NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: iRacing)

Couch Potato Tuesday: North Wilkesboro Lives Up to Hype, FOX Sports 1 Messes Up Tucson

We’ve come to the end (for now) of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, televised by FOX and FOX Sports 1. Over the seven races, there were truly two standout drivers. They were William Byron and Timmy Hill. Hendrick Motorsports’ decision to skip Saturday’s (May 9) North Wilkesboro 160 gifted the faux championship to Hill, who ended up winning by two-thirds of a race over Garrett Smithley. You can check out those point standings here.

Before we get into Saturday’s 160-lap races, we must talk about some technical issues. As you may know, FOX Sports 1 has been airing a number of classic races during the layoff. They’ve been quite interesting to watch and I’ve enjoyed them.

Saturday saw the first throwback Truck Series race get broadcast: the 1995 Racing Champions 200 at then-Tucson Raceway Park (now Tucson Speedway) in Arizona. It’s a familiar setting for the trucks since they ran three exhibitions there as part of the inaugural Winter Heat that we covered a few weeks ago in Turn Back the Clock prior to the season.

Tucson was only the second-ever points race for the then-NASCAR SuperTruck Series by Craftsman (the name only lasted for 1995). Given the race’s relatively short length (a two-hour timeslot for a 72-minute race), viewers got an uncut race broadcast.

There were two big problems with the broadcast as aired on FOX Sports 1, the most notable of which was a video glitch. The first half of the race aired as it should have, as did most of the halftime break. Then, the video went black during the caution laps after the break and restarted without going to a commercial. Meanwhile, the audio ran as it should have. If you tuned in after that halfway point, you had a screwed-up broadcast. Oh boy, this mistake was big. It seems like it could have been as simple as someone in their Charlotte master control pressing the wrong button.

The entire second half of the broadcast ran the same way. Awful Announcing picked up on the issue and wrote a post Saturday about it. Also, yes, my aforementioned tweet made it into the Awful Announcing article. Rule of thumb: That isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Ultimately, Saturday was the only chance for this broadcast to air on FOX Sports 1. The only scheduled replay of the broadcast was scheduled for 11:30 p.m. ET Saturday night on FOX Sports 2. I can’t speak for everyone, but FS2 is SD-only for me.

The second issue with the broadcast was something that viewers dealt with for the entire race. The booth commentators (Dave Despain and Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s current vice president of Officiating and Technical Inspection) were quite difficult to hear. It’s as if the mix was changed to obscure them.

And before we go on, I did watch the 1986 Bud at the Glen Sunday and I saw that that the graphics from ESPN had been mostly removed. That’s not a good thing and I would prefer that it doesn’t happen going forward (it didn’t happen on the aforementioned truck broadcast). Not having them makes it unnecessarily difficult to follow the race.

North Wilkesboro 160 (FOX Sports 1)

Saturday brought the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series to its conclusion with a special race at the brand-new virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway. The track was showcased Saturday and admittedly raced well. I genuinely liked the on-track action that we got. Also, it ended up being the shortest race by time of the seven, despite the caution flags.

The original plan was to publicly debut the track during this race, then make the track available to iRacing subscribers for a fee once the quarterly update is released on June 2. Sentiment was so positive from Saturday’s race that iRacing moved the North Wilkesboro release up to Monday. As a result, the track is getting plenty of use in the simulation right now by thousands of sim racers, including our own Michael Massie as part of the racing media league.

During the race broadcast, FOX Sports announced that two old-school Cup cars, the 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe and the 1987 Ford Thunderbird, would be joining the sim as well. Those two cars are still on tap for a June 2 release. Should be very interesting for racers. To get the full roster, they’ll need a Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2, Oldsmobile Delta 88 and Buick LeSabre.  I’m unsure of the locations of any 1987 Delta 88 or LeSabres. I know the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega has two 1986 LeSabre Grand Nationals that Bobby Allison and Bobby Hillin Jr. each won with.

FOX Sports 1’s broadcast still had a number of the issues that come with relying on someone else for the production. JJ Yeley, who finished 11th Saturday, had multiple incidents. Viewers never got a clear shot of either of them. Luckily, they didn’t beat up his No. 52 Chevrolet too much (Note: As the booth noted, Yeley’s scheme was a throwback to Ken Schrader, but not to his time with Donlavey Racing. Schrader ran a No. 52 Red Baron Pizza Chevrolet in Busch Grand National competition in 1989).

For Saturday’s race, Clint Bowyer was back after missing Dover. Jeff Gordon also had at it as the only Hendrick Motorsports representative. That led to multiple back-and-forths between Bowyer and Gordon, whose sim rigs were set up on both sides of the same room. The banter was somewhat similar to what you heard during the GEICO 70 at virtual Talladega Superspeedway last month.

Bowyer did, at one point, claim that Gordon should put his money up, buy the real track and renovate it. Yes, Gordon has money. Quite a bit of it, and rightfully earned. I’m not sure that he wants to drop $20-25 million on North Wilkesboro Speedway to fix it up right, though (personally, that’s the number that I always thought would be necessary to acquire the property and make necessary renovations). Let’s face it; the place is a gut job at this point.

Most of the buildings on the property would need to be demolished and the property hooked up to the local sewer system. We’re not even getting into what would need to be done to the track itself.

