With plenty of sim racing competing for fans’ interest at a time when all of them have been searching for racing-related entertainment, each additional event needs to bring something different to the table. NBC Sports Network brought exactly that in its eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge.
The pre-taped races aired for one hour each day, Monday (April 6) through Thursday on NBCSN. Six drivers competed in the first three nights at virtual Rockingham Speedway, Lucas Oil Raceway and Myrtle Beach Speedway. Each night featured two 45-lap races, with the field inverted after the first race. Then at virtual Martinsville Speedway, 10 contended for the championship: five winners and five provisionals.
Those who won their way in were William Byron, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ryan Preece and Landon Cassill. NBC announcer Steve Letarte chose Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Chase Briscoe, Parker Kligerman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to fill out the field.
Byron showed just how good he is at iRacing, leading the first half of the race before the caution flag flew. He was so good, in fact, that both he and Kligerman had to serve a pass-through competition penalty for being “too good.” As a result, Briscoe took over the race lead on the restart and held off a hard-charging Byron for the victory.
Overall, the series was enjoyable for both drivers and fans alike. Since it was pre-taped, more radio communication aired on the broadcast. Letarte and Rick Allen called the race from their homes, and several times throughout each race, Letarte talked to a driver. Some competitors were quiet and more focused, while others were a bit more talkative.
On Monday, Kyle Busch did a play-by-play of the drivers battling in front of him and quickly proved to be a natural.
The drivers knew this was for fun, so they tried to change things up during the races. For example, while Bell was crossing the finish line at Lucas Oil Raceway he slowed up just enough for Hamlin to run into him.
THEY BOTH WRECK AT THE FINISH LINE!@DennyHamlin rides the wall, turns into @CBellRacing, but it's the No. 95 that WINS the eSports @iRacing Challenge and moves on to the Championship race!#RacingWeekNBCSN pic.twitter.com/G5GwRJAO6F
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) April 7, 2020
Then the next night at Myrtle Beach, Preece held off Earnhardt to win the first race. When he went to do a burnout in the next turn, he stopped and Matt DiBenedetto ran into him.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) April 8, 2020
Another aspect that set this series apart from the iRacing Pro Invitational Series is that the virtual tracks were places drivers don’t normally go to, with the exception of Martinsville. They are each iconic and hold a special place in NASCAR’s history. Even though only a few cars ran each night, the racetracks’ significance shined through.
Compared to other iRacing broadcasts and series currently running, this was definitely meant to be more of a fun and entertaining break for all involved. With the regular NASCAR season on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak, the series helped to “fill that void,” Briscoe mentioned after the championship race. Though short tracks are always fan favorites, it’s not hard to imagine NBC extending the concept of this event to other types of tracks, like superspeedways or road courses.
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