What’s next for the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series?
On Wednesday, April 15, NASCAR announced details for its next event in the Pro Invitational Series, a 150-lap event on Sunday afternoon at the virtual Richmond Raceway.
FOX, NASCAR and their esports division have apparently decided that the key to having more watchable races is to have less drivers in the field. This week, a paltry field of just 26 was scheduled to compete, with notable Cup drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell and Corey LaJoie sitting out, along with series regulars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte and Landon Cassill.
Earnhardt, still the most popular driver in NASCAR despite being mostly retired, decided to pull a power play on Twitter.
I was invited. I decided to skip this weekend so that a current full time cup driver could race instead. I was hoping my decision might eventually convince Fox/iRacing to let everyone race. Bristol format should be used this Sunday at Richmond IMO. 2 Heats. Main. Everyone races. https://t.co/JCI2O0EraZ
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 16, 2020
Earnhardt’s tweet put all parties involved in a bad spot. If they did nothing, they lose out on the appeal of having him in the race and lose potential future sponsorship. If they did something, they’d have to admit they were wrong and had to change course for the better.
Eventually, they finally came to a compromise with… a qualifying race for two spots. Then Fox will pick one driver, or two if Earnhardt can race his way in. Oh, and the qualifying race will be a 25-lap race around Richmond with no cautions starting two-and-a-half hours prior to the start of Fox’s telecast.
Do these people think laps around Richmond take four minutes? Why such a short qualifying race and why such a long layaway? Are they racing or connecting flights?
Oh, the humanity of having to actually admit that you were wrong about something and change directions for the better. This is 2020; that’s such a snowflake thing to do, apparently.
This series really isn’t a fun exhibition anymore. Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago was an embarrassment, where two quick fixes meant that drivers didn’t take the racing seriously enough while sponsors took it too seriously. Blue-Emu sells magic pain relief cream made from the oil of a species of flightless Australian birds, its tagline at the end of every commercial is that the user of this cream will not stink, and the company’s executive vice president had a temper tantrum in his living room when driver Bubba Wallace quit after less than 20 laps due to being wrecked multiple times. He then terminated Wallace’s real-life sponsorship.
“We aren’t sponsoring Bubba anymore,” Blue-Emu EVP Ben Blessing told The Action Network. “Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?”
Well, Mr. Blessing, it’s quite simple what would happen in real life on a track. He would have parked it in the garage, because in real life, that damage would be too much for the car to have continued on. But hey, everything ended up working out for Mr. “I ain’t paying [Bubba] a cent”, except that Wallace was invited to race at Richmond as the sponsor’s now lone driver, Cassill, has to qualify to get in.
The series needs a format change that sticks. The best race of the three so far was easily Texas Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, a race with 35 competitors and not nearly as many cautions as the other two. Why was that? It might have been because that was the only race where drivers only had one quick fix, not multiple. Funny how that seems to work.
No quick repairs. 40 drivers start the race every week. Race distance is half of the Cup race. The 35 Cup drivers who have started the four races this year are given automatic entries, everybody else has to do a qualifying race with no handpicked automatic entries. Do that and the series can be a lot of fun while also not being a complete embarrassment. Whenever I see people from Fox talk about this series, it always tries to spin it as fun. Isn’t NASCAR supposed to be fun in the first place?
Actually make it like that, not about who isn’t racing or having a caution every three minutes.
What’s wrong with FOX?
Basically, FOX (and I’m more blaming FOX at this point because it’s its network and its decisions) continues to not have a single clue on how anything works as far as NASCAR coverage.
It employs an in-booth announcer with a stake in one of the sport’s biggest teams. Said announcer is terrible at the job and it exposes him by moving to a two-man booth this year.
Its iRacing coverage features more in-studio talking than actual racing.
It sends Regan Smith out to do a three-minute interview every week during a global pandemic in a state that has ordered its residents to stay at home.
As far as real world racing goes, it change its ticker information around with no rhyme or reason within the race, leading to confusion as to where anybody is. It installed the vertical scoring pylon as its primary ticker without changing how it shoots the race, leading to all sorts of action being hidden by its obnoxious graphics. It zooms in way too close compared to other networks.
