With NASCAR postponing a total of seven races due to COVID-19 concerns, racing fans have been looking for a way to pass the time during the weekend. They were used to watching the Xfinity Series on Saturday and the Cup Series on Sunday. However, this was no longer possible.
The racing community attempted to fill the void on March 15 with The Replacements 100, a digital competition using "iRacing" a popular NASCAR online video game. Fans enjoyed the test run and called for even more events to fill the schedule. The result was the creation of a weekly "iRacing" series that will be held throughout the postponement. This competition would be known as the Pro Invitational Series.
Fans tuned in on Sunday to see the first official race on the schedule, the Dixie Vodka 150. There were 35 competitors on hand for the race, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Jimmie Johnson, and they were being showcased on FS1. Plans had been made to move the "iRacing" series from Twitch's online streaming platform to an actual Broadcast.
The Pro Invitational Series, as it turns out, was a huge hit with racing fans. They loved this opportunity to watch NASCAR while remaining at home due to coronavirus concerns and expressed these opinions on social media. They even expressed joy after watching Hamlin beat out Earnhardt for the checkered flag.
This is gonna sound weird, but I got legitimately emotional watching the end of that race. Things have been SO NEGATIVE lately and having this fantastic experience today helped. I genuinely can’t wait till the next race. #eNASCAR #iRacing #ProInvitationalSeries 🙌🏼— I Dare Ya (@Darathorn21) March 22, 2020
The news cycle has been filled with fairly negative stories in recent weeks due to the spread of COVID-19 and cancellations of multiple events. With many citizens quarantined or under orders to stay at home, they have been dealing with more sadness than normal.
However, the ability to watch a digital NASCAR race provided some respite for many of these fans. They were heavily invested in the outcome of Sunday's race, and they became less focused on the heavy topics dominating the news.
In regards to racing quality, it wasn't exactly high art. But that wasn't the point. I think we all enjoyed the escapism. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to start pondering how to save up for a sim rig.#eNASCAR#ProInvitationalSeries— Christopher Estrada (@estradawriting) March 22, 2020
Did the Dixie Vodka 150 completely fill the void left by the postponed races? No, but that was not the point. The NASCAR community just wanted to come together and provide entertainment for the racing fans, the drivers, and the crew members.
There was a unique side effect of Sunday's race in that it made the viewers begin balancing their checkbook and look at their budgets. They were entertained while watching the "iRacing" event and wanted to figure out how to get in on the action.
Many NASCAR fans love to watch the entire event and focus on the battle between the turns. Others simply anticipate the post-race interviews with the winners. These moments are when they get a glimpse at the driver sitting behind the wheel.
With the racing organization going digital, there were concerns among fans that the interviews would not take place. This was not the case on Sunday as both Hamlin and Earnhardt were asked about their experience, as well as their battle for first place.
When NASCAR postponed seven races, the fans were concerned that professional racing would simply go away for more than a month. However, the organization, the drivers, and the crew members all came together in a very short span of time to make the Pro Invitational Series happen.
The fans loved that the racing community worked together to make the series possible, and the journalists covering the sport were simply impressed. "iRacing" won't fully replace the real experience, but it will provide a welcome alternative.
When The Replacements 100 took place last Sunday, the fans provided some feedback to NASCAR and those involved. Specifically, they called for the professionals to provide commentary on the moment-by-moment action.
The racing organization heard the pleas and responded. Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy, the play-by-play team of the NASCAR season were providing commentary and analysis throughout the FS1 broadcast.
One interesting side effect of NASCAR relying on the digital platform, for the time being, is that the drivers have better access to their fans. They can provide mid-race updates and post photos showing their racing setup.
Of course, this extra level of access means that the fans now know whenever their favorite drivers have to take care of "some business." Alex Bowman and several other competitors proved this to be true when they revealed that they needed a mid-race pit stop.
Just got cleaned out by @JimmieJohnson. No worries my virtual crew used a fast repair and it’s good as new. Also I’m eating an uncrustable— Alex Bowman (@AlexBowman88) March 22, 2020
The fans were not the only ones enjoying the digital racing experience. Many of the competitors were also having fun, albeit in a slightly different manner. Yes, they would have preferred to be on the actual track in Homestead, Florida, but "iRacing" provided a unique opportunity to keep driving.
For Alex Bowman, the champion of the Auto Club 400, this digital racing series also meant that he could drive and snack at the same time. His treat of choice on Sunday was an Uncrustable.
Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images