There was also a special appearance on the broadcast by Ray Evernham, who offered to give Gordon some pointers on setup. Since no teams had even so much as tested at North Wilkesboro in a decade and no Cup races have been held there since 1996, Evernham went back to get his notes. Am I surprised that Evernham still had the notes from the 1996 Tyson Holly Farms 400?  Heck no.

Crew chiefs tend to be packrats when it comes to stuff like race notes. Larry McReynolds showed on air that he still has the notes from when Davey Allison won at North Wilkesboro in 1992. I’m no different with the notes I write for these columns. I still have all the notebooks here that I’ve used to take notes on races over the past 11 years.

Corey LaJoie had a decent start to Saturday’s race before falling back. He was still running OK when a mechanical problem ended his day. Joy reported that Lajoie’s brake pedal broke. Bet you’re wondering what that looks like on the sim rig. Well, here you go.

You can’t exactly fix that in a hurry in your house. Since Saturday’s race, LaJoie has sold his sim rig to Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton. It appears that the brake pedal was fixed before Eaton took possession.

Post-race coverage was relatively brief since the broadcast did still run long Saturday (nowhere near as long as the other broadcasts, though). Viewers got an interview with race winner Denny Hamlin and not much else before FOX Sports 1 left virtual Wilkes County.

On Saturday’s broadcast, the star was truly the track itself. A good percentage of NASCAR’s current fan base likely never saw a race from North Wilkesboro live on TV, let alone in person. Having legendary drivers such as Richard Petty and Bobby Allison give their thoughts on the track helped drive home the history of the facility.

Given the nature of the work that went into getting the track into the simulation, Saturday was a big day for iRacing. Their work is exquisite and detail oriented. It’s a faithful recreation, right down to the scoreboard in turn 3 that had placards for both the top five and lap counter. I cannot attest to whether they simulated a person changing those numbers around for the sim, but it apparently does update in real time.

In regards to the track itself, the simulation made for very good racing. There was a good amount of side-by-side competition and the track could handle multiple grooves. NASCAR streamed the final Cup race from North Wilkesboro last Thursday on their YouTube page, and what we saw Saturday was more competitive at times. The outside line definitely got more use in the sim race.

It’s a little hard to tell whether the track was quite that bumpy in 1987 (the basis year for the track in the sim) since the cars are so very different now. In Dirty Mo Media’s Bringing Back Wilkesboro, a piece that premiered last week on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Twitch page about the cleanup day back in December, representatives from iRacing noted they were going to smoothen the track for the sim (I believe the pavement at North Wilkesboro today is the same that was there in 1987). That said, I’m not sure how much they did.

On that note, I do recommend checking out Bringing Back Wilkesboro. It’s pretty incredible just how much that the small crew of workers pulled out of the track surface and walls so that the place could be scanned. You also don’t have to go on Twitch, as Dirty Mo Media has posted it to YouTube.

For iRacing, good things continue to come for them even though the Pro Invitational Series has wrapped up. The future sees new tracks and new cars being added (my understanding is that Hickory Speedway and Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville are next on the list). Their biggest issue may actually be demand outpacing supply: ongoing circumstances has led to a dearth of available equipment to actually sim race (and what is available costs a lot more than it used to).

With NASCAR getting back underway this weekend, you won’t have so much iRacing at the forefront (although I wouldn’t be shocked if you saw some more of it on television going forward, perhaps in the offseason). The sim races ultimately did their job here. They kept people occupied at a time when people were craving for anything sports.

It also made fans realize that perhaps there’s more talent out there on the track than they realize. In the faux points that I compiled for the Pro Invitational, the top two guys were Hill and Smithley. I’ve met and interviewed both drivers. They’ve always struck me as straightforward, honest, friendly young men that are happy to have their shot at the big time. They’ve never had the best equipment, but they’ve done what they can with what they have.

The general idea of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was to have a bunch of races for fun in order to keep people occupied. For the most part, that’s what we got. Am I surprised that things got serious? Heck no. You’re putting 29-39 drivers in a race. Of course, they’re going to be competitive. That’s in their blood. What viewers generally got was some good racing and a lot of shenanigans, partially due to drivers feeling they could be more aggressive than in real life. Which of the two happened more frequently depended on the race you were watching.

That said, just because the races are for fun doesn’t mean that you can be a moron. Kyle Larson found that out the hard way. Do I think all heck will go down in actual races because of what happened in these sim events? Not likely.

That’s all for this week. This weekend will see racing return for real as the NASCAR Cup Series will race Sunday at Darlington Raceway. It will likely be an unusual broadcast; I have no idea what to expect. Look for a write up of that race in next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday.

Beyond Sunday, we have mid-week races from NASCAR beginning with next Tuesday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series event. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to handle that. At bare minimum, the Wednesday night Cup race at Darlington will be handled in the Critic’s Annex in our Frontstretch Newsletter. (Sign up; it’s free!)

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About Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor. Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as Tony Stewart's Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions.

One comment

  1. Matt

    Phil, I watched hundred of espn races back in that era. The graphics were pretty simple compared to today’s visual graffiti. They consisted maiinly of a ticker moving left to right at the bottom of the screen. After they showed the last place driver they’d show what lap the race was on. The reason you didn’t see them Sunday afternoon was they were buried beneath that day’s news scroll trumpeting such hot breaking stories as Shaq thinks it’s time to yank the plug on this years NBA season and some player’s younger brother will be playing ball in Europe next year until he’s eligible for the NBA draft.