Wednesday, July 7, 2021

A Look Back: IROC XIV

With the pace of this season there has not been a lot of time for fun writing and exploring almost forgotten events. The 2021 season has been moving with force with races coming one after the other. Not only are the races almost unceasing, but these races have also been spectacular, with incredible championship fights in almost every category, from IndyCar to NASCAR, Formula One to IMSA and let's not forget MotoGP. It has been busy, and that is a good thing. 

There is a little bit of free time ahead, as MotoGP is currently in its summer break and IndyCar's summer break has just begun, a week earlier than intended as the Toronto round was cancelled. Over the lockdown period last year, there was plenty of time for reflection and with a busy summer ahead, I thought I would use this moment to recollect a season and series that has fascinated me for a long time. 


You likely know about my fondness for IROC, the international all-star series that brought together the best drivers from around the world in a four-race series to determine the best of the best. Dormant for the last 15 years, the spectacles that caught my awe from the 1990s and 2000s are all we have now of the legendary series. While the last few years were not the glory years for the series, IROC XIV, the season taking place in 1990 might be the pinnacle of the 30 seasons. 

IROC always had a diverse field, even in those final years when some of sexiest names and international-based drivers were not accepting invitations, but IROC XIV might be the best encapsulation of what the series was meant to be. 

The 12-driver field featured the top four drivers from the 1989 NASCAR Cup Series season, the 1989 IndyCar champion, who also just happened to be the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner, the 1989 Trans-Am champion, the 1989 IMSA GTP champion, who had also won the 12 Hours of Sebring that season, and the 1988 World Sportscar champion, who had also won the 24 Hours of Daytona that year. 

The 1990 season featured arguably the champions from the biggest four series in the United States and it included one of the best drivers internationally at the time who was not in Formula One. 

How did this field shape up? Let's break it down into groups:

NASCAR always had significant participation in IROC, as it was effectively a stock car, and the races frequently took place during NASCAR weekends. 

Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Darrell Waltrip were the top four championship finishers in the Cup Series in 1989 and all four participated in IROC XIV. These four combined to win 18 of the 29 races in the 1989 Cup season. Waltrip won the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Earnhardt had won the Southern 500. Wallace was the 1989 champion and had won at an assortment of tracks. He swept the Richmond races, won at Bristol, Rockingham, Watkins Glen and Michigan. Martin had just picked up his first career victory at Rockingham, the antepenultimate round.

Added to the NASCAR contingent was Terry Labonte. The 1984 Cup champion was only tenth in the 1989 Cup season with victories at Pocono and Talladega, but Labonte was the defending IROC champion, having won IROC XIII with a victory at Michigan, a second at Daytona, a third at Watkins Glen and a sixth at Nazareth. 

IndyCar also had four competitors, but it was not as straightaway forward as NASCAR's bunch. 

Reigning CART champion Emerson Fittipaldi was in the series. Fittipaldi won five races in 1989, including the Indianapolis 500. This was going to be Fittipaldi's seventh IROC season. He competed in the first three seasons while still in Formula One and Fittipaldi had won the second race of the second season on October 26, 1974 at Riverside. He returned for the sixth and seventh seasons and he was a part of the revival season, IROC VIII in 1984, which was the first season of the contemporary IROC format of 12 drivers competing in four races, a departure from the fluctuating qualifiers with a two-race final series that had been used in the early seasons. 

The rest of the IndyCar drivers were sort of random. Al Unser, Jr. was fifth in the 1989 season, and he had famously fallen short of an Indianapolis 500 victory after spinning from contact with Fittipaldi in turn three in the closing laps. Unser, Jr.'s only victory had been in Long Beach, but he was a two-time IROC champion, having taken the title in 1986 and 1988. He had participated in the previous four seasons of IROC and was second in the 1987 and 1989 seasons. Unser, Jr. won at least one race in each of his first four IROC seasons and had five victories overall. Entering IROC XIV, Unser, Jr. had 13 consecutive top five finishes in the series. 

Danny Sullivan was seventh in the championship, and he missed two rounds in 1989 after due to a broken arm, but Sullivan did win two races at Pocono and Road America. Bobby Rahal was ninth in the championship with one victory at the Meadowlands. Sullivan had been CART champion in 1988 and he ran IROC XIII and won at Nazareth. Rahal had participated in four IROC seasons before, with victories at Mid-Ohio in 1985 and 1987. 

Sports cars:
Dorsey Schroeder was the 1989 Trans-Am champion after winning six of 14 races. 

Geoff Brabham picked up his second consecutive IMSA GTP championship in 1989 with nine victories from 15 races, including the 12 Hours of Sebring. 

