Analysis: With real-world racing idle, NASCAR community, iRacing fill void

Zack Albert
NASCAR.com

Reality has been unsettling lately — inconvenient at best and frightening at its worst. News of the global COVID-19 pandemic’s outbreak has spread into all facets of daily life and recreation. That’s meant an unprecedented impact on the sports world, including stock-car racing and the weekly show as we knew it.

That’s part of why Sunday’s two-hour dive into the virtual reality of iRacing provided a welcome escape, and why many of the same folks will try to rally the NASCAR community to give the diversion another go next weekend.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series experience of racing pixel-to-pixel instead of door-to-actual-door isn’t the real thing. The online platform can’t quite replicate NASCAR’s real-world sensory overload — the primal engine rumbles, the smells, the visual blur of actual race cars at speed. And the Damaged Vehicle Policy’s six-minute clock doesn’t exactly translate to eSports, where repairs can take place in a blink thanks to an allotment of damage resets. But with the focus on the general public staying home in the coming weeks to help slow the coronavirus’ spread, the iRacing simulation of a Sunday staple produced a similar comfort with some alt-reality twists.

Drivers did their part. It’s been nearly three years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. competed head-to-head with Denny Hamlin on a regular basis. Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 150 gave us a new duel between the two veterans from the convenience of their homes, with a barefoot Hamlin surviving a mid-race soda spill for an unconventional victory. It also offered another chance to hear the trademark roar of the crowd when Earnhardt’s No. 8 took the lead, thanks to a fleet-footed FOX Sports production staff piping in a virtual ovation.

RELATED: Hamlin holds off Dale Jr. in iRacing invitational

The event gave us a chance to cheer for underdogs, with Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley reveling in the leveled playing field, each taking turns at the front of the pack and claiming respectable top-five finishes at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Cup Series champions and race winners had their own adventures, with crashes and connection issues particularly dogging Jimmie Johnson, who took the virtual tough luck in his typically easy real-world stride.

FOX Sports gave an air of adapted authenticity to the broadcast, deploying its usual on-air pairing of Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon to hold court, with Clint Bowyer chiming in for in-race commentary and much-needed comic relief. What seemed unthinkable weeks ago — play-by-play and color analysis for a racing simulation, airing on a major sports network — all came together in short order, and the broadcast deftly straddled the line between serious competition and leisurely fun.

NASCAR officials also embraced the alternate programming. Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer, contributed to the social-media swell with his best impression of the boss of virtual race control. A real-world summons to the NASCAR hauler comes with repercussions. Sunday, it became a moment of virtual levity.

MORE: 10 things we learned from virtual Homestead

Safety protocols recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have made real-world racing impossible for the next several weeks. Social-distancing and other necessary safety measures have rightly become the top priority, but the collegial spirit of the NASCAR community helped Sunday’s workaround find its niche.

“It’s Sunday afternoon,” Hamlin said of the event’s social buzz. “You would normally be watching in and tuning in and watching us at Homestead anyway, and what are we doing, we’re talking about a race at Homestead. I think for sure it energizes our industry.”

Binge-watching TV, solo exercise and happy hours via video conference are providing those needed distractions. For motorsports fans, add virtual racing to the list as a suitable stand-in.

This Sunday, let’s hit reset and do it all again.

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