What began as merely an attempt to fill vacant hours of canceled programming ended up becoming an event that NASCAR says was the most watched esports television program in US history.
With live sports completely canceled or postponed due to coronavirus concerns, NASCAR turned to the next best thing: Virtual racing. And Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut on FS1 exceeded expectations, drawing a 0.53 television rating, averaging 903,000 viewers.
The race was 100 laps on the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, and had as much realism as the sport could deliver. It was covered by FOX’s regular NASCAR broadcast crew and had 35 real drivers from NASCAR past and present participating through virtual displays.
After scrambling to replace its real-life event with the virtual equivalent, NASCAR officials were pleased with its reception. Along with the impressive television audience numbers, it was trending on Twitter.
“I think it exceeded our expectations,” said NASCAR managing director Scott Warfield. “We all went into it flying the plane as we were building it and thinking nothing more than this would be a nice little distraction for 90 minutes on Sunday for people going through one heck of a time. I think it did all of those things, and then I think it did more.”
Denny Hamlin won the event, beating Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a close finish. Hamlin, 39, who has 38 NASCAR Cup Series wins in his career, even admitted to competing barefoot.
“I like feeling the pedals,” he told reporters. “With shoes I just can’t do it. I always go barefoot.”
And as iRacing executive producer Steve Myers predicted before the event, some fans were even momentarily fooled by the realism of the virtual setup.
“I heard from relatives in San Francisco saying that for a minute they thought it was an actual NASCAR race,” Warfield said. “It’s just a testament to the platform iRacing has built and our partnership with them over the last 11 years.”
For iRacing, which was cofounded by Dave Kaemmer and John Henry, who also owns the Globe and is a co-owner of the Roush Fenway Racing team, the event was another successful test of their technology on a major stage.
Of course, there were still nerves throughout the race day.
“You’re still talking about technology and the possibility of computer glitches and things that you’re not used to worrying about,” Warfield said. “Put it this way, 3:15 p.m. on Sunday was a good, long deep breath for a lot of us.”
On Tuesday, NASCAR announced that it will air the rest of the virtual season on television. Starting at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 29 at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway, races will be shown on FOX, FS1, and the FOX Sports app.
As for eNASCAR iRacing’s long-term status, the series — like so much in sports at the moment — remains uncertain until the international pandemic is contained. But for the moment, NASCAR wants to let esports take a few more laps.
“Short term, we’re going to do this as long as we’re dark with the Cup Series, as long as the fans want it, and as long as the drivers and others are willing and able to participate,” Warfield said. “We know there’s something here.”