The stars of NASCAR will continue racing during the coronavirus shutdown but will take their talents to the digital world instead.
In conjunction with iRacing, NASCAR revealed the formation of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series on Tuesday night, an exhibition series that will feature many of the most successful real-world racers in professional stock car racing.
The multi-race series will begin on Sunday at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway with a broadcast partner to be decided. Sources have indicated to Autoweek that NASCAR would like to air the event on FOX Sports or NBC Sports Network, but there are questions about the feasibility of such an endeavor given that most studios have temporarily shuttered due to the quarantine.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps addressed the possibility on Tuesday during a media teleconference.
“There are discussions we’re having with Fox about what things we can do, discussions we would have with NBC, things that we can put through our own channels that satisfy our fans,” Phelps said. “Our fans are obviously thirsty for this content. We want to provide it to them smartly and have interesting content as opposed to just repurposing some of the content that’s already been done.”
The remaining race and broadcast details for the iRacing Pro Invitational will be announced at a later date.
Ben Kennedy, NASCAR vice president of racing development, envisions the league as a way to engage with fans during an extended hiatus.
“Until we have cars back on track, the entire NASCAR community has aligned to provide our passionate fans with a unique, fun and competitive experience on race day,” Kennedy said in a press release. “Our long-time partners at iRacing offer an incredible product and we are excited to see how many of our best drivers will stack up in the virtual domain of competitive racing.”
NASCAR postponed all events through May 3, prioritizing the health and safety of fans, the industry and race communities. The next scheduled event is the May 7-9 weekend at Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway.
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series does not have a finalized roster but currently includes commitments from Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell.
The sanctioning body has enjoyed a partnership with iRacing since 2009. iRacing is also where the industry’s esports seeds were planted in the early ‘90s.
iRacing emerged from the ashes of the legendary “NASCAR Racing” simulator series developed by Papyrus Design Group. The first installment came out in 1994 and peaked with the 2003 edition. That game became so popular for its physics and presentation that a cult following developed around it and still utilizes the source code for unofficial builds of the game.
It was also the foundation for iRacing’s release in 2008; the company is mostly comprised of ex-Papyrus developers.
As esports have become more mainstream over the past decade, its popularity in racing circles reached an all-time high in October when NBCSN aired live flag-to-flag coverage of the $100,000 iRacing World Championship from Homestead, Florida, complete with a broadcast team that included Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger.
There is no replacement for actual motorsports, but NASCAR and its roster will give it every best effort over the next two months until it is safe to return to active competition.
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