It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, and — not unlike most of the surreal and unprecedented things taking place in the quarantine-era, work from home-America — I am lying on my parents’ couch speaking to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Despite retiring in 2017, the most famous man in NASCAR is back; back driving in races that are aired on national television during the Coronavirus pandemic. These aren’t reruns of his past triumphs, and yet it’s fair to say Dale Jr.'s comeback has a major caveat: they aren’t technically happening at all — at least not in the physical world.
Thanks to a brand new simulated racing series called the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, Dale Jr. now has the luxury of racing at the highest level from the comfort of his own home, with millions of fans tuning in to the action on FS1. Coronavirus has drastically impacted almost every sport due to its physical nature and reliance on large crowds, yet it’s NASCAR — a sport known for traditionalism, not progressiveness — that has made the most of the situation. Now it finds itself in the driver’s seat of the best live sports experience on TV.
“In Madden, you mash a button to throw the ball, you don’t mimic the quarterback’s arm. In FIFA, you don’t kick the ball,” Dale Jr. explains about the sport’s newfound and unique position. “In a simulation with racing, we are doing exactly what we are doing in the real world car.” Unlike other sports, which rely more on athletes' bodies than the equipment they operate, NASCAR is built on a man-and-machine relationship that translates well to the virtual world, down to the camera angles and live broadcast team (who cover the action from a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina). Because the skillsets of iRacing and real racing are much the same, fans can watch the races knowing that driving ability is still the name of the game.
For this virtual series, NASCAR teamed up with iRacing, a subscription simulator that gives its members one of the most realistic racing experiences possible, even when sitting in a regular office chair. Despite its next level graphics and ability to mimic the real world physics of driving (short of delivering G-forces into one’s living room), iRacing actually isn’t new. It was first launched in 2004 by Dave Kaemmer and Red Sox owner John Henry. Dale Jr. is a partner in iRacing and has been part of the sim racing community since the late 1990s.
NASCAR and iRacing have been collaborating for over a decade in competitive simulated racing (now sponsored by Coca-Cola) among non-pros, which means bringing the series to the national stage with Cup Series drivers didn’t have to be built from scratch. Still, without the current pandemic, the Pro Invitational would likely have not have happened at all. According to Dale Jr., the reception to iRacing throughout the years from actual Cup Series drivers and NASCAR execs has been tepid: “When I talk about iRacing in our industry, a lot of people just roll their eyes.”
Whatever NASCAR's previous position on iRacing may have been, when it came to getting eNASCAR on TV two weeks ago, it happened quickly — at least according to NASCAR’s head of gaming Scott Warfield. “There wasn’t one person who said, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ or ‘That sounds kind of quirky,’” he says. “It was just yes, yes, yes, yes. Next thing you know, we were on national television. It’s a week I’ll never forget.” As has happened across so many industries in recent weeks, eNASCAR was the result of teamwork and, as Warfield says, “...really just wanting to put something special together for our fans in this difficult time.”
What’s been a pleasant surprise through the first two weeks of the Pro Invitational is just how competitive the races have been. Both events, which were hosted at virtual Homestead Miami Speedway and virtual Texas Motor Speedway, respectively, have featured nail-biter finishes. In some ways, the racing has been even more exciting than when actual cars are whipping around a track at nearly 200 miles per hour. For one, the simulated races last just 90 minutes, a fraction of the regular marathons that can stretch to over four hours. Additionally, because drivers don’t have real cars or bodies to worry about damaging, they’ve displayed more willingness to take risks during a race. That means more aggressive driving, which is simply more fun to watch.
More importantly, because of iRacing’s fixed setup configuration, the playing field is leveled. In real world racing, a driver’s talent is only one component of what makes their car fast. The rest is up to a team’s resources — for instance, the amount of engineers who work on a car’s aerodynamics or their ability to design and manufacture proprietary components. The harsh reality is that under normal circumstances, smaller teams rarely, if ever, have a chance to win. But in this iteration of iRacing, each driver is given the exact same car, which places the ultimate premium on simulator experience, not sponsors.
