Esports, NASCAR

The most authentic Esports race deserved a bigger audience

23rd Mar '20
By Jack Benyon
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NASCAR’s All-Star Race is one of the fan favourites on the calendar. With series champions and Daytona 500 winners fighting for a cash prize, it provides sprint entertainment not usually found in the series.

But if it doesn’t go ahead this year, it won’t be as big a blow as it might usually – as it would struggle to match Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 150 iRacing NASCAR race for thrills.

Along with the rest of the motorsport world, NASCAR was cast into disarray by the spread of coronavirus earlier this month.

But in the time it had taken to cancel the Atlanta Cup round, a group of stakeholders had formed ‘The Replacements 100’ on the iRacing platform, running the Atlanta race over 100 laps with Cup Series cars in virtual form. Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron was among the frontrunners in the race backed by NASCAR and Podium Esports.

To get real racers in at such short notice was impressive. It left you thinking, just what could NASCAR do with a week’s planning if this came off in 24 hours? As an answer to that question, this past weekend NASCAR turned around the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series opener at Homestead, where the Cup regulars were supposed to race at the same time.

We’ve seen some fantastic Esports races during the COVID-19 pandemic, but none felt as authentic as what NASCAR produced on Sunday.

Thanks to a deal with Fox, Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon commentated on the 100-lap all-star race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the Cup Series was supposed to race on the same day.

The addition of Fox TV meant the coverage benefited from incredible access to the drivers – the real stars of Esports. Fox strategy guru Larry McReynolds confirmed there were 32 NASCAR championships in the field, with Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski among the Cup Series’ big names taking part.

But NASCAR and Fox weren’t done with just having big names. Ex-driver Regan Smith went out to visit Dale Earnhardt Jr to interview him pre-race, while cameras were present with Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Landon Cassill. Having that behind-the-scenes look to the coverage gave it even more authenticity and a great chance to hear from drivers at various points of the race, which isn’t the case with most broadcast Esports races.

While neither Gordon – despite his experience of four Cup titles – or Joy are iRacers, they were incredibly well-informed, and called the race brilliantly. An epic amount of research had gone into the drivers’ iRacing backgrounds for Gordon, Joy and McReynolds to deliver throughout the broadcast. But where the research didn’t quite do the trick, Fox set up Cup regular Clint Bowyer with a rig in the studio, so that the commentary team could check in with him through the race.

Bowyer stole the show with his hilarious interjections, playfully criticising his own performance, accusing his fellow racers of crashing too much and even claiming his wife was getting ready to leave him as he played on the game away from home. His Oscar-winning performance had IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden – presumably watching along from home – calling for Bowyer to be contactable and narrating every race, even the real-life Cup Series rounds!

The driver talent in the field was unquestionable, and NASCAR gave the rest of the show the beans to match. Billy Mouldin of Motor Racing Outreach led the pre-race prayer, while platinum-selling recording artist Dylan Scott was streamed in to perform the national anthem ahead of the race, live. It was all very authentic. Joy even made a joke about an idea to send a drone over the track in place of the usual fighter jets, but “that idea had been shot down. No, not the drone, the idea!”.

The race itself was a crash-fest, with nine cautions in the first 80 laps. It demonstrated the differing experience levels in the field, but the fact that most of the field ran competitive lap times is a credit to iRacing and the reality of its platform. With all drivers running the same set-up and no track bar or tyre pressure changes allowed, it helped to regulate the field and provide those with less experience a chance. Two full damage resets also meant for most the early wrecks weren’t too costly.

It did give those who have the experience an edge though, and the two stars of the show – probably names not known to most – were Garrett Smithley and Timmy Hill. Both are big names in the iRacing NASCAR world with 2000 and 1600 race starts between them repectively, but neither has a full Cup season under their belts.

In fact, there was a storyline for everyone in the field, only making the narrative richer. Ty Majeski – a Truck Series racer – took on the likes of Hamlin and his $40,000 sim with a Logitech steering wheel set-up costing a few hundred dollars. Majeski is the top NASCAR iRacing driver by a mile with an 80% win ratio, so it was nice to see equipment wasn’t everything.

