IROC: Where racing worlds collided
Martin Brundle versus Dale Earnhardt Sr. Yes, it happened, and ‘Billy Bob’ Brundle came very close to upsetting the apple cart!
Martin Brundle packed a lot into his career, and was lucky/unlucky enough to have been teammates with some of Formula 1’s superstars. Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen… and how can we forget Sir Stirling Moss in Touring Cars? He is also recognised as the guy the kept Ayrton Senna on his toes in F3, was teammates with Rubens Barrichello at Jordan, and can genuinely count himself unlucky not to have won a Grand Prix.
He did win the World Sportcar Championship, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Daytona 24 Hours… Which in a roundabout way is where this story is heading.
The British driver – as anyone who has heard his F1 commentaries – is bloody good at telling a story. But his recollections of his three-race season in the International Race of Champions Series in America in 1990 are hilarious, if not at times a bit politically incorrect! That year he took on the might of 11 other drivers in identical cars.
IROC was a series that invited drivers from all spheres of world motorsport. It started in 1973 and attracted some of the biggest names in racing, among those who took up the challenge of taking on NASCAR’s best includes Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Graham Hill, James Hunt, Clay Reggazoni, Mario Andretti Denny Hulme, Ronnie Peterson and Jody Scheckter. And that’s without naming the NASCAR legends and sportscar stars (Jacky Icxk, Derek Bell) that were game on as well.
Brundle was invited in 1990, when his competition included Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr, Geoff Brabham, and four NASCAR stars, one of which was Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Brundle was termed a ‘rookie’, and impressed the NASCAR regulars enough for them to rename him ‘Billy Bob’. “I think they forgot – or didn’t know – that I’d won the Daytona 24 Hours in 1988,” Brundle laughs. “Yes, it’s not like NASCAR, but you still do a lot of the lap on the banking, and in the Jaguar we were averaging 130mph plus, even with the infield. So the banking part wasn’t new for me.”
What was new were the drafting skills required in the identical Dodge Daytona cars, and he seemed to take to that pretty easily too. At the fearsome high-speed Talladega, he started 10th, but was soon mixing it with the good ol’ boys at the front, with Earnhardt Sr providing a gala lesson in bump-drafting.
Dale Sr won that race, Brundle finished sixth, although starting the last lap he was in fourth, in lofty company…
The next round was at the Cleveland Airport road course, with Martin taking the win (and being the one and only British driver to win a round in IROC, with Al Jr second. Dale Sr was fifth.
So it all boiled down to the final race on the superspeedway at Michigan – another high-speed drafting fest. Whoever finished ahead of the other was champion. It’s a story Martin has told many times, and it never ceases to raise a smile, giving another insight as to why Dale Sr was known as the ‘Intimidator’. While there was a certain camaraderie with the others – and Brundle had earned their respect – Sr kept himself to himself.
“We did three races that year,” says Brundle. “He never really spoke with me. I can only remember six words he said to me the whole time I was there. When I won in Cleveland, he came up and said: ‘Good job.’
“Then I was on pole position for the decider in Michigan, and if I won it, I was champion. As we went through the build up to the race, I passed his car as I walked to my own, and he murmurs, ‘Don’t forget your kids…’ I think he was joking… Then, at the first corner, he came by me like I didn’t exist! His was the only car on the track as far as he was concerned.
Brundle was hung out to dry, ganged up on a bit by the good ol’ boys (who didn’t want to be beaten by a rookie Brit at their own game). Brundle finished the race in 10th, while fifth place was good enough for Al Jr to sneak by him in the points at the close, with Earnhardt Sr winning the race and the title. Even so, third place in the standings was far from shoddy for Formula 1 driver and Sportscar star against that group of oval regulars.
Very soon, IROC became an all-oval series that primarily catered for NASCAR drivers. In 2008, without sponsorship funding IROC was no more, and the company went out of business.
Special thanks to @MBrundleF1
By Andy Hallbery follow me on Twitter @hallbean
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