An important part of NASCAR lore is that its rise to national prominence and popularity was due in large part to unfortunate events. In late February, 1979, NASCAR was set to broadcast live for the first time. The same day, the entire northeast was forced into semi-isolation with a massive and sudden snowstorm. The Daytona 500 was the only live event on network television — and wound up featuring one of the most memorable finishes ever. Cale Yarbrough and Donnie Allison were in first and second when they wrecked each other in tandem, allowing Richard Petty to pass them for the win. As Petty celebrated, Allison and Yarbrough broke into a fistfight and had to be separated by their crews. People were enraptured. The rest, as they say, is history.
Almost 40 years later, NASCAR finds itself in a similar situation. Albeit the circumstances are significantly more severe than a blizzard. Like many other pro sports leagues, NASCAR toyed with the idea of continuing to run races without fans before ultimately postponing all events until at least May 3. In its stead, the organization would replay classic races and try desperately to keep interest in a sport that is already beleaguered with an aging and eroding fan base.
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That plan changed unexpectedly this week, when NASCAR announced the first-ever iRacing Pro Invitational: a race entirely broadcast and run with current and retired drivers remotely… via simulator. Each driver, observing the rules of social distancing from the comfort of their living rooms or basements, would log on and compete via the power of the internet. It is here that NASCAR has a built in advantage over other sports offerings. While other sports have video games which allow for abstract commands to create weighted, but random successes and failures, the act of driving (and doing so quickly) has been simulated with an almost breathtaking realism. Tracks have been scanned in down to the unintentional paver bumps and surface wear. Cars have been programmed to perform the exact way that one — even a professional driver — would expect.
It’s this realism that’s made iRacing an important part of training for many modern drivers. With practice times in actual stock cars limited, in an effort to increase parity within the field, drivers have often taken to their home computer to search for minor advantages and test potential setups or tactics. As the simulations have increased in realism, oval iRacing has become a fertile training ground for teams looking for the next face of their squad.
William Byron, once a fresh-faced teenager with a photogenic smile and a marketing partnership with Liberty University, parlayed early success online into one of the most sought-after open seats in racing history. He took over the number 24 car from Jeff Gordon. Ty Majeski, who has won over 80 percent of the online races he has entered, is now a full-time competitor in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
Making Ends Meet
The appeal and allure of iRacing lives within the stories of these two men. In some ways, it holds truer to the heart of the NASCAR that broke through to national prominence in 1979. In the 70s and 80s, the stock car drivers were mechanics and weekend warriors, plus the occasional wunderkind. They were men of passion and daring, men whom it was clear would drive around really fast without any money or fame on the line, because they often did do this without any money or fame on the line.
Over the years, as sponsors sought younger and more nationally marketable faces for products, the so-called “young guns” of NASCAR were all brought up the same way: placed in a go kart by their parents at a young age, given tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars to race nationally until being plucked from obscurity and handed a bottle of Coca Cola or Gatorade, then finally taught to face the camera just so. Now, due to the accessibility of iRacing, NASCAR once again feels achievable to those of meager means. While there are equipment and setups that mimic and rival those inside a true racecar, all that’s truly necessary is a computer, an internet connection, a steering wheel, and some pedals.
This disparity is on display as the drivers take us through the field prior to the digital green flag dropping. Denny Hamlin, one of the most consistently successful current drivers (he won his third Daytona 500 this year) had three monitors set up — and a facsimile of his actual car. The announcers and other drivers joke that Denny won’t fess up to how much money he’s spent on this. What about Majeski? He of the 80 percent winning percentage has a laptop on a desk and a set of equipment that could be purchased at a well-stocked GameStop.
The racing itself took a long time to get up to speed. Dale Earnhardt Jr., a decorated NASCAR driver and one of highest ranked iRacers in history (while the particulars of the ranking formula are byzantine, generally having a ranking above 3000 puts you in the top seven percent of all drivers; Dale Jr, at his peak, was in the mid 7000s) predicted before the race that the first half would be marred by cautions and accidents as drivers who aren’t used to simulations get their bearings. He was right. Oh, was he ever right.
