Tales from the Tower – 1978 Formula Atlantic

Photos via Greg Rickes, unless otherwise noted.

In this special Tales from the Tower, legendary track announcer Greg Rickes looks back on the star-studded 1978 Formula Atlantic race at Lime Rock Park.


It’s probably starting to fade from institutional memory but with the Independence Day approaching it’s worth recalling that this was once a significant occasion on the Lime Rock schedule.


From the 1960s to the early 1980s SCCA National level racing played a major part in the LRP schedule, and drew large crowds, and upwards of 250 entries. Though this was “amateur” racing there were actual factory racing teams from Nissan (Bob Sharp Racing), MG/Triumph/Jaguar(Bob Tullius Group 44/QuakerState) and Porsche (Holbert Racing). The event also had title sponsorship, including Metro NY Datsun Dealers, and Kendall Oil. The presence of the SCCA’s most famous member,  Paul Newman probably didn’t hurt either.



The high point of this period was likely 1978 when the Labatt’s Formula Atlantic series was added to the schedule. At that time Atlantic was only a step or so away from Formula One and Indycar. The open-wheel Formula Atlantic  car was ideally suited to Lime Rock; they were a precise balance of horsepower and handling. Ford’s legendary 1600cc 4-cylinder BDA  engine was putting out close to 300 horsepower, and chassis builders like Ralt, March and Chevron were working at a feverish pace to come up with innovations that would put their rivals behind them.  All that added up to  an Atlantic car that first broke the 50 second barrier at Lime Rock, and for a span of years in the late 70s/early80s this type of car held the track’s absolute lap record.


Keke Rosberg awaits the arrival of his car to the grid.


In retrospect the Class of ’78 was composed of extraordinary talent. At Lime Rock that year the field included a future Formula One World Champion (Keke Rosberg, also Nico’s father), two Indy 500 winners (Bobby Rahal & Danny Sullivan), an Indy 500 Rookie-of-the-year (Howdy Holmes) and an IMSA Camel GTP winner (Price Cobb). There were other familiar names too, including local favorite Rick Bell, who climbed from 22nd to 14th that day. Rick has returned to Historics in recent years to drive the same car he raced in 1978.


Those early days of July ’78 were unpredictable. All but a few of the Atlantic racers were having their first encounter with Lime Rock’s unique challenges ( and there were no simulators to train on in those days). It was rainy and uncharacteristically cool when the cars rolled out for their first practice session.  By qualifying the track had dried out, and as mid-afternoon race time rolled around on the Fourth of July  it was a sweltering summer day. The cockpits of the single-seaters were form-fitted, and cool suits and fresh-air helmet systems were a long way in the future. 65 laps around Lime Rock would be a grueling test for both man and machine.

Howdy Holmes in the pit lane.


Howdy Holmes sprinted from his pole position into the lead (setting a new lap record at 49.09 seconds) , but from the inside of row 4 it was twenty-five year old Bobby Rahal who drove his two-tone blue Ralt RT1 with aggressive determination  to chase  down and finally pass the Jiffy Mix March to score the victory. The  pace was brisk, covering the 100 miles in just under 55 minutes (an average speed of 112 mph), and beyond the satisfaction of winning there was a $10,000 payday for first place, a fitting reward for a Tuesday afternoon’s drive.

A view of the pit lane during the 1978 Formula Atlantic Race.


Forty-five years, and untold racing miles later,  Rahal reflects back on this early milestone:


“I was living in Connecticut at the time, and the team and sponsor I had (also) lived in Connecticut. Obviously, it was a very good race for us, particularly because we had a suspension failure – a left-front tire failure – going down the hill at Lime Rock in the very fast last corner. I went off and hit the guardrail., which damaged the car. So we had to go to the backup car. I’m not sure where we qualified – probably fourth or fifth — but in the race the car was really good. . We just passed a few people and won going away. That was the first Atlantic victory of that year. We had some really good races prior to that, but we hadn’t had the best of luck finishing. For the team, it was a big deal to win on the Fourth of July at Lime Rock.”

And so another piece of Lime Rock Park’s  rich tapestry falls into place.

Bobby Rahal racing during the 1978 Formula Atlantic Race. Photo via Norm McLeod.