Last week's virtual NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway drew 1.3 million viewers on Fox and FS1, according to Nielsen. The cable network began broadcasting live iRacing after the official NASCAR season was postponed over three weeks ago to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For the sport's sanctioning body, the networks and the iRacing community, that viewership number is momentous. It indicates exposure for a sport that has suffered from declining sponsorship and viewership in recent years, and has already provided revenue-generating opportunities for teams forced to cut its staff and salaries amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's really opened up a bunch of eyes to what the potential is," team owner Rick Ware said.
Ware, who owns Rick Ware Racing, has been able to leverage the success of his team's No. 51 driver, Garrett Smithley, an iRacing veteran who runs in NASCAR's marquee Pro Invitational Series on Sundays. On Friday, the team announced a five-race deal with GunBroker.com for remaining iRacing events for the No. 51 car. Ware said that deal morphed into a longer lasting partnership for real races.
"It's exactly the opposite of what's ever been done before," Ware said. "It's a testament to iRacing and to NASCAR and to Fox for what they've done to put this together. They've created a small little monster that I think is going to grow."
Not all of Ware's drivers have been able to capitalize on iRacing's momentum, however. J.J. Yeley and Joey Gase are two full-time Cup Series drivers competing for RWR who have not received guaranteed slots in NASCAR's premiere iRacing series, which features a mix of current and former Cup drivers in a lineup that runs between 30 and 35 competitors.
Despite their attempts to enter the lineup for Sunday's races, Yeley said he and his teammate have been unable to. Instead, they were relegated to NASCAR's "Saturday Night Thunder" event, which features drivers in lower-level series such as Xfinity, Truck and ARCA. They were informed of their placement via an automated email earlier this week.
"It's more or less a support show," Yeley said. "And unfortunately, that race will only be streamed over the internet. It won't be live on Fox."
Yeley said that after the first race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, he reached out to NASCAR about joining the Pro Invitational lineup. He said an official assured him via text and over the phone that he would be entered in last Sunday's race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway and that "everything seemed fine."
"I pursued getting a rig as quickly as I could," Yeley said. "I had some conversations with sponsors to try to rectify the problem of us not having real races, and it felt like everything was really good. I spent a lot of time during the week practicing."