-for-points race in Surfers Paradise, Australia.
A pair of drivers who did battle in the Atlantic series in the late 1990s also scored top-five IndyCar results in 2008, as Buddy Rice—the 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner—claimed a fourth-place result at Watkins Glen, while Canadian Alex Tagliani also had a fourth-place run in Australia.
The success of Atlantic graduates in the IRL was not limited to the IndyCar Series in 2008. Raphael Matos, who won the 2007 Atlantic title, continued to prove that he is ready for the big time with a championship-winning season in the Indy Lights Championship in 2008.
Matos earned victories at St. Petersburg, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio and claimed a total of eight top-five and 13 top-10 results in the 16-race season on his way to the title. As if that weren’t enough, Matos also bookended his year with impressive victories in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, taking the GT class triumph in the prestigious Rolex 24 At Daytona in January and the overall victory in the Grand-Am season finale at Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park driving for Michael Shank Racing, which graduated as a team to Grand-Am from Atlantic. Matos’ success has been rewarded with a full-time IndyCar ride for Luczo Dragon Racing in 2009.
Matos was joined in the top five of the Indy Lights season standings by American J.R. Hildebrand, who competed in the full 2007 Atlantic campaign and also drove the 2008 Atlantic season finale at Road Atlanta. Hildebrand earned an Indy Lights victory at Kansas Speedway and took a total of eight top-five and 12 top-10 results on his way to fifth in the championship.
The driver who finished second to Matos in the 2007 Atlantic Championship also visited Victory Lane in 2008 Indy Lights competition, as Frenchman Franck Perera scored a victory at Infineon Raceway after starting from the pole position. Perera scored three top-five and four top-10 results in nine Indy Lights starts, in addition to four IndyCar Series starts with a best result of sixth in the Champ Car finale at Long Beach in April.
Sports Car Racing
One of the most popular and successful drivers in American Le Mans Series history is also a former Atlantic series champion as 1987 Pacific Division titlist Johnny O’Connell has built an impressive sports car career, most notably with Corvette Racing. O’Connell was at it again in 2008, earning a total of eight victories in the GT1 class—including wins in the legendary Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans—on his way to a third American Le Mans Series championship in a Corvette. He also finished second in the GT 1 class this year at the world’s most prestigious endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race he has won three times previously.
The LMP2 category also featured impressive performances by Atlantic graduates. Simon Pagenaud, the 2007 Atlantic champion, landed one of the top seats in the series with de Ferran Motorsports and immediately proved his worth by joining with co-driver and team owner Gil de Ferran to finish third overall in their series debut at Miller Motorsports Park in May. Pagenaud and de Ferran also combined to finish third overall in Detroit and second in LMP 2 in the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Pagenaud has re-upped with de Ferran for the 2009 season, in which the team moves up to the LMP1 class.
Luis Diaz also had a solid season in LMP2 co-driving with his team owner and countryman Adrian Fernandez. The veteran of the 2002 and 2003 Atlantic seasons scored a season-best second-place class result at Mosport and also finished third in LMP2 at Mid-Ohio on his way to eighth in the class point standings.
For the past several years, some of the top drivers in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series were products of the Atlantic Championship. Chief among them are undoubtedly GAINSCO Bob Stallings Racing teammates Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney, who claimed the 2007 Daytona Prototype championship.
Fogarty—a two-time Atlantic champion and member of the 35th Anniversary Atlantic Championship All-Star Team—and Gurney, who competed in the 1999, 2000 and 2002 Atlantic seasons, had another great year in 2008 en route to second in the Daytona Prototype championship. The duo earned its lone victory of the season at Mid-Ohio in June, but they also recorded second-place results in the season-opening Rolex 24, as well as sprint races at Daytona International Speedway, Watkins Glen and Infineon Raceway.
Scotland’s Ryan Dalziel, a veteran of Atlantic competition from 2002 through 2004, earned his first career Rolex Series overall victory at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May and also claimed a second-place result at Virginia International Raceway. A driver from the same era of Atlantics, Canadian Michael Valiante, also visited Victory Lane in the Rolex Series this year with an overall win at Infineon Raceway as well as podium results of second at New Jersey Motorsports Park and third in the six-hour race at Watkins Glen.
Joey Hand—who competed in Atlantic from 2001 through 2004—combined with co-driver Bill Auberlen, who made seven Atlantic starts from 1995 through 1997, to score podium results with runs of second at Homestead-Miami Speedway and third in New Jersey. They will again join forces in 2009 as co-drivers in a new BMW M3 for Rahal Letterman Racing in the American Le Mans Series GT2 class.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the first woman to win in Atlantic Championship history, Katherine Legge, moved from American open-wheel racing to the DTM (German Touring Car championship) with Audi for 2008. It was a learning year for Legge as she raced a full season with roof over her head for the first time in her career, and she posted top-15 results at Le Mans, Norisring and EuroSpeedway Lausitz.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
Three Atlantic graduates who also went on to enjoy success in American open-wheel racing competed in the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner, narrowly missed out on taking Rookie of the Year honors in the Sprint Cup Series with Penske Racing. Hornish made 34 starts with a best result of 13th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May on his way to 35th in the driver championship.
A.J. Allmendinger, the 2003 Atlantic champion and a member of the 35th Anniversary Atlantic Championship All-Star Team, had a solid second year in Sprint Cup competition despite driving for three different teams. He claimed a pair of top-10 results from 21 starts, with a 10th-place outing in the Allstate 400 at The Brickyard and ninth at the Camping World RV 400 at Kansas Speedway, en route to 36th in the driver championship. Allmendinger also won the Sprint Showdown race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May—just ahead of Hornish—and both drivers earned a berth into the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race later that same evening.
Another member of the 35th Anniversary Atlantic Championship All-Star Team, Patrick Carpentier, also competed in the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Gillett Evernham Motorsports. The 1996 Atlantic champion made 24 starts and earned a best result of 14th in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on his way to 38th in the driver standings.