Also among the storylines, 2000 Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte took up iRacing for the event, pumping in hundreds of laps in the run up. He brilliantly ran in the top 10 at one stage in an impressive performance.

Drivers like Hill and Smithley used the spotlight and made the most of it to boost their name value. However, the last 20 laps came down to two very familiar names. These were without doubt NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr (the iRacing crowed cheered loudest when Jr led, just like real life!), and everybody’s favourite underdog Hamlin – who still hasn’t won a long deserved Cup title despite three Daytona 500s triumphs and over 30 race wins in total.

It was fitting that these two drivers should go at it on the last lap. NASCAR has one of the longest histories in Esports, as its Papyrus games from 1994 and later 2003 gained cult followings. The 2003 version is still played by many today, and has led to a large community of people just designing paint schemes for cars on the game, with mods allowing the introduction of current cars. NASCAR’s Esports series has also been running for 11 years, far longer than any other major motorsport championship of that level.

And Hamlin and Earnhardt are a pair of OGs, having raced on the 2003 game when it came out originally. Hamlin credited the game for helping him in his early Cup career with adapting to 1.5-mile circuits, and the game also connected him with Earnhardt back in the day.

When asked about he and Earnhardt being around the longest of those in the field in terms of years, Hamlin replied: “Yeah, I didn’t actually think of it that way.  I think of guys like Timmy Hill and Smithley that run iRacing regularly and think that, well, they’ve got more experience, but that is true, that certainly it’s going to be hard to find anyone in the field whose experience dates back further than me and Dale Jr.

“You’ve seen the story, he’s talked about it many times, that he actually saw me for the first time on NASCAR Racing 2003, which is kind of now iRacing, and thought I was good and invited me down to Daytona in 2004 to come stay with him for the weekend because I was just somebody he was interested in meeting. I was going through my late model career at the time.

“He ended up winning the Daytona 500, which was a cool experience for me.  I’m down there that same weekend signing my contract with Joe Gibbs Racing as a development driver, and the rest is history. That’s what we did.

“He had a league called the DMP league that me and 25 other guys raced every single week, and we just kind of took it from there, so it’s great that now that I think about it and you said it, it was me and Dale Jr. at the end.”

The last laps were incredible, just as fun as any real race. Hamlin started the stint 14th, but as the first driver to have taken four-fresh tyres on the restart precursing the last 20-lap green-flag run. He carved through the field, and while Earnhardt passed Smithley and Hill, Hamlin arrived on Earnhardt’s rear fender on the last lap. While the top line of the track is favoured in real life, iRacing cars prefer the low line and Earnhardt defended that line beautifully. But Hamlin had fresher tyres and made the medium line work to slingshot past Earnhardt off the final turn and win.

No one could be vilified for supporting Hamlin for the event. Before it started he’d offered $5000 to south Florida coronavirus victims if he won. Fox and non-competing Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick matched that, ensuring over $15,000 went to charity. It was a lovely end to a fantastic event held in difficult times.

The only hang-up on the whole event was that many in the world – a captive audience in self-isolation – will have missed the race.

There’s no doubt the deal with Fox opened up so many doors and helped to produce the spectacle that was witnessed. But it also meant – unlike pretty much any other sim race in this period of time – it wasn’t broadcast outside of the States. Or at least, if it was, it wasn’t advertised anywhere.

It still hit number one trending on Twitter, and offered a realistic race with a tonne of real drivers, unlike the equivalent virtual Formula 1 race held at the same time. But not streaming internationally meant it restricted people viewing.

Maybe that was a conscious decision, stemming from an assumption most motorsport fans outside of America would be watching the F1 race. But the NASCAR event had so much to offer, it deserved to go head-to-head with a slightly bizarre F1 event. NASCAR and Fox should back itself in that case, and give the rest of the world the opportunity to see arguably the best-produced Esports races ever.

The good news? NASCAR has chance to correct this with more similar events planned in the series. And it still has a wealth of drivers like Harvick and Martin Truex Jr to tap up for the next event at Texas.

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