View from the Topside
IROC is foreign for open wheel drivers

   by Rick Benjamin
February 21, 2005

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The 47th Daytona 500 is in the books, and by anyone’s account it was terrific. Watching Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart strap it on over the final 20 laps was the kind of pulse-pounding action that’s propelled Nextel Cup racing into the mainstream of pro sports.

And knowing two of the four principals in that final duel have legitimate open-wheel credentials made the final charge at Daytona even more meaningful to me.

IROC heavily favors the NASCAR drivers
CIA Stock Photo

But the most significant event of the weekend at Daytona had to be Friday night’s IROC opener on the high banks. Sure, IROC has become a vastly watered-down affair since the decisions many years ago to shorten the season to just four events, and to eliminate road courses. And a great argument could be made that at least this year, the true “International race of champions” had happened at Daytona a couple of weeks earlier, during the Rolex 24. But to me any series that brings together the best of Champ Car, the IRL, NASCAR, Grand Am, and sprint car racing is an incredible opportunity for fans to enjoy.

Five drivers with extensive Champ Car credentials are running IROC this year, with defending champ Sebastien Bourdais carrying the CCWS banner high in ’05.

Bourdais of course drew the pole for Friday night’s shootout, and got off to a good start. Unfortunately his bid for victory came unhinged in that late-race melee in turn 3, involving another driver with lots of Champ Car miles under his belt, Scott Pruett.

Sebastien Bourdais

Still, to hear Sebastien tell it, he learned plenty about what was a totally foreign form of racing during his IROC testing as well as in the event itself. As any first-timer would, Bourdais came away knowing stock car racing on high banked ovals is all about the draft. It’s especially true at Daytona and Talladega, where the motors are heavily restricted and you can keep the throttle to the mat all the way around.

Sebastien, as those of us who’ve come to love his talent in Champ Car can attest, is a very quick student. I suspect that by the time the tour reaches Atlanta and Texas he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in this year’s series.

What will really be fun will be to watch Bourdais come to grips with the ¾ mile oval at Richmond, next on the calendar. That’s a place tough enough to have completely befuddled the very capable Scott Pruett during his brief time as a Cup regular for Cal Wells, a few years ago. As good as Pruett is, Bourdais is arguably even more capable, and how well he adapts to Richmond will be a benchmark of his abilities.

While we open wheel fans can lament the loss of talent like Jeff and Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart to NASCAR, let’s enjoy the reign of Seabass while it lasts. Because I don’t think it’ll be too long before another young gun….another AJ, in fact…takes a real shot at knocking him off the Champ Car title perch. Now, seeing young Mr. Allmendinger in IROC, that’ll be a treat.

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