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For Sports Leagues Trying To Go Virtual, NASCAR Has The Inside Track08:41
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With the stands at real tracks empty because of COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR has turned to virtual tracks. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
With the stands at real tracks empty because of COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR has turned to virtual tracks. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NASCAR took last Sunday off for Easter. But, two Sundays ago, fans tuned in to an event that looked and sounded very much like the real thing ... sort of.

As computer-generated fans cheered, the very real-life actress Rita Wilson — recently recovered from COVID-19 — sang from her home in California to images of a computer-generated US flag flying high above a computer-generated Bristol Motor Speedway.

This is the iRacing Pro Series, where real NASCAR drivers follow the real NASCAR schedule as they race each other on virtual re-creations of real-life tracks. And, while other sports leagues have been struggling to keep fans engaged, NASCAR — whose ratings for real-world events have dipped in recent years — has been drawing a million viewers a week to TV broadcasts of these new virtual races.

So what’s it like being a real driver in a computer-generated world? For that and more, I called up an expert: Michael McDowell, NASCAR driver for Front Row Motorsports.

KG: So I want to take you back a little more than four weeks ago to March 13th. NASCAR had just canceled the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. How soon did people start floating the idea of putting together an iRacing series?

MM: You know, the idea got floated around pretty quickly. I'd say within that first week, people started talking about it. We were a little bit behind the ball, I didn't have a simulator or a rig setup up ready to go at my house.

KG: What did you have to do to get one set up?

MM: Yeah, so it was a bit complicated. Just because, by the time I got a hold of a couple of the manufacturers, they were already out of stock. And then ... as everybody knows, the manufacturing of parts and pieces, a lot of that stopped. So we ended up building one at Front Row. My guys put together a chassis, and we were able to get parts and pieces shipped in from different areas and just built it at my house.

It's not the big motion, you know, triple, quadruple screens. But I got a nice monitor, nice set of pedals and wheels. It's not it's not as fancy as some of the other guys. But it does the job. And it's worked well.

KG: So take me to the start of that first race. How were your nerves, compared to what they would have been if you were sitting in an actual race car?

MM: I think the nerves were about the same. My heart rate was about the same. So that kind of shows you the anxiety level that you have. You know, just like anything, you want to do the best you can, and you don't want to make mistakes. And you still have people watching and, yeah, so you don't want to go out there and spin out on the first lap and have your day be over. So, without a lot of practice, I was pretty nervous. So I kind of eased into it. But now, I feel fairly confident on there and comfortable. And you still get nerves and jitters, but it's not quite like strapping into a racecar.

KG: What's it like to be able to make contact with another car and know that there's no risk of injury? That's got to be kind of fun.

MM: Yeah, it's fun. We've seen some excitement for sure. Even though we all take it very seriously, you know, when there's no consequences for running into each other or having crashes, you can really go for it, hang it all out.

You're not coming back to a shop of 50 people, explaining why you destroyed the race car. You just hit the reset button. So you take more chances.

KG: Now, I saw an interview where you said that racing at virtual Bristol is somewhat similar to racing at real Bristol, at least in terms of things like the difficulty in passing and that sort of thing. Have you been surprised by how similar iRacing is to the real thing?

MM: Bristol is a great example of just how well they correlated, as far as where the line was on the racetrack. How difficult it was to pass. And the mental focus and the concentration that it took. You're still using all the skills and techniques you would use to manipulate an actual NASCAR on the racetrack. It's just, how you process it is a little bit different.

KG: Denny Hamlin has been making the point that iRacing, unlike playing, I don't know, NBA 2K or Madden football — it can actually make you better at real racing. Do you agree with that?

MM: Yeah, absolutely. And it's something early on in my career that I did a lot of, just because I didn't have experience at a lot of the tracks. I didn't even know what half the tracks looked like. So I was able to play them, and get used to them. And just get used to the surroundings and the different visual cues that you would use and look for, and just an overall feel.

I think iRacing actually allows you to focus on very small details where, in the race car you have an hour of practice, and you've got to make changes to the car. So the driver's not working on himself as much as he is working on the race car and trying to get the feel that he needs.

KG: iRacing has been a huge success; setting records for TV viewership, creating a lot of social media buzz. Some teams, including yours, have signed new actual sponsors during their virtual drive time. I think for a lot of fans, iRacing has been a really nice distraction. But it's almost also this sort of sense of normalcy in a world that's anything but normal. What has it meant to you to be able to keep at some semblance of your job during this time?

MM: For me, personally, it's just given me a goal, right? It's given me something that I need to do. And I want to be successful at it, just like anything. So you gotta put the time in during the week. And so, just having something to look forward to, but also having something to fix your mind on that will allow you to continue to improve. You know, it's not ideal. Obviously, we all want to be back to normal life and doing our normal jobs. But, for the meantime, it's helped pass some time and it's been a lot of fun, and it's given us something to race.

KG: I've just one last question and that's ... now that my recording studio is here in my closet, I've been having a really hard time separating myself from my work. Are you having trouble with that too? Do you find yourself wanting to hop on to your SIM at all times of the day?

MM: Yes and no. You know, I have four kids. So virtual learning has been harder than virtual racing, I can tell you that much. We're on spring break this week, which we're really happy about. I feel like a full time I.T. guy just trying to get iPads and conferences up, and figuring out how do you turn school work in virtually, and making sure everything gets done with the kids. So that part has kept me busy. In the afternoon, I'll hop on and do a little practice and maybe even get a couple of races in.

KG: I think that there are a lot of people at home probably being, like, "Yes! Athletes have never been more relatable than they are right now."

MM: Yeah, I think some of that is just the misperception. Right? Like, I've always been a dad of four, and I've always helped my kids with their schoolwork and homework. And I think it's, just, you're getting to see more of what life's like at home. But we're all pretty normal guys and girls, and just hoping that we get to go back to the racetrack soon.

Michael McDowell races for Front Row Motorsports. We spoke with him ahead of Sunday’s race at virtual Richmond. Click here for the series' complete schedule.

This segment aired on April 18, 2020.

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