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iRacing has boosted NASCAR during the pandemic. Now esports may help shape racing’s future.

(Courtesy of NASCAR)
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Chase Briscoe is one of NASCAR’s most popular rising stars — and he’s also one of sim racing’s latest success stories. When he joins the NASCAR Cup Series next season with Stewart-Haas Racing, inheriting the No. 14 car previously driven by Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, he will become one of the grid’s most prominent sim-racing advocates.

“I’ve been sim racing since I was six years old, when my dad would let me play NASCAR 2003 if I got my homework done,” said Briscoe in a recent phone interview. In addition to his on-track victories in NASCAR’s Xfinity series, where he is currently a favorite to win the championship, Briscoe has racked up more than 400 wins in iRacing, the popular subscription-based sim racing platform. “It’s been absolutely vital for my development as a driver,” he continued, “especially in preparing for tracks I’ve never been to.”

Briscoe’s promotion to the Cup Series is the icing on the cake for what has been a tremendous year for sim racing. When covid-19 postponed major sporting events in March, NASCAR and iRacing filled the void by hosting a sim-racing series featuring real-life, professional drivers, which proved a surprise hit: the inaugural race earned the highest TV ratings ever for an esports event.

And although real racing has long since resumed, NASCAR is now more committed than ever to growing its virtual presence, hoping that its continued partnership with iRacing will help the sport reach a whole new audience long after the pandemic is over.

“NASCAR has evolved more in the last 10 months than they’ve evolved in the last 15 years,” said Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing. The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series in the spring seemingly benefited both companies enormously, as evidenced by two key stats cited by Myers. First, two million TV viewers who tuned into the series had not previously watched a NASCAR race that season, though that figure may have been aided by a general lack of sports programming due to the pandemic. Second, and perhaps more important for racing’s future, iRacing gained approximately 70,000 new users from March through June alone.

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“When we first started in March, there were some reservations,” Myers said. “People in the industry said, ‘What, are we really playing video games now?’ But it took only a couple of weeks for everyone to realize that this is not only a great way to connect with fans, but a great way to make new fans.”

For Tim Clark, senior vice president and chief digital officer at NASCAR, acquiring new fans is a top priority but doing so can be a difficult task, particularly with younger generations less interested in cars in general. The company has been focusing more and more on its eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, a dedicated esports league that wraps up its 2020 season on Monday with its Championship Finale race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“The notion of meeting fans and consumers where they are is an important one,” said Clark. “If we are able to reach different audiences — and if those audiences happen to be younger and more diverse — that’s a huge opportunity for us and a big part of why we got so aggressive in this space recently. Previously, that interaction would’ve happened because of car culture, and now it might happen because of esports.”

Now in its 11th season, the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series is enjoying its most successful year to date with a $300,000 prize pool — its largest yet. Although NASCAR does not release viewership numbers, officials say that live views of the series have more than doubled and engagements have nearly tripled compared to last year. The series streams on Facebook, YouTube Twitch, and other major platforms, and the final playoff event will be rebroadcast on NBC Sports Network on Sunday, November 8 following the real-life Cup Series championship race.

According to Clark, a major focus of the eNASCAR series moving forward will be spotlighting the personalities of the sim racers themselves. NASCAR Cup drivers like Briscoe, Timmy Hill and William Byron have proven that sim racing can be a major part of the pipeline to success in a real racecar. The eNASCAR series could allow for similar stories in the years ahead.

“Everyone knows his [William Byron’s] journey, and part of that included iRacing,” said Clark. “If we can start to tell that story earlier, to get fans to understand who these guys are when they’re still sim racing. … You can watch their progression from an earlier point, and that’s an incredible opportunity for us.”

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Michael Conti is a longtime eNASCAR competitor — a nine-year veteran of the series, 2014 champion, and finalist for this season’s Championship Four. The growth of the series, he said, has been explosive the past two years and a stark contrast from its mostly stagnant first decade.

“The first several years in the series, we all thought, ugh, this isn’t going anywhere,” said Conti. “How do we make this more mainstream and become like other esports?”

According to Conti, the series began to take a major step forward last year, when NASCAR encouraged all of its real-life teams to participate. Major sponsors like Coca-Cola and Valvoline have since jumped on board, injecting credibility and resources into the series.

“When I first started, I was making $5 a race on a sponsorship deal,” Conti added. “We would average maybe 100 or 200 people watching us … and now more than 10,000 people are watching this year, which is massive compared to where it started.”

And what does the future hold for eNASCAR and the sport’s overall sim racing ambitions? Officials like Clark and Myers suggest that a host of options are on the table: increased prize pools, additional TV coverage and more involvement from real-life, professional NASCAR drivers. Parker Kligerman, part owner of eNASCAR team Burton Kligerman eSports and a racing analyst for NBC Sports Network, said he’s pushing his drivers to be more visible, streaming more frequently and creating digital content. “We have the opportunity to do things real-world racing can’t,” Kligerman said. “I continue to believe that there’s huge potential here, and we’ve only just hit the tip of the iceberg.”

Briscoe, meanwhile, would like to see eNASCAR create a more clearly defined pipeline from sim to real-life racing.

“Maybe the champion [of eNASCAR] could get a sponsorship from Alienware, or one of those tech companies, and get the chance to drive in an ARCA (Automobile Racing Club of America) race one time,” Briscoe suggested. “That’d be pretty cool."

Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and travel. His recent work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Engadget and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.

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