Virtual racing entertaining NASCAR fans, drivers during COVID-19 pandemic

Virtual racing entertaining NASCAR fans, drivers during COVID-19 pandemic
Timmy Hill (No. 66) beats Ryan Preece (No. 37) to the checkered flag during the March 29 eNASCAR race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway. (365850NASCAR)

In a coronavirus-free world, NASCAR driver and Alabama-native Bubba Wallace would be getting ready to race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Instead, he’s getting ready to race at Bristol Motor Speedway — from the comfort of his home.

“I had a room above my garage that was completely empty when I bought it from the previous house owner,” Wallace said. “It’s isolated for the rest of the house, so I can be as loud as I want.”

William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, pits during the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Race – O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 at virtual Texas Motor Speedway on March 29, 2020, in Fort Worth, Texas. (365855Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

Wallace is among a number of drivers and crew members who are racing each other virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic via the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a virtual competition created three weeks ago after social distancing guidelines forced NASCAR to suspend its schedule. Wallace talked to media on a conference call Tuesday about Sunday’s scheduled virtual race and the first two weeks of the eNASCAR iRacing series.

“Bristol is going to be tough,” Wallace said. “There are going to be a lot of close quarters racing. The guys on the bottom may have a little bit of an advantage because it’s so easy to get in contact. Still, looking back at the replay of my wreck last weekend at Texas, it was so close that you’re dealing with lag, and I felt like I wasn’t there underneath him and, all of a sudden, he was spun around. It’s those things that will take you out of contention quick. There’s definitely going to have to be a lot of give and take.”

The virtual racing series has drawn fans. Nearly 1 million viewers tuned in on FS1 to watch the inaugural race March 15, and 1.3 million tuned in on FOX to watch last Sunday’s race, making it the most viewed eSports TV broadcast ever. FOX Sports said it will air the remainder of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitation Series races on the FOX broadcast network, FS1 and the FOX Sports app.

“The rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way,” said Brad Zager, FOX Sports executive producer/EVP head of Production & Operations. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.”

NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace climbs into his #43 Victory Junction car. (Brian Lawdermilk / Getty Images)

NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, a six-time Talladega Superspeedway winner who called Sunday’s virtual race alongside FOX Sports’ Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds, was equally optimistic about the possibilities of televised iRacing.

“The response on social media to last Sunday’s race has been incredible,” Gordon said. “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of normalcy back to the weekend.”

“We’re overwhelmed by the positive feedback and encouragement sent by industry stakeholders, drivers, partners, media and, most importantly, our fans,” said Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer. “We all can’t wait to get back to racing, and our partners at iRacing and FOX have worked with us to do just that – race. We are committed to running these eNASCAR iRacing events as long as necessary. Providing a platform for our fans to watch and engage with their favorite drivers is our No. 1 priority.”

Wallace said he’s just happy to be giving family, friends and fans something fun to watch.

“My uncle and my aunt tune in every Sunday to watch it virtually,” Wallace said. “It’s cool how we are transitioning into the world and putting on a show. We were really doing it just to have fun, but for FOX to step up and broadcast it — you joke about it now, but TV runs the schedule in real life. We’re sitting there waiting for command and commercial breaks. It’s the same thing. All in all, it’s good for the sport and a good time.”

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