- eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational Series to replace on-track races during global health crisis
- Current and former drivers taking part in competition, with Fox Sports among broadcast partners
- ‘It’s an important opportunity and the best of a bad situation,’ says Nascar executive Tim Clark
Esports has never been as important or relevant as it is now following the virtual total shutdown of professional sports amid the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic.
Numerous sports organizations around the world are leveraging their competitive gaming properties as a means to stay active and relevant in the indefinite absence of live athletic action in arenas and on broadcast channels. They include LaLiga, Formula 1, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, IndyCar, and Major League Rugby.
An early mover in this initiative in the United States has been stock car racing series Nascar, which created a new nationally-televised esports competition within a week of postponing seven real-world competitions on the race calendar until at least May 9.
At present, races at Atlanta Motor Speedway (March 15), Homestead-Miami Speedway (March 22), Texas Motor Speedway (March 29), Bristol Motor Speedway (April 5), Richmond Raceway (April 19), Talladega Superspeedway (April 26), and Dover International Speedway (May 3) will not run as planned.
In their place, Nascar is staging the eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which has been created in partnership with long-standing esports partner iRacing, a leading motorsport simulation platform which counts Fenway Sports Group principal owner John Henry among its co-founders and investors. Races feature drivers from Nascar’s portfolio of competitions, including the Cup Series, Xfinity Series, and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, as well as Nascar legends.
Competitors will take part from iRacing simulators in their homes. They include Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell, among many others.
Such was the demand from Nascar drivers to take part that the competitors will rotate on a week-to-week basis to let them all participate. Many had the requisite computer equipment, which can cost up to $40,000 (€37,000), but some drivers had simulators shipped to them in the mail last week.
Fox Sports, one of Nascar’s main broadcast partners alongside NBC Sports, aired the inaugural virtual race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on cable network FS1 and the Fox Sports app on March 22. Fox’s Nascar broadcasters Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds called the action to give Fox Nascar iRacing added authenticity. It was also aired on TSN in Canada.
Nascar is in talks with Fox, NBC, and other streaming networks about future races in the series.
The eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational Series also represents a valuable opportunity for Nascar sponsors to activate amid the hiatus. The Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, for example, was rebranded the Dixie Vodka 150 for its esports equivalent. There will be similar branding going forward.
SportBusiness spoke to Nascar senior vice-president and chief digital officer Tim Clark about how the esports competition came together and the role it will fill during the extended Covid-19 shutdown.
How were you able to put this esports competition together so quickly? What was the process?
It came together very quickly. We have a long-standing partnership with iRacing and have been looking for ways to continue to grow that platform as part of our esports business. We were fortunate that we have that relationship and platform in place. As everyone collectively realized that there was going to be some disruption in the schedule, we quickly came together and started formulating this plan with iRacing to try to put virtual races in front of fans to give them some degree of distraction and entertainment. There was a combination of about a dozen phone calls and text messages between a handful of drivers, iRacing, and Nascar and we’re fortunate that Fox came on as a broadcast partner for this event. It came together very quickly and very organically.
How did you decide on the format – that it would have, for example, former drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr?
If ever a driver deserves the credit for this coming together it’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. First and foremost, he is a long-time supporter and advocate for iRacing, he was one of the early movers in this space. He was really instrumental in not only pulling this whole thing together but also getting the other drivers onboard. We felt like more than earned his seat in this [first] round based on all the work he did to pull it together.
How keen were the drivers to take part?
This will be a number of races over a series of weekends and the entry list for each of these races is going to vary. One of the reasons for that is because more interest than we have space. We will do our best to vary that driver line-up from one week to the next so we can give a lot of drivers different opportunities. We have been really thrilled by the level of interest from the drivers.
Did all the drivers already have the right computer equipment?
For the iRacing platform it comes in all shapes and sizes. There are some people who have very elaborate simulators and set-ups and there are some who have just a PC and a steering wheel that they put on a table or a desk. It really varies from those extremes and everything in the middle. There are some drivers who have the simulators at their homes and some who have been on the iRacing platform but don’t have those, so there were some suppliers who have been very busy equipping and outfitting the drivers for their set-up.
Are there going to be cameras recording the drivers in their homes?
That is big focus of what Fox is looking to do as part of its broadcast because it is important to make that visual connection for the viewer. If you see a virtual car around the track and may see the graphic that it is piloted by William Byron, that will make sense to a degree. But if you can see William Byron sitting in a big iRacing rig and that is now connected to what you are seeing on screen that is a really important visual element in all of this.
Will Fox broadcast all esports races in this series – has that been decided yet?
We have agreed to work with iRacing to make sure that there is a virtual race every week until we are back racing with real race cars on real race tracks. We will make a decision on one week to the next on what distribution will look like. Fox’s involvement at the moment is for [the opening] weekend. We’ve talked to several partners and obviously Fox and NBC are at the top of the list as they are our broadcast partners but there certainly are other options for us in terms of streaming. But our preference is to work with our partners at Fox and NBC.
Presumably, Nascar sponsors are happy with this rare chance to activate during the coronavirus hiatus?
We’ve had a great response from our partners, they are working fully to be involved. We’ve rebranded the opening race from the Dixie Vodka 400 to the Dixie Vodka 150. That’s just one example of ways we’re looking to work with our partners so they can remain involved in this part of the season. We’ll do that with additional partners as well.
Generally, how important do you think having an esports property is now for any sports organization right now – and to utilize them to their full extent?
I think it’s an incredibly important opportunity. The way we’ve approached [the opening esports] weekend is firstly, it’s the best of a bad situation. Ideally, we would have actual race events with fans at the track and in the stands, and real race cars. That is our preference and we’re all eager to get back to that. But in the absence of that I think we’re fortunate to have a platform like this where we can still provide some entertainment to Nascar fans. We’re really happy in that regard. Secondly, this comes from being prepared and having a really strong esports platform and having a great partnership with iRacing. If we didn’t have those things in place then there is no way we could have moved this quickly to make this series happen. It was collective industry willingness to try to keep fans entertained and engaged and making the best of a bad situation.
Do you think a possible fringe benefit for this could be that this will lead to long-term growth for Nascar’s esports properties?
We have long said that Nascar’s platform is incredibly unique in that esports is part of the program and platform for actual race-car drivers and it’s one thing to tell that story but if you can show that story I think it’s going to be very well received. I also think it gives us an ability to reach fans or viewers who wouldn’t typically engage with Nascar.