The NASCAR Pro Invitational Series on iRacing heads to Bristol Motor Speedway this week for its third race of this new virtual season amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and it’s the first short track race we’ll see drivers have to take on in their virtual cars.
The first two weeks have been resounding successes, with massive viewership on Fox Sports 1 (leading this week’s race to also be broadcast on Fox proper), as NASCAR has found a way to keep fans and drivers engaged when the season is suspended. The iRacing platform allows them to have realistic simulation races, with drivers having rigs at home with wheels and pedals and racing seats to feel like they are truly behind the wheel of their race car.
There are some significant differences, however, and for those that hadn’t been using iRacing much before this, the first two weeks have been a learning experience. Michael McDowell, driver of the 34 car for Front Row Motorsports, has been going through those growing pains, picking up a few laps led at Texas a week ago before a 14th place finish. Ahead of Sunday’s race at Bristol, McDowell spoke with Uproxx over the phone about the experience, why learning to drive without feel is the biggest challenge of all of this, and how he thinks the Bristol race is going to go.
How are you doing, how is the family doing, and how strange is it as someone who’s used to spending so many weeks on the road now being at home for weeks on end?
Yeah, first off everybody’s healthy and everyone’s doing well and that’s the most important thing. There are a lot of people that are going through a lot right now, so we’re thankful for our health. But, yeah, it’s definitely unique for us. We’re such creatures of habit of leaving Thursday, being at the racetrack Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and coming back and going to the shop, then doing it all over again. So this has definitely been a growing time and a learning time, but we’re thankful everyone’s healthy right now and doing our best to keep it that way.
What was your initial reaction when NASCAR came to you guys with this idea of doing the Pro Invitational Series with iRacing?
I thought it was a great idea and I was excited to do it. I wasn’t getting a chance to race anything else, so I was excited to get behind the wheel, but it was a bit of a scramble for me personally because I didn’t have a system and we didn’t have one at the shop. So it was a scramble. I had to borrow one the first week from David Gilliland and go to his shop while things were still kind of open. Then the following week I had to build a system I could bring home and start practicing on. It was a little bit of a scramble, but we’re all set up now and rollin pretty good. It’s been fun and a learning experience for sure. I feel like I’m getting better each week.
What’s your setup like now? I know some guys have some pretty elaborate rigs.
I think I’m in between the poor man level and one of the fancy rigs [laughs]. We were able to fab up a chassis at our shop and build it ourselves and order some pedals and wheels. So, it’s not like the top, top of the line, but I think we did a really good job given the time that we had. It turned out real nice and it’s been working pretty great.
You picked up a few laps led last week and had a better finish than Homestead. There’s the obvious that you’re in a virtual car, but what have you learned through two weeks and what are the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make to how things work in the virtual world?
I think the biggest thing is, in the virtual world you don’t have feel. So you’re doing all your cueing off your eyes and hands, and so, in the real race car you’ve got G-forces, your butt’s tellin you what’s going on and you just feel all the things. In the virtual world, you don’t, so you have to train your mind to respond to different cueing and you just gotta have seat time to do that. It’s not something you just figure out, you’ve got to put in the laps and it’s something that gets better and better as you go. But you can definitely see the guys that have experience and a lot of time in iRacing, they excel real well. I think some of us that were behind on that are starting to catch up a little bit, but it’s just seat time and when I say get a feel for it, it’s get a feel for something you don’t feel, which is tough.
It seems like guys are a bit more aggressive on the virtual track, given that there’s not the actual danger of wrecks and not multi-million dollar cars and points at stake. Have you noticed that and do you adjust your racing style to be a bit more aggressive or assertive?
You know what, it’s funny you say that, because even though we see more wrecks, I don’t think it’s because guys are being more aggressive. I think we are that aggressive in real life, I just think we have better control. You feel it and all those things. What I’ve seen is pretty normal. The restarts and starts and side-by-side racing, it’s pretty normal. The difference is, without the feel and without the seat time we don’t have the ability to get ourselves out of a bad mess. Also, too, when the cars crash or they bounce off the walls, they really bounce. In normal circumstance, if you spin and hit the wall you stay up against the wall, you don’t bounce back into the field and cause a big melee. So I think some of it is the virtual world, and some of it is we can’t save it when we put ourselves in a bad spot. We just don’t have the feel you need to have to do it.
Yeah, I’m sure in a real car if someone gets under you and gets you loose you feel it immediately, but on this you don’t really notice it until you’re 45 degrees to the track.
That’s exactly it. By the time you respond, it’s too late, you’re already in trouble.
This week y’all head to Bristol, which I cannot wait for. Knowing how this has all gone, how are you approaching this week where you know there will be plenty of contact and this being the first short track y’all are running on the iRacing platform?
Yeah, so this week I got a new partner on the 34 car with Celsius, so I got a new paint scheme and a new partner, so that’s fun to debut at Bristol. I’ve just been trying to put in a lot of seat time and practice time. We have a bunch of practice sessions pretty much going on all day long, but last night we did a little mock race with a handful of us and I think it went better than we all thought. Just like Bristol it’s a challenge to pass and just like Bristol you’ve got to move people out of the way, but I thought you could make a decent amount of contact without it spinning somebody out or destroying your car to the point where you can’t be competitive. I thought it was really good. Now, once we get 30 some-odd cars on there, we’ll see, but with 15 last night it was a good race and I’m looking forward to it.
You mention you’ve got a new sponsor on the car this week. What’s been the dialogue with your sponsors through all of this in what, as you mentioned earlier, has been a bit of a mad scramble?
I think more than anything it’s been the amount of people that are viewing these races on Fox and Fox Sports 1, online and all the different platforms. You know, it’s creating a decent amount of value for our partners. Last two weeks it was Love’s Travel Stops and this week it’s Celsius Energy, but it’s creating some opportunity to get some exposure when we’re not on the race track and not doing what we want to be doing. I think that’s good and I think it’s really helped fill the gap for us and feeling like we’re fulfilling our obligations to our partners when we really can’t do much else otherwise.