iRacing has been a controversial topic in recent weeks. First it was Bubba Wallace, who lost a sponsorship from Blue-Emu when he decided to quit a race before it was over. Wallace then went on Twitter and announced that he quit while he still had some resets left and didn’t think it was a big deal. This led to Blu Emu tweeting back at him and saying that they don’t represent quitters and they would no longer be associated with him. It was a bad look for Wallace as he may be branded as petty by some sponsors.
The backlash from that started to change some fans opinions on iRacing. A video game actually cost a driver a sponsorship. That was something that we’d never thought we’d see. Then came the Kyle Larson incident on Sunday (April 13).
Larson uttered a racial slur while on iRacing and using his microphone on the all-driver channel unknowingly. The incident was exposed late Sunday night and by Monday morning was a top headline from most news outlets. First, Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) suspended him, then multiple sponsors backed away from him and NASCAR suspended him as well. In the end, it cost him not only his job. On Tuesday, CGR fired him and Chevrolet disassociated with him as well. It was another incident on iRacing that made NASCAR look bad.
When the news on Larson came out, there was a lot of negative press and media attention towards NASCAR. Always viewed as a southern sport with a southern fan base, the stereotype has been that all NASCAR fans are still the down home southern fans who like things the way they were.
No matter how untrue that may be, the backlash of the last two incidents have put NASCAR in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
That begs the question. Has iRacing hurt NASCAR? Our writers Clayton Caldwell and Vito Pugliese debate.
Look at the Big Picture
There’s no question the Kyle Larson situation has hurt the sport of NASCAR. The amount of negative publicity the sport has received from countless media outlets has been endless.
However, I don’t blame the Larson incident on iRacing. The issue is with Larson and his vocabulary, not iRacing.
iRacing and NASCAR have been featured many nights across the country on networks run by both NBC and Fox. During this time of staying home, there have been several races run on multiple tracks that have peaked the interest in not only NASCAR fans but fans who may not have given the sport a second thought prior to this. The ability to run at a track like Myrtle Beach Speedway has captivated the NASCAR audience and it has also captivated the video game world. The actuality of the racing is a truly remarkable concept for any video game fan.
NASCAR has tried hard to fight in recent years to fight a notion that says the sport is tailored to old, white males. The younger generation has not caught on and stuck with NASCAR as much as previous generations have.
There may be several different factors for why that is but one could argue that the lack of an affordable, realistic video game as one of those factors. EA Sports stopped making a NASCAR video game after 2008 and while NASCAR Heat has recently filled that void, there was quite a bit of time where no affordable NASCAR video game was available. You could argue, they lost the video game crowd during that time period.
iRacing has changed that and the realism with it has certainly appealed to a young crowd who may not be familiar with the sport. Even watching NASCAR drivers or former NASCAR drivers compete against each other in a video game is appealing to a culture that has had video games as a major part of their lives.
NASCAR has now grown in an area where they were sorely lacking. The exposure iRacing is getting has been the best kind of advertising for that generation and for a crowd that are into video games but not auto racing.
The fact that these kids can go on to their computer and play against Dale Earnhardt Jr. and have it be as close to real as possible is incredible. No other sport has that. Sure, you may be able to play LeBron James online in the latest NBA 2K game but it’s not nearly as real as playing him one on one. If fans or media members can’t see the benefit in that, then I don’t know what to say.
Add that with the fact that NASCAR has drawn a crowd to the television for some of these events is a factor as well. Sure, it hasn’t drawn as well as the real racing has but it’s a live event that has created some interest. Over 1.5 million fans tuned into one of the events and a steady flow of an audience has watched. NASCAR has been a topic of conversation over this last month when a lot of sports have literally nothing going on. You can thank iRacing for that.
While Larson and Wallace haven’t done themselves any favors, iRacing has brought some names to the forefront that you normally wouldn’t see. For example, Timmy Hill won the virtual race at Texas Motor Speedway and one of the more popular drivers in recent weeks has been Landon Cassill. Garrett Smithley has also shown his skills in iRacing running up front on a regular basis. Those are three drivers who do not get a ton of exposure in NASCAR that are now getting some publicity. This will help them sell sponsorship in the real world. How can that be a bad thing for NASCAR?
In the long run, the progress iRacing has made for NASCAR during this time is something that can’t be overlooked. It may not seem like it now, but the popularity iRacing has gotten could pay dividends down the road for NASCAR as the younger fans who are fascinated by video games grow older and start to spend money in their sport. It has also given some drivers a huge boost in popularity and recognition. In a sport that is desperate for sponsorship, how can that be a bad thing? – Clayton Caldwell
iAm Not Into It
If there’s a more star-crossed sporting organization than NASCAR, by all means, show me.
The season starts off with the Thunderbirds and Air Force One doing fly-bys, a huge heyday sized audience … then persistent rain forcing a reschedule on Monday. But Monday in prime time! A great race with a last-lap to the line finish to rival the most iconic battles to the flag ever … only to end in near tragedy as Ryan Newman had everyone fearing the worst. Then he walks out two days later! Then a couple more good races! Then no races.
