With racing of all kinds temporarily suspended, race fans find themselves with limited options. There are plenty of old races online, but the outcome is already a known entity. And then there’s eRacing. NASCAR has sanctioned multiple series since last year, and they already had a healthy audience. But the sport has enjoyed a bump in awareness, as multiple racing series have recently staged virtual races, and they’re available to fans online and even on television.
While the races are not the real thing, they are still fun. Also, they’re all we’ve got right now, so that makes them worth a second look. Over a million people tuned into last week’s NASCAR Pro Invitational Series virtual race on FOX and FOX Sports 1, a very solid number that rivals some of the live racing the network shows. Would most fans choose virtual racing over actual racing? Probably not, but brushing the virtual versions aside means missing out on something worth checking out.
1. The Racing is Surprisingly Good
No, really. Drivers in various series have used simulated racing, particularly the iRacing platform, to learn about different cars or tracks because it gives them a good idea of what to expect. It’s accurate.
What that translates into for fans watching the races (and you do see the cars, it’s not watching the drivers play the game anymore than it would be normal in-car camera shots during a race) is a pretty authentic race. The crashes are sometimes a little ridiculous, and pit stops are seemingly performed by ghosts, but the racing itself is believable and exciting. The race Sunday (March 29) at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway featured a bump and run for the win. That’s not something you see every day on an intermediate track, and if anything, it lends unpredictability that sometimes the real thing doesn’t. Bottom line: it’s a pretty good show.
2. There’s Something for Everyone
Is NASCAR not your thing? There’s other virtual racing to be had: Indy cars, even sprint cars. Saturday’s IndyCar race featured a fan vote for the track (fans chose the full course at Watkins Glen International). Sage Karam dominated the day in that event, which was streamed online via INDYCAR’s website and on YouTube. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson pulled double duty last weekend, running surprisingly well at The Glen before strapping in for Texas.
The regular NASCAR-sanctioned eRacing series run midweek, as a well as some sprint car action, so you’re not limited to weekends to catch the action.
3. The Field has Surprises Week to Week
One part of the races that’s been extra fun is seeing who’s entered week to week. A huge part of the current Cup field is participating, along with former drivers Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a handful of others attempting to make the 35-car field. Biffle was a popular late addition this past week. The week before, Johnson was the last-minute entry. He was also a surprise entry in the virtual IndyCar race Saturday. This week, Kevin Harvick is rumored to be joining the Cup show.
As Johnson showed, there’s room for crossover between series. Might we see Kurt Busch, who has run the Indianapolis 500, give a virtual open-wheel car a shot? Might an INDYCAR star try to make the NASCAR field? Will anyone jump to the sprint car side? We can only hope to see some more crossover in the future.
4. And the Top Drivers are Definitely Not the Same Old, Same Old
After two races, the point leader in the NASCAR Pro Invitational Series is … Timmy Hill, who won at virtual Texas after putting a textbook bump and run on William Byron in the final laps and then holding off (no, really) Ryan Preece and Garrett Smithley. Landon Cassill was fourth and Alex Bowman scored the last top-five spot.
Hill is an experienced sim racer with nearly 700 iRacing wins, and that paid off Sunday. And his win shows one more thing — in this version of NASCAR, money doesn’t buy wins. While Denny Hamlin spent by his own estimate roughly $40,000 on his virtual rig, Hill estimates his was around $1,400, including the computer he runs on, his wheel setup and the desk it all sits on. In this racing, the underdog is no longer.
5. The Sport has a Future
I take part in a weekly racing podcast over at Access WDUN, and one of the things we talked about on this week’s edition is eRacing’s place in racing overall. Could it be the future of grassroots racing? And while I don’t think it’ll ever replace the real thing at any level, it certainly does offer an affordable way for some to experience racing they might otherwise not have. $1,400 for an entry-level setup is a lot less than even a good local-track race car runs on, and racers have the opportunity to try a variety of tracks and sometimes even race against top professionals — some drivers participate in online races anonymously. So while a real race car might not be in the cards for every aspiring racer, a virtual one could be.
And esports are gaining traction. The NASCAR-sanctioned races last year averaged an audience of around 200,000 without the benefit of real-life Cup drivers or television. People are watching. Sponsors are finding value in sim-racing platforms. It’s a trend worth keeping an eye on even after the real engines fire up again.