Mar 23, 2020 - Sports

NASCAR leads the virtual sports charge amid coronavirus outbreak

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

FS1 broadcast a NASCAR race Sunday, and a lot of things felt familiar, from the pre-race prayer and national anthem to camera shots of the leaders and a racetrack lined with billboards.

One big difference: It was a video game. Real NASCAR drivers were behind the wheels, but they were racing on a digital track from the comfort of their living rooms using a platform called iRacing.

  • How it worked: iRacing is a simulation platform used by everyone from game enthusiasts to professional drivers looking to get extra practice. There's even the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, where the world's best simulation drivers compete in a season for more than $300,000.
  • The winner: Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. off the final corner to win the race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.
  • Fun fact: This was Hamlin's 31st victory in iRacing, which is where he was first discovered by Earnhardt long before he became one of NASCAR's highest-paid drivers.
  • Equipment: Truck Series driver Ty Majeski, ranked one of the best iRacers in the world, competed from a computer propped on a wooden desk with a steering wheel attached, while Hamlin raced barefoot in a $40,000 rig.

The big picture: With "real" sports on hiatus, virtual sports are having a moment, as leagues and media partners get creative in how to reach fans.

  • Soccer: The top teams in La Liga held a FIFA tournament, with one player from each club controlling their respective team. (Real Madrid, controlled by winger Marco Asensio, ultimately won.)
  • Basketball: NBC Sports Washington is broadcasting hour-long simulations of the Wizards' and Celtics' previously scheduled regular season games using NBA 2K20 and NHL 20.
  • Baseball: The simulation-heavy game Outside of the Park Baseball 21 is out this week and is setting records for number of purchases.

Yes, but: While NBA 2K is super realistic (LeBron plays it like its "real basketball" and uses it to test out lineups) and FIFA, NHL and OOTP offer believable simulations, virtual racing comes closer to the real thing than any other sport.

The bottom line: NASCAR, which hopes to do this every week until racing returns, has a golden opportunity to engage sports fans with what very well might be the closest thing to real sports that we have for the foreseeable future.

Go deeper: How sports media is handling the coronavirus outage

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