The final entrant was Martin Brundle, who had split his career up to that point between Formula One and the World Sportscar Championship. Brundle made his Formula One debut with Tyrrell in 1984 and he drove for the organization through 1986. His best finish with the team was his final start with the team, fourth in Australia. He spent 1987 with Zakspeed, but only scored points with a fifth at Imola. 

In 1988, Brundle moved to Tom Walkinshaw Racing's Jaguar program and won the world championship with a 24 Hours of Daytona victory to booth. He returned to Formula One in 1989 with Brabham, and arguably overachieved with points in Monaco, Monza and Suzuka, but he failed to pre-qualify at Montreal and Circuit Paul Ricard. 

Brundle had decided to return to the World Sportscar Championship in 1989 with Jaguar and it allowed him to contest IROC.

This was the first season for the Dodge Daytona, replacing the Chevrolet Camaro, which had been used since the second IROC season. Due to the new car, IROC was not going to be ready in time for its traditional season opener at Daytona International Speedway apart of Speedweeks. The season would not start until Talladega in May, a 101-mile race. The second race would be a 75-mile race at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport in July before concluding at Michigan on the first weekend in August. 

During the Talladega broadcast, commentator Bobby Unser said the Dodge Daytona was developed in the Lockheed wind tunnel in Marietta, Georgia. 

Entering this season, Earnhardt had made 17 IROC starts and had not won a race. Martin was making his IROC debut. In the first 13 seasons, A.J. Foyt and Unser, Jr. were the only multi-time IROC champions. NASCAR drivers had only won five championships. 

Race One - Talladega
Rahal and Martin started on the front row with defending champion Labonte starting last in the field. 

Earnhardt moved to fourth on the first lap from ninth. Soon, Wallace, Martin and Earnhardt led the race with Unser, Jr., Schroeder and Rahal tagged on in a six-car breakaway. Wallace and Martin separated from the rest of the top six while Earnhardt lined up in front of Unser, Jr., who was sporting a helmet cam in this race. 

Unser, Jr. pushed Earnhardt forward and caught the Wallace-Martin duo while Schroeder lost touch in fifth. 

Unser, Jr. got a run into turn three and was pushed to the lead with Martin sliding up to second. A few laps later, Martin would make the same pass, with assistance from Earnhardt and Wallace slipped ahead of Unser, Jr., who dropped to fourth with the rest of the field not even in sight. 

Earnhardt took the lead in the tri-oval with Wallace and Unser, Jr. also getting ahead of Martin. The next lap saw Wallace retake the lead. 

The lead would constantly shuffle between the top four. As the top four battled, Waltrip, Brundle and Schroeder linked together and ran down the top four. As the second pack caught the leaders, Unser, Jr. took the lead with a push from Martin with Earnhardt dropping to third. Wallace quickly fell behind Waltrip, Brundle and Schroeder. 

Quickly, it became three rows of two, Unser, Jr. and Martin, Waltrip and Earnhardt, Brundle and Schroeder with Wallace keeping touch in seventh. Martin would get the lead as the field went single-file, but soon Waltrip took the lead ahead of Earnhardt. 

Brundle and Schroeder were both praised for their performance in their debut. Neither had raced an oval before, let alone the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.

The front seven settled down in the middle third of the race. The field was single-file coming to five laps to go and they were catching Danny Sullivan, who was stranded out there. Sullivan dropped to the bottom on the back straightaway and let the field through. 

Waltrip led Earnhardt, Unser, Jr., Martin, Schroeder, Brundle and Wallace with four laps to go. Coming to three to go, Unser, Jr. made a move to take the lead with Martin pushing Unser, Jr. to the front. Martin was unable to get in line and Waltrip and Earnhardt slingshot back to the front into turn three. Brundle moved up to fourth.

At the white flag, Martin slid back ahead of Brundle into fourth. On the back straightaway, Earnhardt left Waltrip and Unser, Jr. pushed Earnhardt to the lead. Waltrip continued to fall back. Earnhardt and Unser, Jr. separated but Unser, Jr. did not have enough steam or help to beat Earnhardt to the checkered flag.

Earnhardt picked up his first IROC victory ahead of Unser, Jr., Martin and Waltrip. Brundle got Schroeder by a nose for fifth and Wallace was seventh after spending what felt like the entire second half of the race stuck in that position. 

In the distance, and never shown on camera, Labonte began his IROC title defense in eighth with Brabham and Fittipaldi rounding out the top ten. Rahal was 11th and Sullivan was the only car to finish a lap down. 

This was the fastest IROC race at the time, with an average speed of 188.055 mph and there were 15 lead changes over the 38-lap race.

Earnhardt led the championship with 24 points after his victory, and he earned an additional three points for the second most laps led. Earnhardt was seven points ahead of Unser, Jr. and Waltrip, as Waltrip picked up the five bonus points for most laps led. Ten points back was Martin while Brundle and Wallace were tied on 12 points, as Wallace picked up two points for the third most laps led. 

