(Photo: NASCAR)

2-Headed Monster: Has iRacing Helped or Hurt NASCAR?

iRacing has been a controversial topic in recent weeks. First it was Bubba Wallace, who lost a sponsorship from Blue-Emu when he decided to quit a race before it was over. Wallace then went on Twitter and announced that he quit while he still had some resets left and didn’t think it was a big deal. This led to Blu Emu tweeting back at him and saying that they don’t represent quitters and they would no longer be associated with him. It was a bad look for Wallace as he may be branded as petty by some sponsors.

The backlash from that started to change some fans opinions on iRacing. A video game actually cost a driver a sponsorship. That was something that we’d never thought we’d see. Then came the Kyle Larson incident on Sunday (April 13).

Larson uttered a racial slur while on iRacing and using his microphone on the all-driver channel unknowingly. The incident was exposed late Sunday night and by Monday morning was a top headline from most news outlets. First, Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) suspended him, then multiple sponsors backed away from him and NASCAR suspended him as well. In the end, it cost him not only his job. On Tuesday, CGR fired him and Chevrolet disassociated with him as well. It was another incident on iRacing that made NASCAR look bad.

When the news on Larson came out, there was a lot of negative press and media attention towards NASCAR. Always viewed as a southern sport with a southern fan base, the stereotype has been that all NASCAR fans are still the down home southern fans who like things the way they were.

No matter how untrue that may be, the backlash of the last two incidents have put NASCAR in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

That begs the question. Has iRacing hurt NASCAR? Our writers Clayton Caldwell and Vito Pugliese debate.

Look at the Big Picture

There’s no question the Kyle Larson situation has hurt the sport of NASCAR. The amount of negative publicity the sport has received from countless media outlets has been endless.

However, I don’t blame the Larson incident on iRacing. The issue is with Larson and his vocabulary, not iRacing.

iRacing and NASCAR have been featured many nights across the country on networks run by both NBC and Fox. During this time of staying home, there have been several races run on multiple tracks that have peaked the interest in not only NASCAR fans but fans who may not have given the sport a second thought prior to this. The ability to run at a track like Myrtle Beach Speedway has captivated the NASCAR audience and it has also captivated the video game world. The actuality of the racing is a truly remarkable concept for any video game fan.

NASCAR has tried hard to fight in recent years to fight a notion that says the sport is tailored to old, white males. The younger generation has not caught on and stuck with NASCAR as much as previous generations have.

There may be several different factors for why that is but one could argue that the lack of an affordable, realistic video game as one of those factors. EA Sports stopped making a NASCAR video game after 2008 and while NASCAR Heat has recently filled that void, there was quite a bit of time where no affordable NASCAR video game was available. You could argue, they lost the video game crowd during that time period.

iRacing has changed that and the realism with it has certainly appealed to a young crowd who may not be familiar with the sport. Even watching NASCAR drivers or former NASCAR drivers compete against each other in a video game is appealing to a culture that has had video games as a major part of their lives.

NASCAR has now grown in an area where they were sorely lacking. The exposure iRacing is getting has been the best kind of advertising for that generation and for a crowd that are into video games but not auto racing.

The fact that these kids can go on to their computer and play against Dale Earnhardt Jr. and have it be as close to real as possible is incredible. No other sport has that. Sure, you may be able to play LeBron James online in the latest NBA 2K game but it’s not nearly as real as playing him one on one. If fans or media members can’t see the benefit in that, then I don’t know what to say.

Add that with the fact that NASCAR has drawn a crowd to the television for some of these events is a factor as well. Sure, it hasn’t drawn as well as the real racing has but it’s a live event that has created some interest. Over 1.5 million fans tuned into one of the events and a steady flow of an audience has watched. NASCAR has been a topic of conversation over this last month when a lot of sports have literally nothing going on. You can thank iRacing for that.

While Larson and Wallace haven’t done themselves any favors, iRacing has brought some names to the forefront that you normally wouldn’t see. For example, Timmy Hill won the virtual race at Texas Motor Speedway and one of the more popular drivers in recent weeks has been Landon Cassill. Garrett Smithley has also shown his skills in iRacing running up front on a regular basis. Those are three drivers who do not get a ton of exposure in NASCAR that are now getting some publicity. This will help them sell sponsorship in the real world. How can that be a bad thing for NASCAR?

