Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
And, given the current national restrictions and precautions amid the COVID-19 outbreak, NASCAR has found its way. Competing on an iRacing simulator seems to have temporarily satisfied drivers’ competitive itch while the sport pauses all live on-track action. They’re still behind a wheel; it just happens to be of a virtual car.
“Racers are just different, man,” NASCAR Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer said Thursday on a teleconference. “Racers have always been. To stand the test of time, I can say this about a racer: They’ve always somehow someway been at the race track. When all odds are against them, racers figure it out.”
Now, even as the coronavirus continues to disrupt the 2020 NASCAR calendar, is no different.
The sanctioning body announced two weeks ago (March 16) that all races through May 3 are postponed. A day later (March 17), NASCAR and iRacing revealed the formation of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an exhibition series meant to feature current and some retired national series drivers. FOX Sports soon jumped onboard (March 19), saying it would air the opener on FS1.
It all came to fruition so quickly, as the makeshift season kicked off last Sunday (March 22) at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We’re all in this together,” Bowyer said. “We’re all quarantined. It’s almost as if the iRacing thing had been built and designed in the past for this very moment. I think it’s a perfect bridge to gap this situation we’re all in.
“It’s entertainment. Is it real? No, it’s not. It’s virtual, but it’s what we have. And I’m telling you right now, it provided entertainment that literally had you jumping up and down and on the edge of your seat at the end of that race.”
Current full-timer Denny Hamlin passed the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap to take the checkered flag. Earnhardt recovered from Hamlin’s slight bump to finish second.
According to Nielsen Media Research, the virtual race drew 903,000 viewers on FS1. On Tuesday, FOX Sports committed to covering the remainder of the season on one of its platforms, including the FOX broadcast network.
“Hell yes, it’s serious,” Bowyer said. “This is a big deal. Did you see the viewership? A million views. I want to win this thing big time for myself, for my partners, for everybody. You want to be the man in front of a million viewership. …
“Everybody is practicing big time. If you question that, all you got to do is get in iRacing and look: Each and every evening or during the day – doesn’t matter what time of day it is – you get on there, log on and there will be people on Texas (Motor Speedway) racing and practicing for this weekend. So, it would be an understatement to think that it’s not serious.”
Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 at virtual Texas will air live on FOX, FS1 and the FOX Sports App at 1 p.m. ET. Entry lists should be released before the weekend.
Some things never change.
“I can tell you, there’s not a racer in existence that ever meets the budget,” Bowyer said. “It’s always over budget. It’s whatever it takes to be competitive at the race track and win races at whatever cost.”