Open-wheel stars often begin in Atlantic Series

Michael Andretti, Geoff Brabham, Scott Goodyear, Richie Hearn, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Rahal, Buddy Rice, Keke Rosberg, Danny Sullivan, Jacques Villeneuve, Dan Wheldon.

These champion drivers are a big reason avid open-wheel racing fans follow the Champ Car Atlantic Series.

The developmental series has sent scores of young drivers onto major racing series.

Las Vegas residents Alex Tagliani, Paul Tracy, Al Unser Jr. and Patrick Carpentier also raced in Atlantic at some point early in their careers.

The last three winners of the Indianapolis 500 -- Hornish (2006), Wheldon (2005) and Rice (2004) -- all are Atlantic graduates.

The series certainly previews future racing champions.

When practice and qualifying begin Friday, it will mark the start of the 34th season for the series.

All teams use single-seat, open-wheel, Champ Car-type vehicles manufactured by Swift Engineering. Power comes from a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder, non-turbocharged, 16-valve, fuel-injected Mazda MZR engine, which is capable of producing 300 horsepower and speeds in excess of 175 mph.

Sunday's race, scheduled to start after the Champ Car World Series feature of the inaugural Vegas Grand Prix, will be the first of 12 events this year. Each race will be telecast tape-delayed on ESPN2 (Cable 31).

Approximately 30 cars are expected to compete this weekend, including two by Sierra Sierra Enterprises, which is owned by Dennis and Diane Kottke of Minden.

Raphael Matos of Brazil will drive the Northern Nevada team's No. 6 entry, and teammate James Hinchcliffe of Canada will in the No. 9.

The team made a strong run for last year's Atlantic championship, with Matos finishing fourth in the series standings. Hinchcliffe, who finished 10th in points a year ago, has joined the team as it begins its fifth year in Atlantic competition.

The most well-known driver in the field will be Frankie Muniz, star of the television sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."

Last year was his first racing a full season, in the Formula BMW USA series, and this year he opted to move up to Atlantic.

Muniz, 21, will drive the No. 13 Team Jensen Mazda. The lifelong car enthusiast's interest in racing boomed after he won the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race two years ago during the Long Beach Grand Prix.