iRacing could become NASCAR’s new ‘Perfect Storm’

Prior to NASCAR’s nationwide popularity boom, one event was cited by many NASCAR historians as something that brought the southern sport into the national spotlight.

The 1979 Daytona 500 was scheduled to be broadcast live flag to flag on CBS, at the time one of the three big TV networks. There had been live coverage of NASCAR races prior but none on one of the big networks and never a 500 miler.  CBS was taking a chance showing NASCAR’s biggest race, and rain on race day threatened the start time (in fact the first 15 laps were run under yellow). But the race did start on time, and in an era when TV ratings were king, much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest were snowed in by a major storm known as the “President’s Day Snowstorm.”

The race turned out to be a perfect storm for NASCAR. It featured a final lap crash that ended with Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers fighting on the backstretch while NASCAR’s biggest star at the time, Richard Petty, celebrating in Victory Lane.

Fast forward to now and NASCAR now may have another “Perfect Storm.”

While much of America is self-quarantining, NASCAR has been forced to postpone racing on the track.  The COVID-19 virus is infecting people everywhere, and while the vast majority of people recover, those most vulnerable are those over 60.

And while self-quarantining may not be pleasant for all involved, everyone is going thorough it at the moment, including those drivers who are normally racing on the track, but now sitting at home.

“We’re all in this together,” Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer said Thursday.  “We have to keep in mind we’re protecting the people that have paved the way and made it possible for us to even be here – our very existence, our freedoms, everything.  That’s who we’re trying to protect, one another, looking out for one another.  Quarantine, if I have to do that for a month, it’s worth it and I’m signed up and we’re in this together just like everybody else. “

Last Sunday, NASCAR and Fox Sports took a chance. The NASCAR IRacing Series isn’t new. It has been shown online since its inception 15 years ago, and while some of the races have been rebroadcast on network TV, none have been shown live, flag to flag.

That all changed last Sunday.  For the first time, 35 NASCAR drivers from all three of the top touring series participated while the regular Fox broadcasters called the action on a virtual Atlanta Motor Speedway, the same track the series had been scheduled to race on in real life before being postponed.

This year’s Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin won the race, barely edging out retired driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Several other drivers who normally run towards the back of the real field such as Timmy Hill, led laps and got more TV coverage then they had in real life. Overall, it seemed to be a hit.

The broadcast drew in nearly a million viewers and was the highest rated esports TV broadcast ever.  With every other major professional sport sitting out, NASCAR was able to show its product to a wider audience, including no doubt many who had never seen a NASCAR race.  That it was so highly rated was not a surprise to Bowyer, who participated and even provided commentary during the broadcast.

“You look and it’s the perfect storm,” Bowyer said.  “It’s as if iRacing had been started and built 15 years ago for this very moment, for this very situation.  The iRacing itself, I’ve watched these races and the series races.”

For Bowyer the race, and his finish, was a memorable one.

“That was one hell of a race,” he said.  “In fact, I wrecked my car at the end of the race because I was watching the TV on the wall of the finish to see who was gonna win the thing.  I was kind of limping around in 16th place and wasn’t gonna win anyway.  I was watching the race because I could hear Gordon and Mike Joy in the booth going through the roof.  I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’  So, I look over and watching this thing and run right into the wall.”

NASCAR and the iRacing Series will take another chance this Sunday as Fox will broadcast a simulated race from Texas Motor Speedway.

“We’re quarantined.  It does suck,” Bowyer said.  “It sucks for everybody, but we’re doing this for a reason, we’re trying to protect one another and trying to keep everybody alive and healthy, and doing what our president and the government asks us to do.  This is the right step.  It is extremely damaging to everybody anywhere you look, you feel bad for restaurant owners, business owners, everything, but we’re gonna get through this. “

Until the pandemic is over and everyone does get though this, then expect to see more iRacing on TV.

“We’re all longing for something to do and, boom, here comes this iRacing thing right in our lap,” Bowyer said.  “It has been there for a long time and it’s almost as if it was built and formed for this very moment.  I cannot wait to get back on the track this Sunday and continue to sell our sport and it’s a different way, it’s a different model, but it’s still racing, it’s still extremely competitive, it’s still exposure beyond belief, it still shows the strength of our fan base.  You can’t lose sight of that. “

And it could be NASCAR’s new “Perfect Storm.”

“We had one million viewers on FS1 last week with something that had never even been tried before,” Bowyer said.  “Yes, obviously, everybody is at home, it’s a perfect storm, nothing else to do, but it was so big that Fox took the chance again and put it on the big boy station, on network.

“It’s gonna be on Fox this weekend and it’s gonna be bigger and better than it’s ever been.  We’ve learned a lot.  I literally watched Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds sit in a production meeting with iRacing, with Fox officials in a matter of an hour, maybe two hours, and write every note, ask every question they knew to ask, learned as much as they possibly could to try to make this a production.  I think they did a hell of a job.  I’m not kidding.  They learned about what you saw last Sunday within an hour or two and nailed it, and I think they’ll be even better this week having a race under their belts.”