A virtual reality coming Sunday: How NASCAR drivers feel about the iRacing Pro Invitational

CHARLOTTE, N.C. or HOMESTEAD, Fla. or in a house somewhere, USA – They won’t be at the same site, but their cars will be on your television all at the same time Sunday afternoon.

Select NASCAR Cup Series drivers, as well as drivers from other NASCAR series, will compete Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1) in an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series exhibition race, a 100-lap event at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It is a video simulation competition, and iRacing has worked for decades to create as real a simulation to race cars and tracks as possible. Drivers will sit either at their desks with a computer, a wheel (often attached to the desk) and foot pedals or with a more elaborate seat designed for competitors of simulation races.

For some, it will be their first experience competing in what is a video game that uses precise data to create as realistic a racing feel as possible. For others, they have spent thousands of hours in practice and competition in front of the screen. Think of it like the old “Prelude to the Dream” dirt race that Tony Stewart used to have at his Eldora Speedway, in the sense some drivers will know what they’re doing and others will have no clue.

For some, it will bring them back to their roots, their childhood and teenage years for when they weren’t at the race track.

“That’s what we lived for – was being on the computer, talking to each other and racing each other online,” said Cup rookie Christopher Bell.

Timmy Hill, who finished third in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona and competes in all three NASCAR national series, was briefly ranked as the top driver on ovals in all of iRacing in the mid-2010s. He’ll be one of the favorites, along with others with significant iRacing experience: William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Parker Kligerman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Anthony Alfredo and Ty Majeski.

“We had a practice [Thursday] night and … at least 15 of them were really, really good,” Hill said. “It won’t be a joke of a race. It will be a pretty good show, at least for the front half of the field.”

The opposite of Hill? Austin Dillon was getting a seat installed Friday in hopes of getting some practice. He owns an esports team that competes in NASCAR’s professional eracing series, where they pay the top racing gamers to drive for them and compete for prize money, but this will be his first time actually competing.

“There’s going to be guys that are probably really good at it, and then some guys probably like myself who wreck and cause havoc,” Dillon said.

Among the drivers tentatively committed to the race: Justin Allgaier, Bell, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Byron, Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, Noah Gragson, Hamlin, Hill, Erik Jones, Brad Kesleowski, Bobby Labonte, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Majeski, Michael McDowell, John Hunter Nemechek, Ryan Preece, Garrett Smithley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Bubba Wallace.

“If I was to jump in a race with a bunch of the sim pro guys, they would embarrass you a little bit because they’re really good at it,” Larson said. “A lot of us NASCAR guys that don’t have a lot of experience on iRacing, we’re all going to struggle.

“I say I’m terrible, but hopefully I’ll still be a lot better than a lot of guys.”

So why do it? Austin Dillon says Dow, his sponsor, is stoked to have its paint scheme on his car since it won’t get to be on an actual race car in a couple of months. He will do a social media video highlighting the company’s involvement as well as encouraging people to watch on television. He said he’ll have fun with it, and it’s something for fans to see their drivers competing in a racing-type situation.

The drivers also see it as an opportunity to increase the fan base, and an opportunity for fans to see them compete while the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic requires people to not gather in large groups. NASCAR has postponed all races through May 3.

“I don’t know if it is going to draw many new fans, but it’s going to solidify the younger fan base that we have,” Cindric said. “I feel pretty confident in saying the younger fans who are getting into it … if they are into gaming in general and have started paying attention to these races, that’s legitimized NASCAR in some sense to them.

“We’re willing to go off the beaten path.”

The challenge for drivers is can they have fun if they’re not winning.

“Everything that you put us in competitively, it matters, right?” Bowman said. “I’m the type of person, if I’m not good at it, I’m probably not having very much fun at all. … Nobody wants to go out there and run badly.”

Bowman has run more dirt track races with sprints and midgets on iRacing than he has with the Cup car. Kevin Hamlin, his spotter at Hendrick Motorsports, has experience with iRacing and showed him some of the tricks that iRacing competitors use to go fast that can be different than in an actual race car.

While the professional iRacing drivers can create their own setups, this race will have a fixed setup that all drivers must use. Drivers had those setups Thursday and could start practicing. They will be allowed to have spotters for the race. There is no purse money for this exhibition event.

“It’s different to see guys like myself or Garrett Smithley who doesn’t have the opportunity to drive the top stuff that we all now have equal race cars to drive against each other to show we can drive these things, too,” Hill said. “It creates more respect in a way.”

The way the cars race on iRacing at Homestead, they don’t run as well in the upper groove as the actual Cup cars do on the race track, and tire wear isn’t exactly the same. But it’s real data – the tracks are laser-scanned by iRacing – that creates a somewhat realistic experience that has been championed by many in the industry and creates a connection to people in a unique way compared to all sports.

For drivers, they hope this race could at least help satisfy their need for competition.

“I’ve never really had an offseason,” Larson said. “This is kind of my offseason, a legit offseason with no racing. It doesn’t really seem real yet. … It’s allowed us to do other things that we probably typically wouldn’t do because I’m always busy racing or golfing.”

But make no doubt about it, these drivers are also itching to get into a full-bodied race car.

“I hope that I’m able to race in real life soon,” Bell said. “It’s definitely not going to fill the void. It’s something to pass time and you really enjoy and it helps keep you sharp, too. It’s better to be playing iRacing than Call of Duty.”