Whether it’s real life or the virtual world, a race at Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the biggest highlights of the season for NASCAR on FOX lead announcer Mike Joy.
In fact, Joy is expecting more crashes in Sunday’s NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Food City Showdown at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway than a normal weekend around the high-banked short track.
“Of all the races we do for iRacing this spring, Bristol is the one where the drivers are really glad they have that reset button and can get a fast repair when they wad up their cars,” Joy said. “We are concerned about the frequency of caution flags we would have. We’re going to have a reduced field for the feature event at Bristol.
“Hopefully, the qualifying races will be part of the FOX telecast on Sunday. With 36 or 40 cars on Bristol, you might just watch carnage all afternoon, as exciting as that might be.”
Like everyone else, Joy would prefer there wasn’t a COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, he would like to be broadcasting the Food City 500 on Sunday. However, he’s glad the FOX crew, which includes four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon as an analyst, is able to bring some fresh content to the viewers in this difficult time.
“Folks are struggling in many different ways dealing with the virus, the threat of the virus or being isolated at home,” Joy said. “There are so many different components to that, so to be able for an hour and a half to set all this aside and have some fun, it’s what it’s all about. That’s why we’re so happy to do it, and it’s fun for the drivers.
“As long as it’s fun to do, it’s high on everybody’s radar. We’re trying to keep it from being too serious. But the drivers have bought sim rigs and hired driver coaches. Some of them even have signage now in their living room alongside their sim rigs. This all ramped up in a hurry. Everybody agrees the chance to have a little fun and escapism on Sunday is a great relief to all of us.”
NASCAR fans and gamers have responded positively.
The ratings for the iRacing event at the virtual Homestead-Miami track drew a record 903,000 viewers on FoxSports 1. With the Texas race shown on the main FOX network, the viewership was up to 1.339 million, making it the most viewed esports event in American history.
It was also the highest-rated sportscast of the weekend, topping ABC’s 30-for-30 special detailing the NBA rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers.
“We’re drawing two different kinds of viewers,” Joy said. “We’re drawing NASCAR fans starved for content, and we’re also drawing people curious about racing simulation and how much it looks like the real thing. We’re doing something that no other sport besides auto racing can do.
“There are video games and simulations for every major sport, but only auto racing does the same hand-eye coordination, strategy and concentration level approaching the real thing. You obviously don’t have the G-forces and risk-to-reward ratio.”
Doing the virtual broadcast isn’t entirely foreign to Joy. He compared it to his work with FOX from 1998-2000, when the network broadcast Formula One races from far-away locales.
“Derek Bell and I would sit in a studio in Los Angeles at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Joy recalled. “We would take the Formula One feed and would augment that with our pit reporter Peter Windsor with data and information coming over a phone line from the press room on site.
“Basically, we were seeing on the world feed the same thing that was being shown at home without being at the race track and seeing how the race unfolded. It’s similar in the coverage is reactionary instead of about what could happen.”
Joy pointed out that iRacing produces most of the NASCAR Pro Invitational shows while FOX adds graphics, tweets from fans and shots from reporters. iRacing has a director on site with two of the race officials located in different states. The cameramen are also located remotely in different states.
Joy favors one of the more experienced iRacers to win Sunday’s event over guys like the Busch brothers, who have had so much success at the actual Bristol track. While he talked about how serious some of the drivers are taking it, the end goal remains for it to be pleasurable for everyone.
“We’re not here to determine the best iRacer in NASCAR,” Joy said. “To that end, we have America’s greatest drivers who are here having fun, getting some reps and being competitive an hour and a half on Sunday. We’re fortunate to be able to bring race fans along for the ride to enjoy it.”