The Journal Gazette
 
 
Monday, March 23, 2020 1:00 am

Drivers conduct virtual race

JENNA FRYER | Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The stands were packed, Jimmie Johnson caused several wrecks, Denny Hamlin raced barefoot and damaged cars were repaired with the push of a button – a few virtual signs that NASCAR backed quite an unreal race.

NASCAR eased off the brake in the real sports world brought to a sudden halt by the coronavirus and introduced the country to iRacing with some of the sports biggest stars. Hamlin, the three-time Daytona 500 winner, beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. off the final corner Sunday at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway to win the bizarre spectacle.

“For the community, the racing community, the NASCAR drivers to come together and put drivers on the racetrack with such short notice, everyone is buying up simulation rigs this week and last week getting ready for the event, and for it all to come together and have a great finish, I think it was definitely a success,” Hamlin said.

“iRacing got involved and emailed everyone, said, 'Hey, this is what we're thinking abou,'” he added. “NASCAR got involved, television got involved and said they'd be interested. But no one really talked to the drivers about unifying and participating. It was all free will, and that's what's exciting is you had full-time Cup guys out there willing to spend their time doing this.”

It was Hamlin's 31st victory in iRacing, which is where he was first discovered by Earnhardt long before he made it to NASCAR. Hamlin was heavily involved in putting together Sunday's pretend race, which was broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 and called by its regular team of Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon.

NASCAR has suspended racing until at least May 9, and with literally nothing else to do, series executives and iRacing put together the inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in roughly one week. The first event was at Homestead, where NASCAR was supposed to be racing Sunday before COVID-19 brought sports to a halt.

Drivers showed immediate interest – even those with little to no simulator racing experience. Some rushed to purchase “rigs” to get into the 35-driver field, and the show-and-tell on social media of the setups provided an entertaining build-up to the event.

Hamlin, racing barefoot on an elaborate rig in the living room of his North Carolina home, had said earlier this week he'd donate $5,000 to Miami families affected by COVID-19 if he won the race and Kevin Harvick said he'd match Hamlin's pledge. Hamlin also set odds for the race and was instrumental in a group chat among the participants.

Truck Series driver Ty Majeski, ranked one of the best iRacers in the world, competed from a computer propped on a wooden desk with a steering wheel attached. Kyle Larson said he spent $6,800 building his rig, while many of the less heralded drivers who use iRacing to hone their skills can build a setup for a few hundred dollars.

Drivers took the event seriously, with most using the opportunity to showcase their sponsor – Landon Cassill even signed a sponsor for the event – and fill fans hunger for racing. Many recruited their real spotters and crew chiefs to help.


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