Monday, October 31, 2016

1000 Words: IROC

Friday marked the tenth anniversary of the final IROC race. Don't feel bad if you had forgotten about it, where it was, who the winner was and who took the final championship. Martin Truex, Jr. won the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the second consecutive year he won the finale after he won at Atlanta the year prior. Tony Stewart clinched the IROC XXX championship with a third-place finish that day and he had won the two races prior at Texas Motor Speedway and on the road course at Daytona International Speedway. 

I don't know why I was infatuated with IROC. Looking back, I might have been the only one that cared. Maybe it was just because it was another race to watch and the realest thing we had to an all-star, best vs. best competition in motorsports even though it wasn't that close to being a true best vs. best competition. If you watched the final decade of IROC, you would have known that it was a NASCAR-heavy series. 

Take the final season as an example: Five full-time Cup drivers (Stewart, Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin, who won the IROC title in 2005), the Trucks champion (Ted Musgrave) and filling the second-half of the field was Max Papis, two years removed from winning the Grand-Am title, the defending Grand-Am champions of Wayne Taylor and Max Angelelli who split a car, with Taylor taking the bookends of the season, the seven-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel who was working on his eight, Sam Hornish, Jr. who finished third in the IRL championship and two victories the year before, Scott Sharp who was coming off fifth in the 2005 IRL season and won a race that year, and Steve Kinser who became IROC's 12th man for the final few seasons. 

IROC rarely was an international race of champions. The series never raced outside the United States. It never made a trek to Canada to Mexico. In fact, all 30 champions were Americans and the only one that wasn't American-born was Mario Andretti. The inaugural season in 1973-74 featured ten Americans but had two World Drivers' Champions in Emerson Fittipaldi, who would win the title in 1974 and Denis Hulme. Peter Revson made it three Formula One drivers on the grid and he won two races in the 1973 season. Defending Can-Am champion Mark Donohue won the championship. George Follmer, 1972 Can-Am champion, was the second Can-Am driver on the grid. Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt, George Johncock and Roger McCluskey represented USAC. David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty represented NASCAR. 

The series tried to draw out the best from Formula One. Fittipaldi did another season. Ronnie Peterson, Graham Hill and Jody Scheckter participated in the second season. James Hunt did one season and pulled out after the first race of his second season to focus on Formula One. Jacky Ickx and Gunnar Nilsson contested the 1977-78 season. The 1979 and 1980 seasons featured a qualifying format with three races for eight NASCAR drivers, eight USAC drivers and eight road racing (Formula One, IMSA, etc.) drivers with the top four advancing to a two-legged finale with one race on a road course and one on an oval. In those seasons Alan Jones, Clay Regazzoni, Patrick Depailler, John Watson, Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg all contested in the series. 

After IROC's first hiatus after the 1980 season, Formula One drivers never returned and the series became a NASCAR vs. IndyCar vs. sports car series. The series did get a little more international. The tenth season in 1986 featured the Germans Klaus Ludwig, Hans Stuck and Jochen Mass but other than those three it was guys named Unser, Elliott, Yarborough, Waltrip, Gant, Rahal, Haywood and Mears. In fact, outside of the 1979 and 1980 seasons with the three-race qualifying format, the series never featured more than three international drivers in a season.

While the first season was entirely on road courses with three races at Riverside and the finale on the Daytona road course, the series did a complete 180┬║ turn by its final years. During the 1980s, there was a mix with races on the ovals and road courses but by 1992 all races where on ovals and it would be that way until the final season. Daytona typically opened the season. Michigan was regular on the schedule from the mid-1970s until the turn of the 21st century. Talladega was on the schedule often. Riverside hosted 16 races before it closed. 

The series bounced from track to track. Outside of Daytona, Riverside, Michigan and Talladega, the track that hosted the most IROC races was Indianapolis, which hosted IROC six times. The series raced at Atlanta and Watkins Glen five times, Darlington, Fontana, Mid-Ohio and Texas three times, Cleveland, Charlotte, Chicagoland and Richmond twice. Nazareth was the only track to host only one IROC race. 

Could IROC exist today? I remember around the end of IROC that Jeff Burton said something that the changing landscape of motorsports made the series obsolete, as more series were becoming single-spec series in certain elements. IndyCar was down to just Dallara and Honda. NASCAR was going to the Car of Tomorrow. The other issue was cars were being developed for a four-race series. The length didn't justify the costs. The length of races would be friendly today as most races took around an hour (except for the final road course race at Daytona which took nearly 90 minutes because IROC didn't count caution laps) and could be scheduled nicely in a television window. The actual length of the schedule wouldn't be a good thing. The final season had a race in February, April, July and October. We live in a hyper-attentive world in 2016. It can't be too long but it can't be too short. 

Would drivers do it? I am sure there are drivers that would want to compete for the love of racing but drivers are surrounded by bubble wrap more than ever. The issue would be getting drivers that are desirable. You could probably get Trevor Bayne to do it but could you get Kyle Busch? Formula One drivers wouldn't be allowed to. The difficult thing is getting it to work around every driver's schedule. When NASCAR drivers became the core of the grid, races were held on NASCAR weekends.

The biggest issue is money. What company is going to pony up the millions of dollars it is going to take to support a purse large enough to draw top drivers, cover the costs of the cars and be able to draw eyeballs to the television set, computer screen and get people into the grandstands? 

For kicks and giggles, let's just brainstorm how IROC could exist in this messed up world that we call the year 2016 or rather let's imagine it for 2017 because today is the final day of October. What would it look like? I see a balance, two ovals and two road courses. Open the season at Daytona on the oval during Speedweeks, preferably the Friday evening before the Truck race like it was in the final few seasons. After that there will be a somewhat lengthy hiatus as the next round would be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Carb Day. The penultimate round would take place at Montreal on the Saturday of Canadian Grand Prix weekend. The season ends the last weekend at June at Road America on Saturday and in conjunction with the IndyCar race. 

The car would need to be something that is already in existence and readily available. Spec Miatas or Porsche Carrera Cup cars would make sense but the issue with both is having them race on ovals. I am sure it can be done though. The roster of drivers needs to be diverse but what series to choose from and should there be a limit of amount per series? It would be nice to see the champions from Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC, IMSA, Supercars, USAC, World of Outlaws, DTM and a few other drivers sprinkled in. For pure fantasy let's imagine a grid with Lewis Hamilton, Simon Pagenaud, Kyle Busch, Romain Dumas, Dane Cameron, Shane Van Gisbergen, Marco Wittmann, Donny Schatz, Laurens Vanthoor, Kevin Harvick, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Nico Rosberg, Mark Webber, Pipo Derani and S├ębastien Buemi. 

I might be alone in this boat of missing IROC. In fact, I am not sure if anyone outside of the United States knew IROC existed. I guess that just adds to the oxymoronic nature of the series. I remember when Tony Stewart won the title he said he would return the $1 million prize for an IROC race at Eldora Raceway in 2007. Unfortunately, that never happened. In a way, Stewart's IROC idea and the charity Prelude to the Dream all-star race sparked interest in major series racing on dirt and has led to the NASCAR Truck race at Eldora in July. 

IROC is gone and is likely never going to comeback. The money does flow through motorsports like it once did and the appetite doesn't appear to be there. It was fun while it lasted.