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IROC Closing Down? Hey Jay Say It Isn't So

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
IROC Father and Founder Jay Signore

Publisher's Note I spoke with Jay Signore just before we published this story and I can tell you that there is still a deep belief that this icon motorsports series can be not only revived, but enhanced and revitalized under new and intellegent sponsorship. I agree with many of you out there, I can't believe that there is not room in this country for such a unique and exciting event...stay tuned a new sponsor may soon wake up!

Special from Paul Yunos Jr.

In an exclusive interview with IROC President Jay Signore, Editor Paul Yunos Jr. sits down with the legendary man behind the All-Star event for racing.

October 3rd – After numerous reports that the International Race of Champions (IROC) was in hiatus, IROC President Jay Signore announced the 20,000 square-foot shop in Tinton Falls, N.J. is closing down. 

Without a title sponsor for the 2007 campaign and the switch to the safer, but more expensive Car of Tomorrow (COT), Signore knew it would be difficult to save the season. 

align="With the different economic factors each year and the success in the NASCAR series, IROC didn't want to compete against any other racing series," Signore said.

Having sold five cars thus far, the President and long-time friend of car owner Roger Penske explained that each of the remaining 13 vehicles are up for sale at $60,000 each.

"We pride ourselves in building and racing these cars," Signore said. "We give it a 100 percent all the time."

That remarkable effort put into the IROC series each year is one of the reasons why the series has lasted as long as it has. The All-Star event for race car drivers, that settles the question as to who is the top driver in the world, consists of 12 cars on a level playing field.  You have the past champions from NASCAR, IRL, Formula 1, World of Outlaws and Grand Prix all mixed into a four-race event annually.

The cars are tested by some of the renowned drivers like Dave Marcis, Dick Trickle, Jim Sauter and Andy Hillenburg. These drivers get a feel for the cars because there is one key element to describe IROC – equality. All the cars are identical and the variables usually associated in racing are thrown out the door. There is no qualifying, pit stops, or no set-ups to the cars. Essentially, you take 12 of the world’s best drivers and throw to them into equal cars and let their skills do the rest. It's been a tradition for IROC and Signore for years.

To make a comparison of the legacy Signore and the rest of IROC have carried on, Aerosmith released their debut album all the way back in 1973 when Penske and Riverside International Raceway President Les Richter founded the company.

You probably know Penske from his Indianapolis 500 dominance with an unprecedented 14 wins between 1972 and 2006 at the famed Brickyard. 

Richter, though, has a different story. A first-round draft choice of the NFL's New York Yanks - later to be named the Baltimore Colts - in the 1952 Draft, Richter was traded to the Los Angeles Rams for eleven players, the largest deal ever made for a single player in NFL history.

Signore was an automotive teacher in New Jersey's Cranford High School at the time when he got the call from Penske. Having started racing as a kid and involved in stock car racing all his life, Signore was the perfect man for the job. 

"It was amazing to see where I went," Signore recalled. "But I was more amazed how IROC converted a regular street car into a racing car."

After Mark Donahue won the first championship back in 1974, the series took a dramatic shift. The move would change the racing world as Chevrolet brought aboard the Camaro for the circuit. A regular street version car was brought to the racing circuit. Along with Goodyear and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Chevrolet would remain the sponsors throughout the 70's.

With the usual names like Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt, and Mario Andretti winning championships in the 70's, the stock car drivers fought back with Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough winning the title in 1980 and 1984, respectively." 

The stock car drivers also brought Signore one of his fondest memories. Signore explained how they set-up each seat to fit the driver, but David Pearson simply told Signore, "Shoot, just give me coke box to sit on and I’ll race."

Al Unser Jr. also became the second driver to win back-to-back championships in 1986 and 1988. During the 80's, True Value and GM became big-time sponsors for IROC. 

Stock drivers won the next six IROC Championships after the series shifted to Dodge Daytonas and Avengers and continued its dominance of the circuit since. IROC shifted to a Pontiac Trans Am in 1996, in which Mark Martin won three consecutive titles. 

However, sanctions and rules changed the series after Crown Royal took over as the main sponsorship in 2004. Certain sponsorships and legal ramifications prohibited drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch from participating in the series. But with Crown Royal, a new racing format was born – a $1 million payout to the series winner. Matt Kenseth was the inaugural winner of the prize with Mark Martin and Tony Stewart getting a taste of money the following years. 

But growing popularity of NASCAR was pulling the sponsorship away. Crown Royal left IROC for NASCAR in 2007 with Jamie McMurray's No. 26 team. 

Without a title sponsorship, IROC delayed the first two races of  the '07 season and even Tony Stewart knew what that meant. Stewart became vocal about IROC and explained he'd even race without the $1 million payout. The two-time NASCAR Champion even suggested racing at his Eldora Speedway dirt track in Ohio. It would have been the first time an IROC event was held on a dirt track. 

Aside from economic reasons, IROC also was hurt by the specialization of drivers today. The Unsers and Foyts would jump into a midget one day, jump in a sprint car the next, and then race on Sunday with the IndyCar circuit. Today, sponsorships are trying to fight for drivers to only race in their sanctioned events. The No. 99 driver of The Office Depot Ford, Carl Edwards received criticism after racing at I-80 Speedway and injuring his hand in a modified car crash.  

So, what did IROC do to the world of racing? It brought the best of the best drivers together to compete on a level playing field. It brought new meaning to the term aerodynamics with its evolving chassis. Safety has always been an underlying factor in IROC, especially after developing one of the first race cars to use incident recorders to measure the force of impacts in a crash.

Signore knows IROC and the development of racing have gone hand-in-hand over the years.

"When you look back in history and can say we've had a nice long run of 30-plus years, it's been great to be apart of," Signore said.

If you're interested in any of the IROC cars,  please contact Jay Signore at (732) 542-4762.