FORT WORTH, Texas – “You can hardly call this gaming,” NASCAR on FOX announcer Mike Joy noted Sunday. This time, however, it was to a much broader audience.
The second installment of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series brought close, hard-nosed racing, and a nail-biting finish to a world that continues to crave distraction from the ongoing developments of what has quickly become the most impactful event on American citizens’ daily lives since World War II.
Based on the opening round’s success at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, FOX Sports made an unprecedented move that may be looked back on as a pivotal day in the young history of sim-racing.
Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway was simulcast to both FOX Sports 1 and to the broadcast FOX network, the channel most have referred to as “the big boy” FOX, in the United States. The broadcast also went out to 165 countries through NASCAR’s international affiliates.
That meant there was a much bigger audience to captivate and showcase eNASCAR and esports to that, if not for the expanded reach offered by the broadcast partners, otherwise may not have tuned in.
It was a big reach for a big moment in the fabric of sim-racing, and it was also a shining light for race fans across the world still looking for entertainment amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Very similar to the 1979 Daytona 500, there were plenty of exciting reasons to be advertising the product to a weary audience, one of which was the star power from years past.
Retired multi-time NASCAR champion Greg Biffle made his return to the famed No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang, with news of his return only coming two days before the race.
Castrol, a Roush Fenway sponsor for both Ryan Newman and Ross Chastain, announced that they would be bringing “The Biff” back to the virtual track.
Also, 2000 NASCAR Cup Series champion and NASCAR on FOX analyst Bobby Labonte filled in once again for Martin Truex Jr. in the No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Those two drivers finished 32nd, and 13th respectively.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was another powerful attention grabber for Sunday afternoon’s race, as he has been in the past. He grabbed a heap of attention after his second place finish last weekend, and should continue the buzz for both eNASCAR and FOX after another top 10 performance in Texas.
But perhaps the biggest source of excitement for those stuck inside – second only to the photo finish between Timmy Hill and Ryan Preece – might just have been the fact that the top finishers were drivers like Hill and Preece, folks who would normally be considered underdogs on a proper NASCAR weekend.
Garrett Smithley, the third-place finisher at virtual Texas and another usual underdog, expressed his well wishes in a video on Twitter for those still having to be out and about during an uncertain time.
“Continue thanking everybody who’s been affected by COVID-19,” Smithley noted. “Continue to pray, and we did have on the back bumper, a thanks to all of the medical staff and all the essential businesses that are still open. To our police officers, National Guard and everybody that’s out there fighting this thing … we’ll continue praying and see you next week.”
Sunday’s race finally gave NASCAR fans the world over something to be excited about, and that much is enough to help the whole racing industry to keep pushing onward.
It’s a ray of hope and a breath of fresh air amid a dark time, and that is something to be grateful for and excited about going forward.
The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series continues April 5 at the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.