Why NASCAR is Turning to iRacing to Attract a Younger, More Diverse Demographic to the Sport

NASCAR recently announced its new iRacing youth league which targets youth ages 13-16 who are interested in NASCAR. Here, Jack Madrid of San Clemente, California, takes a turn on the IRacing simulator during the NASCAR Drive For Diversity Combine at Hampton University in October of 2012. (Photo by Tom Whitmore/Getty Images for NASCAR)

After nine successful seasons of the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series, which focuses giving the most elite sim racers in the world a place to showcase their talent, NASCAR executives have announced that they are expanding to include the next generation of drivers in a new, 12-week youth league for kids ages 13-16.

Blake Davidson, Vice President of Consumer Innovation for NASCAR, sees iRacing as a way for the organization to get in front of today’s youth.

“We want to attract a younger, more diverse demographic to the sport,” said Davidson. “This new league that targets youth gives us a chance to do that. Even if you don’t want to be a driver, we think it’s a compelling experience. The cars on your screens are real people and you’re racing them. The drama is there too. What we’re creating with iRacing is a realistic experience. When you’re racing a real person, the beads of sweat build up, your palms get sweatier and the experience gets richer.”

Davidson and his team realize that many young, aspiring NASCAR drivers spend time on the iRacing platform, thus a series focused on the youth that gives them an opportunity to develop their skills was something that struck a chord with the consumer innovation team.

“As we looked at the development path for drivers, one of the things we noted was really every young, aspiring NASCAR driver was on iRacing and participating with NASCAR equipment and racing on NASCAR tracks on the platform to help develop their skills.”

Despite success stories coming out of iRacing, most notably William Byron, who pilots the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, there was not a true program targeting the youth.

Byron started sim racing at age 14 and over his career on iRacing won more than 100 races with 203 top-fives. Now, youth interested in NASCAR will have a chance to start even earlier than Byron did.

“Until now, there was nothing targeting youth ages 13-16, even though they were participating on iRacing,” stated Davidson. “There was a chance to create a new series and target a certain group with an eye towards developing their talent.”

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As for the age range? There were very specific reasons that the new initiative focused on 13-16-year-olds.

“Obviously younger kids can get on iRacing too,” said Davidson. “We felt like drivers on the platform in the 13-16 age range were serious about developing a racing career. This is a cost-effective way to determine interest and skill set of racing. There are skills that transfer to the real world too. Just because you’re good on the platform doesn’t mean you’ll be great in real life, but it does help to determine those with an aptitude that could be the next great driver.”

The series will begin June 20th and last 12 weeks – with eight weeks comprising the regular season and the final four being the playoffs. The top 50 drivers will qualify for the playoffs and the top 30 will advance to the final, winner-take-all event at the iconic half-mile paperclip, Martinsville Speedway.

The focus of the youth initiative is not about gaining a large number of individuals in the league, but rather driver development of a specific group. There is little doubt that the competition will be top notch.

“We know the youth champion will have earned it and be good at what they do,” said Davidson. “It’ll be a challenge. It’s not something everybody can walk in and be great it. You have to acquire the skillset and train and get better, just like in real life racing.”

While it remains to be seen whether the new initiative will produce a driver who has success in a stock car, Davidson and his team know that this is a unique way to introduce those with an interest in NASCAR, to the sport.

“It’s all about introducing them to the sport through this series at a young age and getting them hooked, watching on TV, coming to events, consuming our digital aspect. There has to be an entry point and this new series is one of them.”

The best thing about iRacing? It’s cheap and anyone, anywhere in the world can do it. You just need a decent gaming computer (most likely three years or newer) and a steering wheel and you can take the green flag.

“The barriers to entry are so few with the platform,” said Davidson. “We know there is growing interest around the world, whether it’s through what we’re doing in Mexico or Canada. People are becoming more interested in NASCAR, and it’s a great way to get new fans from within our borders and beyond. They might consider an open-wheel path but get exposed to NASCAR through the youth series.”

And by getting exposed to NASCAR, that doesn’t mean that they’ll just become a driver. In the upper-level series, like the PEAK Antifreeze Series, there are spotters and crew chiefs too. While the focus of the new series is on identifying driver talent, iRacing replicates NASCAR and the various jobs associated with the sport.

Davidson and company firmly believe that iRacing has created the best sim racing platform for identifying young talent.

Joseph Johnson, a graphic designer by trade manages IWRAPS, and designs cars for iRacing. Johnson has been a member of iRacing since 2012. You can see this car and some of IWRAPS’ other works at www.facebook.com/IWRAPS.

Joseph Johnson, a graphic designer who has been a member of iRacing since 2012, has seen the development of the program first-hand and knows just how realistic it is for anyone wanting to compete.

“I’ve seen iRacing evolve and develop into the best simulation out there for those interested in NASCAR as well as other types of racing,” said Johnson, who also manages IWRAPs, which designs cars for various iRacing leagues and even sponsors two cars in the iRacing Pro Series. “This is as close as you can get to the real racing you see on Sunday. iRacing hasn’t left anything out, tire wear, real car physics, pit strategy, it’s all there.”

As for the future, Davidson and his consumer innovation team know that the goal is to see a driver on the track who came from the youth series.

“Down the line, we’d love to point to a NASCAR Next class having someone in it that came from the youth series on iRacing,” said Davidson. “We had a lot of notable drivers come through the NASCAR Next program and be successful but none have come through a sim-racing program. Next year and beyond we have that opportunity. Personally, I’d love to see someone go from the youth series to the Peak Antifreeze Series to real equipment and have success. They could be a champion on the sim platform and in real life and still be young.”