NASCAR: Don’t take for granted what we still have

NASCAR is in a unique position during the coronavirus pandemic: its athletes are still able to compete against one another. Don’t take that for granted.

“Screeching halt” is an understatement when it comes to an accurate description of what the coronavirus pandemic did the sports world a few weeks back. The world of motorsports was no exception. IndyCar and Formula 1 were unable to even get their seasons underway, while NASCAR‘s most recent race took place three weeks ago now.

In terms of racing getting back underway, let’s just put it this way: on one hand, every day, we are one day farther away from the start of this whole thing, but on the other hand, it still isn’t happening for the foreseeable future.

Postponements and cancellations: TRACKER

NASCAR is scheduled to resume on Saturday, May 9 at Martinsville Speedway while IndyCar is scheduled to start on Saturday, May 30 at the Raceway at Belle Isle Park and Formula 1 is scheduled to start on Sunday, June 14 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

But compared to other sports, racing is at an advantage, and a big one. During this pandemic and the sheltering in place that is going on across the globe as a result of it, race car drivers can still compete against one another, and they can do so doing what they would ordinarily be doing, just not in a public setting.

In response to all of the postponements and cancellations, NASCAR launched the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, IndyCar launched the IndyCar iRacing Challenge and Formula 1 launched the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series.

While it applies to every racing series, I stress this concept for NASCAR specifically because Mike Joy, the lap-by-lap voice of Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage, noted during the broadcast of last Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway that he had been told by some NASCAR fans that they weren’t going to be watching the race.

Why? Because it wasn’t “real, live racing”.

The first thing that popped into my mind when Joy revealed this on TV was this question:

What “real, live racing” were you planning on watching, then?

Of course, this is not to say that all NASCAR fans MUST WATCH iRACING now that NASCAR isn’t running live races for at least several more weeks. There are, in fact, still plenty of other things to do in life while sheltering in place, albeit not racing-related things, and it is true that iRacing is not the usual NASCAR we are all used to watching every Sunday.

However, it is to say not to take iRacing for granted. Racing is the only sport that can literally have its athletes compete in a virtual setting by doing exactly what they’d be doing in a real-world setting on any given day of competition.

iRacing, on the surface, amounts to a racing video game. It does, after all, fit the definition of “video game”, which is “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen”.

But the simulation aspect of it, coupled with its complexity and insane realism, has led to multiple drivers, even some of the champions of these series, describing it as more challenging and even more intricate than the real thing.

It is obviously a lot more than just a video game. But even these statements from drivers may not truly represent the best illustration of this concept.

The best way to illustrate it is by comparing NASCAR to other sports.

NFL players can’t play Madden NFL 20, MLB players can’t play MLB The Show 20 and NBA players can’t play NBA 2K20 to the level that race car drivers can compete against one another in a virtual setting.

That is because these games are truly video games, and they are nothing more than video games.

As fun as those video games can be, Patrick Mahomes can’t literally control his own player in Madden like he can control himself in a real NFL game. On the flip side, Denny Hamlin can control his own car in the real world and in iRacing as well.

As Fox NASCAR announcer and former driver Jeff Gordon noted during Fox Sports 1’s live eNASCAR broadcast from virtual Homestead, these video games are so animation-based and don’t even remotely involve players doing what the pros actually do in real life.

And he’s right. These games are played using joysticks on controllers, even when the pros play them. Mahomes isn’t actually going to be throwing touchdown passes to Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce in Madden. And he certainly isn’t going to be hitting buttons and moving a joystick during a live NFL game.

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But in iRacing, these drivers are still actually driving.

They are doing exactly what they’d be doing on Sundays, but in their living rooms (or basements or garages). Even in a time when racing is “shut down”, they still have the opportunity to compete against one another — and the races are still broadcast live.

No other sport comes close.

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