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Virtual NASCAR racing becomes stock-car reality

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  • Virtual NASCAR racing becomes stock-car reality
    Denny Hamlin, left, passes Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap to win the first ever Pro Series Invitational virtual reality race at iRacing’s Homestead-Miami Speedway. [NASCAR PHOTO]

L ess than two weeks ago a group of NASCAR drivers started a conversation about holding a virtual race as a social distancing diversion.

One thing led to another and this past Sunday Fox Sports 1 hosted the first virtual reality stock-car race from the cyber version of Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thirty-five drivers competed in a 100-lap Pro Series Invitational Series race over the iRacing platform and FS1 supplied three commentators and graphics to give it a realistic look and feel.

For those who missed the broadcast, Denny Hamlin passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. exiting Turn 4 on the last lap to score the victory.

“I was trying to get to the finish, I was trying to win the race and trying not to wreck anybody,” Earnhardt said from his virtual driving station. “I gave Denny a little more room than I wanted to, but I had to, to keep from crashing him or anyone else. It was a fun race.”

The early metrics are promising. At one point during the telecast the race was the top trending topic on Twitter. Fox won’t have the hard TV ratings numbers until later this week.

Hamlin said the event came together organically as NASCAR went a second week without a real race because of the coronavirus outbreak. All professional and college sports have shut down with the hopes of slowing the spread of the disease.

With a lot more time on their hands, several NASCAR drivers started showing up on the iRacing platform to keep their skills sharp.

“I think everyone just started doing it, and then iRacing got involved and emailed everyone, said, ‘Hey, this is what we’re thinking about,’” Hamlin said after the win.

“NASCAR got involved; television got involved and said they’d be interested. So, I think it all just came together.”

Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds called the action from the studio just like it was a real race, explaining the iRacing racing rules as the competition developed, such as each driver being given two car repairs, or resets, if they were involved in an accident.

Clint Bowyer set up his virtual driving station in the FS1 studio for quick driver feedback to the action happening on the track. At times it looked like a real race, depending on the shot angle.

“Everybody at Fox treated this like a big event,” McReynolds said in a telephone interview soon after the race. “We were all in. In the last three or four days (before the race), I watched 350 to 400 laps of iRacing to learn and engage myself as much as possible.

“I was excited about doing this because this was as close as you could get to the real world with having the real world. In my war room I didn’t feel any differently than I would have been calling a real race from Homestead.”

If those Nielsen ratings come in strong and NASCAR remains closed for business until May, virtual racing could become a short-term television regular.

“I’ve been broadcasting for 20 years and I’ve never really got engaged to rating numbers, because there ain’t a damn thing I can do to change them,” McReynolds said. “All I can do is what we did today.

“But I want to want to believe, based on the fact that our NASCAR fan was hungry for something on the race track. Since there were no other live sports events, I have to believe the interest level was high.”

“I don’t know if we will score a .5 or 5.5 but I look at this as a huge success,” he added.

Hamlin thinks we will see more virtual racing in the near term as everyone practices social distancing for the foreseeable future.

“I think it would be a great thing to keep it going and get people excited for the real season when it kicks back off in early May,” he said.