IROC making changes for this season

Friday, January 16th 2004, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ The International Race of Champions is hoping some big changes help inject stability into its four-race series.

The series, featuring an all-star cast of drivers from stock car and open-wheel series, is going to three new tracks this year with a sponsorship deal that makes its old one look like pocket change.

``We've been listening to the fans and the press about trying to move things around,'' IROC president Jay Signore said Thursday. ``I think you're going to see the beginning of a brand-new IROC approach in trying to get back to some of the old.''

While changes in how the champion in NASCAR's top series will be determined have drawn a lot of recent attention, IROC's biggest change has nothing to do with rules.

With a three-year sponsorship deal with whiskey producer Royal Crown, IROC will offer a $1.9 million purse and a $1 million check to the champion after four races, easily the highest prize package in the history of the series. Last year's IROC champion, NASCAR star Kurt Busch, received just $250,000 for his title.

The sponsorship deal came after three years of discussions, Signore said, and with the series getting ``pretty close'' to folding before the deal was worked out.

The IROC schedule will begin as always at Daytona two days before the Daytona 500 kicks off the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule, then will move to Texas on April 2, Richmond on Sept. 9 and Atlanta on a date to be determined. Gone from last year's schedule, IROC's last with sponsorship from True Value, are Talladega, Indianapolis and Chicago.

Busch is committed to returning this year, along with Matt Kenseth, champion of what now is the Nextel Cup series. Other drivers committed include Scott Dixon, Scott Sharp and Helio Castroneves of the Indy Racing League.

Seven other drivers remain to be selected.

IROC, started in 1974, pits 12 top drivers from the NASCAR series and open-wheel racing in identically prepared cars with 350 cubic-inch engines. Races last 100 miles and are run without qualifying, pit stops or drivers being allowed to alter their cars.

Past champions have included Indy-car greats Al and Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti and NASCAR stars Davey and Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and Kevin Harvick.

The series' visit to Richmond on Sept. 9 will mark its first on a track shorter than 1 mile, and will complete a quadruple-header weekend at Richmond International Raceway also featuring NASCAR's top three series in a span of three days.

``It'll be a fantastic venue,'' Busch said of the popular three-quarter-mile, D-shaped oval. ``There will be some fiberglass that might come off the cars that you don't normally see at the speedways we run on,'' he said.

The IROC race will be run on the same Thursday night as a Craftsman Truck series event, track president Doug Fritz said. The weekend also will feature a Busch series race the following night and the Nextel Cup _ formerly Winston Cup _ race on Saturday night.

``A lot of elements have come into place to where this makes a lot of sense for IROC,'' Fritz said, noting the track's popularity with drivers from both NASCAR and various open-wheel series. ``We're excited about the show they're going to put on.''

The races at Daytona and Texas also will be run at night, Signore said.

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