How iRacing Will Keep NASCAR Relevant during the Coronavirus Shutdown
While the rest of the sports world pauses in the midst of the global coronavirus shutdown, NASCAR is still turning laps.
Team Penske spotter Josh Williams outdueled Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron on Sunday in a virtual race hosted on iRacing that also included Dale Earnhardt Jr., Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, Justin Haley, Noah Gragson, Harrison Burton and NFL veteran Kyle Long.
The Replacements 100 from the digital Atlanta Motor Speedway aired on Twitch and peaked with 27,000 viewers.
It drew so much interest over the weekend that Cup Series spotters-turned-event organizers TJ Majors and Kevin Hamlin actually had to turn away NASCAR regulars once the field reached maximum capacity.
With real-life NASCAR on hold until at least May 3 at Martinsville Speedway, The Replacements 100 might have been a glimpse at what a motorsports world on hiatus could look like over the next two months.
“I just thought it would be like a pickup basketball game, and it just exploded,” Earnhardt told Autoweek on Tuesday. “It was so much fun. I had a blast, everyone seemed to.”
Majors didn’t expect it to take off either.
“When we got the call that we would be off for the next two weeks, I just wanted to put something fun together,” Majors told Autoweek. “I got a call from (Bryan Cook) at Joe Gibbs Racing, and he said we should get Cup guys involved.
“I called the Podium eSports guys, and they said they could broadcast it and that’s when Kevin started making the graphics. We had a good entry list by Friday, and we started having to turn drivers away by Saturday.”
While no one welcomes a global pandemic, iRacing has experienced a short-term spike in subscriptions this week with fans and industry insiders looking to scratch the itch of their favorite sport from the quarantined confines of their homes.
Steve Myers, the company’s executive vice president, doesn’t want to be viewed as profiting off a widespread disaster, but he is taking a degree of pride in his team, which has developed a platform that is valuable to people in a time of need.
“We’ve worked so hard to be in a position to where it’s not a leap to be where we are,” Myers said. “It took a lot of growth in terms of the perception changing from inside the racing community. The industry didn’t need to be convinced to move into our space this week because they were already here.
“That’s made it easier for me to feel like we’re not vultures because the lights just went out on one side, and everyone just moved over to this side.”
NASCAR currently holds television time on Fox Sports this weekend for the postponed Homestead-Miami Speedway event, and with nothing else to air, the industry has already started to put together the framework for a virtual race featuring a full roster of Cup, Xfinity and Gander Truck Series contenders.
And if that sounds farfetched, consider that the NBC Sports Networks drew an audience of well over 100,000 for the iRacing World Championship in October.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps confirmed the dialogue during a media teleconference on Tuesday afternoon.
“There are discussions we’re having with Fox about what things we can do, discussions we would have with NBC, things that we can put through our own channels that satisfy our fans,” Phelps said. “Our fans are obviously thirsty for this content. We want to provide it to them smartly and have interesting content as opposed to just repurposing some of the content that’s already been done.”
In other words, don’t be surprised to see the stars of the Cup Series racing something on Sunday—even if it’s made of pixels.
Earnhardt, who retired from full-time competition after the 2017 season, has been a vocal proponent of sim racing since spending hours during his teenage years on the popular NASCAR Racing PC simulator—the precursor to iRacing.
With that said, Earnhardt will also tell you that iRacing isn’t a replacement for the real thing, but it could be the substitute for a fan base in need.
“With iRacing, you’re turning the wheel,” Earnhardt said. “Madden doesn’t replicate the throwing motion of a quarterback. You’re just pressing buttons. And I say that as someone who plays a lot of Madden. It’s fun.
“With iRacing, specifically, there are force feedback steering wheels and pedals that shake when you lock up the tires. They make motion cockpits. They’ve laser-scanned each of these tracks, and turn 3 at Dover feels like you’re running over a railroad track, which is very much what that feels like in a real race car. It’s as close as you can get.”
And with the motorsports world shut down for at least the next seven weeks, “as close as you can get” might be as close as you’re going to get on national television.
But even then, who wants to watch Bryce Harper and Mike Trout mash buttons during the Sunday Night Baseball time slot?
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