After 36 years it appears Formula Atlantic is finished. It has been the longest running series in North American road racing. In theory, according to Series owner Ben Johnston it is just a hiatus. I have my doubts. I loved the series and I was involved as a mechanic/crew chief in the series most glorious years in the 70’s. In fact I was involved before Formula Atlantic existed!
Canada switched to formula cars for the Canadian Championship in 1969 with the Gulf Series for Formula Cars including Formula A/5000. The field the first year was pretty thin with even Formula Fords appearing on the podium. By 1970 things were looking better but it was apparent that the big bore cars were not the way to go and the series switched to Formula B and Players came on board as series sponsor. There was also a formula B series in Quebec and the US.
I stopped racing in 68 and started to crew for Bruce Jensen in late 69 when he acquired his first formula car, a BT16 Brabham. I stayed with Bruce until mid 76 and then went back in 79 for a period as crew chief. In those years he had a Brabham BT21, Chevron B17 and March 722 Formula B cars. Formula Atlantics were a March 74B, Chevron B29 and a Ralt RT1. His best year was with the March in 74 when he was rarely beaten by another March and had a second at Edmonton and pole at Sanair. He was running second at Sanair and gaining on eventual winner Bill Brack when a driveshaft let go. A March weakness. With the B29 he was second fastest B29 to Bill Brack but by then the March was the better car and some guy by the name of Villeneuve was coming on.The mid 70’s were the heyday of top drivers coming out of the series, although Atlantics have always produced top line drivers. Through the 70’s Formula Atlantic was generally considered the best racing in North America.
Bill Brack could hold his own against anyone. With Doug Crosty as his chief mechanic they kept a hybrid Lotus 59/69 at the top long after it should have been put out to pasture. A measure of their combined skill was the gearbox. It was a Hewland MK5 which was marginal with FB cars with 190 HP and most had switched to the FT200. With the Atlantic Ford BDA with 225 HP and more torque it should have been impossible but no!
The drivers of that period read like a who’s who. Gilles, of course. Future world champ Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Bobby Brown, Tom Klauser, Tom Gloy, LeMans winner Vern Schuppan, Kevin Cogan, Damien Magee (Mad Dog) Howdy Holmes, Elliot Forbes Robinson, former Lotus F1 driver David Walker, Hector Rebaque, Bertil Roos and Price Cobb just to name a few regulars. Ocassionals included George Follmer and Davinia Galicia. Races at Three Rivers always included several top European drivers including James Hunt, Brambilla, Depailler and Pironi, but the regulars held their own.
That time for me was fantastic and I got to travel all over Canada, to the UK and a lot of the US. IMSA ran a concurrent Atlantic Championship and latterly a joint one with CASC so we travelled to many of those races. There were support races to the Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and even little Waterford Hills put on a race. We also tested in Florida and often took in the odd SCCA race.
There were downsides. I had a full time day job so there were a lot of late nights. There were also more than one all nighter and many long road hauls. I did often fly but then there were the red eye special flights from the west coast leaving about 1 am just as we started to get a hangover from the post race blast.
After I left the Atlantics I kept an eye on things and there were some bad years for the series. It almost died in the mid 80’s but Canadian Rick Shea on the west coast and Vicki O’Connor in the east kept a split series going. In time the two merged and again became strong under the guidance of Vicki. A former employee of Carl Haas and the wife of ex Atlantic driver Bill O’Connor she became Formula Atlantic and for quite a period owned the series. Top line drivers continued to come from Atlantics including Paul Tracy, Scott Goodyear, Jimmy Vasser and let us not forget Jacques Villenueve. L’Oncle Jacques had also been a top Atlantic driver as had Richard Spenard. Too many more to name.
The series eventually aligned with Champ Car and was owned by Kevin Kalkoven and Gerry Forsyth but Vicki still ran it. It had a period with Toyota engines and spec Swift chassis. Latterly it was Mazda engines, built by Cosworth and still spec Swift Chassis. With the demise of CC the series was bought by Ben Johnston a former Atlantic driver. Vicki was still in charge of the running of the series.
I started to have a bad feeling when Johnston came up with an idea of an arrive and drive series using the ex CC Panoz. He acquired the cars but then did not get the engines. End of that idea.
Last year there were poor fields with often only 10 cars. There was a lot of quality at the top though. I was at the Mosport race and until Eric Jensen took out the second team car there were only 9 cars. Eric (Bruce’s son) had retired as a driver and didn’t really want to drive but did to add a car. Despite growing up just a few miles from Mosport it was his first ever time on the track!
Last year there was supposed to be big prize money to the series winner with a lot of it coming from the team owners. According to reports many of the owners did not pay up and the money has not been paid to the winners. Then Vicki left!!!!!!
A test at Sebring was postponed. Then came a strange Press Release about the new purse structure and much hoopla about the teams entered.
A budget cap of about $500,000 was announced. That did not make sense. Just a 5th wheel and a crew cab will be over $100,000. An 18 wheeler plus a support crew vehicle at least $200,000. Then you need a shop, tools, the car, engines, tires and a paid crew including an engineer. Add in travel and motels plus food and there is absolutely no way.
Shortly thereafter came the hiatus announcement. Not enough teams.
While I would love to see the series resurrected I fear not especially with Vicki now having joined Bobby Rahal’s new venture of historical events.
Hmmmm! Bobby Rahal has raced recently in the old Atlantic cars. Maybe with Vicki there, the two just might try and get the series going again. Bobby did make his name in Atlantics.
Hey there Colin King, how would you like being chief tech. on a Formula Atlantic Series?
With thanks to memory jogs from Tom Johnston’s yet to be published book on the Cdn. Championship 1962 to 1977 which he kindly sent me along with the photo of Jensen’s BT16.