Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – While the entire NASCAR community remains resolved and mindful of the current healthcare situation in the country, some of the sport’s top names from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Chase Elliott will participate in a first-of-its-kind eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series starting with Sunday’s virtual race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Fans can watch the event live on at 1:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and with the FOX Sports app. FOX Sports announced Thursday that broadcasters Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds will call the action in the 90-minute esports race featuring the sport’s best, including Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, current NASCAR Cup Series points leader Joey Logano, reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and fan favorites such as Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell.
They lead a large contingent of Cup regulars entered on Sunday. And additionally, at least for this week, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte and racer/broadcaster Parker Klingerman will join the fulltime NASCAR Cup Series “regulars” too.
The full 35-car field – representing all facets of the sport – will be announced on Sunday. NASCAR Cup Series drivers have been allotted spots, and qualifiers across a group of Xfinity and Gander Trucks drivers will set the final grid. NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers Harrison Burton, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Noah Gragson, Justin Allgaier, along with NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series favorites such as Ty Majeski, Ryan Truex and Stewart Friesen are slated to compete.
“This is a unique opportunity to offer competitive and entertaining racing to our viewers as we all work through these challenging times together,’’ said Brad Zager, FOX Sports Executive Producer, EVP/Head of Production & Operations.
“We are following CDC guidelines to maintain a safe work environment as the well-being of all those involved is paramount. We value our relationships across the NASCAR community and appreciate all of the effort that it took in bringing this project to life.’’
Executives are hoping this is a win-win situation. Fans will get to see their favorites competing and drivers will get to race, offering a positive diversion in an uncertain time.
“Obviously we’re going through this terrible time in the world and you want to pay attention to that, but It’s been a unique and quite crazy thing since Thursday afternoon when the sports world started shutting down,’’ iRacing’s Executive Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Myers said.
“Now we have so much attention and opportunity in front of us really being in the only type of sport that can be represented in a digital way where these real participants can come and do this. It’s not a leap for them to make that jump and no other sport in the world really has that ability or opportunity. It’s super exciting.’’
Myers said he and NASCAR’s Senior Vice President & Chief Digital Officer Tim Clark were originally contacted late last week by Earnhardt and NASCAR Hall of Famer Gordon about the potential of holding iRacing events with current NASCAR drivers.
Clark, who oversees all of NASCAR’s esports offerings, reiterated how fortunate the sport was to be able to operate and feature iRacing this way.
“I would say this sport and this industry is phenomenal in a number of ways, but the willingness of all the stakeholders to jump on board has been a great testament to that,’’ Clark said. “From tracks, to sponsors, to drivers to teams, everyone has reached out and raised their hand to find a way to participate.
“The drivers jumped on board and really mobilized themselves without much asking.
“I can’t say enough good things about iRacing. Those guys have been a phenomenal partner of NASCAR for a long time and throughout this entire process that came together really quickly because there were no egos, there were no ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentalities. Everyone was really very selfless in this whole deal.’’
Myers predicts both the NASCAR regulars and new fans may indeed have a fun learning curve this weekend – especially for newcomers to this form of the sport.
“It’s going to be fun,’’ Myers said. “Certainly there’s 10-15 guys with a lot more advantage because they’ve been more active in this, but it’s just as interesting to see the guys kind of jumping in and doing this for the first time and seeing how they progress.
“If I had the opportunity to stand on a soapbox and talk to the drivers this weekend, I would encourage them to treat it exactly how they would a real race car. You don’t jump in the car and mash your foot to the floorboard, you’ve got to practice patience and all the same skills you would in the race car. That’s how you’ll be fast with it.
“Really, it’s just amazing to me how everyone is banding together to make the best of a bad situation.’’
Clark said he couldn’t agree more.
“I think that with everything going on, there’s no playbook for what’s happening right now,’’ Clark said. “There are people who aren’t quite sure what to do or how to feel, so for us to have an event like this, it can provide some entertainment and a distraction where everyone is jumping in with both feet.
“It’s just incredible to see and I’m happy to see that for NASCAR fans and the entire industry.’’