Schroeder had nine points, two ahead of Labonte with Brabham, Fittipaldi, Rahal and Sullivan filling out the standings, all a point behind the next.

Race Two - Cleveland
Two months later, IROC held its second round at Cleveland, only the second time the temporary circuit hosted IROC after previously doing it in 1984. 

In the interim, Waltrip suffered a broken leg the day before the Cleveland race in NASCAR practice at Daytona. This kept Waltrip from starting at Cleveland. The other four NASCAR drivers flew into Cleveland hours after completing the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. Earnhardt won that race while Labonte finished fourth, Martin was 11th and Wallace was 14th.  

Brundle had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans a few weeks earlier with Jaguar and co-drivers Price Cobb and John Nielsen. 

Unser, Jr. had won the Milwaukee IndyCar race a month earlier. Rahal had three podium finishes, including a pair of runner-up results, one at Indianapolis, between the IROC events. Fittipaldi was third at Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Sullivan was fourth in the previous IndyCar race at Portland. 

With Waltrip out, the field lined up in reverse order of the Talladega result. Sullivan and Rahal started on the front row ahead of Fittipaldi and Brabham. Labonte and Wallace shared row three. Schroeder and Brundle split row four. Martin and Unser, Jr. took up row five and Earnhardt was all alone on row six. 

Fittipaldi went from third to first at the start ahead of Rahal and Sullivan. Wallace ran into the side of Martin in turn five, spinning both drivers out. At the end of lap one, Brundle was up to fourth and took third into turn one on lap two as Rahal lost two spots. Brundle took second from Sullivan into turn three on lap three. 

Fittipaldi opened a healthy lead, but the rest of field remained in lock step in the early laps. Unser, Jr. jumped up to fifth within the first eight laps, but the battle between him, Schroeder and Brabham went back and forth. Brabham would lose ground on lap 11 after locking up his brakes in turn three.

Brundle and Sullivan were catching Fittipaldi. On lap 12, Brundle took the lead into turn one, but the two were side-by-side all the way to turn three. Brundle had the inside and was able to clear the Brazilian and take the top position. Later that lap, Sullivan had to make a pit stop for a gearbox issue, a horrible turn of events considering Sullivan was third. 

Halfway through the race, Brundle led Fittipaldi, Schroeder, Unser, Jr., Labonte and Earnhardt.

Martin had a spin all on his own in turn six, causing him to lose more time. Rahal came to the pit lane with a tire issue, and he would fall off the lead lap. 

Brundle began to gap the field while Schroeder pressured Fittipaldi for second. After passing the lapped car of Rahal, Schroeder spun in turn eight and slapped the barrier with nine laps to go. Fittipaldi had just dropped his tires on the inside of the corner and kicked up some dirt into the path of Schroeder. It was race over for the Trans-Am champion. 

In the closing laps, Brundle's lead was four seconds over Fittipaldi while Unser, Jr. was running down Fittipaldi, running over a second faster a lap. Brundle took the white flag with the race in the bag, while Unser, Jr. took second from Fittipaldi into turn one. 

Brundle took the victory with Unser, Jr. and Fittipaldi rounding out the podium. Brundle was only the second non-American driver to win an IROC race. Fittipaldi had won at Riverside 14 years earlier. 

Labonte and Earnhardt rounded out the top five. Despite two separate incidents, Martin finished sixth ahead of Brabham with Wallace in eighth. Rahal was a lap down in ninth while Schroeder and Sullivan did not finish. 

With his victory, Brundle took the championship lead on 36 points while Earnhardt and Unser, Jr. were tied on 34 points. Martin was 13 points back in fourth, a point ahead of Fittipaldi and Waltrip was awarded the 12th-place result though he was unable to compete at Cleveland, placing the Talladega winner sixth in the championship on 20 points. 

The bottom half of the championship saw Labonte in seventh on 19 points. Wallace was eighth with 17 points while Schroeder and Brabham were tied on 14 points, Rahal had 11 points and Sullivan sat at the bottom of the table on seven points.

With 26 points left on the table and a minimum of three points to 12th at the Michigan finale, the only drivers mathematically eliminated from the championship were Rahal and Sullivan.

Race Three - Michigan
The grid lined up in championship order for the final race of the season, meaning Brundle and Unser, Jr. started on the front row ahead of Earnhardt and Martin. Waltrip was again unable to compete due to his recovery from the injuries suffered at Daytona. 

Brundle slowly took the field to the green flag, but once the race had started, Earnhardt quickly dove to the inside entering turn one and took the lead. Unser, Jr. kept second while Martin moved up to third and Brundle slid back to fourth. The Briton kept slipping back and soon found himself back in eighth in the opening laps. 

