KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.”
This is an ancient Chinese proverb, and it‘s particularly apt when it comes to NASCAR and its embrace of iRacing.
With the entire sports world shuttered to combat the spread of the coronavirus, NASCAR — the 72-year-old purveyor of ground-pounding speed — has found its windmill in iRacing, specifically with the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series.
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series is an exhibition esports series featuring a collection of actual race-car drivers from the NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. It kicked off last Sunday at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway and is a multi-week series emulating the original 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
It has been an unabashed success, with the series‘ second race taking place this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway with live coverage on FOX/FS1 (subject to change) and the FOX Sports App.
Last Sunday‘s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at Homestead was the single most-watched esports event in U.S. history. The race drew 903,000 viewers on FS1, besting the previous high of 770,000 viewers when Mortal Kombat aired on The CW in 2016. The race was the highest-rated broadcast on FS1 since mass postponements of sporting events began March 15. During the race, #ProInvitationalSeries was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter in the U.S.
But while the drivers have been hands-on in this endeavor, what do their crew chiefs think? In the real world, they‘re always hands-on — literally — with an assortment of tools occupying their hands regularly. But in the sim world, they‘re bystanders.
“The iRacing event that took place at Homestead last weekend was quite revolutionary, not only for our sport but for all sports in general,” said Mike Bugarewicz, crew chief for NASCAR Cup Series driver Aric Almirola and the No. 10 Smithfield team of Stewart-Haas Racing. “It gave us something to do and something to watch on Sunday, and it gave the drivers some seat time. While it‘s not perfect to what the real world is, it still forces them to make a call from a crew chief‘s perspective. Not every call is so easy.”
SHR‘s Johnny Klausmeier, crew chief for Clint Bowyer and the No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 team, provided an example.
“The most interesting thing to me was the tire strategy with the guys taking none, two or four tires,” he said. “It seemed very realistic, especially at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where you have a lot of tire fall off. Guys could get their track position, but after 10 laps, the tires were wearing out and they were shuffling around, moving and jockeying.
“As a crew chief, I wanted to put my hands on things and work on the car. So, it was different for the drivers to be able to just instantly change things and make the car different on the computer. It was neat and a great show for the fans.”
While the race car is obviously important, the track is the other key element. Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick and SHR‘s No. 4 Busch Light team, was impressed with how real a track‘s idiosyncrasies were detailed in iRacing.
“The racetracks are really accurate, with the bumps and the features and all of that stuff,” Childers said. “From a visual side of things, it‘s probably very beneficial for the drivers.”
One of those drivers is Chase Briscoe, pilot of the No. 98 HighPoint.com/Ford Performance Racing School Ford Mustang for SHR in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Briscoe‘s crew chief, Richard Boswell, thinks the time his driver spends on iRacing makes him better in general.
“Laps are laps, regardless of what car it is or what type of simulator it‘s on,” Boswell said. “The repetition of seeing the markers at certain tracks and feeling the bumps is a great way to stay sharp. Of course, there‘s the added advantage of Chase having a motion rig where he can get a more realistic feel for each track, not just in the steering wheel but in his seat.
“I sure am glad my driver is spending this time wisely. I know when we finally get back to racing, he will be as ready as anyone. So will his team.”
Boswell, like everyone in NASCAR, is eagerly awaiting the resumption of real racing, but he has embraced the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series and the newfound time at home.
“This is a great way to keep fans connected to our sport considering the difficult times our country is facing,” he said. “I applaud FOX, NASCAR, iRacing, the sponsors and all of the folks who have participated in bringing this event to our homes. Even my little girls were excited to see some sort of racing on TV. The only difference was they could root for their favorite driver, Chase Briscoe, with daddy instead of without him.”