In the long run, the progress iRacing has made for NASCAR during this time is something that can’t be overlooked. It may not seem like it now, but the popularity iRacing has gotten could pay dividends down the road for NASCAR as the younger fans who are fascinated by video games grow older and start to spend money in their sport. It has also given some drivers a huge boost in popularity and recognition. In a sport that is desperate for sponsorship, how can that be a bad thing? – Clayton Caldwell

 

iAm Not Into It

If there’s a more star-crossed sporting organization than NASCAR, by all means, show me.

The season starts off with the Thunderbirds and Air Force One doing fly-bys, a huge heyday sized audience … then persistent rain forcing a reschedule on Monday. But Monday in prime time! A great race with a last-lap to the line finish to rival the most iconic battles to the flag ever … only to end in near tragedy as Ryan Newman had everyone fearing the worst. Then he walks out two days later! Then a couple more good races! Then no races.

Enter iRacing!

At first it seemed a bit hokey – video gaming in front of a captive audience, trying to desperately maintain the momentum that had been gathered the first few weeks of the 2020 season. But hey, why not give it a shot? Junior’s involved, so are Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Clint Bowyer’s fun to listen to, so why not? Maybe people who don’t normally watch will get into it. If you can’t go out you might as well give iRacing a shot too right? Let’s get more eyes on the sport that is often so often misunderstood and always has to battle an unenviable reputation and stereotypes. What could go wrong?

Well if the past two weeks are any indication, a lot.

First there’s the Bubba Wallace incident, and the “rage quit” episode where he angrily turned the game off after contact with Clint Boywer. “That’s why I don’t take this s*** serious. Bye bye. Peace out!” said Wallace, as he abruptly ended his session. Blue-Emu CEO Ben Blessing didn’t appreciate this lack of video game sportsmanship stating the end of their sponsorship with Wallace driving the No. 43 RPM Chevrolet. As Blessing told Darren Rovell of The Action Network, “Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?”

Uh yeah, I can. Except it wasn’t on a real track. It was a video game. And don’t at me saying it’s a “simulator.” It’s a video game.

At first blush, it looked to me like an easy out of a sponsorship agreement, in a season now marred by uncertainty of when real racecars will be on actual racetracks again. If they do go racing, when are fans allowed back in? How many are allowed in the garage or sponsorship tents? How are their marketing and activation packages affected? And what is Blue-Emu anyway? Is it Goody’s in paste form? Given the difficulty the No. 43 team has had attracting sponsors (or any team for that matter) to patch a full season together the past few years, losing even a small associate sponsor would be devastating. I mean what could be worse?

Enter Kyle Larson.

There’s no reason to rehash what was said. Any effort to walk through or explain what was said is an attempt to rationalize and normalize it.

One errant remark terminated a lucrative top-tier ride in the Cup Series as well as impacted sprint-car competition that he has cherished so dearly. Blue-Emu is not Chevrolet, McDonald’s, or Credit One Bank. This was a career-killing incident that will take a lot to recover from – both for the driver and the team, and for the team and sponsor that chooses to follow him in the future.

It also put the sanctioning body in the unjustifiable position of having to explain why one of its most popular drivers is casually blurting out racial slurs. The same sport whose Southern roots have its own history they have been trying to distance themselves from since being recognized as a major mainstream sport.

The fallout from this extends beyond Larson’s remarks and resulting actions from his sponsors. What happens the next time there’s a pitched iRacing battle and someone utters an insult – not the one Larson did – but say some colorful four-letter 2011-Kurt Busch quality stream of conscious rant? What happens if something that would normally be considered innocuous is then deemed offensive? Is that driver’s sponsors going to be motivated to take equally drastic action, if they’re perceived as being aligned with something even remotely negative, let alone to the level of Larson’s incident?

