Virtual iRacing might not have been ‘real,’ but it made fans feel really good

May 9 was supposed to be a history-making night in NASCAR.

It was set to mark the first full-length NASCAR Cup Series night race at Martinsville Speedway. Under the lights  onMother’s Day weekend. It was supposed to be a new tradition.

Instead, a little bit of different history was made. The date marked the debut of the now-defunct North Wilkesboro track on the iRacing simulated racing internet platform.

It made the best of what could be done amid the circumstances of the sport’s shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It didn’t have the electric feel that one would have gotten for a Saturday night short-track slugfest at Martinsville. But it was something. Certainly better than nothing. And better, frankly, than many would have predicted.

And that pretty much sums up the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in general. As much as everyone wanted it to be the real thing, it wasn’t. But it was a productive alternative.

When this started, it seemed people were hesitant to say it’s not “real racing” because people didn’t want to offend those in iRacing who have put their lives and souls into the product for the last 15-plus years. But anyone who watched Twitch streams or driver interviews in the last few weeks, the term “when we get back to real racing” has flown off the tongue with ease.

And that’s OK – iRacing was a real competition, one that required a certain skill set and focus that can be beneficial to those stepping into actual race cars, but far from a predictor of who has racing talent in actual race cars, where feel of the forces inside the car, feedback and fear all come more into play.

Some people loved to watch it. Others not so much. And you know what? To each their own.

But just think, what would have NASCAR fans done the last eight weeks if it wasn’t for this outlet? They potentially would not have been able to have some sort of engagement with their favorite drivers for more than two months.

Instead, they got to see Denny Hamlin’s daughter cheer her dad on to victory one week and then weeks later accidentally cost her dad with an untimely push of a button on the remote. They got to learn about a Timmy Hill and a Garrett Smithley. They saw some of those with super powers on the race track become mere mortals in a simulator.

No current Hendrick, Penske or Ganassi driver participated in the special event Saturday, an addition to the original schedule. It shows that they know the NASCAR schedule is about to get real intense with Cup races May 17 and May 20 at Darlington, and May 24 and May 27 at Charlotte. Their sponsorship and media commitments have increased or will increase in the next couple of weeks. A mental or just time-dictated break from competing in the series is something they needed, or possibly, just to focus on their “real jobs” is more important than taking time out for a sophisticated video game.

It was a series where Hamlin won both the first and last race. As a competitor, he felt good about what he experienced, even enjoying the media frenzy over his daughter accidentally shutting off his screen last month.

“It is pretty awesome to be able to have success and be competitive and race for wins,” Hamlin said. “Be it real life or virtual.”