Opinion: iRacing, eSport and Some Semblance of Normal During the Coronavirus Shutdown

It won’t look normal, but for 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon, the NASCAR Cup Series will try its best to make us feel normal.

In the span of a week, our entire civilization has changed dramatically.

The novel coronavirus has forced much of the entire planet behind closed doors for an undeterminable amount of time. The norms of social interactivity have been replaced by ‘social distancing,’ ‘physical distancing’ and ‘quarantine in place.’

Make no mistake: We ARE going to get through this as a global society, but motorsports and eSport is here to help.

The inaugural eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event will air on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 ET on FS1 — the first of its kind to feature real-life racers on national television. It will feature 35 NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Gander Truck Series contenders racing door-to-door at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The play-by-play will be delivered by Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds from the FOX Sports studios in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Race teams began submitting press releases with pixelated paint schemes, quotes and quirky iRacing statistics on Friday afternoon. NASCAR will host a media teleconference with the winner of the 100-lap main event.

This feels normal.

Fans will be able to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. race on a weekly basis this spring against the likes of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott.

The irreverent Clint Bowyer will serve as the in-race analyst.

How fortunate is NASCAR to have a platform that offers its stars the opportunity to sit in race seats, turn steering wheels and press pedals in a way that at least imitates real life? Fans will tune into FS1 and listen to Joy, Gordon and Larry Mac break down a race while seeing the visual of Earnhardt’s famed No. 88 alongside Busch’s championship-winning No. 18.

Regardless of how one felt about eSport prior to the global pandemic, this weekend is suddenly offering a much-needed slice of normalcy.

There will be those who proclaim this as the future of car racing in a post climate solution environment. There will be those who intensely disagree, arguing that real cars will forever be a tangible part of the culture. Even this sort of digital watercooler talk will feel like a standard issue Sunday afternoon.

We’ll debate that instead of downforce configurations, competitively engineered advantages and the consistency of race control.

At least one driver will feel wronged by another on Sunday, even if it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

Formula 1, Supercars, IMSA and IndyCar have each planned similar eSport events featuring real world drivers during the general quarantine — the iRaces airing on their respective social media platforms or streaming entities like Twitch and YouTube.

Sponsorship packages are being sold, public relations professionals are doing their jobs and fans will be entertained.

In what universe is this not a good thing?

There is nothing that could permanently replace the at-track thrills of watching cars zoom by a full song, the rumble in the grandstands or the smell of burnt rubber and ethanol, but that’s not what this is about.

Nor is this about simply watching grown men play video games, another misnomer about sim racing that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In a perfect world, this rare cross-section between the real world and digital racing worlds, born from necessity, can increase a much-needed understanding between the two. Humanity will race cars for as long as they exist, and the term ‘racer’ is not a monopoly to be held from the eSport community.

No one knows how long this pandemic will last. Hopefully everyone reading this does their part by limiting exposure to others and flattening the curve so that medical professionals can do their jobs.

In time, the world will have the opportunity to return to normal.

Meanwhile, the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series will do their best to make that responsibility easier on Sunday by doing what they always do.

Race.

*Virtual* odds from my perspective.
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