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Checkered flag nears for pro drivers in virtual racing boom
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DOVER, Del. — The moment in the virtual sun has arrived for simulated racing and the thousands of gamers who always wanted to race like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon at NASCAR tracks from Dover to Daytona.
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Sports fans discovered over the last few weeks on national TV a not-so-hidden secret in the racing community: the NASCAR champs and IndyCar drivers wanted to compete like their fans — to hook up a simulator rig, grab a wheel and go head-to-virtual head with the best in the field without risking a real slam into the wall at more than 200 mph (321.87 kph).
The races have set viewing records, filling the yawning gaps in sports programming and helping make iRacing, headquartered in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, a breakout company during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think anyone wants a pandemic as the reason why all of a sudden you’re extremely successful,” iRacing executive Steve Myers said. “The only reason why we’ve been able to do this is because we’ve put 16 years' worth of work and time into making this platform capable of doing this. It’s been massively successful for us to put these races on.”
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The real hope is the iRacing boon can be sustained without Cup drivers to prop up the series.
With NASCAR set to return May 17, the iRacing Pro Invitational Series will likely go away. The NASCAR-backed iRacing Series, featuring the best sim racers in the field, will continue to run on digital platforms; six races will air on NBCSN during the series’ playoffs. The last race on Fox in the Pro series is scheduled for May 9.
NASCAR's online competition has been the clear winner among other sports — such as tennis —- that have dabbled in virtual gaming during the shutdown.
At Dover International Speedway, the finishing touches should have been applied this week, the sponsor signage added, everything spruced up for what would have been a NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday.