NASCAR to Host Pro iRacing Series With Real-World Drivers
The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has given sports fans around the world unprecedented uncertainty. Programs and series that have never canceled in decades have suddenly stopped. NASCAR is no exception, but it took them some time to get around to the idea.
On March 12, NASCAR planned on continuing their races at the Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, but without the fans. That changed a day later. All real-world NASCAR races are postponed at least through May 3, but that’s okay; we have iRacing!
Days of Digital Thunder
In the same vein as Formula 1’s virtual Australian Grand Prix, NASCAR is launching its pro iRacing series with real-world pro drivers. Thankfully, many of the racers already use simulators to train which is very similar to what would be used.
Lando Norris, the driver for McLaren, often streamed his races through iRacing.com and had 200,000 followers before the Not the AUS GP esports event. NASCAR already had a partnership with iRacing and hosted esports there for over a decade. William Byron, driver of NASCAR’s #24 car, started on the racing simulator and ultimately used it to jump-start his career.
NASCAR’s executives want to keep their fans engaged and tuning in, so they turned to iRacing. On March 17, the league unveiled the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational series. The virtual circuit features NASCAR Cup Series drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell. We covered Hamlin’s recent win at last weekend’s virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway event.
Scott Warfield, managing director of NASCAR’s gaming and esports scene, had no huge, fantastic plan for this going in. To NASCAR and traditional sports at large, this is uncharted territory. They just want to keep their fans happy, smiling, and tuning in, so they quickly put together a plan.
Thankfully, their stakeholders seemed to agree, and they made the right moves to get all of this together. Before they were ready to announce everything, NASCAR already had the iRacing press release ready. He pointed out, with an interview with sporttechie that “It was something to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do and now let’s figure it out together.’ We will give our fanbase, if nothing else, a 90-minute break from the craziness.”
It’s a good thing they’re already familiar with iRacing, too. It’s practically a virtual training ground and for some of their top athletes to practice. The best of the best in NASCAR likely have in-home simulators to use for these races, so they’re already well familiar with how the system works, or so we’d like to think.
Virtual But Very Real
The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series airs every other week and already has the best iRacing gamers in the world taking part, so this should be the next natural step. But what I wonder, is if NASCAR will keep this up after the real races can go again. If this shows the right numbers, perhaps it can be NASCAR in the off-season.
One of the questions asked Scott Warfield, is if there will be a learning curve. Sure, the technology is similar, but not all the racers are as tech-savvy as the others. Here’s what Warfield had to say about the learning curve.
“Well, yes. It’s not the same. iRacing is difficult and the kid who won our Tuesday Coca-Cola race, Ryan Luza, ran 1,000 laps on Tuesday as practice leading up to the race just to understand the handling of the car. Some guys are using it more than others. Many of the Cup drivers have been practicing but you’ll see varying levels of preparedness. This is something we’re going to at least attempt to do every week during the hiatus and I think, because of the competitive nature of these guys and gals, it will be super interesting to see how it all unfolds.”
Not all of the racers spend time racing online in their down time. It’s the same principle as NBA players playing NBA 2K. Thankfully, NASCAR doesn’t have to create some new infrastructure and set tons of things into motion. iRacing already exists. NASCAR simply asked their guys to come race online, and they were on board with it.
They can still put their sponsors on their cars I imagine, which will still mean money in their pockets (potentially). Things are rough right now, that’s certain. But even though I’m not an avid racing fan, I’m glad to see that NASCAR sees value, at least right now, in online racing. This will fill that void of NASCAR, and show them how exciting esports can be.
All I know right now is that if you still want your NASCAR fix, it’s going to be there for you in a virtual form!