As long as there has been competitive racing, there has been a debate over who is the best of the best. Can an open wheel driver beat a stock car pilot? What about the guys who drive late models or sprint cars?
The debate will never be settled to a definitive degree, but the International Race of Champions comes closer than any series in determining an overall driving “champion.”
Over the years, IROC titlists have represented a Who’s Who of motorsports: Dale Earnhardt, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Bobby Allison are a few. And in its quarter century of existence, the series has earned rave reviews from the pilots who have competed in it.
“No one ever had to sell me on the concept,” Andretti says. “IROC is something special and certainly something unique. It’s fun to be around people you might not otherwise get a chance to know. But, believe me, at the track it’s all business. We’re all out trying to do our own thing.”
Cale Yarborough believes the series lives up to its name.
“Because of what it represents, to me, being invited to compete in IROC is the highest honor any driver can receive,” Yarborough says.
IROC, celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, is designed to determine a champion based entirely on the skill of the competitors. The cars are identical in setup, and drivers aren’t allowed to make changes to the suspension, handling or any other parts of the Pontiac Firebirds except for steering wheel adjustments, seat position and safety belts.
The drivers are selected by IROC organizers, and the criteria for selection involves pilots who have won major races or major championships in various racing disciplines around the world.
This year’s competitors include Kenny Brack of the CART Series, a former winner of the Indy 500 and CART Rookie of the Year in 2000; Winston Cup stars Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and Ricky Rudd; defending Busch Series champion Jeff Green; Eddie Cheever Jr., Indy 500 and Indy Racing League standout; and IRL regulars Mark Dismore, Scott Goodyear and Buddy Lazier.
Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash at Daytona in February, was also a part of IROC 2001 and has been replaced by former teammate Mike Skinner.
Through two of the four IROC events in 2001, the edge goes to the stock car guys, with Jarrett winning at Daytona and Labonte taking the checker at Talladega. The series resumed June 9 at Michigan International Speedway.
Cars are assigned to drivers through a blind drawing before each of the four races, and there are no qualifying sessions. Points standings following the first two races determine the starting lineup for Race Three, with the driver with the most points starting at the end of the line and the last place competitor “on the pole.” The format is somewhat different in honor of the 25th anniversary, with Saturday’s pole position determined by a random drawing.
No pit stops are scheduled in an IROC race. If a driver has to pit for any reason, IROC mechanics service the car. Under normal circumstances, there is no penalty for a pit except for time lost on the track, which can be severe since the race is only 100 miles. In addition, yellow flag laps do not count.
“Our first priority is to make sure all the cars are equal,” says IROC President Jay Signore, who directs the series’ staff of 25 mechanics, fabricators and workers.
“Every part is the same. Each car is built exactly the same way. When the cars go to the track, they are as equal as is humanly possible.”
Stock car veteran Dick Trickle serves as a test driver for IROC, and he recently spent time at Talladega Superspeedway to get cars ready for round two of the 2001 series. He, too, is sold on IROC.
“IROC is the cleanest, safest operation I’ve ever seen,” Trickle says. “The cars run great, and when the race starts, these things will already be good to go for the drivers. They’re so much fun to drive, we’ve basically raced in them at practice.” Goodyear, Lazier, Brack, Cheever and Green all put the cars through the motions two days before competing in Talladega, joining Trickle and the test drivers.
“I haven’t raced here before, so just getting here and getting an opportunity to run on this track is a thrill,” Goodyear says. “I’ve watched it on TV for years. It’s only my second IROC race or race with any kind of roof on the car. For me, it’s exciting.”
Green, who knows all about driving with a roof, likes the feel of his machine.
“These cars are about five seconds slower than we run, but the cars drive awesome,” he says. “They’ve got a bunch of laps on the tires, but they still feel like they’ve got brand new tires on them.
“It’s just who helps you and who doesn’t that determines what happens in the race.”
In the Pits
When fans watch a NASCAR Winston Cup race, their eyes are focused on the driver. They watch the passes and the inside maneuvers, and they watch their favorite pilots defy the laws of physics by going four wide in places where they should be going three wide. A driver is like a quarterback in the spotlight in football. Neither can get the job done without their teammates. As in football, there is an entire team responsible for success or failure in racing.
The leader is the crew chief, who oversees the entire operation. Not only is he responsible for what goes on during race day, but he has to make sure the car is battle-ready before it even hits the track.
For example, Paul Andrews is the crew chief for Steve Park, and he put the Pennzoil driver’s Chevrolet through the wringer during a test the week before the Talladega 500.
“We took two cars with us, and for no apparent reason, our new one just didn’t respond the way we would’ve liked,” Andrews said. “So, needless to say, we took it back to the shop and took it apart.”
Once everyone is running in a pack at 200 mph, the pit crew gets busy and stays that way from green flag to checker.
Teams are allotted as many as eight crew members during the course of a given event – the catch can man, the tire changers, the jackman, the gas man, the tire carriers and an extra man.
The catch can man holds the can to collect any overflow from the fuel cell. Once the task is complete, he signals the jackman with his hand.
The tire changers each run to the car’s right side and use an air impact gun to remove the five lugnuts off the old tire and bolt on the new one. The process is quickly repeated on the left side of the machine.
The jackman carries a 45-pound hydraulic jack from the pit wall to raise the car’s right side. After new tires are bolted on, he drops the car to the ground and repeats the process on the left side.
The gas man pours two 11-gallon cans of fuel into the 22-gallon fuel cell. While it might look easy, the cans weigh 75 pounds.
All the jobs are important, but the tire carriers probably feel the most pressure of any of the crew members. They are each charged with carrying a new 75-pound tire to the car’s right side and placing each on the wheel after the tire changer removes the old tire. The process is repeated on the left side with new tires rolled to them by crew members located behind the pit wall.
Finally, there is an extra man in some pits. He is one of the crew members located behind the pit wall who is allowed to come out and clean the windshield and/or service the driver. His duties are occasional and entirely at the discretion of NASCAR.
Once this organized chaos is complete, the cars speed back on the track and battle for position. And once the caution flag flies, the process starts all over again.
While not technically a crew member, a race team’s spotter also has an essential job. He must coach the driver through traffic and warn of any impending trouble.
“You look for the advertisement these drivers make when they put the cars three and four wide in the turns,” says Bart Creasman, the spotter for Bobby Hamilton and Square D Racing and the team’s transport driver. “These drivers get anxious, but patience is the key.”
MEET THE DRIVERS
Resides: Mooresville, N.C.
Drives the Motorcraft Ford for the Wood Brothers.
Picked up his first career win in 2001, just his third full-time season in Winston Cup competition. In 1999 he finished second to Tony Stewart in Rookie of the Year Standings.
The 28th pilot to drive for the Wood Brothers, Sadler is the younger brother of Busch Series veteran Hermie Sadler, while his father, Herman, raced late model cars in Virginia.