What if someone complains that they don’t like what their kids are subjected to and blasts out a tweet to a sponsor’s CEO and embeds the live stream of the exchange? It’s a different environment than a weekly race when cars on the track, people are doing things and not sequestered at home, tethered to their phones in an already heightened state of anxiety with six weeks of gloom, doom and despair being broadcast into their quarantined home, on a 24-hour loop all day, taking its toll. Are more sponsors have an excuse to exit contracts in an effort to sustain cash flow? Is there even more negativity going to be cast down on NASCAR before engines even crank over again? These are real concerns, with real dollars and payrolls in the balance here, along with the lives of people at these companies that are more than a cheap vinyl wrap on a racecar.

If a company can save 100 jobs by axing a NASCAR sponsorship, do you think they’d consider reviewing it?

Putting myself in the position of a driver or team owner, I would give pause before continuing to be involved with the online endeavor as it currently stands. We’re no closer to racing now than we were the week after Atlanta, and the landscape is going to continue to evolve over the coming months. There are other ways to keep the sport relevant than iRacing, which to be honest, unless you have a sim rig and are actually competing, it just seems really lame to me. I know, I’m a wet blanket when it comes to this, but it was my initial feeling upon seeing that race at Texas a few weeks ago. I can’t feign enthusiasm for it. I understand it’s something we’re trying to see if it works, and I’ve seen enough.

I’d much rather they spend the time airing some of the races of the 1980s and 1990s (No FOX Sports, not the 2001 Daytona 500 or 2003 spring Darlington race), to help show the foundation on which today’s NASCAR was built on in the modern era. Do it Mystery Science Theater 3000 style with a few of the drivers commenting on the race and some key moments giving their perspective or similar experience.

To me, that seems a lot safer, equally relevant, and a more effective way of getting fans ready to go back racing, both new views and long-standing ones, and maybe even some of those that always tell you, “I ain’t watched since Dale died,” but yet still know everyone competing and what happened two weeks ago. – Vito Pugliese

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Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.

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22 comments

  1. Avatar

    I’m with you. While listening to the drivers banter can be amusing (if it isn’t Kyle Larsen), the video game just doesn’t cut it. while it might be a fun experience for those participating, it really doesn’t do much for me other than as background noise. Much rather see reruns of old races…REALLY old races.

  2. Avatar

    I agree with sb except all I ask is that the race be from at least 10 year ago. If I were in control the races would all have dates before 2000. As for iRacing, if you can afford the equipment to play it’s probably great, but as a spectator-worthy event it’s a total waste of time and useless.

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      Totally agree Bill B

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        Timmy HIll won Texas with a steering wheel he purchased 10 years ago for $300. Not saying I disagree with you, but iRacing is less about the equipment than Cup racing. (but as I tell my kid when we race on his Xbox and he kicks my butt- experience with the medium is still key.)

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          That’s because it’s a video game. It’s not real. Nobody cares that he had a ten year old $300 steering wheel. Look how knowledgeable you are.

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          OK, so maybe I could afford to play if I were so inclined. It still doesn’t change the fact that watching others play a video game holds no appeal to me.

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          wow, my mother is a jerk…

          it doesn’t really appeal to me either, Bill B. I’ve watched the highlights, but iRacing is in now way a fair comparison to actual racing- no matter how much the iRacers tell you otherwise. Kyle B. and Jimmie Johnson suck at iRacing the cup cars. both are top notch actual drivers with a ton of racing talent. It doesn’t translate.

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          Bill, I also race with a 300 dollar wheel as well. Loads of fun but watching it…yea not that exciting. Maybe if we could get some live shots of the drivers with these simrigs set up as they crank the wheel…but watching the computerized cars is not doing it for me either.
          I play NASCAR Heat4 as I do not want to invest in Iracing..you have to pay for….License, car, tracks, skins, (if you want spotter they have to pay for all this too), a computer that can run it, a good monitor…I dont have the time of day to make that investment.

          Eddo, meh…some of it translates and some of it doesn’t. Kyle talked about the differences a week or 2 ago on Dale Jr download as well. I think if you could be a good simracer – you could be a good driver but not the other way around imo. There is just so much more feel in the car that doesn’t translate. Example – instead of feeling the real car step out by feel of the G’s, hearing the engine, and feeling the chatter in the car…you only feel it stepping out in the wheel and by visual (car turning sideways). I hope that kind of makes sense. Watch Kyle and Dale discuss it on YouTube :)

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          iceman- that makes total sense.

