- Shauna Rush
eNASCAR TAKING OVER THE SPORTS BLACKOUT
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
This article was originally published on April 1st, 2020.
Adapting to survive is the name of the game right now, and this extends to the sports world as much as any other aspect of life.
One sport that has found an innovative way to adapt is NASCAR, who along with broadcast partner Fox Sports, has jumped on the opportunity of utilizing the sports' iRacing simulators, to create eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.
“Until we have cars back on track, the entire NASCAR community has aligned to provide our passionate fans with a unique, fun and competitive experience on race day,” said Ben Kennedy (@BenKennedy33), NASCAR’s vice president of racing development. “Our long-time partners at iRacing offer an incredible product, and we are excited to see how many of our best drivers will stack up in the virtual domain of competitive racing.”
Virtual racing has become one of the biggest trends for tech-savvy racing enthusiasts looking to emulate their favorite NASCAR icons, and iRacing.com became their platform of choice.
iRacing is less of a video game and more of a racing simulator. Using laser technology to scan cars and tracks to fractions of an inch, iRacing created a truly immersive experience.
"First of all, it is extremely realistic," current NASCAR Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) said this week on a conference call days after competing in the first eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series event. "You’re using the same mechanics, the same forces, the same movements as you use in real life to make your car go fast; and that is your hand-eye coordination, your feet.
"You drive these things so much with the pedals, with the gas, the brake, the steering input. All of those inputs in your mind are the exact same thing, and the same tools we use to put your car to the front of the field on any given Sunday."
However, just like the real world, members of the 60,000-plus iRacing subscriber base can’t simply jump into a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car, with no prior experience.
Instead, they begin their careers as rookies, slowly working up to faster machines. Licenses must be acquired to move up the ladder, and they can only be earned based on results and avoiding contact at all costs. Incidents have consequences and can set back weeks, even months, of progress. And that’s the point, according to executive vice president and executive producer Steve Myers (@iRacingMyers).
“We recognize that our users want a more realistic experience,” Myers said. “Console gamers just want to pick up a controller and race against their friends for a couple of minutes before moving on to something else. But our users are those who will spend all afternoon trying to crack 29 seconds at Charlotte.”
One way that NASCAR has used iRacing is to make the sport more accessible for aspiring drivers. This has proved to be an effective way for drivers, who come from working-class backgrounds, to make it all the way to NASCAR without having to purchase expensive cars.
The most notable example is current NASCAR Xfinity Series contender William Byron (@WilliamByron), who famously used iRacing to persuade his parents to allow him to get behind the wheel of a Legends Car at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I grew up a fan and always wanted to race, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” Byron said. “I was 13 and watching the Cup race at Sonoma, and TV kept bringing up iRacing and how many drivers were using it to get better at road racing. So I gave it a shot later that week, and I just kept getting better.” He started 683 sim races in his first two iRacing seasons, winning 104 of them. This helped prove to his dad that it would be worth the investment to secure him a real-life Legends Car.
There's no doubt that the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was born out of desperation. Because all three of NASCAR's premier series are on hold, its iRacing series features drivers from Cup, Xfinity, and Trucks.
NASCAR's TV ratings and attendance have been steadily declining since the sport’s peak in 2005. Therefore, diversifying the currently aging and increasingly alienated fan base is essential to NASCAR’s survival.
Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer noted “We’ve seen that not only the participants in esports but also the viewers have skewed significantly younger. Like other sports and media properties, we are looking to engage newer fans and younger fans.”
With this in mind, the temporary shift to virtual racing may open the door to a younger fan base.
“We have talked about this as making lemonade out of lemons,” Clark said. “If we can provide a distraction, a form of entertainment — that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Fox Sports, which holds the broadcast rights to the first half of NASCAR’s season, aired the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race in March 22nd, making it available on the FS1 channel and the Fox Sports mobile app.
The regular Fox broadcast team of Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb), Mike Joy (@mikejoy500) and Larry McReynolds (@LarryMac28) provided the analysis, as the event drew in almost one million viewers. Making the event Fox Sports most watch telecast since sports where halted, due COVID-19, it also became the highest-rated eSports TV program in history.
Furthermore, 1.6 million unique viewers tuned in to the broadcast for at least six minutes, with an average of 59.42 minutes, more than half of the 112-minute broadcast.
The broadcast has also exposed NASCAR to new viewers, bringing in 255,000 viewers who hadn’t yet watched a NASCAR Cup Series race, in 2020.
"We’re overwhelmed by the positive feedback and encouragement sent by industry stakeholders, drivers, partners, media and most importantly, our fans," said Clark. "We are committed to running these eNASCAR iRacing events as long as necessary."
For such a sophisticated simulation, the simplicity of iRacing is remarkable. Like anybody who races on the platform, drivers competing in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series log into their accounts at iRacing.com and join the virtual race via invitation.
Each driver competes remotely with his own rig consisting of a screen, a steering wheel, and pedals. Most utilize crew chiefs to help with tire and fuel strategy just as they would in a real race.
The first eNASCAR iRacing event was limited to 35 drivers. The 26 regular Cup Series drivers who entered the race, plus Dale Earnhardt. Jr. (@DaleJr), Parker Kligerman (@pkligerman) and Bobby Labonte (@Bobby_Labonte) were given spots, and the final six spots were given to Xfinity and Trucks Series drivers based on the results of a qualifying race.
“If this is entertaining and people enjoy it and it fills the gap, I think Fox will want to do more,” Earnhardt said in a telephone interview. “I’ll be sitting here racing in the middle of the house. I might not do every single one over the next several weeks, but there are a lot of other drivers who have similar rigs at home, like me.”
It is a big time for fans to watch some eNASCAR racing, and they will not be disappointed. This is the next best thing in racing video games and the best thing in racing right now.