Star-studded Race of Champions hits Miami

Race of Champions cars are running a road course this weekend inside Marlins Park in Miami. Courtesy of Race Of Champions

MIAMI -- For most of its 30-year history, there wasn't much "international" about the International Race of Champions. What Americans came to know as the IROC series was ultimately little more than a busman's holiday for the stock-car set.

Race of Champions, on the other hand, is a much more worldly affair. Set to be held for the first time on American soil this weekend at Miami's Marlins Park, what started out in 1988 as a celebration of the world's top rally drivers has developed into the closest thing auto racing has to an all-star weekend.

"It's great to hang out with the other drivers, away from your normal competitive environment," said four-time F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel. "Of course, when you are sitting on the track and the lights go out, you want to win. But off-track, it's very easygoing, and there are a lot of good times at night after the event. Overall, it's very enjoyable."

ROC organizers paved a crossover figure-eight course within the confines of the retractable-roof baseball park and will turn more than 20 drivers from Formula One, NASCAR, IndyCar and other forms of motorsport loose in a variety of cars. As an added bonus, for the first time, the Sunday Nations' Cup portion of the program will feature a "U.S. vs. the world" format.

The American contingent includes NASCAR champions Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch, Indianapolis 500 winners Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi and rallycross stars Scott Speed and Travis Pastrana.

Other notable participants include Vettel, Formula One veterans David Coulthard, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, and IndyCar stars Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe.

This is Hunter-Reay's fourth ROC appearance, and the Fort Lauderdale resident is thrilled to have the event staged half an hour from his home.

"It's a relaxed environment, and we all have a lot of fun, on and off the racetrack," Hunter-Reay said. "I feel the same pressure that I did in London, Bangkok or Barbados. You're up against the best in the world, and you want to win this thing. It's an opportunity to race guys you may never be up against again."

With the track being short and fairly simple to learn, the biggest challenge for the drivers is to quickly get up to speed in as many as eight different cars, ranging from a Polaris Slingshot three-wheeler to a Whelen Euroseries spec stock car.

"It's very difficult to jump in each car and try to get the most out of it," Hunter-Reay said. "Each one is different -- left-foot or right-foot braking, sequential gearbox, paddle shift or H-pattern. Everything is always different, and you're always kind of naturally reacting to it.

"It's a unique situation, where everybody is out of their comfort zone, and it's fun to see everyone like that."

The most fun occurs after hours, when many of the drivers socialize together and swap war stories from their respective forms of motorsport, thinking about what might have been had they taken a different career path.

"It's fun to hear the guys talk about how the NASCAR is exciting to drive, whereas I'm excited to jump in the rally car or any of the other cars," said Kurt Busch. "When they're driving the NASCAR, I told them, 'Just let the rough edges drag and get your total Ricky Bobby on and go for it!'"

Some drivers take it far more seriously than others. Young F1 driver Pascal Wehrlein is letting it all hang out on the track, while nine-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen -- the most experienced ROC driver in the field, with 15 appearances -- may be more interested in the Miami nightlife.

"Pascal is trying so hard, and it's been really cool to watch," laughed Indy/F1/NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya. "It gets to a point where it's actually funny how hard he is driving. I'm like, 'Man, I'm not 22 anymore!'

"I told him, 'Half the effort, you'll get the same result.' "

While Kurt Busch has prior ROC experience after competing in the 2014 event in Barbados, this is the first time Kyle Busch is involved as a participant.

"With Kurt and I teaming up, it's not just NASCAR, it's brothers," Kyle said. "He has some experience here, so I need to lean on him a little bit to learn how the cars run or how to attack the course.

"Certainly, we don't want to disappoint," he added. "Either we'll kill each other or high-five each other. I'm not sure. We'll see."