NASCAR and its drivers find success through iRacing in 2020's sports-free landscape

NASCAR drivers are the only ones in professional sports continuing live competitions, for now racing against fellow real-life drivers on the electronic platform iRacing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the real-life race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was postponed on March 13, NASCAR has postponed all races through May 3. But instead of sit idly by, NASCAR formed the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an exhibition series featuring NASCAR drivers, and its drivers took to their home simulators -- and the world has been watching. Nielsen reported that 225,000 viewers said they had never watched a NASCAR event before tuning in to Week 1.

"We have an advantage on other sports at the moment," Landon Cassill told FOX 5 Sports. "We're the only game in town that's putting live sports on TV with the real athletes that compete in the regular sport."

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"More people than I thought tuned into the first (iRacing competition), and then we broke that record the next week," Garrett Smithley told FOX 5 Sports. "Obviously people are watching. I think it's different times, but I think all in all, the biggest thing that is a take away from all this is we have an opportunity with NASCAR, with iRacing, with FOX, to put on a show for our fans. And that's the biggest thing is kind of giving our fans and people in the industry some hope that, hey, we're all in this together and we're going to get through this deal. And even if it's just for a couple hours on Sundays, it gets everybody away from things for a couple hours, and that's been really nice for all of us."

And there have been real-world implications for drivers. Smithley, Timmy Hill and Ryan Preece are the only drivers who have recorded top-10 finishes in each of the three eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series races. For Smithley, that success brought in a new sponsor; will sponsor him in the next five Pro Invitational races before perhaps sponsoring him in the real-life Brickyard 400, currently scheduled for July 5.

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Smithley said he thinks he's found success because iRacing evens the playing field: Each driver competes with the exact same cars, horsepower, tires and equipment.

"It's incredibly equal, and that's kind of cool for us," he said. "I run with a small team for racing, we do the best with what we can, but we're up against some really, really high-dollar teams. For us, now on iRacing, we don't have that. Now it's kind of equal, and it's kind of an opportunity for guys like me, Timmy Hill, Parker Kligerman, Landon Cassill, to kind of shine and see what we have."

The game's developers went to great lengths to digitally scan all of the real tracks for simulations that are as close as possible to driving the real thing, even down to bumps and cracks in the road.

Cassill said when he first started his NASCAR Cup Series career, he utilized iRacing a lot to help him learn the tracks and train for races.

"This is by far the best way to keep yourself focused," Cassill said. "You can go-cart racing, you can go out in the physical world -- maybe not in quarantine right now -- but iRacing has all the fundamentals. If you race in the official races in iRacing, you lose your safety rating if you bump into people, you earn points for good races that you have, your license can go up and down, which dictates what cars you're allowed to race in and it organizes you in the field against competitors that are of the a similar skill level. So it really does operate like a true grassroots racing platform."

Drivers also say having a "race day" flow and a competition -- even if it's virtual -- is helpful in these times to keep their heads in the game. 

"I think there's definitely some crossover," Smithley said. "It's nice to kind of visually go into race weekend. But nothing is better than doing the real thing for sure."

Fans new and old surely agree with that sentiment.

The next iRacing competition will be the Toyota Owners 400 in Richmond on April 19, followed by the Geico 500 at Talladega on April 26 and May 3's Cup race at Dover. NASCAR has not announced if real-life races past May 3 will be postponed or cancelled.

Until then, the iRacing competitions will be simulcast on the Fox broadcast network, FS1 and the Fox Sports app.