Debuting on ESPN, Torque Esports Is No Newcomer to Online Racing

So who, or what, is this Torque Esports that will be presenting all these online races on ESPN? And why ESPN? The cable network had seemingly turned away from racing after helping make motorsports as popular as they are in the U.S. today.

The easiest part of that to answer is the ESPN aspect: With the coronavirus pandemic, the network whose stock in trade is live sports is left touting, at the top of its web page, an NBA H-O-R-S-E tournament whose players will be filmed separately “competing at home locations,” such as, we assume, their driveways. And one of its networks is airing seven straight hours of competition of the American Cornhole League. So having live online racing, with big-name talent, has to be appealing.

“The Race All-Star Series,” sponsored by ROCKit phones, will begin airing live Saturday on ESPN2 at noon ET, and be replayed Sunday on ESPN2 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s Torque Esports? That’s more complicated.

At the top of the company masthead is president and CEO Darren Cox. Sports car fans may remember Cox as the Nissan of Europe executive who took a chance in sponsoring the DeltaWing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The ultra-innovative, narrow-nosed car designed by Ben Bowlby, backed by American Le Mans Series owner Don Panoz, and built by Dan Gurney and his All-American Racers, competed in 2012’s Le Mans as the experimental “Garage 56” entry.

Nissan withheld making its corporate support of the DeltaWing public until the car finally made its on-track testing debut at California’s Buttonwillow Raceway Park in March 2012. Nissan provided the four-cylinder engines for the car, but more important, brought money and legitimacy to the effort with the huge Nissan decals on the side of the car, right behind the 4-inch-wide front tires that Michelin made especially for the DeltaWing.

It was only 107 days from the DeltaWing’s first careful trip around the racetrack to the green flag of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the DeltaWing was there, and it was pretty fast. Though not able to genuinely compete given its experimental status, the DeltaWing was the indisputable star of the show, at least until driver Satoshi Motoyama was booted into a wall by one of the top-running Toyota LMP1 cars less than six hours into the race.

Nothing since the DeltaWing has created as much buzz at Le Mans, and Darren Cox became known as a motorsports visionary. Nissan promptly promoted him to head its global motorsports program. Later, Panoz filed a lawsuit accusing Nissan of using intellectual property that belonged to Panoz: The suit was settled in March 2016, and Cox left the company to pursue a consulting career.

Cox could never be accused of not swinging for th`e fences: He followed his DeltaWing success with the Nissan ZEOD RC racer and the streetable Blade Glider, and then a massive Hail Mary called the GTR-LM Nismo, a Ben Bowlby-designed hybrid race car that had Nissan competing at the 2015 Le Mans for the overall victory for the first time since the company left in 1999. It didn’t work, but it was a fascinating failure.

Finally, we get to Torque Esports: One of Cox’s successes at Nissan was the pioneering GT Academy, which sought to take Sony PlayStation Grand Turismo gamers from the sim to actual pavement racing, and it was turned into a TV series that, in 2008, was broadcast to 160 countries. Between 2008 and 2016 GT Academy had 22 graduates, including four Americans. Those graduates ended up with shots in different races ranging from Le Mans to Bathurst.

Cox moved to a company called IDEAS+CARS, described on its website as an “un-agency” with a mantra of, “Do crazy shit and tell people about it.” Part of the company’s portfolio was online racing. Again from the website: “Gaming is bigger than Hollywood and it might just save motorsports. IDEAS+CARS were in at the ground floor of this ‘overnight’ phenomenon but there is so much more to come.” Cox and his team launched the “World’s Fastest Gamer” program in 2017, which aired on global networks including ESPN.

From there, it’s a short trip to the Toronto-based Torque Esports, an umbrella designation for Millennial Esports, headed by Cox. They are partnered with Allinsports, a simulator manufacturer; Eden Games, a gaming studio; the aforementioned IDEAS+CARS, and StreamHatchet, an analytics firm that tracks video game streaming.

So what will we see on ESPN Saturday at noon?

“The Race All-Star Series” consists of two separate competitions: The All-Star Cup, “which pits the leading stars from Formula 1, Formula E, IndyCar, sportscars, and more against the world’s top sim racers,” and the Legends Trophy, which has 40-and-over drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve, Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Hélio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran and Tony Kanaan on the entry list. The races will be on rFactor 2’s version of Sebring International Raceway. Racing simulator rFactor is a competitor of the better-known iRacing sim community.

The formula-car race series has been running for four weeks, but today’s race is the first televised by ESPN. In the last race, run at the virtual rFactor 2 version of New Orleans Motorsport Park, the two Legends races were won by Jan Magnussen and Rubens Barrichello, and the All-Star Cup race was won by Slovenian sim racer Kevin Siggy, ahead of fellow sim racers Bono Huis and Rudy van Buren, a “World’s Fastest Gamer” winner.

Torque Esports claims that 60 broadcasters will make today’s race available in 600 million homes worldwide.

Typical of Cox, he moved quickly with the racing series when the pandemic hit, claiming the idea went from concept to green flag in only 72 hours. The first live-streamed event sought to fill the racing void on March 15, when the F1 Australian Grand Prix was supposed to happen, but didn’t.

“Esports is filling a vacuum caused by the COVID-19 situation, but we’re working hard to ensure this massive growth in esports popularity is not just a temporary thing,” said Cox. “We’re filling an entertainment need at the moment, but we eventually want to look back at 2020 as not just, ‘that time we had to do esports to create content,’ but mark this year as to when esports really became a mainstream option as an entertainment industry.”

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