Race Weekend Central

Couch Potato Tuesday: Dixie Vodka 150 Allows Viewers to Occupy Themselves with Action

With no new racing to watch on television, you might wonder what a motorsports TV critic is to do with his time.

Right now, there are some delayed broadcasts that are still premiering, but those will quickly become far and few between. While there is the possibility of old-school broadcast critiques at some point (Note: I’m writing this column while FOX Sports 1 airs the 1986 Miller High Life 400 from the then-Richmond Fairgrounds Raceway), for now, we have other things to write about. We’re going into the virtual world this week.

Last week, NASCAR announced the creation of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Basically, you get a bunch of professional racers together and have at it on a Sunday afternoon. For lack of better words, it was a distraction. How was this distraction to watch?

Dixie Vodka 150

As compared to Formula 1’s attempt at a virtual Grand Prix of Bahrain on Sunday, NASCAR’s 150-mile iRacing event went off almost without a hitch on the technical side. Jimmie Johnson had some connection issues on his own end that put him out of the hunt before the race even began (he did get out there eventually, but he was four laps behind). For FOX Sports 1’s broadcast, they had Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the broadcast center in Charlotte to call the race. Larry McReynolds was there as well. They served in their usual roles. Clint Bowyer was in the studio as well, but as an in-race reporter. He packed up his gear, drove to Charlotte and set his stuff up in the studio. There were also some pre-race interviews, but these were all pre-recorded. Michael Waltrip was apparently at Denny Hamlin’s house prior to the race and interviewed him. Regan Smith interviewed Dale Earnhardt Jr. at his house as well. The invocation and national anthem were pre-recorded as well.

Since much of the fan base really hasn’t watched much sim racing in the past, there was an educational bent to the broadcast. For instance, McReynolds spent a decent amount of time explaining the idea of fixed setups (meaning that the setup was set by iRacing). Another aspect of the race was the usage of resets. Each driver got two complete resets that gives you a completely new car. Given the amount of wrecking that occurred Sunday, it came in handy quite a few times. For William Byron, two was not enough. Despite leading the most laps (28), he failed to finish after getting eliminated late in a crash.

In regards to the actual production, the in-studio footage (anything in Charlotte, basically) was produced in-house. However, the actual race footage itself was out of FOX Sports’ hands. That coverage was produced by the chaps with iRacing in Massachusetts. In practice, they seem to have a front-centric way that they cover races, more so than either FOX Sports or NBC Sports. As you’ll see, that is not exclusive to Sunday’s race. That is the case in a lot of different events. In addition, all of the replays of incidents would come from iRacing itself and not FOX Sports, especially late in the race. I don’t actually know what happened to cause Byron to drop out. I just know that he ended up in the wall, but no yellow was thrown and no replay shown.  Not great.

There were a number of drivers that served as in-race reporters in addition to Bowyer. Johnson, Landon Cassill and others also chipped in. However, there was a bit of a delay in the communications. That’s just something that we had to get used to. Bowyer gave some analysis early in the event that indicated that the virtual race cars were actually harder to drive than the actual Cup cars at Homestead. Also, the groove did not expand as much as it does in real life. That was partly because of the wrecking, but also because the “bubble” that forms when you run against the SAFER barrier in real life does not exist yet in iRacing. As a result, the groove was much lower.

As far as the actual coverage of racing went, it was somewhat similar to what you would normally see on Cup broadcasts. However, the names were very different. Much of the race saw drivers such as Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley up front. Nothing against those two as I’ve met them both a couple of times in the past, but the likelihood of that happening in a regular Cup race are not very high right now. However, Hill and Smithley are two of the most experienced drivers in iRacing in all of NASCAR. Smithley has over 1,000 starts, along with Hill. Ty Majeski has a winning percentage near 80% and has the highest oval rating in all of iRacing. It just goes to show that there is a lot more talent out there than you see on Sunday afternoon. Given equal equipment, drivers like Hill and Smithley can run with the best of them. Do I think their top-five runs Sunday are going to change opinions about them? I don’t know, but it shows that they can compete.

Due to the sheer amount of wrecking, the race ended up running long by about 25 minutes. That said, there were still some post-race interviews, conducted via radio. Viewers heard from the top two finishers (Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr.), while Bowyer also chimed in about his run.

Overall, Sunday’s race was an interesting experiment. The on-track racing was very good. I found it to be an excellent way to kill an hour and a half. Many of my personal issues with the race itself were with production that was out of FOX Sports’ hands. I hope that we can have more of these races. As of this point, I don’t know when the next one of these events will be.

eTruck Night in America powered by FilterTime.com

Thursday night brought another virtual racing event to the forefront. This was the eTruck Night in America powered by FilterTime.com at the virtual Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race literally came together in a week after Ryan Vargas jokingly pitched the idea on Twitter. A couple of days later, he had to cap entries at 300.

Much like Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 150, there were drivers locked into the field, 23 to be exact. This group was a mix of professional racers and regulars in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Everyone else had to race their way in through a series of qualifying races on Wednesday. Unlike the FOX Sports broadcast, Thursday night’s broadcast had a busy booth. There were a total of five regular voices in the booth. James Pike, who does PR work for the CARS Tour, was on play-by-play with Jacob Seelman alongside. Seelman does work with Must See Racing and also covers a number of events as a reporter. In practice, their call of the race was not dissimilar to what you often hear on MRN Radio broadcasts. They generally did a pretty job.