The top eight ran mostly single-file with Earnhardt in the lead over Unser, Jr. and Martin. Martin used the draft to slingshot into second. Brabham exited the race after eight laps due to a mechanical issue. Brundle had made a slight recovery and found himself in a battle with Wallace before Wallace clipped Brundle in turn four, spinning Brundle and taking him out of the race and out of the championship battle. 

On the restart, Labonte passed Unser, Jr. for third. Without much passing, Earnhardt maintained the lead and quickly locked up the five bonus points for most laps led. Unser, Jr. would get back to third as Schroeder and Wallace entered the fight. Unser. Jr. would catch back up to Martin and add some pressure for second as the field reached ten laps to go. Rain was reported in the area and increased the tension in the closing laps. 

Martin made a look for the lead with nine laps to go on the inside of the front straightaway, but Earnhardt blocked the moved and Unser, Jr. moved up to second. Earnhardt and Unser, Jr. were battling for the championship with Brundle a lap down. Labonte had moved up to third. Unser, Jr. tried to make a pass high on Earnhardt in turn four, but this dropped Unser, Jr. down to fifth with six laps to go. He would get fourth back but had a greater fight on his hands. 

Unser, Jr. got back up to third around Martin with four laps to go and he would take second from Labonte on the outside of turn three on the next lap. Labonte and Martin were side-by-side for third with Schroeder entering the mix and Wallace at the back of six-car breakaway. 

Earnhardt blocked every move Unser, Jr. made. Coming to the final lap, Labonte got to the outside of Unser on the front straightaway. Unser had lost the draft and slipped to third. Earnhardt would lead every lap on his way to victory and his first IROC championship. Labonte was second with Martin in third. Schroeder edged out Unser, Jr. for fourth with Wallace in sixth. Rahal, Fittipaldi, Sullivan, Brundle and Brabham rounded out the field. 

Earnhardt took the championship with 60 points, 16 points ahead of Unser, Jr. Brundle's Cleveland victory was enough to get him third on 41 points. Martin was fourth on 37 points, a point ahead of Labonte in fifth. Fittipaldi was sixth on 29 points. 

Schroeder and Wallace finished tied on 26 points, but the IROC tiebreaker at the time was best finish in the final race. Schroeder was fourth and Wallace was sixth, so Schroeder was classified in seventh. Despite not running the final two races, Waltrip was still ninth on 23 points. Rahal and Brabham were tied on 18 points with Rahal's seventh in the Michigan finale earning him tenth in the championship. Sullivan was last on 13 points.

In Summation
IROC XIV was a watershed year for the series. 

It was Earnhardt's first championship and Martin's first appearance. They would go on to be the two most successful drivers in series history. Martin won five titles and Earnhardt had four. Martin ended with 13 race victories, first all-time with Earnhardt tied for second on 11 with Unser, Jr.

While non-NASCAR drivers had won eight of the first 13 IROC titles, Earnhardt's title would lead NASCAR drivers winning the next 17 championships. In the following season, Watkins Glen replaced Cleveland on the schedule, but after that race IROC would not run another road course until the Daytona road course in June 2006, the penultimate race in series history. Twenty-six of the first 56 IROC races were held on road courses. Ten of the first 14 seasons had at least two road course races. Only two of the final 64 races were on road courses. 

It has been nearly 15 years since the final IROC race took place at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The series isn't coming back, but I wish it would. The new Superstar Racing Experience might be cut from the same cloth, but it does not compare to what IROC was. IROC brought together the best drivers at the top of their game. It had no gimmicks. It was a race that easily would take place in 45 minutes. No inverts, no fan boost, no competition caution or manufactured finish. It was one sprint to the checkered flag and may the best driver win.

When IROC died, it could not compete in the motorsports landscape. NASCAR was bigger than ever, and the drivers didn't need it. Many of the top drivers would have some contract conflict that would prevent them from competing. IndyCar and Champ Car were split, as were Grand-Am and the American Le Mans Series. There was too much in-fighting and IROC couldn't prosper. It hung on as long as it could. 

After the last 15 years though, where things have leveled off and we have grown tired of the repetitiveness of each series, I think IROC could flourish today. We are seeing it somewhat in SRX, but a full IROC revival would be welcomed with open arms. We haven't seen this best-on-best-on-best series in so long. Many have forgotten what it was like, and others have no clue what they would be seeing. It has been gone long enough to be new again and draw attention.

There are still too many hurdles in the way. We aren't going to see Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Patricio O'Ward, Hélio Castroneves, Dane Cameron, Kamui Kobayashi and Jordan Taylor compete in one series, but it would definitely be a draw. It can only be a dream, and when it comes to these kinds of competitions, we will have to live in the past.