In it's 25th season, and all things still considered equal

by Thomas Chemris Motorsports as a competitive outlet takes on many shapes. Unique in its ability to offer a wide variety of competitors, machines and venues, it is a sport that takes form in countless configurations. Drastically as different as...

by Thomas Chemris

Motorsports as a competitive outlet takes on many shapes. Unique in its ability to offer a wide variety of competitors, machines and venues, it is a sport that takes form in countless configurations. Drastically as different as the short track bullrings of the Stock Car World to the cork screw turns of Open Wheel road courses. With such a vast spectrum of drivers, how then can anyone determine who is indeed the Best?


Photo: Thomas Chemris

A format to answer that question was conceived in1973, and became a reality on October 27th of that year, as twelve of the worlds most respected drivers took to the road course at Riverside California in identical cars. IROC was born.

IROC, The International Race Of Champions enters it's twenty-fifth season radically different than it did back in 1973, when the late Mark Donahue took a Porsche Carrera RSR to the first checkered flag, and went on to become the Inaugural Series Champion.

The format is simple. Invite twelve of the world's greatest race drivers and place them in identical cars. Randomly draw for starting order, and let them go at it. Repeat the process three more times, inverting the field based on the initial draw and finishing order. In the end, who ever has the most points is crowned Champion.


Photo: Thomas Chemris.

The series has competed at the world's most famous centers of speed. Currently events are held at Daytona, Talladega, Michigan and Indy. Although very much a part of its history, IROC has not held a road course event since 1991.

The series was originally housed out of Penske Racing in Reading Pa, and has since found a home at a 20,000 sq ft shop in Tinton Falls NJ. The task of keeping the cars identical has become a full time job to a workforce of twenty-five mechanics and fabricators, led by the Series President and General Manager Jay Signore.

"I think it is fun for the drivers. Auto Racing is unlike Football, Baseball, and Hockey.

You have a sport here that is made up of Stock Cars, Indy cars, and Sport Cars. Most drivers never get a chance to race anyone out of their league. The drivers enjoy it because it's a challenge".


Photo: Thomas Chemris

The current stable of cars is beyond the competitive twelve, testing cars and show cars all our housed in the facility. The series has run a variety of machines including the infamous IROC Camaro. The current configuration has utilized Pontiac Firebirds since 1996. What initially start as a Laughlin chassis, each car is spec manufactured, each tube being checked and tested for identical characteristics. Upon arriving at the shop, each chassis is placed on a jig, to assure identical qualities.

"It is hard enough to build a car that feels great, but the key is learning how to repeat it", notes Signore.

The team in Tinton Falls has made a science of repeating high quality. In many ways the facility is more like a production line than a race shop. "We want our employees to be jacks of all, and master of one", referring to the required cross training that each employee experiences.

"We have an ongoing training program that never stops. I may never have to pack a wheel bearing, but I know how it is done, and I can help out if needed, but it also gives me respect for the guy who does". Explains Bobby Thomas, a Body Specialist who has worked for the series that last 17 years.


Photo: Thomas Chemris.

The cross training and mutual respect each employee has for their co-workers is another key ingredient in the success of the race program.

Employees travel to each of the four events during the season.

In the same format as the blind draw that drivers are matched with cars, crew members are randomly configured into teams of four, and then indiscriminately given three cars that each team is responsible for at the track.

"On Race day each guy will pull for one car, and act as car chief helping the driver with safety equipment and getting seated to the car".

Each employee has a specific function at the track and at the shop. Since the premise of the series is based on equality of the cars, each team member is meticulous in their role.


Jay Signorecatalogs all race parts. Photo: Thomas Chemris

Each part, from engine components to the safety equipment is cataloged and referenced from the day it enters to the shop until it is retired.

Data regarding every part is tracked on computer, so that at any given moment, a parts history can be assessed by time, driver, race, and mileage.

As a means to further equalize the field, no one part will have any more wear than another. Each component, whether purchased or fabricated is so identical, it can be interchanged on any of the cars.

Being on the cutting edge of the industry, the shop is in the process of bar-coding all cars and components for direct data access through a scanner.

Data acquisition is a key factor in the equality process. The elite IROC test team consisting of Dave Marcus, Dick Trickle, Jim Sauter, and Andy Hillenburg gather data through a rigorous testing program.

The test teams role in IROC goes beyond pre race shakedowns. It is the test teams job to train and act as mentors to the drivers who do not have stock car experience.


Photo: Thomas Chemris.

Traditionally, series drivers are invited to compete through a selection process of an advisory board. Driver selection becomes complicated process that involves the availability of drivers due to the potential for scheduling conflicts.

Historically, drivers from NASCAR, CART, IRL, SCCA, WoO, USAC, FIA, and IMSA have all taken part; inevitably there are a number of drivers in the field who have limited non-Open Wheel experience.

"The test car drivers will go out with them and try to put them in as many different scenarios as possible, they will ram them, put them up to the wall. They have radio communication and them will work them through, now we are going to try this... Once they get comfortable, and a little brave, we stop telling them what they are going to do and surprise them."

We try to let the drivers; especially the Open Wheel guys test a much as possible. Safety is our number one priority.

"No team owner is going to let there driver run the series if it would affect other commitments".

The cars have all the latest safety features. "Simpson race products has been with us from the start" and the chassis are manufactured with crush zones.

The series utilizes the most innovative safety devices. It was one of the first to use soft wall technology. Most race fans leaned of the soft wall concept during the 1998 race in Indianapolis as IROC competitor Arie Luyendyk walked away from a spectacular crash in witch the impact was absorbed by the experimental wall.

Selective safety items are left up to the individual driver. Seat configuration, one or two safety nets and items of personal preference.

2001 competitor, Jeff Burton has requested a seat head restraint system that he designed. Depending on a driver's inclination, each of the cars can be fitted with the Hans device.

Comparing the cars to a Winston Cup machine, there is an increase in the amount of mirrors installed. Unlike cars in the NASCAR series the driver's race without the advantage of a track spotter. All drivers are radioed into track safety control to be apprised of any on track conditions.

Since its inception, IROC has perfected its ability to evenly match its machines.

Many of the sports leading builders and crew chiefs got their starts in IROC.

Most Notably, Dodge Development point man Ray Evernham, and 2001 BGN Daytona winning Crew Chief Wally Rogers.

The dedication to accomplish what IROC has, requires skills that any professional team would utilize. IROC employees are masters at there craft.

IROC goes beyond a racing series.

It has become a living history of Motorsports. During the past 25 competitions, over one hundred of the worlds greatest races have participated in events.

It has become more than an all-star series. IROC has in many ways become the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for active drivers.

Key to the series is the team that spends a full year building and preparing the cars.

The majority of crewmembers in any racing series will claim, "All the hard work pays off when you turn into victory lane".

In IROC, every crewmember knows that one of there machines will take the checkered flag. Their pride and accomplishments are in knowing that any one of their twelve machines has an equal chance to make that turn.

-IROC

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About this article
Series IROC
Drivers Jeff Burton , Dick Trickle , Jim Sauter , Ray Evernham
Teams Team Penske