CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series was front and center inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesday night.
Steven Wilson drove the virtual No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to a $100,000 payday in front of a crowd of just over 250 attendees in the Great Hall — an audience full of accomplished racers on asphalt, including 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick.
Bolstered by a live broadcast team on-site, Sir Purr and cheerleaders from the Carolina Panthers and simulator rigs for casual attendees, the main floor of the sport’s most illustrious building was transformed into sim racing’s grandest stage for the second consecutive year as eNASCAR steadies its footing in both the worlds of eSports and motorsports.
Wilson battled Garrett Lowe, Nick Ottinger and Tucker Minter for the Coke Series title while NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs competitors Harvick and William Byron looked on from just feet away, while other national series regulars like Carson Hocevar, Anthony Alfredo, Ryan Vargas, Rajah Caruth and Brad Perez joined the spectacle in front of Glory Road.
Byron’s career famously boosted from iRacing, using the sim as a tool as he learned to race real cars in Legends cars and late models. A team owner with skin in the game Tuesday — Championship 4 competitor Ottinger drives the virtual No. 25 Logitech G Chevrolet for William Byron eSports — Byron watched nervously as his driver fought for a title under the lights of the Hall of Fame.
“It’s intense,” said Byron, who won the Cup Series race Sunday at Texas to lock himself into the Round of 8. “I don’t know how I would handle that. I think I’d be really nervous.”
iRacing wasn’t just an early-career, once-and-done platform for Byron. Practice on the sim this season, he said, helped lead to one of his most dominant victories of the year in the Cup Series, where he owns a league-best six wins in 2023.
“It’s really been a tool consistently throughout my career,” Byron said. “I think it’s gone in waves. Like I think that I’ve used it more at times, sometimes not so much. But for example, like this year, that win at Watkins Glen (leading 66 of 90 laps), I used the simulator quite a bit for that. So it just varies. But yeah, it’s been a big tool over time.”
Harvick and his 11-year-old son Keelan were present to give the command to start engines for Tuesday’s eNASCAR finale and stayed to celebrate Wilson’s championship drive at the end of the night. Nearing the end of his driving career in Cup, Harvick took notice of the platform’s growth during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 — a rise in popularity that never truly dwindled.
“For me, it’s really the evolution,” Harvick said. “And I think when you look back at pre-COVID and you look at everything that happened through COVID, I think that the best thing that happened was the interaction with everybody. Racers are racers, and seeing where it has progressed, even after COVID and to where it is today is fun to see it continue gaining momentum.
“It’s fun to watch. Keelan spends a lot of time iRacing and we spend some time watching the races as well. So it’s fun to be able to bring him and see some of the guys that he just talks to on Discord.”
Wilson was the only returning member of this year’s Championship 4 in the Coke Series who competed under the daunting pressure inside the Hall of Fame in 2022. That experience was significant, but so too is the opportunity to perform where the sport’s history is cemented, particularly as NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary.
“It means everything,” Wilson said. “The NASCAR Hall of Fame is one of the most important places in the sport, so for them to allow us to be here, it’s amazing to have this event. Obviously we’re racing for $100,000, which is crazy too, but just having that live event — I think the crowd this year was bigger than it was last year, which last year, we didn’t really know what to expect. But this year, it was even bigger than last. So that was awesome to see and it seemed like everybody was really into it this year, and it was really cool to hear all the noise behind me while I’m racing.”
The crowd increased by nearly 80% from the event’s inaugural running, with Wilson’s family sitting front and center to watch him claim the grand prize of a championship win and $100,000.
NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte has served many roles within his long career in NASCAR, including as Cup crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports with two Hall-of-Fame drivers in Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. He also serves as a team owner of Letarte eSports in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.
A member of the broadcast team for Tuesday’s finale, Letarte lauds the series and simulator for its ability to organically grow motorsports.
“I’ve been a part of the iRacing group for a long time,” Letarte said. “Dale introduced it to me, I don’t know, a couple of decades ago now. And I’m a huge supporter of it, because I think it can deliver racing into areas of the world and country that we can’t deliver racing, right? It gives a lot of people the opportunity to see what racing can be. I made my entire living in racing, so the fact that it could perhaps grow a sport that I love is great, and the fact that what is a digital, virtual race (is) happening in the halls of a Hall of Fame that’s been built on 75 years of history is quite amazing.”