It was all so real. But it was also never real.
“It sure felt real to me,” Hamlin said, laughing.
Sunday’s race was the NASCAR equivalent to Tron, with an entire racetrack, garage area and grandstand digitized via iRacing, the hyper-accurate racing simulation software that has long served as an escape for gamers as well as a serious training tool for professional racers. The 2020 NASCAR season was put up on blocks by the coronavirus outbreak one week ago, and competitors were told to pack up and return home from Atlanta Motor Speedway, just as the garage was opening on March 13.
When a handful of racers ran a little online simulation of the Atlanta event, and it caught the attention of race fans, that sparked a much bigger idea. Through the cooperation of NASCAR teams, drivers, iRacing, broadcast partners and the sanctioning body, the fledgling eNASCAR world suddenly made a slingshot move into the spotlight.
“We are all just looking for a connection right now,” said Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 21st on Sunday. “Today we got one.”
The Dixie Vodka 150 awarded no trophy. It paid no points. There was no purse. There were no actual race cars.
Instead, there were 35 drivers from across NASCAR’s three national touring series, strapped into 35 simulator rigs in bonus rooms and man caves, cranking steering wheels and pushing clutch pedals. Hamlin won, despite his pit crew (his daughter) handing him an in-race Coca-Cola that she had accidentally shaken too much and sprayed all over his cockpit.
When Alex Bowman left his racing seat to use the bathroom, his dog, Finn, climbed in for a couple of laps under the caution flag. Dylan Scott performed the prerace national anthem while adhering to self-quarantining in his garage, and fellow country music star Tim Dugger staged a prerace concert from his office.
They all had smiles on their faces. Everyone did.
Jimmie Johnson was embarrassed for wrecking out early. NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte, who came out of retirement, couldn’t stop talking about how much fun it was, even though he was never a factor. TV analyst Larry McReynolds couldn’t get over the tire wear he saw during the 100-lap race on the 1.5-mile oval. NASCAR’s media service provided postrace box scores, photos and a winner’s teleconference with Hamlin.
The thousands of NASCAR fans watching via the race broadcast on FS1 and the dozens of streaming feeds provided by teams, drivers and sponsors were outraged after watching Earnhardt, the 15-time Most Popular Driver, come out of retirement only to end up wrecked. NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s at-track “city hall” race director, tweeted, “Security-please report to @dennyhamlin car.”
Security-please report to @dennyhamlin car
— Steve O’Donnell (@odsteve) March 22, 2020
In seven-plus decades of NASCAR racing, it’s difficult to remember a stock car event that left so many people feeling so great for two hours — so much so that #ProInvitationalSeries was pushed to the top of Twitter’s trending topics list, passing all the pandemic- and politics-related headlines like Hamlin going around Earnhardt at the finish line. With more races planned to fill the pause in the sports world, the hope is to make this a weekly occurrence, converting even the biggest esports skeptics one pixel at a time.
“I have always watched these people who watch other people playing video games like they are watching real-life sports, and I’ve thought, ‘These people are goofy!'” said Clint Bowyer, who raced so hard that he had to use both of his allowed “reset” buttons to replace his wrecked Ford. “But this was damn fun, even when I was wrecking. Wrecking a real car isn’t fun. The only problem I had was that this s— is hard for someone with big-league ADD like me. I walk around with a bunch of voices in my head all day anyway. This deal, I had those voices in my head for real.”
Bowyer was one of the go-to in-race reporters for the Fox Sports telecast, so he was listening to the play-by-play from Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in one ear while keeping the driver-only chat channel turned up in the other. Other drivers also chose the spotter option, with their actual race-day spotters on the radio doing some version of their usual Sunday afternoon jobs.
From team PR reps to the auto manufacturers to the crew men and women who have no cars to build and no races to prepare in the foreseeable future, Hamlin was far from Sunday’s only winner. The same can be said for those who participated in a recent simulation of last weekend’s canceled 12 Hours of Sebring and will certainly apply to IndyCar when it rolls out its star-studded iRacing events on Saturday. As it is with NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA have suspended their seasons through at least early May. For a sport that is more reliant on sponsorship dollars than any other, it’s a terrifying time.
“I think that it definitely energizes the industry,” said Hamlin, who estimated that he has raced against fellow esports junkie Earnhardt for 20 years. “I follow [on social media] lots of people that are crew guys or crew chiefs or drivers in other series. They’re all talking about it right now. You know, this is a good time. It’s Sunday afternoon. You would normally be watching in and tuning in and watching us at Homestead anyway, and what are we doing — we’re talking about a race at Homestead. I think, for sure, it energizes our industry.”
As the race winner chatted with reporters on the phone, he was still barefoot, long after the race had ended. He has always gone barefoot in the wraparound-screen racing simulator that he estimates he spent $40,000 building because he says it helps him keep a better feel for his pedal footwork — even when the pedals are covered in Coca-Cola spray from an over-shaken pit stop beverage.
“If I’m being honest, I’m a little nervous about this,” Stenhouse said. “Not nervous like I don’t think I can race well. I get nervous because this e-racing might be a little too good. When we come back to do real racing, fans are going to expect every finish to be like the ones we have on iRacing!”
After pausing, Stenhouse added, “But man, what a great problem to have. Because that would mean we have turned the corner on this virus, and we’re back at the racetrack for real.”