Last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 150 at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway – a SIM racing exhibition featuring some of NASCAR’s biggest stars – was the single most watched esports event in U.S. history. The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race drew 903,000 viewers on FS1 (previous high: Mortal Combat drew 770,000 viewers on The CW in ’16). Managing Director Scott Warfield said that the race – which trended on social media – exceeded NASCAR’s expectations. Broadcast partner FOX Sports was also tickled by the tune-in figures (it was the highest rated broadcast on FS1 since the mass postponements started). On Tuesday, NASCAR announced that Rupert Murdoch’s company had agreed to broadcast the remainder of the Pro Invitational Series slate on FOX, FS1 and the FOX Sports app.
Howie Long-Short: From a fan perspective, the appeal to iRacing is that the skills required to master the ‘game’ mirror those needed operate a real-life stock car. While Madden and 2K gamers press buttons to control play, SIM racers are handling a wheel and pedals no different than they would in a race car. Eight crashes within the first forty laps of Sunday’s race indicate that operating an iRacing rig isn’t exactly the same as driving a race car, but the appeal Pro Invitational Series is obvious; with 35 current or retired NASCAR drivers competing – just as they would on any other Sunday – and the FOX Sports broadcast team of Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds on the call, the virtual races offer a sense of normalcy during an unprecedented time period.
The CDC’s March 15th recommendation that organizers cancel or postpone events with fifty or more people for an eight-week period was the catalyst for the creation of the virtual racing series. Warfield said the fact that there were “TV networks depending on programming, official sponsors and race entitlements that had made plans around races and fans needing a distraction” made the decision to hold the esports exhibition a no-brainer for all involved (think: network parters, official partners, drivers, teams or executives), despite the lack of planning done ahead of time. For all intents and purposes, the Series was put together in eight days with nearly all of the work done remotely.
NASCAR plans to run the remainder of its 36-race season once the threat of COVID-19 passes, so hope remains that team sponsors and network advertisers will be made whole on their spends before the end of 2020. But with FOX Sports committed to broadcasting Pro Invitational Series races over-the-air for at least the next 7 weeks, NASCAR sees an opportunity to deliver value add to some of those partners in the interim.
NASCAR and iRacing are in their 11th season as partners, so it’s safe to say that the racing organization saw the upside in esports before the big four sports leagues did (for comparison purposes, the NBA introduced the 2K League in 2018). But it was the 2015 emergence of William Byron (#24, Hendrick Motorsports) – who learned to drive on iRacing – that drove (pun intended) NASCAR to “really lean into” SIM racing over the last three or four years. The Coca-Cola iRacing Series, which runs on Tuesday nights on YouTube/Twitch, has turned into a virtual farm system or sorts. Warfield explained that of the 40 drivers who compete in the series, “a lot of them have goals of getting into a Truck Series truck some day. And because Dale Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman – all these Cup Series regulars – are frequenting the platform, [elite drivers have the chance to get discovered].”
But talent development isn’t NASCAR’s only motivation for partnering with iRacing. Esports “gives [the racing organization] a fan engagement tool for mid-week.” Warfield said, “NASCAR doesn’t have games or injury reports that drive coverage or narrative [Monday-Friday], so if we can fire up an iRace and do 300K live streams it helps to connect the book-end Cup races on Sundays for our current fans.”
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