It was 45 years ago when the first “made-for-TV” race series pitted the world’s most famous and successful race car drivers from around the globe against one-another in the aptly named International Race of Champions (IROC). With champion drivers coming from sports car racing, Indy car racing, Formula One and NASCAR, the only common element in the inaugural season was the identically matched 1974 Porsche 911 RSR race cars they each drove. The first year was unique in that it was the only time the 911 would be used in the one-make competition. Perhaps, looking back, it was inevitable that Mark Donohue, the man with a panache for road racing and Porsche, would be crowned the inaugural champion with a victory in the season-closing race at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 1974.
The brainchild of Roger Penske, Les Richter and Mike Phelps, IROC was planned as a four-race season crossing over the winter months between 1973 and 1974. The series would offer “must-see racing TV” with tape-delayed broadcasts on ABC offering fans much-needed motorsports content when all the major series were in their off-seasons. Targeting tracks in warmer-climates, the first three rounds came at Riverside International Raceway in California on October 27-28. Those races were split between former Penske Racing Porsche 917-10 drivers Donohue and George Follmer, the two drivers that would contend for the title as inaugural IROC Champion until the finale at Daytona on Valentine’s Day the following year.
Race One saw Formula One World Champion and future two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi win the pole position but, by virtue of missing the required drivers’ meeting, the Brazilian and Follmer were each placed at the back of the field. That set the stage as Donohue earned the debut victory leading from green flag to checkered as Follmer would put on a clinic passing some of the best drivers of the time to finish in fourth-place.
Race Two, also held at Riverside, saw Follmer close the gap to Donohue by cutting through the pack to take the win from a ninth-place grid position. Donohue fell out of the race early, the only IROC race the 1972 Indianapolis 500 winner did not win. Race Three was much like the races from earlier in the weekend with Donohue earning the top-step of the podium from the pole position and Follmer chasing his former teammate up to fifth-place from 12th.
The finale was held on the Daytona road course in February with only six-drivers — early IROC rules called for the field to be cut in half entering the final round. The backdrop and the smaller field were the only things that changed from the early rounds in California. Follmer would chase Donohue for the race win and the title until spinning his Porsche. That left the New Jersey-native to take the race win and the inaugural IROC title, accumulating $54,000 in prize money. The championship standings were based on prize money earned in the four races. That led to Formula One star Peter Revson finishing second with $21,200 in earnings, Indy car legend Bobby Unser would take third-place ($19,100) with NASCAR’s second in all-time wins David Pearson banking $14,600 for fourth-place. Despite contending for every win and pushing Donohue to the title, Follmer had amassed only $16,000 good for fifth-place just ahead of soon-to-be four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt.
Working closely with longtime racing partner, Penske Racing, and leaning on the vision of Roger Penske himself, Porsche built fifteen custom 911 Carrera RSR in Weissach, Germany specifically and solely for the first IROC season. That number of cars, each painted a unique color ranging from basic black to pastel blue, offered one machine each for competition for the 12 invited drivers with three spares in case of incident. While using the 1973 Carrera RS, Porsche blended elements of the upcoming 1974 car and other performance features to provide the world’s best drivers with an equally premier race platform.
Among the features that would make the cars more race-ready as well as among the elite of collectors cars today were the “whale tail” rear wing — replacing the “duck tail” design — wider fenders and bumpers which allowed for the use of wider Fuchs alloy wheels as well as safety features. A new for 1974 3.0-liter flat-six engine powered the car, offering drivers 315 HP with an estimated 5.5-second, 0-60 mph time and a top speed approaching 180 mph. Other features remained largely road car stock including the five-speed gearbox and interior features straight from the assembly line in Zuffenhausen.
The first season was the only one in which the Porsche 911 Carrera RSR was used. Cost, complexity and a move to a mix of ovals and road courses — and eventually ovals only — would necessitate series’ organizers switch away from the German marque. IROC would run with more NASCAR style stock cars until being shuttered in 2006. In 30 years, Chevrolet Camaros, Dodge Daytonas and Avengers and ultimately Pontiac Trans Ams were all used to pit the world’s greatest drivers against one-another but no IROC car has become more collectible or precious than the original 15 bespoke Porsche 911 Carrera RSRs of that first season. Several drivers with close ties to Porsche were the ‘Champion of Champions’ including Donohue (1973/’74), Foyt (1976, 77), Mario Andretti (1979) and Al Unser Jr. (1986, 1988).