Many people now stuck at home are no doubt lamenting the lack of live sports to watch. This weekend was supposed to be a big one for the motorsports world, with not one but two endurance races at that bumpy WWII airbase in Sebring, Florida, followed by F1 in Bahrain and NASCAR in Miami. Coronavirus canceled all that, but it turns out there’s an audience of hungry eyeballs ready to watch racing even if it is of the esports variety.
Across the sport, people are stepping up to put on shows so there’s something to take our minds off the outside world for a bit. Much of it will be shown on YouTube and Twitch, but even broadcast TV is getting in on the act as major stars from the world of physical racing series do something a little less dangerous but perhaps no less entertaining than their 200mph day jobs. Here’s what’s coming up.
Another All-Star Esports Battle
Last weekend’s All-Star Esports Battle was well-named because the entry list was packed with legitimate stars of the sport; established names like Max Verstappen, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Simon Pagenaud, as well as up-and-coming racers.
Darren Cox, the man behind the All-Star Esports Battle, is no stranger to sim racing. When he was with Nissan UK, he came up with the PlayStation GT Academy, which over the years has seen more than 20 gamers transition from racing cars in Gran Turismo to the real-world equivalent. More recently he was an integral part in McLaren’s search for the “World’s Fastest Gamer,” so the depth of talent that wants to compete is not surprising. “We work with Juan Pablo Montoya and Rubens Barrichello, so they were first in, and of course then they go and talk to their mates. We didn’t even have to ask Max [Verstappen]. He’s got a relationship with rFactor too; they said he wanted to have a go, and then it was just a snowball,” Cox told me.
After the success of the first event, Saturday sees a second All-Star Esports Battle at 1pm EDT on Saturday, on YouTube and Twitch, with an even bigger roster of racing drivers ready to entertain at the (simulated) Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A total of 60 drivers will compete in three heats, plus a last-change repechage, followed by a final event with a prize pot of $10,000 to give the race more stakes than just bragging rights.
Like last weekend, the race will be held using rFactor 2. Last time out, the guys who get paid to drive actual race cars got shaded by the gamers (many of whom still count as pros as they get paid to race in esports). This time, the grid will use identical Formula 3 cars, which should be a little more forgiving to drive, and I don’t doubt some of those real-world racers will have put in a bit more practice.
It’s still Sebring on Saturday, sorta
Even before many of us self-quarantined, travel bans meant there was no chance to run either IMSA’s 12 Hours of Sebring or the World Endurance Championship event that was to take place the day before. But you’ll still be able to hear the dulcet tones of Radio Le Mans (and IMSA Radio)’s John Hindaugh, as he’ll be commentating on a 90-minute iRacing Sebring SuperSaturday event using GTLM cars (the BMW M8 GTE, Ferrari 488 GTE, Porsche 911 RSR, and the Ford GT.) This one will be shown on iRacing‘s YouTube and Twitch channels from 2:30pm EDT on Saturday.
Sunday means it’s Not the Bahrain GP
Veloce Esports is following last weekend’s F1 2019 Not the Australian Grand Prix with Not the Bahrain GP, which gets going at 1pm EDT on Sunday on YouTube and Twitch. I haven’t been able to find an entry list for this one, but you can expect McLaren’s young hotshoe Lando Norris to be there, as well as pros from the world of esports but also soccer and golf. Celebrity pro-am races are always good entertainment, so this one will probably be worth your time.
eNASCAR is holding a Pro Invitational
Sunday promises to be similarly entertaining. Pretty much every racing series now has a professional esports series to go with it, and NASCAR is no exception. But in addition to its normal esports schedule, Sunday afternoon will see the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series hold its first race. The race will be 100 laps of a simulated Miami-Homestead oval, and in addition to being able to watch it on YouTube and Twitch, it will also be broadcast live on FS1 with Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy, and Larry McReynolds calling the race, which starts at 1:30pm EDT on Sunday.
That could do for esports what a blizzard did for NASCAR itself back in 1979, bringing the sport to a whole new set of bored, captive eyeballs. It would be great for esports, but that’s not the point, according to NASCAR Managing Director of Gaming Scott Warfield. “What we’re trying to do is give our millions of fans and other sports fans something to smile about, a distraction for 90 minutes or two hours on a Sunday, and return some sense of normality to their lives,” Warfield told me.
However, he didn’t disagree that there was the potential for a big new audience for the virtual side of racing. “Yes, It’s an incredible opportunity to put not only iRacing but the sport in front of new eyeballs in a fun, authentic, credible way with our biggest stars. iRacing has always been a differentiator for NASCAR because of the involvement of our top athletes. I say this a lot—I don’t care how good you are at FIFA or Madden, you’re not going pro in soccer or football [playing the video game]. Our guys are using this platform,” Warfield told me.
F1 and IndyCar want some of this, too
As I’ve been writing this report, my inbox has begun to fill with other racing series that are looking to esports as a way to entertain their fans and give its drivers something to do. On Sunday at 3pm EDT, F1 is going to hold a virtual Grand Prix using F1 2019, which you can watch at the series’ official YouTube, Twitch, and Facebook channels. There isn’t a full entry list that I can find for this one, either, but F1’s press release says that “the first race of the series will see current F1 drivers line up on the grid alongside a host of stars to be announced in due course.”
The press release also makes a point of the fact that these online races are “strictly for entertainment purposes, to bring racing action to fans in this unprecedented scenario the world has been affected by, with no official World Championship points up for grabs for the drivers,” which brought a smile to my face.
If you need some IndyCar in your life—and who doesn’t?—then you have to wait one more week. The series, now owned by Roger Penske, will start its own iRacing series for its real-world racing drivers with a six-event calendar that starts on Sunday March 28th. These will take place each Saturday at 4pm EDT, on IndyCar’s website as well as its YouTube and Twitch channels.
To spice things up, fans can vote for which track gets used for the first event at IndyCar’s site or on social media. The following week will definitely use Barber Motorsports Park, then race three will be the drivers’ choice, followed by a random pick, then the Circuit of the Americas, and finally a non-IndyCar circuit for the May 2nd race.