To further level the playing field, the series’ six races will be staged on old-school American short tracks, some dirt and some paved, on which no star driver has expertise. As a twist, a local track champion will join the field to give fans an automotive underdog to cheer, a la Rocky Balboa.
The Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) revs up Saturday at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway and hopscotches around the country every Saturday night until its champion is crowned at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway on July 17.
Co-founded by Stewart and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham, the crew chief who helped Jeff Gordon to three of his four championships, SRX isn’t a direct challenge to NASCAR, the country’s most popular form of racing. Instead, it represents an antidote to much of what ails big-time stock-car racing in the view of discontented fans: cookie-cutter racetracks, “corporate” drivers, an overly complex points system and the flat-out tedium of races that drone on for three or four hours.
As veteran racer Ken Schrader, who was the new series’ test driver during Everham’s design process, put it, SRX is about “good ol’ racecars that let the driver’s ability shine through.” In other words, no racer has an edge just because his car owner outspends the field in the ever-escalating “money buys speed” arms race that afflicts elite motorsports.
All SRX cars are as identical as engineering can make them, distinguishable only by color, with a high rear spoiler and low downforce to accentuate driver skill, and powered by a 700-horsepower Ilmor engine. They will be assigned by random draw, and drivers can work with a crew chief to slightly adjust the handling to suit their racing style.
Races consist of two 15-minute heats and a 100-lap main event with no pit stops — an all-out sprint to the finish. The lone exception is Slinger (Wis.) Speedway, so small at one-quarter mile that a winged sprint car can lap it in less than 10 seconds. The SRX race there will consist of 150 vertiginous laps around the high-banked pavement.
With SRX drivers encouraged to flaunt their personalities for the live CBS broadcasts, no racer has to fear getting fined for blurting out a cussword (bleeped, perhaps) or chided for tearing up his car.
“One of the things that’s lost in today’s motorsports is the personality,” said former IndyCar racer-turned NBC analyst Paul Tracy, one of the SRX regulars. “Things are pretty sterile.”
Added Stewart during a video conference call with reporters, “It’s very unrealistic that we’re not going to tear some body panels up in the process.”
SRX, in short, is the sort of racing series a fan might draw up if given a clean sheet of paper; the financial backing of investor George Pyne, former president of IMG Sports and Entertainment, and a national broadcast partner in CBS, which will air all six races live from 8 to 10 p.m. Eastern time.
In effect, SRX is a reboot of the International Race of Champions series that pitted victors from different disciplines in identically prepared cars (Chevrolet Camaros in its heyday) on iconic speedways four times per year from the mid-1970s to the mid-2000s. IROC produced some memorable battles, with the late Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR champion who won 11 IROC races, testing his mettle against Al Unser Jr. (a two-time Indy 500 winner), other open-wheel stars and NASCAR rival Mark Martin.
In a departure from the IROC formula, SRX is spurning the biggest, most treacherous high-speed ovals such as Daytona, Talladega and Indianapolis in favor of small-town short tracks where speeds barely top 100 mph. It’s an homage to the storied tracks on county fairgrounds and the outskirts of town that thrive on weekly racing each summer and draw loyal, local fans who don’t mind being coated in dirt or flecks of tire rubber by night’s end.
“What we wanted to do was find historic tracks that have not just a difficulty factor but really a great following, a great DNA in motorsports,” Evernham said.
Like Stewart, Castroneves competed in IROC in the early 2000s, and that memory is what coaxed the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner back.
“I had a great, great experience with IROC in the past. Loved it!” Castroneves said. “I made so many friends till this day.”
At 46, Castroneves skews a bit young for SRX, whose field averages 49.7 years old and spans five decades — from sportscar racer Ernie Francis Jr., 23, to Trans-Am veteran Willy T. Ribbs, 66. Rounding out the field are 1988 NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, 65; two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, 58; 2000 NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte, 57; 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan, 46; and third-generation IndyCar racer Marco Andretti, 34.
“We’ve got the young lions, and we got the older lions, and then we got the real old lions,” Ribbs said. “And everybody’s going to be biting — they’re biting each other.”