Monster of IROC

The International Race of Champions broke new ground during the 1970s with its all-inclusive driver line-up. Its premise was daring and purist. But its choice of weapon – Chevy’s Camaro – was a mixture of brute force and common sense, as Andrew Frankel explains 

Photography: James Mann

A quick quiz. Other than being world famous racing drivers, what do Graham Hill, AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and Richard Petty have in common? The answer is the big blue brute in front of you. And how these gods of speed all found themselves behind the wheel of a stripped-out 1974 Chevrolet Camaro can be explained by four little letters: IROC.

The International Race of Champions was a great wheeze. Originally the brainchild of Roger Penske, the idea was to have a four-event series that invited a dozen drivers from a wide range of top-line categories to race cars prepared centrally so as to be as close to identical as humanly possible. There was no set-up work allowed. The driver could adjust such things in the cockpit as the position of the seat, pedals and wheel – and that was it. 

But the idea went further still: there would be neither qualifying nor pitstops and, to make sure the playing field was spirit-level even, the drivers drew lots to decide who drove which car. 

IROC’s first season was through the winter of 1973-’74, and thanks to the Penske connection all the cars were identical 3-litre Porsche 911 RSRs. The driver line-up was so stellar – Fittipaldi, Foyt, Petty, Peter Revson and Penske’s in-house pedaller Mark Donohue, etc – that they could count 32 major championships between them. The series kicked off with three of its four rounds at Riverside over the October 27-28 weekend. Donohue won the first race, retired from the second, came back the next day to win the third, and wrapped up the title with a win at Daytona on February 14.

But the following season the Porsches were sidelined for something of, shall we say, a more home-grown hue, and for the next 12 seasons IROC reverberated to the blue-collar thunder of the small-block bent-eights under the bonnets of various Chevy Camaros, including this one.

And while IROC did try to attract talent from all genres of racing and all corners of the globe, its Stateside location and the similarity of the machinery to that already pounding the ovals in NASCAR meant that, as the years rolled by, the ‘International’ component of its make-up became increasingly more honoured in the breach than the observance.

No matter. As already stated, the Z28 Camaro sitting on the start line at the press day for the Festival of Speed has surely had more prestigious bums in its seat than any single chassis on this side of the Pond. It may be old, past its prime and rather strange looking, but it has more than a frisson of danger about it, an indisputable charm and an enviable ability to attract talent from around the world. It’s Jack Nicholson on wheels.

Its spec differs in no great way to what you might expect. The engine is a 350ci small block – a mouse rather than a rat – and pumping 102-octane gas through the obligatory four-barrel Holley is said to develop 450bhp at 6500rpm and 396lb ft at 5000rpm on a mighty 12:1 compression ratio. Gears come from a four-speed Richmond T10, brakes are 12in discs, I mean rotors, and the tyres, I mean tires, are vast Goodyear Blue Streak racers designed for stock car racing. And that’s it. Even by 1974 standards, there is nothing remotely sophisticated about the Camaro – nor should there have been; so long as the car was quick enough to make a watchable spectacle – which it was – and strong enough to survive the door-banging, no-prisoners approach of its drivers, then it would be fit for purpose. Which it undoubtedly was.

Still, it’s funny to think that the first person to race this car was not some all-American hero but Graham Hill. Sure, he’d won at Indy, but when I think of the light, delicate Chapman- and Rudd-designed cars he drove in his prime, it seems incongruous to picture the great man funnelling himself and his greying sideburns through the window of this vast, hulking machine. He came 11th at Michigan in September ’74. Emmo gave this car its first podium with a third at Riverside the following month. A year later it was back at Michigan, Foyt scoring another third. But at Riverside, Petty and Andretti could only manage a sixth and a fourth between them. Then, in the last race of the 1975-’76 season, Benny Parsons won with it at Daytona. It carried on racing into 1977 with the likes of Bobby Unser, Cale Yarborough and Buddy Baker at its wheel, but its podium days were over.

Welded-up doors. Watched the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid, should have seen it coming. In fact Rob Anscombe from EDB Racing, which runs the Camaro, had assured me that many drivers bigger even than me had fitted through the aperture and, in the event, it proved a surprisingly easy car to slot into.

I raced a Camaro for a couple of seasons – albeit an earlier one than this – but I still feel remarkably at home on board. There’s the familiar vast tacho, the huge, thin-rimmed steering wheel, the spindly Hearst shifter and
a wonderful view down the bonnet.

The small battery struggles to cope with all that compression but the motor catches and everyone within a 10-yard radius takes an instinctive step back as their ears are traumatised by eight of Detroit’s unsilenced finest getting ready for the day’s work.

Rob is worried about the clutch and so am I, but for different reasons. He’s concerned that its on/off nature means I might burn it if I try to slip it; I’m concerned that my left leg may not be strong enough to press the pedal to the floor. The Napier-Railton driven elsewhere in this issue is the only other car I’ve driven with a clutch weight even close to that of the Camaro. “The only way to get it off the line,” Rob advises, “is to give it a load of revs, drop the clutch and light up the back tyres.” This sentiment, you understand, was expressed entirely out of a desire to spare the clutch. That it also meant I was going to get to showboat in front of a few hundred people was entirely incidental.

So when the time came, I did as the man instructed and sat there while the Blue Streaks smoked. The Camaro slid and I grinned from ear to ear. There was very little traction but soon we were weaving our way up to the first corner. A long, slow change into second and, in an instant, the now al dente Goodyears bit. My Camaro, which, on paper at least, had no less power and no more weight, never kicked like this thing. I’ve driven some fairly weird things up the hill in the past, but none seemed more out of its natural environment than this. And that’s before I got to the first corner.

Steering. The Camaro doesn’t seem to have any. You turn the ludicrously over-assisted wheel, and nothing seems to happen. Then you notice it changing course, almost as if by coincidence, and eventually it heaves onto your new bearing. After the 911 RSRs, these must have taken some getting used to.

Frankly, Lord March’s front drive is a silly place to try to go fast in a car like this. As I was once told while delayed at the top of the hill while they cleared up the wreckage of someone’s overambition, “Driving fast here will always put you on the wrong side of the risk-to-reward ratio.” They are words I have always taken to my heart. 

So in the end I just played with the Camaro, squirting it here and there, learning more about its vast performance, surprisingly good brakes and especially awful steering. Only in the last corner, a very quick, sweeping curve that opens out onto the finishing straight did I squeeze the throttle for a meaningful period of time and feel the Camaro leap forward and head into the three-figure speed zone where it was designed to live.

It is cars like this which bring me back to the Festival year after year. When I first started going, it was to see cars I’d grown up reading about but never seen, like Auto Unions and W125 Mercedes. But now it is machines like this that I seek out: different, charming and unexpected. 

The sadness is that IROC is now in serious trouble. Unable to attract a headline sponsor, the first two rounds of 2007 have been cancelled. It seems likely that there will be no IROC at all this season. Even more worryingly, there are mutterings on various forums that IROC is gone for good. But reports of its death have been exaggerated before – there was no series from 1981-’83 – and it came back. And I hope it does so again. This car may be ancient history now, but it would be a terrible shame if the series that created it went the same way. H