The tin-foil hat crowd would probably say that the France family started the coronavirus because the France family, of course, being arguably the most significant family in American racing after the Andrettis, founded NASCAR. Conspiracy theorists would say the notorious family started the great pandemic because the virus has shaped how motorsports are presented now, and the amount viewers the networks get.
Ever since the original Gran Turismo launched in the late 90s, car people and video game developers have been trying to emulate the real-life driving experience as accurately as they can while the player sits on his couch. Today, you don’t have to burn fossil fuels to get your driving fix. iRacing, the most detailed and realistic driving simulator out there, has been played by thousands of wanna-be racers for years now, but until the coronavirus hit, its footage was reserved only for YouTube and Twitch. But then the world got sick and the racetracks closed, forcing drivers, networks, and most importantly sponsors, to find some way to keep on going. And so they turned to iRacing, and the wheels of motorsport never stopped spinning.
The difference between iRacing and, let’s say Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo Sport, is that while those are very good video games, iRacing set out from day one to be a driving simulator: something that perhaps one day could replace the real rumble and rubber of racecars.
The difference between iRacing and, let’s say Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo Sport, is that while those are very good video games, iRacing set out from day one to be a driving simulator: something that perhaps one day could replace the real rumble and rubber of racecars. The system gets constant updates, so it always has the newest cars and track layouts. Every turn and bump is scanned into the system, as they are with the other games, to have millimeter accuracy. The cars are programmed to wear down their tires and mechanical parts as the race goes on. The dashboards pass on real-time information to the driver outside the screen. And don’t even get me started on the graphics. I can’t tell you how many times I had my father walk in on me watching a virtual race these past few weeks and have him ask if I was watching a real race from last year.
But it’s not just the game. The gamers, really the drivers, have monster set-ups that are able to capture the physical aspect of driving. In addition to a real wheel and pedals, they have racing seats and a wrap-around screen so that when they turn in, they can turn their head and look through the corner, like they would in a real car. But why would all this make some skeptics think the France family started the coronavirus?
NASCAR ratings and attendance at live events have been on the decline. Gone are the standing-room-only grandstands with onlookers cheering and booing as their favorite driver battles for glory. Now tracks are removing thousands of seats and are covering some stands with advertisement posters. TV ratings vary from track to track, and this year was looking like a good year, but on the whole, we’re past the golden age.
But what if everyone was forced to only watch NASCAR? What if every other sport went off the air and the only thing on TV was some good old boys beatin’ and bangin’ around a half-mile oval? Surely then the ratings would go up! And what a surprise, the circumstances for this scenario just so happened to come to fruition in the form of the coronavirus. How convenient…
If you think about it, racing is really the only sport that can be broadcast in a digital form.
If you think about it, racing is really the only sport that can be broadcast in a digital form. With these new simulators that are extremely accessible, what network wouldn’t take advantage of that? Madden, FIFA, and The Show are all great, but in none of them are the gamers throwing a ball or running down the field in their living room. It’s still just A-X-Right trigger. And so, here we are, or here we were anyway–I’ll get to that soon. The only thing to watch is virtual racing. And the ratings went up. Hallelujah! Or at least, compared to other events on TV, they had a lot of views. NASCAR President Steve Phelps hopes that from this unfortunate coincidence, the sport will get more fans. And it’s not just NASCAR. IndyCar and Formula 1 both started their own virtual programs, IndyCar using the iRacing system and F1 using their own proprietary video game, Formula 1 2019.
I make a lot of jokes here, but NASCAR and IndyCar really did do a great job with their production of the video game races. Both created their own little series that included real drivers from the real cars. They even had the commentators from the networks call the races, so you had Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon coming in on FS1 and Leigh Diffy and Paul Tracy on NBCSN. Oftentimes, drivers from opposite series would take part in other races, so you would have guys like 7x NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in an IndyCar. And there weren’t just drivers from those two series. Scott McLaughlin from the Australian V8 Supercars series hopped in a virtual IndyCar, as did F1 kid Lando Norris. I think F1 really dropped the ball on their side of things, though. Very few drivers took part in the virtual racing with “celebrity” drivers like cricket and soccer players joining instead. It would have been cool to see Seb Vettel have a go at the whole video game thing, but then again, he’s not much for technology anyway.