“My cars that I drive [in real races] are five years old, so it’s not really a fair fight,” says Timmy Hill, a relatively unknown NASCAR driver who’s yet to win a big race on a real track, but who’s got over 670 iRacing wins to his name — including the March 29 race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway. “In iRacing, it’s simple: the best driver is going to conquer the others.” After finishing third the first week and winning the second, he’s proved that spending more doesn’t mean much when the racing is happening on a computer screen.
That hasn’t stopped wealthier drivers from trying, to mixed results. Some, like seven-time Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson, use simulator set-ups that feature triple screens and realistic-looking cockpits, and cost anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000. And yet, Johnson has finished 31st and 19th in the first two races. By comparison, Hill’s modest setup consists of a desktop computer and $300 wheel strapped to a $75 desk, and they were all he needed to take the checkered flag.
What’s clear is that iRacing presents a massive opportunity for the future of NASCAR — and one it needs. Viewership numbers have been in a steady decline for years, falling an enormous 51 percent since 2015. Here’s the good news: In the first week of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, almost a million people tuned in, making it the most viewed eSports live event of all time (this success led to FOX Sports committing to air every iRacing event until normalcy returns, whenever that may be).
The race was also the number one trending topic on Twitter on Sunday, March 22. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that people are desperate to watch live sports in any capacity, and for the most part are spending a heck of a lot of time on their couches.
But even beyond the circumstances and excitement of condensed, more wildcard virtual races, simulated racing among NASCAR drivers has created an environment of casualness and intimacy that Cup Series races simply can’t replicate. For one, the broadcast gives fans a live video feed into the homes of their favorite drivers, which, particularly during in-race interviews, makes for an easy-going vibe that’s equal parts voyeuristic, funny, and relatable. And while the action is simulated, cutaways to drivers in shorts and T-shirts in their unfinished basements ironically make the whole thing feel more human.
If there’s been any moments of awkwardness thus far on the part of FOX, one was when the league enlisted The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir to deliver the pre-race national anthem via video conference. But, if we’re being honest, it still kind of ruled.
The question is, how does NASCAR take all of the good will it’s built up with this new simulated series and translate it into something sustainable? That depends on who you ask. Warfield is hopeful, but feels NASCAR is still too new to all of this to make any promises just yet. “That’s the most fascinating thing of it all. We wanna temper our expectations, but also it’s a pretty clean television window. It’s compelling, it’s dramatic, it’s unpredictable... it’s all the things people love about sports,” he says.
“I think there’s an opportunity for us drivers to have a stake in our own league, where we could be the equity owners of something on the iRacing platform,” says Texas fourth place finisher Landon Cassill, who is about to make a name for himself in this new dawn of iRacing. Because of the lower barrier to entry for not just drivers, but sponsors, there’s a new and massive upside potential in a sport that was formerly not so friendly to underdogs. “Instead of a sponsor giving a team a million dollars, and having $800,000 of that go to the car and team,” Cassill explains, “a sponsor could give $100,000, and half of that goes to content creation because there’s no real overhead.” Considering that the video game industry now dwarfs the movie and music businesses combined, it’s not unreasonable to imagine a future where virtual NASCAR and its budgets are bigger than the real thing.
In the case of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has spent essentially his entire life in the spotlight, he’s less anxious to create another public commitment for himself. “If it continues, it continues. It really is going to boil down to the drivers themselves,” he says. “For me, I would be fine either way.”
Towards the end of our call (once I’ve admittedly moved fully horizontal on the couch, psychoanalysis style), I ask Dale Jr. if he would champion a new iRacing NASCAR series if he were approached by the league. His answer is cautious: “My commitment really lies with iRacing. I love NASCAR, and I love my job at NBC as a broadcaster and I want to do that for a long time. When it comes to iRacing, I’m going to side with them. The sim racing community means the world to me. That’s something I want to protect. The things I want to do with iRacing are bigger than this little invitational series.”
Whatever the future may hold and with so much open (if unknown) road ahead for both iRacing and the world, one thing’s certain: NASCAR’s got something here, and the virtual future of the sport looks promising.