When Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota sped across the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida last month, the victory was unlike any he had experienced. Trailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the race’s final lap, Hamlin, the 2006 NASCAR Cup Series rookie of the year, made a final push coming out of Turn 4 and surged past Earnhardt to win a race he had led for only 14 of the 150 laps.
Why so unusual? He was driving barefoot, for one, and was competing from a race simulator at his home outside Charlotte, N.C. For Hamlin, who has 38 Cup victories, including wins at the Daytona 500 in 2016, 2019 and 2020, his triumph at the virtual Homestead track on March 22 came in the inaugural race of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an event created as a diversion for racing fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
NASCAR postponed the real-life Homestead race, the fifth race on its schedule, on March 13, two days before its start. Then on March 16, all races before May 3 were postponed. As drivers contemplated a long layoff, Tim Clark, NASCAR’s chief digital officer, started to brainstorm. He realized that his organization’s partnership with iRacing, a motor sports racing simulation software company, might be a solution.
Thus was born the eNASCAR series, a virtual racing experience involving the sport’s biggest names. It has been broadcast over the past three weekends on Fox Sports, attracting 903,000 viewers in its first week and 1.3 million in its second, according to Nielsen. Sunday’s race, which took place at a virtual version of Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway, included 11 caution flags before William Byron crossed the finish line first, delivering a win for Hendrick Motorsports. The actress Rita Wilson, who along with her husband, the actor Tom Hanks, had been quarantined because of the virus, sang the national anthem.
Clark said he did not anticipate that the series, or the broadcasts, which include in-race interviews with drivers, would be so popular.
“With the way it is happening right now in the world, I think everyone is looking for a distraction and is looking for some entertainment,” Clark said.
That feeling has carried over to the drivers. Unlike on actual race weekends, when certain cars are faster than others, these drivers operate on a technologically level playing field. Everyone is tied to the same iRacing software, so it is left to the individual to be the fastest driver in the field.
That hasn’t stopped drivers from tinkering. Timmy Hill used a $300 steering wheel to win on March 29 at virtual Texas Motor Speedway, and Hamlin said he spent about $40,000 on his race simulator in 2016. Hamlin’s setup includes a hydraulic system that tilts the simulator from side to side as he navigates the virtual tracks’ banked curves, putting him in a familiar position.
“It’s as close as you can possibly get,” Hamlin said in a telephone interview last week, “without the actual motion and the G-forces. Everything else is the same.”
He added: “With iRacing, you’re using the exact same skill sets. It’s exactly the same. It’s the inputs from your brain to your feet to your hands. Everything is the same.”
When Steve Myers, an executive vice president at iRacing, and his colleagues developed the programming for race simulation in 2004 that is now available to the public for about $7 a month, they realized authenticity was critical.
Since then, iRacing has gone to great lengths to recreate every aspect of the experience — from the feel of the tires as the rubber begins to wear down to how drivers react to the bumps on different tracks. While N.F.L. players who dabble in Madden video games aren’t really playing football and N.B.A. players who compete at N.B.A. 2K aren’t really playing basketball, iRacing puts physical driving skills to the test.
On television broadcasts, Myers said, viewers are given the perspective of how difficult it is to compete — Hamlin says there are about a dozen drivers who are in a position to finish first on any given weekend. The televised series has proved to be a hit with drivers who are competing for nothing more than bragging rights, unlike the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, which is played by gamers and offers a $300,000 prize pool, $100,000 to the top finisher.
Clark, the NASCAR executive, is among those who have become captivated by the simulated races, which include everything an actual race would, including high-speed collisions.
“There have been times I have watched the broadcast, and you certainly would have to pay very close attention to tell whether or not you’re watching a real race broadcast,” he said.
Hamlin, who finished fourth in Sunday’s race, said that the crashes were actually the least realistic part of the broadcast, but that the software developers were working on them.
Drivers are not compensated, unless you count ego boosts. But Hamlin knows that if the televised races can draw first-time fans — Nielsen reported that 225,000 viewers said they had never watched a NASCAR event before tuning in to his Week 1 victory — the experiment will be a success.
The key, he said, is keeping drivers engaged as they promote their sport to a passionate fan base that will tune in no matter what they are racing. For Hamlin, who never had time for video games because he tinkered with go-karts as a child, the virtual reality is one he is willing to live with — at least for now, at least in this strange, sad, challenging time.
“It’s something I’ve never seen and hopefully will never see again,” he said, “but we’re trying to make the most of it right now.”
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