On March 22, NASCAR Cup Series drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Clint Bowyer were all expected to be featured on FS1 as they raced at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But after the coronavirus pandemic postponed several events, those same drivers will instead be participating in a virtual version of the race broadcast on the cable network in an extension of NASCAR’s esports efforts.
The Pro Invitational Series has been two weeks in the making, the product of about a dozen phone calls, text messages, and a handful of emails. Discussions about launching the effort started alongside the contingency planning that took place when considering the suspension of the on-track season, which is currently being delayed until May 3.
The series will use an online simulation video game developed by iRacing – which also operates NASCAR’s Coca-Cola iRacing Series esports league using the same software – and will pit drivers from NASCAR’s Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series against each other on the video game version of stock car racing.
“You’ve got drivers like Denny Hamlin that are connecting with some of the Coke Series drivers to practice for this weekend,” Tim Clark, NASCAR’s senior vice president and chief digital officer, said. “I think people watching on Sunday will really appreciate just how good some of these simulator drivers are.”
The joint venture between NASCAR and iRacing will go on for multiple weeks and mirror the sport’s live racing schedule until the season resumes, Clark said. After this weekend, the next Pro Invitational Series race will be held at a virtual replica of Texas Motor Speedway – where the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 was to take place on March 29.
NASCAR expects to make no revenue at least early on from the Pro Invitational Series, citing a priority to entertain fans who are now without the sport.
Each Pro Invitational Series event will help to raise awareness and donate funds to families in “host cities” affected by the coronavirus in partnership with Feed The Children, according to NASCAR.
“I think it’s just important to us that the fans have a form of entertainment and a distraction,” Clark said. “The plan is to keep the series going as long as it needs to be.”
The longer the Pro Invitational Series lasts, the higher chance NBC could broadcast races beginning in June. NASCAR has a split media deal with Fox and NBC to broadcast events through the end of the 2024 season.
All NASCAR events are currently suspended until at least May due to the global coronavirus pandemic. NBC Sports is also slated to broadcast six races of the Coca-Cola iRacing Series, including the esports’ playoffs this fall.
Fox expressed interest early on in broadcasting the exhibition league for the same reasons as NASCAR – to entertain fans, Clark said. Yet the broadcast does open up the series to more eyeballs than NASCAR traditionally finds on gaming platforms.
“I would love a big audience and to have as much reach as possible, but I really think this is bigger than that,” he said. “The ability for our industry to come together – from drivers to partners and broadcasters – to put this together so quickly, to me, is a win.”
iRacing organized its own online exhibition on Twitch for racing fans on March 15, featuring retired NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt, who will also feature in the Pro Invitational Series, raced in The Replacements 100 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The live stream has generated more than 10,000 views on iRacing’s Twitch account.
Both the exhibition and launch of NASCAR’s simulation league has also benefited the Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Clark said. The esport’s latest event on March 17 generated 280,000 total views and over 1.1 billion minutes watched on Twitch and eNASCAR.com. Both metrics came in significantly higher than NASCAR has seen in the past.
“The adjacency, I think, has been great in terms of awareness,” he said.
The Coca-Cola iRacing Series is in its 11th season. NASCAR also has a console-based esports league, NASCAR Heat Pro League, which it launched last year.