Driving a racecar is an exercise in “feel.” Everything from how the steering wheel reacts to the vibrations in the seat, to the air pressure changes created by other cars, is filtered by drivers on a subconscious level and converted into information. For iRacers, the triggers are different. There are entire forums devoted to the correct audio settings to properly monitor tire wear and discussions on how the movement of the steering wheel can be referenced to determine early performance. For a NASCAR driver without much simulator experience, this must be akin to an exercise in synesthesia: asking your brain to make your ears copy what you’ve trained your butt to do for your entire adult life.
Cautions (yellow flags that warn of unsafe racing conditions) came out starting with the second lap, and again shortly thereafter. While the early portions of the race failed to build momentum, it did allow for some early strategy. Denny Hamlin, for instance, took two tires instead of the recommended four — gambling that the inexperienced field would bring more cautions, and track position would prove more important than fresh tires. For the most part he was right, too! The trend continued, while the field was eaten alive by wrecks, magically repaired with the press of a button. In the higher leagues of iRacing, each driver is given what amounts to one complete damage reset. Whereas in this race, every driver was given two. This proved to be strategically important later in the race. Although the NASCAR production team didn’t think to track the usages… It became a minor point of confusion and tension during the event.
Simulating the Story
The field started to separate after the first extended green flag, racing until yet another caution on lap 60. It was only here where a wreck felt like something we might actually see in a real race. Prior to this, the wrecks were silly mistakes by people unused to their surroundings. The second caution in the race was due to Jimmie Johnson, a seven time champion and one of the most gifted drivers the sport has ever seen, failing to recognize the first caution was over. And so he was completely run over by the field.
By lap 60, we saw the same failings as on any given Sunday: the hubristic mistake of playing chicken, assuming someone will give you an inch where there is none to give. It set up more strategy with roughly 35 laps to go. Ross Chastain chose to only get fuel — an even more extreme version of Hamlin’s earlier two-tire gamble.
The envelope finally got pushed to its logical conclusion with 22 laps to go, as the top 13 cars all simultaneous refused to take a pit stop during a caution. They assumed that track position and clean air (or the algorithmic equivalent) would once again win out over tires. Bobby Labonte found himself in fourth place at this juncture. Fifty-five years old and long retired, Labonte apparently spent the week before this logging thousands upon thousands of practice laps to prepare. In truth, it is this surprise rise to the top five that feels most true to life. Labonte’s career was defined by these sorts of conservative and patient runs born from workmanlike discipline.
A Blip on the Track
Labonte found himself fading after some late-race mix ups, but Hamlin, he of the space age racing rig, was in prime position. He sat in third place with newer tires as Dale Jr. and Timmy Hill, another experienced iRacer now racing full-time in NASCAR, jostled and bumped each other side by side.
The simulation held true to life in that respect. Racing side by side for any period of time only serves to allow your closest competitors to catch up. Their inability to definitively pass one another allowed Hamlin the time necessary to make up ground. He passed both with little resistance to win on the final lap. If it were real, it would be the same sort of finish that helped NASCAR stand out in the snowstorm of 1979 (minus the punching). Instead of violence, there were only some laughs and light banter — plus a few minor technical difficulties as they tried to interview the winner via FaceTime.
It’s hard to know what the end goal of this exercise is for NASCAR. Was it meant to be a test balloon for a sustainable future? The best parts of esports, combined with the death defying glory of NASCAR, attracting the young fans the organization so desperately craves, while still putting out a product recognizable to race fans everywhere? Or was it merely a diversion: an effort to keep the content machine going, appeasing advertisers and sponsors during a pandemic that has effectively ground the world to a halt? Truthfully, it wound up feeling like neither. Instead, it became the thing NASCAR has become the most proficient at: an advertisement. One can only hope that display was enticing enough to draw in new eyes.