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The elusive "ten-tenths" and the challenge of crossing niches

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Kimi Raikkonen will be trying NASCAR racing this year, but the Formula 1 champion may find the challenge to be daunting. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
Kimi Raikkonen will be trying NASCAR racing this year, but the Formula 1 champion may find the challenge to be daunting. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)
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I miss the IROC series.

I actually started missing it before it went out of business four years ago, when organizers stripped it of its originality by turning it into an all-oval faux-NASCAR series. But I digress.

With the recent five-million-buck bait thrown out into the waters by Randy Bernard to get NASCAR drivers to try an IndyCar at Las Vegas, along with Kimi Raikkonen's dabbling in NASCAR Camping World Trucks, the oft-rehashed question is going to surface again - can stars in one racing discipline succeed in another?

Which brings me to the IROC series. The reason I miss the IROC series is very specific. And it has to do with the concept of "ten-tenths."

The International Race of Champions was inaugurated in the early 1970s as a way to provide the star drivers of the day from various racing disciplines with an equalized (not equal, though) platform that ostensibly would create a level playing field. This would let driver skill decide the contest instead of other factors like team budgets or testing advantages.

In the mid-1990s, the series went exclusively oval-based with stock cars, and interest began to wane. Prior to that, however, IROC was like a who's-who of racing greats. The first-ever IROC champion was Mark Donohue (his victory at the end of the IROC season was the final one of his career prior to his death in an F1 practice the next year). He beat Peter Revson, Bobby Unser, David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Denis Hulme, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, and Gordon Johncock - a veritable stroll down the halls of the auto racing hall-of-fame.

Other famous drivers participated as well. Jody Scheckter. Graham Hill. Johnny Rutherford. Cale Yarborough. Mario Andretti. Tom Sneva. Alan Jones. Rick Mears. The list goes on and on in those early seasons. Famous drivers of great talent, all competing to see who could prevail when it came down to strictly driver skill and luck.

Granted, back in "the day," drivers were more apt to cross-train in multiple disciplines. The intervals between success and failure were measured in full seconds - sometimes even minutes - and the reliability of racing equipment as a rule was much less bulletproof than in the modern era. A driver's skill therefore could make up the difference as long as a team was close in its equipment and preparation.

Still, the ability to drive "ten-tenths" was predicated on an elusive, ephemeral nexus of driver skill, team skill, preparation, luck, and outright fate. Any driver worth his salt could perform up to 99% of a car's absolute potential - it was that final percentage point that proved to be the most difficult to overcome.

IROC was the closest thing to eliminating that thorny 1%, and while luck still played a huge role in the outcome, the drivers still had the opportunity to test skill on skill.

When I hear fans of one series crowing that drivers from another series would be miserable failures if they tried to cross over, therefore, I start missing IROC anew. The problem is, most of those fans are right - but not for the right reasons. The fans believe that their favorite category of racing is only conquerable by their stars - the reason why is that believing so subtly validates their favorites as fundamentally better than others.

And it is true that the odds of a Formula 1 champion like Kimi Raikkonen becoming a Sprint Cup champion are exceptionally low... just as the odds of Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson winning an F1 championship, even in top equipment, are equally low. It's why Randy Bernard cannot be very worried that a Kyle Busch could enter the Las Vegas IndyCar race and actually win the $5 million.

That "ten-tenths" is nuance. As I said before, any top-caliber racer would be able to jump in someone else's equipment in someone else's series and eventually get up to about 99% of the car's performance. But that thorny final percent requires years of adapting to the special demands that the fastest setups and most on-the-edge performance exact on drivers and teams. With intervals in modern-day racing in the hundredths and thousandths of seconds thanks to the everpresent search for parity and the reliability of racing equipment at an all-time high... even the best hotshoes in one discipline would be mid-packers in another.

Eventually, of course, the best drivers would figure out those nuances of performance and achieve success. The problem is that most race drivers don't have the patience to wait that long, particularly after spending years getting to the pinnacle of their own niches. So most don't even try, and we're left to wonder whether Jeff Gordon would ever have been a good IndyCar driver, or whether Tony Stewart really could have taken on the best of Europe in F1, or whether Michael Schumacher at his peak could have mastered Daytona.

Those that do try inevitably end up being criticized by homer fans for being failures, or subpar, or any number of other ways of disrespecting their talent... when in fact it is not their talent at all that is to blame for their so-called "shortcomings." The shifting target that is the fulfillment of the "ten-tenths" ideal is simply too difficult to pin down without years of dedicated pursuit.

Maybe someday IROC will return in some form and we will get a better idea of who could be called the "greatest" racers regardless of where they come from. Until then, I suppose I can only wish that race fans would be less provincial in their appreciation of the great talents at work in motorsports in our era.