The 2020 seasons for all three of NASCAR’s national seasons remain on hiatus because of COVID-19, or the coronavirus, but NASCAR is attempting to fill the void with a virtual race season. The stock-car racing sanctioning body, in a partnership with iRacing, has developed the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series with race lineups of real-life drivers from the three national series.
“Until we have cars back on track, the entire NASCAR community has aligned to provide our passionate fans with a unique, fun and competitive experience on race day,” NASCAR Vice President of Racing Development Ben Kennedy said. “Our long-time partners at iRacing offer an incredible product and we are excited to see how many of our best drivers will stack up in the virtual domain of competitive racing.”
The postponement of races began with the Atlanta Motor Speedway race weekend March 13-15 and now is expected to last through May 3. NASCAR hopes to resume its real-life racing for the Martinsville Speedway race weekend that is scheduled to culminate in a May 9 Cup Series race. In the meantime, the Pro Invitational virtual racing series is following the original 2020 Cup Series schedule, beginning with Sunday’s race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Dixie Vodka 150.
Dixie Vodka’s title sponsorship of Sunday’s race includes a $10,000 donation to the NASCAR Foundation to provide assistance for those impacted by the COVID-19 virus.
“Supporting our local communities, from buying from local vendors to linking up with regional nonprofits, has been part of our DNA since day one,” Grain & Barrel CEO and Dixie Vodka creator Matti Anttila said. “Never has that been more critical than in the crisis we all find ourselves in today. For that reason, we didn’t think twice about linking up with The NASCAR Foundation to help bring vital resources to feed the children South Florida, assisting those most in need in and around the home of the Dixie Vodka 400 and now, virtually, the Dixie Vodka 150. Working together as a sport and as a country, I know we can overcome the enormous challenge we are facing today.”
Other real-life races postponed and, therefore, expected to be a part of this virtual season include Texas Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Talladega Superspeedway and Dover International Speedway.
The virtual series-opener will receive the national TV treatment, courtesy of a live FOX Sports 1 broadcast at 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday. The broadcasting team will even be the same as if it were a regular NASCAR Cup Series race, with NASCAR on FOX personalities Jeff Gordon, Larry McReynolds and Mike Joy calling the action. Joining that broadcast team for the virtual Homestead race will be virtual series competitor Clint Bowyer. He will contest the virtual Homestead race from an iRacing simulator in the NASCAR on FOX studio in Charlotte, N.C., serving as an in-car analyst.
“This is a unique opportunity to offer competitive and entertaining racing to our viewers as we all work through these challenging times together,” FOX Sports Executive Producer and Executive Vice President/Head Production & Operations Brad Zager said. “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.”
There even will be a virtual pre-race concert Sunday for the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway race. Country artist Tim Dugger’s performance will be streamed on NASCAR’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts.
The virtual series is an exhibition series only, and monetary purses are not being offered by NASCAR. Entries in the series, though, are being fielded by real NASCAR teams, at least some of which have sold sponsorship for the events.
Retired drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte are among the drivers participating in the series, and Earnhardt is using the opportunity to promote Filter Time, a business he co-owns will fellow-NASCAR competitor Blake Koch, on his #8 car.
“As an owner with @BlakeKochRacing in this relatively new business, it’s an incredible opporunity,” Earnhardt [@DaleJr] said in a comment to a tweet by NASCAR reporter Bob Pockrass [@BobPockrass].
eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series events consist of 35 drivers. The grid from the Homestead race, in addition to Bowyer, Earnhardt and Labonte, also included Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott, reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Darrell Wallace Jr., Christopher Bell, Stewart Friesen and Matt DiBenedetto, among others.
“I don’t know if I will be able to keep up with all these young kids who do this all the time, so my goal is to have fun and keep the fans entertained on Sunday,” Bowyer said. “I can’t thank iRacing, FOX and NASCAR enough for putting this together, and all the sponsors like Mobil 1 who made this event happen so quickly. Everyone needs some entertainment right now. We’re all in it together, man. This puts a new perspective on life and, when it all comes back, we will appreciate everything much more.”
Like the virtual Homestead race title sponsor, Hamlin also has pledged a donation to the NASCAR Foundation with the amount determined by laps led and his finishing position in the Homestead race.
Hamlin said the virtual race will feel just like a real race at the real Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“The simulators are pretty realistic,” Hamlin said. “We’ve all used them to help ourselves improve on some of the tracks and road courses over the years. It will feel just like I’m turning laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway.”
The creation of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series was at least somewhat inspired by The Replacements 100, an iRacing event that included several NASCAR personalities the previous weekend at virtual Atlanta Motor Speedway. That race was organized by several drivers now competing in the Pro Invitation Series and was streamed live online on Twitch.
Virtual racing isn’t real-life cars on a real-life race track, but it’s still racing. It’s just racing of a different kind. It may seem unconventional, at least to old-school racing fans, to watch a bunch of guys racing from simulators in various off-site locations, but it’s something, at least until the real cars return to the real tracks.
“We sure hope [it fills a void],” Hamlin said. “You can’t replace the real thing, but fans will still be able to sit down and watch a race on TV on Sunday afternoon. The cars will all look realistic. I’ll be racing my FedEx Express Toyota, which looks just like the real race car. And even though it’s a virtual race, I’ll still be proud to represent FedEx. They’ve got nearly half a million team members working hard right now to keep critical shipments moving in a challenging time.”