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Can iRacing and esports provide your live sports fix?

Sebring and Homestead will host digital races this weekend with drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Colton Herta.
Because traditional motorsports have been parked through April (at least), simulator racing is as good as it’s going to get for weeks.
Because traditional motorsports have been parked through April (at least), simulator racing is as good as it’s going to get for weeks. [ GENE BLEVINS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
Published Mar. 20, 2020|Updated Mar. 21, 2020

With most of the pro sports world hunkered down because of the coronavirus pandemic, a pair of Florida-themed digital auto races will be a substitute for live entertainment this weekend.

Instead of the famed 12 Hours of Sebring, postponed from today until November, a digital version of the track will host a 90-minute iRacing Sebring SuperSaturday event at 2:30 on YouTube and Twitch. Because NASCAR’s Cup series cannot run at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series will begin with a virtual South Florida race at 1:30 Sunday on FS1.

The events will feature familiar names. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, two-time defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch are among the two dozen Cup drivers expected for the eNASCAR event. A handful of current or former IndyCar competitors are lined up for Sebring, including rising star (and Belleair resident) Colton Herta, veteran Sage Karam and one-time St. Petersburg resident Tristan Vautier.

Because traditional motorsports have been parked through at least April, simulator racing is as good as it’s going to get for racing fans for weeks. And judging by an eNASCAR race this week, it’s not a bad alternative.

Related: The line between video games and racing isn’t blurring. It’s disappearing.

I was one of 3,700 viewers who livestreamed the opening laps of Tuesday night’s regularly scheduled eNASCAR event; by Thursday morning, the YouTube video had topped 54,000 views. A quick glance at the comments showed that a healthy portion of those impressions came from traditional racing fans looking for something to do while social distancing.

“It’s certainly a neat way for us to continue to engage with our fan base,” NASCAR vice president of racing development Ben Kennedy said as the stream began.

Unlike Sunday’s exhibition, Tuesday’s race was part of an existing series with existing drivers and teams competing for a season-long prize pool worth $300,000. It would look and feel familiar to anyone who has watched the Daytona 500 from their couch.

The digital cars and digital Homestead looked so lifelike that you could have fooled yourself into thinking they were real; they were so detailed that the shadows moved along with the cars. The paint schemes, broadcast angles and on-screen graphics were recognizable, as were the gratuitous plugs for longtime sponsors such as Coca-Cola.

Related: What it was like to be at the Grand Prix when the sports world finally came to a halt

As for the racing? It was more entertaining than I expected.

The strategy was still there: Do you plan on two pit stops? Or save fuel to try to get by on only one?

The competition was tight. When Ryan Luza and Bobby Zalenski battled for the lead in the final 30 laps, it was fun to watch. And when one car T-boned another at the entrance to pit road, I unconsciously let out an “oof,” even though there was no actual damage to anyone or anything.

Sage Karam (middle) stands near a Coanda Simsport teammate during competition at the 2019 SimRacing Expo in Germany. Karam, an IndyCar Series veteran, is scheduled to compete in a digital Sebring race this weekend.
Sage Karam (middle) stands near a Coanda Simsport teammate during competition at the 2019 SimRacing Expo in Germany. Karam, an IndyCar Series veteran, is scheduled to compete in a digital Sebring race this weekend. [ Courtesy: Coanda Simsport ]

That lack of physical danger is one of the drawbacks to digital racing. Though you never want to see anyone get hurt, the risk real drivers take is one of the things that makes racing so exciting for competitors and spectators.

IRacing also lacks the personality of NASCAR or IndyCar. Aside from a few shots of competitors driving in their bedrooms, you won’t learn much about the racers by parachuting in for an hour and a half. The career arcs and driver feuds aren’t easy to find, though the injection of names such as Herta and Hamlin will address that concern at Sebring and Homestead.

Related: Tampa Bay ties remain strong for defending Daytona champ Denny Hamlin

A few big-name drivers moonlighting on digital tracks won’t be enough to replace traditional racing long term. But as the coronavirus pandemic causes the live pro sports drought to continue, they create an entertainment option worth considering this weekend.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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