As long as there has been competitive racing in or on motorized vehicles, 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 included a Who’s Who of motorsports: The late Dale Earnhardt, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Mario Andretti and Bobby Allison, just to name a few. And in its more than a 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.”
NASCAR legend and former IROC champ 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 is designed to determine a champion based entirely on the skill of the competitors. The cars – Pontiac Trans Ams were used in 2003, but there have also been other makes in the series – are identical in setup, and drivers aren’t allowed to make changes to the suspension, handling or any other parts of the vehicles except for steering wheel adjustments, seat position and safety belts.
The drivers are selected by IROC organizers, and the criteria for selection involves drivers who have won major races or major championships in various racing disciplines throughout the world.
The 2003 competitors included Helio Castroneves, Felipe Giaffone, Scott Sharp and Sam Hornish of the Indy Racing League; Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman of what was then called NASCAR Winston Cup; Mike Bliss of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series; and Steve Kinser and Danny Lasoski of the World of Outlaws sprint car series.
Busch won and is the defending IROC champion moving into the 2004 campaign.
Cars are assigned to drivers through a blind drawing prior to each of the four races, and there are no qualifying sessions. So at the second race at Talladega, the starting lineup is reversed from the finishing order of Race One at Daytona in February.
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.” After four races run from spring to fall, we have a winner.
As for pit stops, none are scheduled in an IROC race. If a driver has to pit for any reason, a crew of IROC mechanics services 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 it is humanly possible to make them.”
Stock car veteran Dick Trickle has served as a test driver for IROC and recently worked with NASCAR’s Dodge program as something of a test pilot. He is often seen at IROC tracks getting competitors familiar with the tracks and the style of driving required.
“IROC is the cleanest, safest operation I’ve ever seen,” Trickle says. “The cars run great and when the race starts, these things are already good to go for the drivers. They’re so much fun to drive we’ve basically raced in them at practice.”
Signore hopes the series continues to be exciting for many years to come. After more than 25 years of competition, racing’s version of the “Skins Game” remains a fan favorite and an honor for the competitors.
“We’ve been doing this program for quite a few years now,” Signore says. “And one thing about it, our drivers love to race it. It’s exciting, close racing and I know the fans will enjoy it.”
Another Woman Hall of Famer?
Louise Smith is already in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Shirley Muldowney will be inducted April 2004. And Angelle Savoie has possibly made a down payment on her own inclusion in the sisterhood of speed and wheel legends.
While competing in the Mopar Parts Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Denver in 2001, the National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader won her 19th career event to eclipse Muldowney’s NHRA win total – making Savoie the winningest female racer in the sanctioning body’s history.
Now with more than 30 victories and a run of three consecutive Pro Stock Bike titles, her place in history appears to be secure.
“When I started my Pro Stock career, I never in my wildest dreams expected to have this kind of success,” Savoie says. “Shirley paved the way for women in motorsports, and I have all the respect in the world for what she means to our sport.”
The fifth different champion in Pro Stock Motorcycle history, Savoie is only the second female champion in any professional division. Shirley Muldowney is the only other woman champ in the NHRA’s 49-year history.
Awesome Bill Winding Down
Awesome Bill from Dawsonville is slowing down.
Bill Elliott announced in December that he would run a limited NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule in 2004, possibly just 15 of the series’ 36 events. It marks the beginning of the end of the road for the racing legend, who has been a NASCAR staple in a career that has spanned four decades.
Elliott, 48, won 11 races for Harry Melling in 1985, then won six events in both 1987 and 1988. After claiming five checkers for Junior Johnson in 1992, however, Elliott began to struggle.
In fact, the man who once qualified at Talladega at almost 213 miles per hour won just one event between 1993 and 2000, and was winless for six consecutive seasons.
When Ray Evernham became the point man for Dodge’s re-entry into Winston Cup and hired driver nine, Elliott experienced a career resurgence. He won once in 2001, twice in 2002 and once in 2003.
“I know I’m at the shorter end of the stick than the longer end as far as my career goes,” he said midway through the 2003 campaign. “I don’t have 20 years to give to this sport. I’ll take it a day at a time, and if I ever feel I can’t contribute to a race team, then I’ll get on my little white horse and drive off into the sunset.”