INDIANAPOLIS — The International Race of Champions has been a private party for NASCAR Winston Cup drivers for more than a decade.
The cars used, Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams this year, are essentially stock cars, and the four tracks used are Winston Cup tracks--Daytona, Talladega, Michigan and Indianapolis. And this year, nine of the 12 drivers are from NASCAR.
No driver other than one of NASCAR's own has won the IROC championship in the last 11 years.
So what is Eddie Cheever, one of the Indy Racing League's representatives, doing winning a race and challenging for this year's championship? The title will be decided today in a 100-mile race over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 2.5-mile rectangular oval.
Cheever stunned the stockers by winning the third round at Michigan, the first open-wheel driver in 13 races to win a race since Al Unser Jr. won at Daytona in 1997. Unser was also the last non-NASCAR champion, taking the crown in 1988 when two of the four races were on road courses, Riverside and Watkins Glen.
This is Cheever's second IROC year and he credited an accumulation of stock car experience for his win.
"Mastering the draft is the secret and I still don't understand exactly how it works," said Cheever, who won the 1998 Indianapolis 500.
"It's a science and I don't know how Earnhardt, Martin and the more experienced NASCAR drivers do it. It's all about how you pick up the air, and you've got to understand it almost before it happens.
"I have studied a lot of tapes of the IROC races. When you're in the car it's very frustrating when you're drafting and you think you're doing well and all of a sudden four cars go by you. There's got to be a reason that happens. When you're passed in an IROC race, you have to find some way to slow down this freight train that's coming by you.
"I know I am racing on the NASCAR drivers' turf and I understand that, but they're very aggressive and very rude. You've got to find some way to get them to slow down. If you don't, you can't jump back on the train, and your race is over."
To become IROC champion, Cheever still is a longshot. He must win today's race, lead the most laps and have Dale Earnhardt finish eighth or lower in the 12-driver field.
This has already been a breakthrough year for Cheever, however. When he won the Radisson 200 at Pikes Peak Raceway in June, it was the first win for an Infiniti-powered car in IRL history.
"I'm really looking forward to racing here again," Cheever said. "I really enjoyed myself last year [when he finished third]. I remember being in the lead, and I made a mistake going into Turn 1 and Mark Martin was behind me. I swear he must have hit me 25 times in Turn 2. I kept thinking, 'I'm going as fast as I can. I can't go any faster.' But he kept hitting me."
The hitting that goes on between Winston Cup drivers, something impossible with fragile Indy cars or the Formula One cars that he drove for many years, is a source of fascination for Cheever.
"These guys will race you hard and clean for lap after lap, but they'll also bang on you. I mean, have you seen Dale Earnhardt and Dale Jr.? They ram on each other for lap after lap. If that was my son, I'd jump out and give him a good spanking. Here's a kid banging into dad, and dad is shaking his fist, and it just keeps going on. That's the way they race."
Other than drafting and banging, Cheever said the biggest difference is in the cockpit. In his IRL car, he sits out in the open. In the IROC car, he is inside a cab.
"I'm really claustrophobic and in an IROC car everything is closed in. There's no air, and there's a lot of dust inside the car. It's hard for me to drive them because I'm not used to being covered in something, but I do like the fact that a little bit of contact is allowed. It gives you a greater margin of error."
Tony Stewart, last year's Winston Cup rookie of the year and a former IRL open-wheel driver, likes Cheever's chances.
"I think he'll do well," said Stewart, also in the IROC race. "Everywhere we've gone this year, Eddie has driven more practice laps at each track than anybody. It shows how determined he was to be good at each of those tracks, and that determination paid off at Michigan.
"I think getting that first win under his belt in an IROC car is really going to give him some confidence here. He's run probably more laps here than any of us have, so I would say he is a favorite to win."
Cheever will start in the fourth row alongside Jeff Burton. The field is inverted according to the point standings. That puts Cheever's IRL teammates, Greg Ray and Mark Dismore, on the front row, with Earnhardt and three-time IROC champion Martin on the last row.
Jeremy Mayfield's Mobil 1 car will carry a major league baseball motif to honor the World Series in October. The Penske-Kranefuss Racing car will feature the World Series 2000 logo with a red, white and blue paint scheme in Winston Cup races Oct. 15 at Talladega, Ala., and Oct. 22 at Rockingham, N.C.