At first it seemed a bit hokey – video gaming in front of a captive audience, trying to desperately maintain the momentum that had been gathered the first few weeks of the 2020 season. But hey, why not give it a shot? Junior’s involved, so are Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Clint Bowyer’s fun to listen to, so why not? Maybe people who don’t normally watch will get into it. If you can’t go out you might as well give iRacing a shot too right? Let’s get more eyes on the sport that is often so often misunderstood and always has to battle an unenviable reputation and stereotypes. What could go wrong?
Well if the past two weeks are any indication, a lot.
First there’s the Bubba Wallace incident, and the “rage quit” episode where he angrily turned the game off after contact with Clint Boywer. “That’s why I don’t take this s*** serious. Bye bye. Peace out!” said Wallace, as he abruptly ended his session. Blue-Emu CEO Ben Blessing didn’t appreciate this lack of video game sportsmanship stating the end of their sponsorship with Wallace driving the No. 43 RPM Chevrolet. As Blessing told Darren Rovell of The Action Network, “Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?”
Uh yeah, I can. Except it wasn’t on a real track. It was a video game. And don’t at me saying it’s a “simulator.” It’s a video game.
At first blush, it looked to me like an easy out of a sponsorship agreement, in a season now marred by uncertainty of when real racecars will be on actual racetracks again. If they do go racing, when are fans allowed back in? How many are allowed in the garage or sponsorship tents? How are their marketing and activation packages affected? And what is Blue-Emu anyway? Is it Goody’s in paste form? Given the difficulty the No. 43 team has had attracting sponsors (or any team for that matter) to patch a full season together the past few years, losing even a small associate sponsor would be devastating. I mean what could be worse?
Enter Kyle Larson.
There’s no reason to rehash what was said. Any effort to walk through or explain what was said is an attempt to rationalize and normalize it.
One errant remark terminated a lucrative top-tier ride in the Cup Series as well as impacted sprint-car competition that he has cherished so dearly. Blue-Emu is not Chevrolet, McDonald’s, or Credit One Bank. This was a career-killing incident that will take a lot to recover from – both for the driver and the team, and for the team and sponsor that chooses to follow him in the future.
It also put the sanctioning body in the unjustifiable position of having to explain why one of its most popular drivers is casually blurting out racial slurs. The same sport whose Southern roots have its own history they have been trying to distance themselves from since being recognized as a major mainstream sport.
The fallout from this extends beyond Larson’s remarks and resulting actions from his sponsors. What happens the next time there’s a pitched iRacing battle and someone utters an insult – not the one Larson did – but say some colorful four-letter 2011-Kurt Busch quality stream of conscious rant? What happens if something that would normally be considered innocuous is then deemed offensive? Is that driver’s sponsors going to be motivated to take equally drastic action, if they’re perceived as being aligned with something even remotely negative, let alone to the level of Larson’s incident?
What if someone complains that they don’t like what their kids are subjected to and blasts out a tweet to a sponsor’s CEO and embeds the live stream of the exchange? It’s a different environment than a weekly race when cars on the track, people are doing things and not sequestered at home, tethered to their phones in an already heightened state of anxiety with six weeks of gloom, doom and despair being broadcast into their quarantined home, on a 24-hour loop all day, taking its toll. Are more sponsors have an excuse to exit contracts in an effort to sustain cash flow? Is there even more negativity going to be cast down on NASCAR before engines even crank over again? These are real concerns, with real dollars and payrolls in the balance here, along with the lives of people at these companies that are more than a cheap vinyl wrap on a racecar.
If a company can save 100 jobs by axing a NASCAR sponsorship, do you think they’d consider reviewing it?
Putting myself in the position of a driver or team owner, I would give pause before continuing to be involved with the online endeavor as it currently stands. We’re no closer to racing now than we were the week after Atlanta, and the landscape is going to continue to evolve over the coming months. There are other ways to keep the sport relevant than iRacing, which to be honest, unless you have a sim rig and are actually competing, it just seems really lame to me. I know, I’m a wet blanket when it comes to this, but it was my initial feeling upon seeing that race at Texas a few weeks ago. I can’t feign enthusiasm for it. I understand it’s something we’re trying to see if it works, and I’ve seen enough.
I’d much rather they spend the time airing some of the races of the 1980s and 1990s (No FOX Sports, not the 2001 Daytona 500 or 2003 spring Darlington race), to help show the foundation on which today’s NASCAR was built on in the modern era. Do it Mystery Science Theater 3000 style with a few of the drivers commenting on the race and some key moments giving their perspective or similar experience.
To me, that seems a lot safer, equally relevant, and a more effective way of getting fans ready to go back racing, both new views and long-standing ones, and maybe even some of those that always tell you, “I ain’t watched since Dale died,” but yet still know everyone competing and what happened two weeks ago. – Vito Pugliese
About the author
Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.
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