  3. Avatar

    I’m on board with the idea of airing older races and totally agree that the races being shown should be prior to 2000.

    I also have no interest in watching other people play a video game.

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      I wonder if nascar worries about airing older races. New fans might realize how much today’s cars, cookie cutters, and PC machine drivers suck. They’ll understand why Rebel flag waving Southern rednecks (like yours truly) walked away after having nascar’s back turned on them.

  4. Avatar

    forgot to say that last night, 4/15 FS1 aired the 1988 race from Phoenix. I watched the whole thing and enjoyed it very much.

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      Awesome wasn’t it!!! That one has been aired a few times in the last several weeks. It was the first cup race held at Phoenix and Alan Kulwicki’s first win. If you were like me and had never seen it before, then it was as good as seeing a new race. Amazing how unsophisticated the whole presentation was back then,,, not just the TV broadcast but the track and stands as well. The point is, they could put a different pre-2000 race on every night and I’d watch everyone of them because there are no other sports to watch.
      FYI: There are a couple of Xfinity races on Fox S1 on Saturday morning (1998 Richmond 7:30AM and 1985 Bristol 10:00AM). A shame they are cup races. Then on Sunday at 10AM there is a 2004 Rockingham Cup race (It will be good to see the old track again).

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      Also, on my main Fox network channel the April 26 2009 Cup race from Talledega is on Saturday at noon EST. However I can see that not all Fox network channels are broadcasting it. In my area the Baltimore Fox channel has it listed and Washington DC Fox channel does not.

  5. Avatar

    In re: broadcasting old races, why would I care about watching a race when I already know who won it?

    I’ve been enjoying the iraces thoroughly, though I won’t be able to watch more since we’ve had to give up our TV subscription for budget reasons.

    Live competition is what makes sports fun. I watched those 10 and 20yo races already 10 or 20 years ago.

    • Avatar

      I like watching the old races- even if I know who won. It’s a different era, different people, and for some races, it bring back a boat load of memories of watching with my folks. So many people like to complain about races nowadays being boring compared to old races, and comparing them for myself with that in mind shows me that they are all crazy, lol.

      whats not to be excited/nervous/terrified of watching races with no pit road speed limits? Guys standing out in front of the cars holding pit boards? the amount of cars that fall out of races due to broken engines or random other parts that don’t seem to ever break anymore? (I watched an old daytona race, and by like lap 50, there were 12 cars out with broken this or that. That just doesn’t happen anymore.)

      I find the old races fascinating. :)

    • Avatar

      First off, I envy your memory. I might remember who won but I certainly don’t remember the majority of what happened and since I don’t just tune in to see the last 10 laps, I still enjoy the experience.

      Secondly, I will also re-watch movies multiple times. There are movies I’ve watched 10+ times (lot’s of them). And don’t get me started on MASH, Simpsons and Seinfeld reruns. I guess you don’t believe in that either. I know people who will never re-watch a movie they’ve seen so you are not alone. I look at it like going on a ride at an amusement park. Subsequent rides may not give you the same jolt as the first time you rode it, but it still is a good experience.

      Enjoy watching your video game contests if it works for you but I get absolutely nothing out of it.

  6. Avatar

    You remark it’s good for Timmy Hill and more people know his name. Okay. Is he going to be a higher-profile ride out of this? Is MBM going to get new sponsors out of this?

  7. Avatar

    There are other ways to keep the sport relevant than iRacing, which to be honest, unless you have a sim rig and are actually competing, it just seems really lame to me.

    I am with you on this. I watched 1 race and that was enough. My thoughts were it is a video game and does not relate to the real thing because JJ crashed and several others did also so unless you play the game regularly so that you gain the nuances of the game you can’t really compete.

  8. Avatar

    It’s a video game. How many folk would watch this kind of racing if the drivers were 14 year old kids at the controls?

    NASCAR uses the Cup drivers to market this virtual nonsense. Chasing a target audience that no longer exists in the real world of racing.

  9. Avatar

    Where the hell is Matt McLaughlin? I’m dying to read his column on iRacing.

    • Avatar

      I think he’s making his statement about how he feels regarding iRacing by not writing anything. The silence is deafening.