Some of the real drivers in NASCAR who participated in the series shined particularly bright, much more than they do on the track. These drivers, most notably William Byron and Timmy Hill, actually trained to drive in NASCAR on these systems. While the iRacing simulator is very good, it’s still different from the real thing and takes a different set of skills, skills these drivers have spent many hours honing in on their own. At one point, NASCAR made William and Timmy start from the back of the field because they were too fast, and they still made their way to the front.
It was a good show while it lasted, but now, like the rest of us, the drivers, teams, and sponsors are ready to get back to the track. As fun as it is to watch, mechanics aren’t setting up the cars before each race, and Goodyear isn’t making any tire sales. And so, as much as they hate to do it without fans, NASCAR and IndyCar are coming back to the track.
As with most logistical things regarding the coronavirus, determining when and where racing can happen is up to the state governments. Luckily for NASCAR, they’re based in an area with a lot of governors who want to open up sooner rather than later and are more inclined to take that first step. NASCAR, of course, wants to be as safe as possible with this. In an interview on the Dale Jr Download Podcast, Mr. Phelps said he worked very closely with the local governors. Since most of the teams are based around Charlotte, he wanted to see if he could get races at tracks nearby so drivers and crew members could wake up in their homes, drive to the track, race, and come back home the same day, thereby eliminating some of the contamination risks.
A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (d) said that NASCAR workers were essential employees and could go work in their garages. Now, a short time later, we have a race schedule.
A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper (d) said that NASCAR workers were essential employees and could go work in their garages. Now, a short time later, we have a race schedule. The first race is set to be held at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17th. From there, the teams will…race again at Darlington the following Wednesday, with the Xfinity series, the second-tier series, racing on the Tuesday in between. Then, the next week of May 24, the boys head back to Charlotte for four days of racing in a row: Cup series Sunday, Xfinity Monday, Truck Series (third tier) Tuesday, and then Cup again on Wednesday.
The teams of today have never had to race so often in such a short amount of time. Usually, this schedule would be impossible because each series has to have practice sessions and qualifying before each race. The only race that will have a qualifying session is the Coca Cola 600, the first of the Charlotte races, since that one was actually scheduled for that day as part of the original, pandemic-free calendar. An additional schedule with the rest of the season was not ready at the time of writing, but NASCAR has said they expect to get the full 36-race calendar in, with four races already completed before the shutdown. Still, some tracks are not going to be raced, like Sonoma Raceway, the famous road course out in the wine country of California. Darlington will also retain its traditional Labor Day date as the first race of the playoffs.
IndyCar also recently announced that they will be going back to racing with a scheduled return coming on June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway. The difficulty IndyCar faces is that their teams are not located in one region like NASCAR. Some are based in Indianapolis, some North Carolina, and a few others spread out, so getting to the track will probably be a longer process. Also, Texas Motor Speedway President Mr. William Gossage has long said that he does not want to have a race without fans. However, at this point, he doesn’t really have a choice. IndyCar has also heavily revised their schedule throughout all this, moving the Indianapolis Grand Prix, the race around the road course at Indy, from early May to the Fourth of July weekend as part of a double-header with NASCAR who runs the oval. IndyCar has moved the 500 to August and they are willing to wait until October to run it, hopefully with fans. I hope so, too.
See, believe it or not, motorsports has the best fans in all of sports, and the series, networks, and drivers are always engaging with them on race day. Fans can come down on pit road before the start and see the cars, they can pretty easily get autographs, and once race time comes, they are passionate about the events on track. It will be very strange to watch a race with completely empty stands. There probably won’t be much of a celebration in victory lane because of the risk of contamination, but we’re not entirely sure yet. I’m still holding out hope for a burnout at the end.
NASCAR was the last sport to shut down their events nearly two months ago when this all started, and Mr. Phelps is glad to say that they are the first ones to open back up.
NASCAR was the last sport to shut down their events nearly two months ago when this all started, and Mr. Phelps is glad to say that they are the first ones to open back up. As the only live sport being broadcast and with multiple events running each week, they will no doubt get a great increase in viewers from around the country, as will IndyCar. All the sanctioning bodies of racing hope that from this unique time, motorsports will get new fans to tune in when everything opens up and stands will be full once again to watch the most exciting sport in America. Make sure to turn on FOX at 3 pm this Sunday and watch as the boys go back in time around the historic North Wilkesboro Speedway for the final digital event.