IROC Comes Full Circle With Test at Indy
8 April 1998INDIANAPOLIS -- The International Race of Champions cars broke the open wheel-only tradition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by conducting a test session in 1992. It was the forerunner to adding a NASCAR stock car race, the Brickyard 400, as a second annual event at the storied track.
IROC Drivers Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, and Jeff Gordon
"Indianapolis, there isn't a place in the world that doesn't know about Indy," said IROC President Jay Signore. "I think with the caliber of driver and what we've strived for in the series over the years, Indy is really where we wanted to be. I think it adds a lot of validity to the IROC series, it adds a lot of credibility to the series, so we're really pleased to be here at Indy."
Dick Trickle, Dave Marcis and Jim Sauter, the same drivers who drove in the initial convention-breaking test six years ago, returned this week to shake down three identical Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams. The actual IROC competitors do not perform any preliminary testing.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winners Arie Luyendyk and Al Unser Jr., and Brickyard 400 champions Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett head the contingent of 12 drivers who will participate in the first IROC race at the Speedway. Rounding out the group are Pep Boys Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart, NASCAR Winston Cup's Jeff Burton, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin, two-time NASCAR Busch Grand National champion Randy LaJoie, Trans Am series champion Tom Kendall and 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser.
"We were like the devil in heaven," said NASCAR veteran Trickle about being the first to drive stock cars at Indy. "We were out-of-bounds at Indianapolis. I think it only took a year, and there was unbelievable acceptance of NASCAR cars here. I think it has done a 180 (degree swing). We're accepted now.
"There's plenty of room for the Indy cars and the stock cars here. And I think the people realize that. I think it is great for NASCAR, it's great for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I think it's great for racing." Trickle grew up in Wisconsin and drove on most of the oval tracks in the Midwest, often competing in American Speed Association races. But to get to Indy, he had to make a complete circle and go Winston Cup racing in 1989, eventually qualifying for the Brickyard 400 twice.
Sauter, too, hails from Wisconsin. So does Marcis, who's driven in 836 Winston Cup races since 1968.
"When we were here the first time, it was just kind of a prelude to the Winston Cup cars coming," Sauter said. "Goodyear wanted to see what kind of tire it needed. For me, that was most exciting, the very first time. "We were kind of the first bunch (of stock car drivers) to be on (the track). There's so much history. I'm not saying anything anyone else hasn't said a hundred times, but you feel it. The track is so smooth, all the workers are so cordial. It's a lot of fun to be here."
Sauter said it's different now because the trio of drivers has more in-depth work to do. The proper tire for the race won't be ready until a second test session in June. Basically, this test is a shakedown to learn what the cars will need.
"We're a long way from the Cup speeds, but we're going to put on a good show because we want them to be side by side all the time," Sauter said.
Trickle did all of the testing on Monday in the red, blue and black Firebirds. He hit a top speed of 162.799 mph in the black car after only three laps.
Signore said that after the 1992 test he hoped that eventually the Speedway would be included as part of the four-race IROC series. Each year Signore talked to Speedway President Tony George and always was told, "We'll try to work it in." Signore never gave up in his quest.
"Last fall, right after the Winston Cup race here, we started getting a little more serious in our conversation about coming here to run," Signore said. "I met with Tony in the fall, we consummated it. So we're happy to be here. More exciting is that the drivers are more excited than anybody about coming back here."
Roger Penske and Les Richter started IROC in 1973, utilizing Porsches. The first race was at the former Riverside, Calif., road course. The next year the series moved to Camaros. The series shut down after a race at Atlanta in March 1980, and then resumed in 1984 and ran through 1989 with Camaros. Then IROC switched to Chrysler, starting with the Daytonas and moving on to the Avengers. Pontiac picked up the series in late 1995.
Signore thinks the IROC test in June could bring a familiar face back to the Speedway.
"It brings Little Al back," Signore said with a laugh, referring to Unser Jr. "I talked to him. He said when you go there and test I want to come. I knew he couldn't make this test, but in June maybe we'll bring him back out here and get a little sneak preview. I'm sure if there is any race he wants to win, this would be one of them."
The 1998 IROC series opened at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 13, with Gordon pulling out the victory. The next two events, before the concluding race at Indy, will be May 2 at California Speedway and June 13 at Michigan Speedway.
IROC tickets: General admission tickets for the IROC event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are available for $25 from the IMS ticket office. Ticket forms can be obtained by calling (317) 484-6700.