Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley did not hoist any virtual trophies at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway but they certainly finished Sunday’s inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational with a real smile and very real sense of accomplishment.
Normally, the two drivers compete for smaller teams in the NASCAR Cup Series just happy to make races or contend for a top-20 showing. But in Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race, Smithley and Hill were the drivers setting the pace in a virtual competition that allowed them to challenge the sport’s biggest names for a victory.
Smithley, 27, who drives the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet in NASCAR Cup Series competition (and is currently ranked 36th in the standings), won the pole position for Sunday’s iRacing event and ran up front for most of the race, ultimately finishing fifth.
Hill, 27, who drives the No. 66 Motorsports Business Management Toyota in NASCAR Cup Series competition (and is ranked 37th in the standings), finished third last Sunday. Both came to the race with extensive iRacing experience and were considered the “favorites” – a designation new for them in any competition that also includes NASCAR Cup Series champions like Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. But Hill and Smithley held their own.
While Sunday’s winner Denny Hamlin and runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled to the front in the closing laps, steering iRacing set-ups that cost tens of thousands of dollars, both Smithley and Hill kept the sport’s biggest names honest for most of the 100-lap race while driving virtual cars from a steering wheel attached to a desk at home.
“Me and Timmy’s set-ups are very similar, we have just the regular wheel, it’s about a $250 wheel and pedal and shifter set, and I just mount it right on my computer desk. And I have one monitor and that’s what I’ve got,” Smithley said Monday.
That the two were still able to compete with a long A-List of NASCAR drivers who spent massive amounts of money on their set-up?
“It’s definitely gratifying,” Smithley said. “That’s what’s so great about sim racing is that it’s an equalizer. Everybody’s on the same playing field and it doesn’t matter if you have a full motion, 40-50 thousand dollar sim rig or if you have a couple hundred dollars on a simpler sim rig. You can still go out there and compete with the best of the best.”
“This kind of gave us the unique opportunity to showcase what we can do. By no means am I saying it’s the same thing as real life, but it kind of sets us all on a more even platform. Some guys have more experience, but to be able to do that – to win a pole, lead laps and do that, we’re all racers we all want to do those things so it was nice to be in that seat for a change.”
Hill was similarly upbeat and encouraged with the outing.
“Obviously in the real world, there’s different setbacks that we face on a smaller team level, setbacks that we face that an average fan may not even know about or they may second-guess what we’re up against,” Hill said. “This race was neat because I didn’t have to worry about putting scuffed tires on like I do, or worry being down 250 horsepower, or my car being five years old.
“Everything I was driving was the same thing Denny Hamlin won with or Dale Earnhardt Jr finished second with.
“I had the same car, I just didn’t do a good enough job to beat ‘em,” he added with a laugh.
Both Hill and Smithley say they are eagerly preparing for the second eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race – this Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway, where the NASCAR national series would have been racing under normal circumstances. Instead, the sport has declared a “hold” on the season, deferring to the safety priorities of its competitors and fans as the nation and world continue to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic.
Judging by the reaction on social media, the eNASCAR iRacing event on Sunday went a long way toward re-engaging with fans. And it provided a sporting outlet for both the competitors and an audience that included both rabid fans and many new eyes who were checking out the competition in essentially the only true game in town featuring a sport’s top competitors.
Sunday’s race winner Hamlin said he was certainly impressed with the work of Hill and Smithley and considers them prime competition again this week.
“I think that guys with experience are going to shine, especially early on in this type of racing,” Hamlin said. “I mean, you couldn’t believe how long, how many hours I spent trying to find four hundredths of a second for qualifying for the last week and so I think that people that have experience and know all the tricks and know all the things you do to get speed out of the car, they’re going to shine right now for sure.
“Certainly, I think it’s great for those guys who normally you would not see up front, I thought for sure they were one of the top-five favorites going in along with William [Byron] and myself and Dale Jr. because they were fast through the week. So I think the guys you expected to be up front, they were up front, and it’s who you had to beat for the win.
“It’s great that those guys were able to participate and not only participate but challenge for the win. Normally on a normal week, they’re thinking, well, how can I run 30th, right. So it’s just a different beast when everything is all up and out.”
In addition to the competitive adrenalin rush in competing door-to-door with the sport’s highest profile drivers, both Hill and Smithley concede their showing may be beneficial when the season resumes. They have certainly earned the respect of those they are racing and those who are watching – longtime fans and new eyes to NASCAR. It all is a positive when their small teams next look for a corporate sponsor.
Both drivers carried the sponsorship logo on their car last week that would have been with them at Miami. And both did upwards of 10-15 media interviews in the positive aftermath of Sunday’s race – a completely new and welcome experience for both young drivers. There is a legitimate potential business uptick this eNASCAR iRacing provides.
“One big takeaway was, I ran my real-world sponsor on the car and they were supposed to go with us to Atlanta and Homestead and we’re not racing there right now,” Hill said. “It’s disappointing, but they got to see their race car on television [Sunday] which they loved. And I love to give them more TV time than they might have gotten otherwise. It’s neat to provide that and have some good runs for them.”
Both Smithley and Garrett remain enthusiastic about the coming week’s potential – both competitively and big picture.
“It was a good opportunity for all of us and I’m excited to see where it goes,” Smithley said. “I’m eager to see what those guys do to prep. I’ve probably done a 1,000 laps from the time I found out the first race was going to happen to the green flag. I took it very seriously.
“For me, it’s been a great opportunity to showcase what I can do and brings it a little bit into my wheelhouse where some of those guys don’t quite have the experience. And for the simple fact of the aesthetics – winning the pole, being up front and running the fastest lap, that was a great opportunity for me.
“Without a doubt, no question those guys are going to try to out-run us, especially the guys up front. We’re all competitors. We all do this for a living. It doesn’t matter if we’re in go-karts, running an iRacing race, a Cup race or shopping carts in the mall, we all want to beat each other. It’s just in our DNA.
“I know those other guys will be prepping but I’m going to do the same things. I think it should be even better racing on Sunday at Texas and I just hope I can continue doing the same things and maybe squeak out a win.”