Fox has absolutely no clue what it’s doing. And this is without even mentioning the constant production shenanigans that constantly go on in its Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series coverage after Cup and the Xfinity Series move to NBC.
I understand Fox pays so much money every single year to keep this industry ticking. At the same time, I have to watch somewhere between four and eight hours of NASCAR on Fox every single weekend. I want to watch good things, not bad things. I want to get the full story of a race just by watching the broadcast, not by having my laptop out with a scanner on just to know about incidents that Fox misses in its coverage.
I know there are plenty of talented people that work there, from as high up as Mike Joy to as low as the Race Hub production people. Is that really too much of a request to ask?
Just Kyle Larson in general?
The theme this year in NASCAR, outside of perhaps chaos, has been that mistakes have led to consequences. NASCAR lets the cars go faster than they’ve gone in 30 years at Daytona, NASCAR watches a driver come within inches of being gravely injured.
Less viewership and interest in the product has led to tracks being more desperate for media representation, which then led to a number of media shenanigans at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, from a fake website being credentialed to another reporter asking a weird question that led to him posting fan fiction on his Linkedin page.
NASCAR starts a paid media relationship with a controversial website owner who goes after the actual media because they dare to say mean things about them, guess what happens.
NASCAR tries to run a race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and it needlessly endangers everybody and their families.
This Kyle Larson incident is just the latest. But the key difference in this situation is that while NASCAR is ultimately at the root of all of the issues above, it really isn’t at fault here. NASCAR has a checkered past when it comes to race relations, but Larson was born in 1992. He was 12 when Drive For Diversity saw its first class.
While Larson is at fault, I believe part of the blame needs to go to young people in general. Growing up and living in a world with instant access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and Snapchat, I’ve seen plenty of people use that word. Why? To be edgy, cool, making memes, etc. These websites are not necessarily the problem, it’s just basic human behavior that if you’re told not to do something, chances are you’re going to try and do it.
Well, these are the consequences of that mindset. Larson will now serve the rest of his life, even on the off-chance that he can successfully rehabilitate his image, as an example of them. Saying it during something as casual as a microphone check, something he does with his spotter hundreds of times a year as part of his normal job, is pretty damning for him, regardless of the spin some fans on social media are trying to give it.
What can Larson do from here?
The future isn’t entirely up to him anymore.
Larson could find a ride in the lower half of the Cup or NXS grid, where sponsorship isn’t as important. But there’s no way he’d be anywhere near competitive.
Right now, to the NASCAR audience, while Larson is now perceived as an idiot or at worst a racist, he still has a lot of talent. He’s still the driver Toyota changed its entire developmental system for so that it could never miss out on a prospect like him again. The one thing going for Larson is that he is perceived as being a very talented race car driver. Running in 30th every week for a year or two would change that perception dramatically.
It’s why Clint Bowyer isn’t as big a name since his 2016 HScott Motorsports extended vacation. While a lot of fans know the equipment level difference, there are also plenty who don’t, and there are plenty of sponsors that also don’t. If Larson stays in NASCAR for a lower-level team, he’d end up just being the guy who said the n-word.
The one big shining hope, the golden carrot for Larson would be if he could get the Gene Haas second-chance offer. And Tony Stewart is obviously very high on Larson. But Kurt Busch didn’t get the Haas offer until a couple of years after being fired from Team Penske, he had a championship he could point to unlike Larson when asked what his ceiling is, and Busch never did anything like this from a society/PR standpoint. And the second he was perceived to have crossed that line with the now-discredited domestic violence allegation brought against him, he was gone with no questions asked until the matter was resolved.
World of Outlaws is a possibility for Larson. He has the money to make it happen and be competitive, even without major sponsorship. He wouldn’t have the exposure of NASCAR, but with social media, that isn’t going to be a problem. WoO is getting a lot of exposure right now thanks to iRacing, and that would be his ticket back to the big leagues if he can win races, win championships, and work on his relationship with the African American community.
About the author
Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.
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