Last weekend saw the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series compete at the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway in the Food City Showdown. The race itself was a bit of a mess, a problem FOX Sports handled well as it was out of the TV broadcasts’ control.
Food City Showdown
Sunday afternoon brought a bunch of changes to the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, not all for the good. Instead of having a bunch of locked-in drivers and a hooligan race to fill the final spots, NASCAR chose to cut the field from 35 to 32, then had heat races (with no cautions) form the field for the main race.
I don’t like this setup at all. I actually liked the idea of drivers from NASCAR’s lower divisions being able to take it to the Cup drivers in Cup cars. The massive increase in car count between Homestead and Texas should have been a sign to increase the field size instead of cutting it. Having 35 cars start the race was already too low.
Also, the setup used Sunday (and in Saturday Night Thunder) was relatively similar to when NASCAR experimented with heat races for Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races in 2016. I was not a fan of it back then, especially since it doesn’t determine who races. The only positive here is that if you get in trouble, there isn’t a thrash to be able to even compete in the feature. That is, unless your name is Erik Jones and your computer turns traitor on you.
My internets fine. My computer kept shutting off. https://t.co/8KPHqxFk3R
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) April 5, 2020
I have no idea why NASCAR and iRacing went back to two free resets per driver instead of the one they used in Texas. The fact that the drivers had so many second chances made both this race and Saturday Night Thunder wreckfests. Seriously, there were more cautions per capita in this race than in even the most caution-strewn Xfinity races at Bristol.
Also, the broadcast made reference to the fact that special ground rules were in place for the race. Intentional wall-riding, especially in qualifying, was banned. This move was likely instituted on race day to keep people from negatively affecting races. This had been an issue during the heats prior to Saturday Night Thunder. It was fairly well explained to the audience that might not know about it, but this has been a thing since Papyrus’ first NASCAR game, NASCAR Racing, was released for PCs in 1994. Believe me, when I raced in that game with damage off, I would do that at times.
The constant wrecking more or less cut out any kind of storytelling or storylines for the broadcast. The longest green-flag run in the feature was 16 laps. That’s less than five minutes. Hard to get anything in edgewise.
Clint Bowyer was back in the studio for his driving/in-race reporter role, and it was something else. First, he had multiple incidents in his heat race.
Then, he had contact multiple times with Bubba Wallace in the first 10 laps of the feature. This ultimately led to Wallace’s costly rage quit.
Through all that, Bowyer still managed to finish 11th for the second week in a row. Bowyer’s input did a very good job showing the exasperation evident with many of the competitors Sunday. There were only two drivers that were clean all day. One was Jones, who simply couldn’t compete for long due to his technical issues. The other was race winner William Byron, who stomped the field and did it cleanly.
FOX gave Sunday’s Food City Showdown a two-hour timeslot as opposed to 90-minute slots for the Homestead and Texas races. Despite that, the race ran long by 20+ minutes again. Post-race coverage had Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon interview Byron over the radio, while Bowyer gave his wrap-up of the festivities from inside the studio.
Overall, this race was a bit of a travesty because of all of the wrecking. It says something that during the eighth caution, the switch was made to single-file restarts. That’s sad. It’s every bit of a punishment for shenanigans. Joy described it as a move that typically happens in the second half of features on short tracks. Yes, that is the case at Lebanon Valley here in New York, but if it happens earlier than that, it’s a punishment.
Given the production from iRacing that FOX Sports has to race with, a big race like this at Bristol is going to be one of the toughest races to truly follow. People were wrecking so much that it was hard to actually track the progression of drivers through the field.
The general opinion that I saw online was that the race was something of a travesty that put a black eye on sim racing. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it wasn’t swell.
Sunday’s race was aired by approximately 122 of FOX’s affiliates, in addition to national coverage on FOX Sports 1 and the FOX Sports app. 120 of them carried the race live, while two (WJBK FOX 2 in Detroit and WEMT (FOX Tri-Cities) in Northeast Tennessee) aired the race on a one-hour delay. Most of these markets were smaller ones. The biggest ones that aired the broadcast were Tampa-St. Petersburg, Detroit, Charlotte, Orlando, Charlotte, Baltimore, San Diego and San Antonio.
That is an increase from Texas and Homestead. When the Pro Invitational resumes after Easter, I will continue to keep track of those listings. Having said that, it seriously takes a long time to compile everything. Don’t expect a full listing until the day before the race because things change so quickly nowadays.
Virtual Honda Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst
Saturday brought a change for the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge. NBC Sports agreed to air the Virtual Honda Grand Prix of Alabama live on Saturday. This was a step up from streaming the Watkins Glen event on Twitch and YouTube. That race had an incomplete viewing experience if you chose to view it on Twitch. I had to switch from Twitch to YouTube before that race even started.
