IROC Et Science

I love the International Race of Champions.

I liked the concept from Day 1, and I have plenty of respect for Jay and Barbara Signore, who own the deal, and their entire staff. There isn't a harder-working bunch of racers anywhere than the IROC team.

But as this year's second IROC round takes place today at Talladega, it's time for a family chat about IROC's future.

It's time to gather 'round and admit that IROC is a lot less than what it could and should be, if racing is to be recognized as a truly big-time sport.

Once upon a time, back 20 or so years ago, an IROC invitation was one of the most prized honors in racing. Drivers from F-1 and big-league road racing rubbing fenders with NASCAR's best, taking on challenges from the finest in Indy cars. And the series was, if memory serves, eight races long… with a couple of events on road courses to level the playing field.

Now, though, it's a shadow of its former self. The racing is still great, but the field is heavily weighted toward NASCAR participation.

Last year, CART's stars were nowhere to be found, due to a scheduling snafu. They fixed that problem this year, but then Gil de Ferran hurt himself testing and had to bow out.

His replacement? Not a major CART star like Paul Tracy or Michael Andretti, but Tony Stewart.

Now, in my mind, Tony is worthy of running IROC any time. He is, after all, the heir to A.J. Foyt's legacy, the only guy left who'll strap it on anywhere, anytime, without much thought to the purse structure.

But IROC 2001 doesn't need another Winston Cupper out for a Saturday paycheck.

Herewith, a brief recipe for a much spicier IROC in future seasons:
*Increase the field, say to 14 drivers. Add in a major road racer or two. Find an F-1 driver or two who'll be willing to play, for the good of the sport. Bring back Jacques Villeneuve, and give us Juan Montoya.

*Let's find a deserving short-track racer each year for one of the spots. Remember Steve Kinser's IROC win at Talladega several years ago?

*Make sure CART sends three of its finest. Raise the purses if need be, to give the drivers some real incentive to come and play.

*Let's lengthen the season. It's certainly true that there's a glut of big-league racing everywhere you turn. It's a sign of boom times in television and in the economy in general, despite what's happened on Wall Street in the past six months.

But getting the world's finest racers together six or eight times on Fridays or Saturdays shouldn't be too much to ask, especially if the prize is a true World Championship trophy.

I'm not in favor of turning this thing into a sideshow by incorporating some of the IROC ideas that have been floated at times, like inviting John Force to come and run, or staging a round on a dirt track (though I'd sure like to see Montoya try to race at Eldora).

But adding a round at Mid Ohio, Laguna Seca, or, as a sop to International Speedway Corporation, returning to Watkins Glen would be terrific.

*Finally, let's speed up the race cars.

It's vitally important they remain safe, and as equal as humanly possible. Dave Marcis, Dick Trickle, Jim Sauter and Andy Hillenberg deserve all the praise for doing an incredible job as test pilots, but let's face it… if these drivers are the world's best, they should be able to handle race cars that are faster than the tracks they run on.

It's time to bump the IROC horsepower level to a point where the cars can run 200 at Daytona, or Talladega, not 180… just above what a Goody's Dash car can muster.

IROC is a fine racing series, full of history and close finishes. Adding some of these elements to the mix, as soon as possible, can only enhance its reputation and stature.

As former IROC car supplier Dodge said too often these past many months, "It's Time."

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