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NASCAR’s televised virtual race offers nice diversion

Jeff Birchfield • Mar 24, 2020 at 11:30 AM

In the absence of real sports, NASCAR was able to create a positive vibe with the iRacing Pro Invitational Series opener at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The virtual race featured 35 drivers, current and retired, from NASCAR’s three national series. The series will include a March 31 race on the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.

When first announced, the idea was met with its share of skepticism. Comments from older fans were generally along the lines of “I’m not going to spend my Sunday watching grown men play video games.”

For most, however, Sunday’s race televised on FS1 provided a nice diversion from the coronavirus pandemic that caused the postponement of actual NASCAR races through at least May 3.

One friend in the racing industry noted: “For a short time, it makes you forget what’s going on in the world. For an hour, you feel like you have a normal Sunday, watching NASCAR. Even though it’s not real, racing is the only sport in the world where you can compete like that.”

On that account, he’s right on.

ESPN has televised people playing Madden and other esports. In the case of Madden, the play is nothing like the actual game because players are simply pushing buttons. They’re not passing or catching the football. They’re not running, blocking and tackling, and they’re not kicking or punting.

When it comes to simulators matching real action, nothing is quite like auto racing where a competitor has an actual steering wheel and pedals.

Of course in a real race, there is no hitting the reset button after an accident among other variables. Still, many were entertained by Fox Sports announcers Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon calling the action and a last-lap battle for the win between Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at BMS, had high praise for the event.

“These are unprecedented times for everyone, but for race fans yesterday’s NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series effort broadcast on FS1 helped bring some levity during our country’s tough situation,” Caldwell said. “The ingenuity to make this event feel as if it was a normal race weekend — from the drivers, to sponsors, entertainers, media and promoters — everyone naturally came together to put on a one-of-kind show based on a virtual platform. It’s just kind of amazing.

“It could never replace the experience of an in-person event, but for these times it certainly was a breath of fresh air and a demonstration of how NASCAR and its partners push forward despite current challenges.”

Caldwell wasn’t alone in his praise for the event.

“Thank you @FS1 @NASCARonFOX the drivers and everyone in the industry who pulled this off,” tweeted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president. “This is what we all needed today!”

Hamlin noted how the drivers wanted to participate and entertain the fans.

“No one really talked to the drivers about unifying and participating,” Hamlin said in a post-race teleconference. “It was all free will, and that’s what’s exciting is you had 25-plus, full-time Cup guys out there willing to spend their time doing this.”

“This is such a strange time,” defending IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden tweeted. “I’m watching this @NASCAR @iRacing event on FS1 and it’s without a doubt making a difference for me while we can’t race in reality! I love it.”

SHOWCASING THEIR TALENTS

The event gave drivers Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley, back-markers in the major NASCAR series, a chance to showcase their talents.

The two ran 1-2 for part of the virtual race and easily outran former Cup Series champions Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

Hill and Smithley considered the race an opportunity to show what they could do in “equal equipment,” although that term is misleading.

While the virtual cars each had the same setup, those in the driver’s seat admitted there’s a big difference between simulated racing and real cars.

Still, Smithley couldn’t hide his excitement afterward.

“Wow what a day!” he posted on Twitter. “Pole, led laps, came home 5th. Awesome race! Really good way for all of us to have some fun.”

For all the racers and the fans, it was exactly that: a good way to have some fun.

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