“Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of sports; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition … This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” Through the magic of television, those famous words of legendary sports announcer Jim McKay echoed throughout millions of households on Saturday afternoons for 37 years. The popular sports show ran from 1961 to 1998 but was most prominent throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Later years saw a decline in viewership due to cable programming where ESPN eventually became the premier sports channel.
Growing up in the ’70s, we didn’t have hundreds of cable channels (or even a remote control, for that matter). With basically three major networks to choose from, and a few local channels, mainstream sports like football and baseball took up most of the sporting event airtime. So on many Saturday afternoons we parked in front of the television, turned on Wide Worlds of Sports, and were treated to 90 minutes (time-delayed highlights mostly) of non-mainstream sports like NASCAR, NHRA, demolition derby, surfing, and the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show. It was all good stuff. It was then that I caught my first International Race of Champions (IROC), and it was awesome! There was nothing like it. There was no other racing series where you could watch NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Bobby Allison go head-to-head with Formula One heroes Emerson Fittipaldi and Denis Hulme. Mix in IndyCar and F-1 champion Mario Andretti, and you were treated to the best drivers in the world trading paint with each other.
Now, I understand that to many younger Camaro enthusiasts, IROC is merely an option package developed for the Camaro beginning in 1985. But the story on the IROC series goes all the way back to 1973 when Roger Penske, Les Richter, and Mike Phelps had the idea to put 12 of the world’s greatest race car drivers in identically prepared cars to compete on road courses and NASCAR super tracks in a four-race series. Richter was cautious to say that the IROC series might not determine whom the best driver in the world is, “but we sure go a long way towards that goal.”
The first IROC season (1974), started on October 27, 1973, consisted of four events with racing done in Porsche Carrera RSRs. The very next year, Chevrolet came on board and Camaros were the IROC’s weapon of choice.
The series ran continuously from 1974 to 1980, then, when the economy took a nosedive, it was suspended for three years and then resumed in 1984. Once reborn, one noticeable change was the introduction of the third-gen Camaro into the series. The Z28 was the launching pad for the IROC-Z in 1985; a model that would last until 1990 when Chevrolet’s involvement with the IROC series ended.
Tragedy struck following Race 1 of the 2001 IROC season when on February 18, 2001, Dale Earnhardt lost his life in the last corner of the final lap of the Daytona 500. In one instant, NASCAR lost its edge and IROC lost a good chunk of its soul. Many agree that NASCAR racing has never been the same since, and although it’s still going today, the IROC series ended in 2006.
The IROC series was a great idea that brought many drivers together from various sanctioning bodies to see what these guys were made of. Although some say the NASCAR guys had an unfair advantage due to the IROC cars being more similar to their everyday race cars than what the Indy and Formula One guys were used to, but that didn’t deter its popularity among racing fans, and it got European drivers some great exposure in America.
As a youngster, I always wondered why they never invited NHRA drag racing champions like Don Prudhomme or Don Garlits to mix it up in the turns. But as I got older I realized those are two totally different kinds of racing and the straight-line guys had a lot to learn about late-braking and apexes before racing with experienced road racers. But the idea wasn’t totally out of the question, as just prior to the series’ demise, Funny Car pilot Ron Capps did some testing in IROC cars at Talladega and Chicagoland raceways. It would have been neat to see a few drag racers get into the action.
It’s hard to say if the IROC series will ever come back, but it sure would be cool to see 12 of today’s top race car drivers strap in to identically prepared fifth-gen Camaros and battle it out a few times a year.
Special thanks to Circle Track magazine Publisher Rob Fisher for digging through the archives and coming up with these fantastic images, most of which have never been published until now.
|1974||IROC 1||Mark Donohue|
|1975||IROC II||Bobby Unser|
|1976||IROC III||A.J. Foyt|
|1977||IROC IV||A.J. Foyt|
|1978||IROC V||Al Unser|
|1979||IROC VI||Mario Andretti|
|1980||IROC VII||Bobby Allison|
|1984||IROC VIII||Cale Yarborough|
|1985||IROC IX||Harry Gant|
|1986||IROC X||Al Unser Jr.|
|1987||IROC XI||Geoff Bodine|
|1988||IROC XII||Al Unser Jr.|
|1989||IROC XIII||Terry Labonte|
|1990||IROC XIV||Dale Earnhardt|
|1991||IROC XV||Rusty Wallace|
|1992||IROC XVI||Ricky Rudd|
|1993||IROC XVII||Davey Allison|
|1994||IROC XVIII||Mark Martin|
|1995||IROC XIX||Dale Earnhardt|
|1996||IROC XX||Mark Martin|
|1997||IROC XXI||Mark Martin|
|1998||IROC XXII||Mark Martin|
|1999||IROC XXIII||Dale Earnhardt|
|2000||IROC XXIV||Dale Earnhardt|
|2001||IROC XXV||Bobby Labonte|
|2002||IROC XXVI||Kevin Harvick|
|2003||IROC XXVII||Kurt Busch|
|2004||IROC XXVIII||Matt Kenseth|
|2005||IROC XXIX||Mark Martin|
|2006||IROC XXX||Tony Stewart|