Pike and Seelman were joined by Hailie Deegan, who admittedly is not very experienced with sim racing. That said, she was quite decent with her analysis based on her own racing experience. Our own Davey Segal was in the booth as an analyst, while Vargas joined up from time to time as well (he was going to drive in the event, but chose to withdraw). It was a little busy at times with five different people trying to get in there. Of everyone in the booth, I believe Davey got the least airtime.

There were multiple different ways that you could have streamed this event live last week. The event was live on iRacing’s Twitch page. That could be viewed on Twitch’s website, or their app, which is available in many different places. In addition, SPEED51.com also streamed the race for free.

I tried multiple methods in streaming this race in order to figure out what the best method for me would be. Ultimately, just streaming from the Twitch website worked best. In this case, results could vary. I have a PlayStation 4 here at the house and I tried out the Twitch app on there. I found that it was roughly 30 seconds behind the website and was prone to freezing. In addition, the picture clarity wasn’t as good. SPEED51.com’s feed was decent, a solid second behind Twitch’s site.

The race seemingly was scheduled to start way earlier than it actually did. I was expecting the broadcast to start at 7:00 p.m., but it was after 7:30 before things got underway. What we got were a series of pre-race interviews, not so much with the competitors, but with Vargas and other personalities. Bob Dillner showed up at one point. Then, you had qualifying and the race.

Qualifying didn’t last long. Five minutes of private qualifying (more or less), then the 43-truck field (more than in any Truck Series race ever run in real life) was put together. The starting grid ran past too fast, so for a good chunk of the race, it was rather difficult to tell who was who. That was exacerbated further by a number of drivers running different numbers on their trucks than what the game was showing. This was the case with at least six trucks, including polesitter Michael Conti. Very confusing and not cool.

Unlike the Homestead race, drivers only had access to one reset. That led to a bunch more DNFs because this race was just about as much of a wreckfest as Sunday’s event. You had some drivers that were up front all day. You had others that recovered from wrecks, like winner Zack Novak (who gave the command to start engines Sunday). Then, you had Christian Eckes, who was right at the front before a bad pit call ruined his race.

In the chat that accompanied the race feed on Twitch, the viewers (which numbered up to 3,600 at one point) argued that Eckes decided to “rage quit” the event after his issues. I’m not sure if he actually rage quit or not, but he definitely wasn’t around for the GWCs at the end. The Eckes situation does bring up one aspect that I didn’t like about either race. It was very difficult to get any information on those that were having problems. If you’re not going to get replays of those who have issues, it’s going to be tough to figure out certain things. This was much more of a problem Thursday night than it was Sunday.

Also, on the topic of resets, our own Tom Bowles tweeted on the topic Sunday.

I personally agree with this idea. However, it would likely not be on FOX Sports to do this. It would have to be shared by iRacing itself in their graphic package. It should be noted that most iRacing events do not have resets at all. The events covered here are exhibitions, so that’s why they’re allowed.

The overall coverage of the battles was similar to what you got during the FOX Sports 1 broadcast on Sunday. That means that the vast majority of the coverage was at the very front of the field, despite a bunch of good racing all over the place. Both races actually used the same on-screen graphics, which is partially based on NBC Sports’ graphics. Once the race was complete, viewers got post-race interviews with the top three finishers (Novak, Jake Nichols and Alfalla) prior to going off the air.

Honestly, I feel like the camera shots used in these iRacing events could be better.  However, if you want that, then the whole thing would need to be handled a little more manually. If you ever played the Papyrus NASCAR games (the source code from NASCAR Racing 2003 Season was used as the original basis for iRacing years ago), then you might remember that the game could focus in on any car. That is still possible today. iRacing will need to make better use of those options to create a better broadcast for viewers.

Commentary-wise, I liked the Pike-Seelman pairing. They conveyed the necessary information very well. For future broadcasts, they should go with fewer analysts. When you have five different people in the “booth,” it becomes a mess.

That’s all for this week. Next week, we might take a look at the second race for “The Replacements.” That race will be held tonight on the virtual Kansas Speedway. There are also some additional programs that we can cover, such as the series NASCAR All In: Battle for Daytona on Motor Trend OnDemand. We also have the option to reprint articles that ran in the Frontstretch Newsletter as part of The Critic’s Annex, like our recent look at the Facebook Watch series The Ruch Life. Regardless, we’ll be back soon.

If you have a gripe with me, or just want to say something about my critique, feel free to post in the comments below. Even though I can’t always respond, I do read your comments. Also, if you want to “like” me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, please click on the appropriate icons. If you would like to contact either of NASCAR’s media partners, click on either of the links below.

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About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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OK, it was a shit show but then again so is the truck race at Eldora. Both of them are fun to watch. Mike Joy and Jeff Gordan played it perfectly, Clint Bowyer proved again why he is a national treasure.

Since there is absolutely no live sports programming at present it is an acceptable escape for a couple of hours.

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