Fox Sports Taps iRacing To Fill NASCAR Void; Real-World Drivers To Face Off in Virtual World
Fox will broadcast the first live event on Sunday
Fox Sports, NASCAR, and iRacing are giving NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. a chance to race once again on FS1 (as well as the Fox Sports app). Earnhardt and a number of other legends will jump into virtual cars to race on a virtual version of the Homestead-Miami Speedway. And the competition will help feed the real hunger of sports fans longing for live competition on TV in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
For iRacing President Steve Myers, a company that has been around for 16 years has an opportunity to deploy its PC racing-simulation software to make a difference, beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.
“We’ve been working really hard to be in this position,” he says, “so that we can step in and provide not only NASCAR fans but also drivers a sense of normalcy.”
The deal came about after Fox Sports NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon called Earnhardt, who has been a great friend to iRacing over the year, to try to connect Myers with Fox Sports CEO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks to discuss the possibility of getting iRacing onto big-time TV.
“We sketched out an idea, and they loved it right away,” says Myers. “Dale has been a big advocate, and I can go on and on about how he has helped us. And now the entire industry has bought into this: we actually had to change the format to have two heats because we had too many drivers and we wanted only 35 cars on the track.”
iRacing is well-versed in production of a broadcast-quality virtual show, having streamed Tuesday night racing for 11 years. In such competitions as the NASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, 40 of the best simulation racers compete for $300,000 over 20 races, including $100,000 for the season points winner. The Tuesday-night race this year averaged 280,000 live views this week vs. 248,000 last year.
The iRacing headquarters facility in Chelmsford, MA, features a new $200,000 control room built in November and houses all the racing computers, a production switcher, and other gear.
“We hired people from the broadcast world like producers and have others [serve as] camera [operators] and spotters,” says Myers. “We can connect and do everything remotely, but we host all of the stuff ourselves, create the website and software, and have our own servers and database.”
On Sunday, all the drivers will compete from their homes, and all that is required is a typical videogame racing system that can be picked up at Best Buy (although some pros do have full racing cockpits with wraparound screens; others wear VR goggles). iRacing has laser-scanned all the racetracks to make sure all the bumps are accounted for (as well as light poles and other features).
The most unusual aspect of the race on Sunday is that it will feature real drivers competing in a simulation that can make use of some of their skills but not all of them.
“Some are going to be doing this for the first time this week,” Myers notes. “Those guys will be fun to watch as they will realize there is a reason guys in the esports series get $100,000: it’s a hard skill to master. And the first-timers will struggle at first because they have to get used to racing without all of their senses. But, if they treat it with the same patience they do racing in the real world, they will be fine.”
Fox NASCAR broadcasters Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy, and Larry McReynolds will call the action from the iRacing virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Clint Bowyer, who expanded his role with Fox Sports earlier this year, will serve as in-car analyst, competing in an iRacing simulator in the Fox NASCAR Charlotte, NC, studio.
“The race production is done at our headquarters,” Myers explains, “and then the signal is sent to Fox in the same way a signal leaves from a production truck at a regular event. Fox will add in the talent while we do all the cameras and graphics.”
The race is expected to last around 90 minutes, depending on things like crashes and wrecks. Race control will determine how wrecks that occur at the back of the pack affect race stoppages.
Myers says that, regardless of whether or not iRacing is on TV, he and the team will be offering NASCAR racing every Sunday until real-world racing returns.
Says Brad Zager, executive producer/EVP/head of production and operations, Fox Sports, “This is a unique opportunity to offer competitive and entertaining racing to our viewers as we all work through these challenging times together.”
Adds Myers, “We are establishing a trustworthy relationship with Fox Sports, and, if we do a good job, there are some opportunities down the road.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a sports event this weekend without some extra precautions. It has taken the world about a week to understand the importance of following CDC guidelines.
Zager says the well-being of all involved is paramount: “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.”
Myers notes that the iRacing office is down to essential personnel only and that cleanliness guidelines are being followed. The only wrinkle in plans for the rest of the season would be if the government prevents essential personnel from getting to the office.
Besides Earnhardt and Bowyer, who is 2008 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, the competitors will include NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Labonte, two-time and defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, 2018 NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, 2016 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott, 2014 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson, and 2017 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champion Christopher Bell.