By: Cole Cusumano
It’s difficult to turn on the television, go online, or look anywhere without seeing headlines dominated by COVID-19, better known as the Coronavirus. The same can be said when talking about the wide world of sports. The global pandemic sweeping the nation has brought an indefinite halt to all live professional sporting events.
Sport-specific networks such as ESPN, NBCSN and Fox Sports 1 have been reduced down to classic game rewinds, top-10 countdowns and developing news for sports as it pertains to the Coronavirus and beyond. As the dark age for athletes and spectators continues to unfold, there’s not much that these organizations can do besides sit back and wait out the crisis — unless you’re NASCAR.
While other leagues are being forced to implement self-quarantine and social distancing protocols, NASCAR is seizing this opportunity to capitalize on the ever growing trend of eSports.
On March 15, many of the sport’s biggest stars (active, retired and even crew members) across all four series participated in an iRacing event alongside some of the best in the online racing community at Atlanta Motor Speedway to provide fans with some entertainment in these trying times.
The event was aired on Twitch, a live streaming platform for gaming, and the results were pretty impressive. Over the duration of the 100 lap race, an average of 23,000 viewers tuned in to watch the two racing worlds collide. This caught the attention of many people associated with NASCAR and sparked an idea that would prove to be wildly successful in the coming days.
Thus the reality of the first inaugural NASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series came to fruition. A fully televised online racing event featuring an all star lineup of solely past and present drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway, complete with the FOX Sports broadcasting booth of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds on Fox Sports 1.
The production included everything you would normally see in televised a NASCAR race from in-car cameras, to “Crank It Up” and even real-time audio and visuals of the drivers participating. There were even various tweets shared throughout the event from fans and sports personalities alike that were enjoying the competition as it unfolded.
Admittedly, the sport has been behind the curve over the decades with staying relevant and up to date with the times. With the display that NASCAR put on this weekend, it’s evident that the sport is making all the right moves to stay topical, inventive and malleable through this time of crisis.
It’s hard to make an argument that any other professional sport has found a better way to adapt to the Coronavirus pandemic than NASCAR. The iRacing event held on Sunday was the only live sporting event televised that day, and the only professional league to produce real-time content since COVID-19 forced the suspension of all sports.
This was a perfect example of an organization using this time of crisis as an opportunity to spread cheer and capitalize on potential growth, as opposed to seclusion and waiting it out like the masses. You must commend NASCAR and their relentless efforts to put on a show for their fans, even during a global pandemic.
In being the only sporting event televised, the likelihood of NASCAR gaining significant exposure and viewership once on-track action resumes is infinite. To back that up, the Pro Invitational race was the number one trending topic on Twitter from the halfway point of the race until the conclusion. Take that as you will, but odds are it wasn’t strictly pre-existing NASCAR fans that made that possible.
In the end, whether you were an avid NASCAR fan or someone tuning in because of sporting withdrawals, you were treated to a virtual action-packed event which saw Daytona 500 Champion, Denny Hamlin, edge out 15-time Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., for the win on the last corner of the race. With his win, Hamlin stated earlier that he would donate $5,000 to families affected by COVID-19 in the Homestead-Miami area.
Oh, and if the exposure of the racing on FS1 wasn’t enough, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver is scheduled for interviews on SportsCenter and Good Morning America — NASCAR is the only sport garnering attention of this magnitude.
While we don’t know when exactly the actual NASCAR season will resume, the iRacing Pro Invitational was quite the spectacle and a fun substitute that provided much enjoyment in times of uncertainty. Details have not yet been finalized if the online racing events will continue to be televised on Fox Sports 1 or not, but the brand tweeted interest in next week’s event at Texas Motor Speedway. Logic says that it should remain that way until the 2020 season resumes.