NASCAR iRacing goes full-throttle on realistic vibes

Despite not having in-person events, NASCAR has seen success with its virtual iRacing series featuring the actual drivers in the professional series.

In its first few weeks of existence, the NASCAR iRacing Pro-Invitational Series has shattered broadcasting records for esports, including setting the record for most viewed esports broadcast twice.

With COVID-19 putting a halt to all in-person races, NASCAR made the decision to enter uncharted territory by using an online simulation, iRacing, to broadcast the traditional race schedule. 

iRacing is a subscription-based racing simulation and is heralded for its accurate to life graphics and physics. 

Unlike other sport video games, professional drivers from many different racing series use the simulation to train for real races. Drivers can purchase a wheel and pedals that mount to a desk, or can use full-fledged simulation rigs, which have motion seats and shifters. 

The series, which features real world NASCAR Cup drivers competing from their homes, launched with a race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 22. NASCAR chose to feature a traditional broadcast for the race, featuring its normal studio commentators, a national anthem and in-race reporters. 

They aired the race on Fox Sports 1. In a race which saw Denny Hamlin edge out Dale Earnhardt, Jr., for the win, NASCAR would break the record for most viewed esports broadcast ever, with 903,000 viewers tuning in.

The following week, NASCAR expanded its production by airing the race on both Fox Sports 1 and Fox. The race at Texas Motor Speedway would again break the record for most viewed esports broadcast, coming in at 1.3 million viewers and a rating of 0.81. NASCAR iRacing has also been the number one trending topic on Twitter during each of its three races.

The high ratings and records are a welcome sight for NASCAR, which has been struggling of late. For several years, NASCAR’s ratings have continued to fall due to a variety of reasons. 

One of the main reasons being the sport losing four of its ten most popular drivers in the past few seasons, with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards all retiring. 

The organization has adapted many plans to revitalize the sport, including bringing on Monster Energy as a title sponsor and introducing both stage racing and a playoff system. 

All of these have failed to produce results, but the recent boost from iRacing could give the sport a much needed boost into the new decade.

While some may see iRacing as a bit of fun to tie over racing fans and drivers alike until the season can resume, there have already been serious implications of the NASCAR iRacing tour. 

During the race at Bristol, NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace made headlines by “rage quitting,” which would lead to him losing his sponsor, Blue-Emu. In a tweet, the official Blue-Emu account had this to say about Wallace’s early race exit: “Bye bye Bubba. We’re interested in drivers, not quitters.” Blue-Emu later confirmed that they indeed fired the driver.

Then, in a non-NASCAR sponsored event, on Sunday, April 12, a video surfaced of Cup Series driver Kyle Larson using the n-word in the driver’s chat. Within a day, NASCAR indefinitely suspended the driver for his use of offensive language, and car manufacturer Chevrolet ended their relationship with the driver. 

Larson has also been indefinitely suspended by iRacing and will no longer be allowed to compete in future NASCAR iRacing events.

iRacing could also have a tremendous impact on the 2020 NASCAR offseason, as there is a large free agent market after this season. In iRacing, every driver has the same set up, so the individual skill of each driver is more important. Therefore, top performers such as Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, who drive for underfunded teams may get opportunities to drive for bigger teams next season.

The NASCAR iRacing Pro-Invitational Series has been entertaining to viewers so far, and the drivers return to the virtual Richmond Raceway this weekend.