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NASCAR's iRacing format brings excitement of virtual track to TV

Jack Harris, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Auto Racing

As he drove to Fox Sports' Charlotte studios Sunday morning, Jeff Gordon felt that familiar buzz of race day.

"I got excited when I woke up," the retired NASCAR legend and current television analyst said. "Knowing that I was going to get to go see a race, I was going to get to broadcast a race, be a part of it."

Not a real race, of course. Not now, anyway. Like the rest of the sports world, NASCAR has suspended its schedule because of the coronavirus outbreak, its drivers stuck at home while its monolithic venues sit empty and eerily quiet.

Back in Fox's Charlotte studios, however, Gordon has been hard at work the last two Sundays broadcasting races of a different variety. In the TV time slots originally dedicated to NASCAR, computer-generated images of an iRacing competition have aired, a video-game broadcast that had the look of a virtual presentation but the feel of something much more substantial.

"I don't know what to call it," Gordon laughed. "I guess you'd call it real racing. Our normal broadcast has now become iRacing."

Virtual simulators are nothing new to auto racing, used as important training tools by almost every major racing team. iRacing turned the concept into an actual competition though, allowing drivers to race against each other from the comfort of their homes.

 

"I always thought it was a cool concept," Gordon said. "But I never knew it could do what it's capable of doing today, to put the sport on a broadcast."

The eye-catching product has produced eye-popping results.

With a roster of 35 NASCAR drivers headlined by semi-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, Fox's two "eNASCAR" broadcasts together have drawn more than 2 million viewers, dusting previous eSports television rating records at a time all other sports are stuck in neutral.

"There's a lot of things that made NASCAR and iRacing a perfect candidate for this," said Brad Zager, Fox Sports executive vice president and head of production. "It's a simulator rather than just any other eSport. You're not just hitting a joystick ... These drivers have rigs and it really feels like racing. They've got to deal with shifting and the issues in the track they normally would deal with."

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