Sunday’s race saw the regular NBC Sports on-air team of Leigh Diffey, Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell talking about the race and how competitive the event was. One of the main differences between Watkins Glen and Barber Park was the fact that a competition caution was instituted on lap 15. If you saw the Watkins Glen race, then you saw Sage Karam open up a three-second lead in the first couple of laps that he held for the rest of the race.
Adding in the competition caution allowed for additional strategy to come into play. Fuel mileage also forced a choice for the drivers which didn’t exist in Watkins Glen. That ultimately decided the race.
Without the competition caution, this probably have been a different race. Unlike in Watkins Glen, Karam wasn’t even around at the finish.
He joined the broadcast via webcam with 13 laps to go to discuss his race. He point blank stated that he wasn’t a fan of the competition caution. He dominated things until he made his first pit stop. However, his day started to fall apart when he got caught behind Sebastien Bourdais on his in-lap before his sole pit stop.
Then, he had contact with Felix Rosenqvist, which damaged the car. He had to stop at that point to get a reset. Then, he got caught speeding while leaving the pits. That’s a far more brutal penalty in iRacing than in real life; it’s a 40-second stop-and-go. Once that happened, he figured that there was no point in going forward. Not quite a rage quit, but the result was the same.
In contrast to Karam, Virgin Australia Supercars Championship racer Scott McLaughlin decided to stop before the competition caution to fill up. That was a good strategy in that the field had spread out quite a bit in the first 13 laps. He only dropped from second to 10th or so instead of 25th.
There was a fair amount of racing for position Saturday. A decent amount of that made it onto the broadcast despite NBC Sports being at the mercy of iRacing. The incidents were tougher to follow.
For example, Marcus Ericsson appeared to be tipped into a flip exiting turn 1 on the first lap of the race. You could just see it ever so briefly, unable to fully tell what was happening. There was a spin for Jack Harvey (I think) while the NBCSN booth was interviewing HPD president Ted Klaus. Scott Speed was also noted as dropping back. That appears to be because he got into Harvey. Jimmie Johnson also had some kind of incident between himself and Robert Wickens that we never saw.
It would be beneficial if iRacing could find a way to make it available for viewers to see how much “push-to-pass” time is remaining for each driver. I understand that it might be considered beneficial to others if it’s made available, but it would take out a lot of guess work for the broadcasters. It’s also something that’s typically available on NBC Sports IndyCar broadcasts. It wouldn’t matter for Michigan since it wouldn’t be available there, but for tracks like Circuit of the Americas in a couple of weeks, it could help the telecast a little.
Unlike the Food City Showdown, the INDYCAR race Saturday ended with plenty of time after the checkers. There was about 12 minutes of post-race coverage. Here, we got three post-race interviews, one with McLaughlin. The others were webcam/Skype interviews with Bourdais and Wickens before NBC Sports returned to the non-virtual world. Also, Wickens finished eighth after starting 29th with one day of experience with hand controls; he pitted during the competition caution and ran the final 28 laps on fuel to finish. Pretty dang good.
As compared to Watkins Glen, this was a better race to watch. There was a little more battling and more action for viewers. The direction at iRacing is still (and will continue to be) a skeleton crew for the time being. As a result, they can only catch so much. Hopefully at Michigan, that won’t be as much of an issue.
That’s all for this week. Over the next few days, NBC Sports is celebrating Racing Week in America. As a result, there will be a healthy amount of race repeats on NBCSN this weekend. Just before writing this column, I enjoyed the insanity that was the 2015 MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. The race was crazy, and the commentary was guaranteed to irritate my mother. That’s not a joke. Diffey and Steve Matchett, two-thirds of NBC Sports’ Formula 1 commentary team at the time, were in the booth for that race. My mom has told me multiple times in the past when she had seen me watching F1 races on NBCSN that she found their commentary annoying. Personally, I don’t agree.
With Easter coming up this weekend, the Pro Invitational will be taking the weekend off. There is still some additional iRacing competition. The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge kicked off last night at the virtual Rockingham Speedway (obviously, a stretch for a short track). Byron earned wins 310 and 311 to lock himself into Thursday’s final at the virtual Martinsville Speedway. The preliminary events will continue tonight (Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis) and Wednesday (Myrtle Beach). My initial thoughts are that this is the NASCAR Cup Series’ version of RallyCross.
FOX Sports’ Wednesday Night iRacing continues this week at the virtual Knoxville Raceway. In addition, Lucas Oil also announced the formation of Lucas Oil eSports Monday (April 6). Their first race will be the Late Model Knoxville Nationals on Friday night at 8 p.m. That race will be broadcast on Lucas Oil’s Facebook page with MAVTV’s on-air crew on the call.
For next week’s edition of Couch Potato Tuesday, we’ll take a look at FOX Sports 1’s Wednesday Night iRacing broadcast from virtual Knoxville, along with the NBC eSports Series.
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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.