Unlike most of the staff at Frontstretch, I didn’t watch Sunday’s iRace. I’ve been opposed to the concept of watching other people, be they gamer jocks or racecar drivers, play video games since my youngest brother and South Park filled me in on what (who) Pewdiepie was. No, Sunday was a much more somber day for me.
On day 10 of self-isolation with the remainder of my family while my mom and sister treat patients, COVID or not, in the emergency rooms of West Virginia and New Orleans, I finally took the cover off the Mustang to take it for a spin. Some 13 miles later, I ended up in the parking lot of the Winchester Speedway, my home track.
Like so many of the emotions that have gripped millions of Americans over the pandemic thus far, returning to my home track was a mixed blessing. Just as being locked in at home with family has allowed for us to spend time together that we seldom get to outside of holidays, such time also comes riddled with the suspense that comes with what’s likely to be months of health scares and caution. Just as becoming a fully virtual employee is a dream that I’ve been asking for for years, such has proven to be a wish gone bad, with the idea of working remotely while traveling the country a seeming fantasy at this point. And just as it was refreshing to see my home track and its high banks bathed in the sunlight, it was both disappointing and sad to see the clay surface unscarred by Hoosier tires, as should have happened with last night’s previously scheduled practice session. To see the garage area smooth and uniform, with no tire tracks from haulers or racecars to be seen.
It seems ages ago since I penned my season opening column entitled Speedweeks 2020: Meet the New Year, Same as the Old Year. That title aged about as well as cottage cheese on top of a furnace. What haven’t aged however, are the concerns that I have about the ever-growing role eSports seems to be playing in stock car racing’s future.
Sure, it’s a coup that NASCAR of all sports led the way among professional American sporting entities back onto live television, and judging from the comments I read in the Frontstretch group chat Sunday’s race proved to be a welcome and entertaining distraction for much of the staff. The same could be said from the majority of Twitter comments that I read.
That was an absolutely wonderful way to spend a quarantine.
I still can't believe some of the things I'm typing and writing these days.
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) March 22, 2020
But the lead into Sunday’s race also produced more of the same concerns voiced by Brian Keselowski and others leading into the 2020 season. On Twitter alone, racers have been seen spending tens of thousands of dollars getting iRacing rigs installed into their homes, tens of thousands of dollars that, despite the necessity of the circumstances, will not be going into the racecars that have gone silent across the country.
Perhaps more distressing, however, is reading recaps of a race that was marred by caution flags, including an incident that saw Jimmie Johnson, “a seven-time champion, arguably the GOAT, just ARCA brake somebody then failed being lapped” as our own Michael Finley put it. While some will argue that Sunday’s race was a video game and nothing more than that, the weight and credence assigned to such a race both by the depth of the driver talent in the field and the national broadcast lend to it a legitimacy that continues a trend of “gaming” big league stock car racing. After all, we’re just barely into the second year of the “slot-car era” in NASCAR’s top echelon. And I won’t even start about the virtual grandstands that haven’t been that full at Homestead in the last decade. The perception of the sport being sold here can’t hope to convert new fans, because the real thing is nothing like iRacing, televised or otherwise.
So call it red meat for the NASCAR base, and so be it. I’m glad so many drivers, fans and writers enjoyed the show. The last thing anyone should do to anyone during these times is to take away safe forms of escape. With as irate as I’ve been taking walks around my local park during quarantine only to see dozens of people playing organized sports, breathing God knows what over each other, it’s great to see so many playing it safe and making the best of a bad situation.
The problem, however, is just that, a bad situation. And we’re not talking about the current pandemic, but the aftermath. Racetracks, just like restaurants, are going to emerge sorely hurting from this mess, with many race fans lacking income to go to the track, businesses lacking dollars to sponsor cars and racers themselves lacking funds to keep their machines on track.
It’s going take an immense amount of sacrifice to keep stock car racing alive and kicking once society can go back to normal. I have faith that racers and race fans will make such sacrifices, but I can’t say with certainty it’ll happen. Especially with virtual reality becoming reality.
On this Sunday, with video gaming on national TV and self-isolation continuing, my home track felt a whole lot more than 13 miles away.
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