PONTIAC IROC RACES
by Larry Roberts
April 24, 1998
It's the dream of every auto maker to have the best drivers in the world race its cars and win every time but the only company that I know of that's in this enviable position is Pontiac. In the IROC (International Race of Champions) events, all 12 car on the grid are Pontiac Trans Ams and the drivers are the best from NASCAR, CART, IRL and SCCA. The cars are identically in construction, power, maintenance and performance, the only variations being the color schemes on the fiberglass bodies and the potential performances of the individual drivers. The seat, steering wheel and the pedals are adjusted for the driver's preferences and that's it. During the races, only IROC mechanics do the pit work and the cars are all serviced before and after the races in a single IROC facility. Drivers are assigned cars through a "blind draw" before each of the four races, and there are no qualifying sessions or time trials. The sanctioning body is the "non-sectarian" IROC, and the races are run as preliminaries for major racing events.
As it was conceived 25 years ago, the concept is simple: take 12 of the top drivers from different racing venues, put them in 12 absolutely identical racers and turn them loose in fairly short races. Originally, the race cars were RSR model Porsche Carreras and the first race was held on the road course at the now defunct Riverside Raceway. The late Mark Donahue was the winner and the field was truly eclectic. Beside drivers from USAC, SCCA, and NASCAR, Dennis Hulme, the New Zealand Can Am driver and Formula One driver Emerson Fittipaldi were on the grid.
The "formula" for the IROC races changed the next year as Porsche was dropped as the vehicle of choice, being replaced by the Chevrolet Camaro. A couple of more international drivers were added to the roster, including Formula One Champion (and Indy 500 winner) Graham Hill. But more importantly, oval tracks were added to the IROC venue. And lest you think that those early IROC races were just-for-fun parades of drivers who didn't take the IROC events seriously, consider that at Daytona in 1978, a mid-race crash involved Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Darrell Waltrup, Benny Parsons and Al Unser, Sr. Unser untangled himself and later in the race catapulted over a dirt embankment and crashed into a television tower. Petty was hospitalized overnight and Andretti went on to win.
The IROC series hasn't always been an outstandingly successful enterprise and the series disappeared in 1981 only to be resurrected in 1984. It utilized the same format, however, and Chevrolet even capitalized on its involvement in the series by labeling one of the versions of its Z-28 Camaros, the IROC model.
While the IROC series used the Chevrolet Camaro as its basis continually for 14 years, the bid went to Chrysler Corporation in 1990 when the Dodge Daytona became the IROC racer-of-choice. Since the street version was a front-drive coupe, the IROC racers were Daytonas in name only. While the engine used was a Dodge, the rest of the machine was a built-for-racing chassis that used rear wheel drive and a front-mounted Dodge V8 engine. This is the same parameter used today in the Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Monte Carlo Winston Cup NASCAR cars. When the Daytona was dropped from the Dodge sales lineup in '94, the Daytona fiberglass shell was replaced by a Dodge Avenger look-alike body.
The Pontiac Firebird Trans Am became the name-brand for the IROC two years ago, which is ironic in that the Firebird Trans Am has never been eligible for the SCCA Trans Am series for which the car was named. Now its success in racing is guaranteed since all the IROC race cars are labeled Pontiac Trans Ams.
As it has been since the beginning, the IROC series is limited to only four races a year and currently they are all run on big oval tracks. Next time the show up on TV, keep in mind that the events have a longer history than many of the current "big name" races and have included some of the biggest names in contemporary racing history.