Michelle R. Martinelli
Even with the NASCAR season postponed because of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Clint Bowyer has been behind the wheel this week. He, like so many of his fellow Cup Series drivers, is just doing it from the comfort of his own home with an iRacing setup.
But Bowyer has been competing on virtual versions of NASCAR’s tracks with guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., NBC Sports’ Parker Kligerman and country music singer Tim Dugger.
“We’re racing until 2:30 in the morning!” Bowyer told For The Win about what he thinks was his Tuesday night because “this quarantine thing’s got me screwed up on days.”
“We raced street stocks from Homestead to Dover to Talladega to Rockingham. We had a hell of a good time!”
For Bowyer, this hasn’t just been a way to kill time on his North Carolina farm. He’s trying to get as much practice in as possible for Sunday’s exhibition race in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a newly formed series from NASCAR after seven races this spring were postponed through May 3. And he said the racing is ” truly realistic beyond belief.”
It’s the Dixie Vodka 150 – a 100-lap race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the sport was supposed to compete this weekend – and will be broadcast by FS1 at 1:30 p.m. ET.
“I gotta get better,” said Bowyer, whose previous experience with iRacing has been in dirt late model racing as a team owner. He’ll also be providing in-race analysis for Fox.
“I don’t want to get my ass kicked on this thing with all these guys. We compete week in and week out, there’s nothing that sucks worse than getting beat by a Denny Hamlin or any one of these guys.”
Other drivers participating in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series include Earnhardt, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and William Byron, who started his career in iRacing before working his way up to the Cup Series.
“That’s where (Byron) was found,” Bowyer said. “This cat’s driving the No. 24 (Chevrolet) for Rick Hendrick for crying out loud. So he is the favorite in this thing, I can promise you that.”
With no racing or really any other sports right now, NASCAR has a unique advantage. The simulated tracks have been created with extreme detail to mimic their real-life counterparts, and racers are competing with pedals and a steering wheel. Some setups, like Hamlin’s, have seats that move accordingly when the driver hits the banking in a track’s turns.
iRacing has been around since 2004, and NASCAR has taken advantage of it. The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series features some of the best simulation drivers competing in a season for more than $300,000. But it’s not limited to the pros, and fans can buy an iRacing setup and progress through the ranks to find themselves competing against Cup drivers on any given day.
“The advantage NASCAR has is the iRacing platform,” Hamlin said Saturday on ESPN’s SportsCenter. He owns two cars in NASCAR’s already existing pro iRacing series.
“When you look at other sports and everyone’s on hiatus, the racing will be as close to the real thing as possible – closer than any other sport.”
New to iRacing in situations somewhat comparable to the Cup Series, Bowyer called the realistic simulations “mesmerizing.”
However, he and Hamlin agreed what isn’t quite realistic is the experience level of the sim drivers in Sunday’s race. People like Hamlin and Byron have years of experience with iRacing, unlike Bowyer, who’s “way behind” and said it’s like the equivalent of him attempting to drive a Cup car for the first time.
They also both speculated that regardless of drivers’ experience levels, the most skilled ones will finds ways to get the most out of their simulated cars.
“I guarantee I will be more nervous cranking the engine and leaving pit road this Sunday than I would be in real life simply because there are so many X factors,” Hamlin added on ESPN.
But in a world without sports, this is as close to real as they can get, and it’s not comparable to other sports’ video games.
“This isn’t a video game,” Bowyer said. “This isn’t Madden football or the NBA game you play. This is real life. You’ve got the football in your hand, you’ve got the baseball bat in your hand, you’ve got the steering wheel, you’ve got the throttle pedal, you’ve got the brake pedal, you are the guy.
“You’re not telling some computer what to do. You are him! You’re controlling every aspect of the race car, and I’m telling you first hand from somebody that’s just got on here cold turkey, my mind is blown how competitive it is and how realistic the controls (are). Everything is through the roof. It’s more realistic than I could have ever imagined.”