Coronavirus Relief: NASCAR Dixie Vodka 150 Virtual iRace
As we continue to battle the worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, amateur and professional sports remain on hold. Many of us – myself included – are confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, to help try to slow the spread of this contagion.
We all need to reduce our stress level. For those of us who enjoy auto racing, NASCAR drivers – in collaboration with NASCAR, iRacing and FOX Sports, got together and answered that call this past Sunday.
The event was the Dixie Vodka 150 at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway – the inaugural event of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Televised in the United States on FOX Sports (FS1), it drew 903,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was last Sunday’s most-watched sports telecast on cable television and, according to Twitter interactions, it was the #1 most-social TV program overall on Sunday.
Current NASCAR Cup Series racers in the 35-car field included seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, reigning Series champion Kyle Busch, 2012 Series champion Brad Keselowski, 2018 Series champion Joey Logano, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, 2016 Series Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott, 2014 Series Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson and 2008 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Clint Bowyer. Rounding out the large field of competitors were retired NASCAR Cup Series icon Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Labonte, plus NASCAR Xfinity Series and GANDER RV & OUTDOORS Truck Series drivers.
Jimmie Johnson (#48) and Chase Elliot (#9)
Practicing “social distancing,” the competitors were scattered across the country in a variety of driving simulators – from Denny Hamlin using his highly sophisticated, near $40,000 driving simulator, to Timmy Hill competing very successfully with an inexpensive home video game setup, complete with a steering wheel attached to a desk at home.
The performance of the cars was quite equal, with few adjustments permitted. The key to doing well was practice, practice, practice to gain experience.
Ty Majeski (#45), Chase Briscoe (#98) and Anthony Alfredo (#33)
The race was exciting. It looked and sounded much like the preceding NASCAR Cup Series races of the 2020 season, with the FOX NASCAR broadcast team of Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds calling the action. Clint Bowyer did double duty, providing entertaining and informative “in-car” commentary as he raced and shared comments and observations with the broadcast team.
Denny Hamlin (#11) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (#8)
The appearance and physics of the cars and the track were quite realistic, enhanced by the familiar drone of racing engines. Driving style and strategy directly contributed to the extent of tire wear and performance. Drivers were able to challenge and pass each other, with 11 lead changes.
Drivers spun each other out and there were nine caution periods, including one for a big wreck that was started by Jimmie Johnson. As opposed to real races, where wrecks were expensive and potentially dangerous, the cars could be rebuilt for free up to two times over the course of the race.
Justin Allgaier (#7) and Austin Cindric (#12)
Where the realism was somewhat lacking was during the pit stops. Entering and leaving the pits, cars appeared to literally drive through each other. When service was being done, the cars lifted up and the sound of impact wrenches could be heard as the tires were being changed, but there were no pit crew members in action.
The excitement continued up to and including the last lap, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the lead as a late charging (barefoot!) Denny Hamlin, with fresher tires under his number 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, worked his way back up to the front and ultimately passed Earnhardt for the win. Hamlin said “I just ran my line, he gave me the proper space and we were able to race to the line.”
Denny Hamlin (FedEx #11) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (#8)
Denny Hamlin (#11) celebrates in front of the virtual crowd with donuts
Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and Garret Smithley rounded out the top five. Said Smithley on Twitter after the race: “Wow what a day! Pole, led laps, came home 5th. Awesome race! Really good way for all of us to have some fun.”
Jeff Gordon summed it up this way: “We were able to broadcast a virtual race that was exciting and entertaining. It brought a little bit of ‘normalcy’ back to the weekend, and I can’t wait to call the action Sunday at Texas.”
FOX Sports will air the complete eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Check your local listings, and for more information visit NASCAR.com.