Two weeks in, NASCAR and iRacing have toppled even the most optimistic expectations with their nationally televised virtual races, which have averaged more than a million viewers. The third edition of the eNASCAR series takes place Sunday, when drivers will log online to square off in a simulation at Bristol Motor Speedway. Here’s a primer to catch you up on the sports surprise of the spring:
Where can I watch Sunday’s eNASCAR race, the Food City Showdown?
At 10 a.m. Pacific time, the race will be broadcast on Fox or Fox Sports1 as well as the Fox Sports app, with the network's lead NASCAR announcers, Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds, on the call. It will be the third e-race since NASCAR’s real schedule was suspended last month.
Who is driving?
Actual NASCAR Cup Series drivers themselves, using iRacing “sim rigs” from their homes to compete against real-life counterparts on a virtual track. The rigs are like 21st-century versions of traditional arcade racing games, with drivers using foot pedals and a steering wheel the way they would in an actual stock car. Big names such as Jimmie Johnson, Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin highlight the 30-man field, as well as retired NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. The drivers are taking it seriously too, with most holding hours-long practice sessions to prepare for the races during the week.
Are people watching?
Yes. The first eNASCAR race March 22 attracted more than 900,000 viewers, a record for an esports telecast. Last week’s race, at Texas Motor Speedway, drew more than 1.3 million viewers, the second-most-watched sports program of the week behind WWE’s "Friday Night Smackdown." As the race came down to the final lap, with Timmy Hill winning by less than a car length, it also became a No. 1 trending TV topic on Twitter. The eNASCAR races have been so successful, iRacing is staging similar broadcasts for IndyCar and truck racing series.
What is iRacing, and how did it become associated with eNASCAR?
The “e’s” and “i’s” can be confusing. “ENASCAR” is the shorthand name the motorsports league has given to this new virtual venture, officially titled the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which will adhere to the NASCAR schedule until speedway racing resumes. IRacing is the video game company behind the technology used to stage the events. Founded in 2008, iRacing has become a favorite of fans and drivers, creating a modernized, mobile version of old arcade-style racing games that can be played from home.
How realistic does an eNASCAR race really look?
More than you would think. For starters, iRacing has invested heavily in creating a stimulating visual experience. Car movements in the video game mimic real racing almost to a tee, as do the seemingly infinite granular details — identical paint scheme on cars, pit-stop simulations, images of the crowd. The iRacing platform also allows for camera shots that would never be possible in reality. The wrecks aren’t too shabby either.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) March 30, 2020
Can I get an iRacing rig too?
The video game, which has more than 100,000 subscribers worldwide, is available to anyone with a PC and a pedals-and-steering-wheel simulation rig. The rigs range from small, simple set-ups to elaborate metallic cocoons, such as the one Hamlin used to win the Homestead-Miami race two weeks ago. Subscriptions are also charged on a monthly or yearly basis, with a regular base price of $13 per month.
Is this esports?
Yes, though not in the traditional sense. Esports as an industry has flourished in the last decade — and, in a world of social distancing and self-isolation, is especially booming right now — by using games such as “League of Legends,” “Overwatch” and “Call of Duty” for high-profile, big-payday competitions. The NBA has created the “2K League” in which franchises field teams of six professional gamers — all of whom are on salaries — to compete against one another in the video game. Twitch, a video game streaming and social media platform, has allowed top players to build lucrative personal brands as well. ENASCAR, by comparison, is dropping real-world drivers into a virtual space, helping them scratch their competitive itch while the COVID-19 pandemic keeps the sports world on pause.
Can I bet on eNASCAR?
Of course. Hill, a 27-year-old Cup Series driver who has been into iRacing for almost a decade, is the favorite to win Sunday’s race with 4-1 odds, according to bookmaker William Hill. Earnhardt Jr., who has become another iRacing staple since retiring in 2017, is the second-favorite at 13-2. Other notable drivers include Hamlin (12-1), Joey Logano (30-1), Kyle Busch (40-1), and Johnson (50-1).
Aside from entertaining fans (and themselves), what's in it for the drivers?
Younger, more unproven drivers — such as Hill, who has yet to win a "real" NASCAR event — have the rare chance at a more level playing field. Unlike actual races, where the top teams (aka the most well-funded teams) are able to build the fastest cars, iRacing gives each vehicle equal attributes, thus giving lower-profile drivers a better chance at capturing the checkered flag. And while a virtual victory won’t mean the same as an actual win, these eNASCAR events have become the shiny, new toy of the motorsports world, the biggest platform currently available for drivers to make new fans and impress potential sponsors. In other words, recognition is the reward.