Continuing to prove that it's the top developmental series for the future stars of open-wheel racing, the Toyota Atlantic Championship saw a number of its recent graduates experience success on the track this season in the Champ Car World Series.
With the completion of the 2004 Champ Car season last weekend in Mexico City, Toyota Atlantic grads proved to be some of the most productive and talented drivers over the course of the 14-race campaign, capturing six of the top ten positions in the series championship that was eventually won by Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais.
Highlighting the performance of the former Atlantic competitors this season was 2003 Toyota Atlantic champion AJ Allmendinger of RuSPORT Racing who drove his #10 Western Union car to two podium finishes on his way to earning Champ Car Rookie of the Year honours. The 22-year-old, who won seven times en route to the '03 Atlantic crown with RuSPORT, finished third in the season finale in Mexico City and came home sixth in the championship with the first-year team that also moved up from Atlantics to Champ Car this season.
"This has been an unbelievable year for me and the team," he said. "If you look at where we were a year ago, we had just won the Toyota Atlantic Championship and now I have won the Champ Car Rookie of the Year title and we have finished sixth in the championship.
"I really don't know if I, or the team, could have accomplished as much as we did if we hadn't had the experience in Toyota Atlantics. Last year taught us how to work together and how to focus on common goals and how to be a team that can win races and championships. The challenge of Atlantics was definitely a big factor in helping us set a foundation that has become RuSPORT.
"Now, we're a team that can be competitive in the Champ Car World Series, and winning races is just around the corner."
Another former Toyota Atlantic champion also had a tremendous finish to the 2004 Champ Car season. Canadian Patrick Carpentier, the 1996 Atlantic champ, won at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and tied his career-best Champ Car performance by finishing third in the season championship for Forsythe Championship Racing. Carpentier's teammate and former Atlantic competitor Paul Tracy followed up his 2003 Champ Car title with wins at Long Beach and Vancouver as he finished fourth overall in the championship.
After honing his skills in the Atlantic series from 1996-99, another talented Canadian, Alex Tagliani, enjoyed a stellar season for Rocketsports Racing. Tagliani captured his first Champ Car win at Road America and wound up seventh in the final series standings.
Two American racers with extensive Toyota Atlantic experience also finished among the top ten in Champ Car in 2004. Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 Champ Car title-winner who entered into team ownership with PKV Racing, finished second in Toronto and was eighth overall in the championship. Ryan Hunter-Reay joined the Herdez Competition team for his second Champ Car season and he earned his second series win in May at the Milwaukee Mile. Hunter-Reay came home ninth in the season's final rundown and was also awarded the Greg Moore Legacy award.
Mexico's Rodolfo Lavin, who ran in Atlantics in 2001 and 2002, joined the Forsythe Racing stable and he also performed well, posting a top career finish of second at Road America. American Memo Gidley, who finished among the top three competitors in his two Atlantic seasons (1997 and '98) also made a brief return to Champ Cars in 2004.
Canadian rising star Michael Valiante, one of the top competitors in the Toyota Atlantic Championship from 2001-2003, got his opportunity to run a Champ Car at the final race of the year in Mexico City. Valiante finished 14th for Walker Racing and hopes to return to the series full-time in 2005.
Following in the tyre tracks of their fellow Atlantic graduates that have excelled at the next level, the two top performers from the 2004 Atlantic season - American Jon Fogarty and Scotland's Ryan Dalziel - will also get a chance to shine in a Champ Car this month. Both drivers that battled it out for the Atlantic crown this season have earned tests with top Champ Car teams.
Fogarty, the two-time Atlantic champion who won the title in the series finale back in September, will test with Forsythe Championship Racing at Sebring International Raceway on 29-30 November. Dalziel, who was series runner-up the past two seasons, will test with PKV Racing on 16-17 November at Barber Motorsports Park.