Drivers were scheduled to be in Homestead for the Dixie Vodka 400, but it was postponed because of the coronavirus.
Instead, 35 drivers, many who compete in the NASCAR Cup Series participated in an inaugural virtual 100-lap race, the Dixie Vodka 150 at iRacing’s virtual Homestead-Motor Speedway, won by Denny Hamlin who edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. late with over 900,000 watching live on FS1.
“It was a great event,” Hamlin said. “For the community, the racing community, the NASCAR drivers to come together and put 20-something drivers on the racetrack with such short notice, everyone is buying up simulation rigs this week and last week getting ready for the event, and for it all to come together and have a great finish, I think it was definitely a success.”
Competitors were scattered across the country to compete in the race. Many were home with their unique setups, ranging from Hamlin’s $40,000 package in his living room featuring a full-motion simulator and multiple screens. Jimmie Johnson’s setup was one he used to prepare for an upcoming IndyCar race and Kyle Larson’s looked like he was inside a car. Conversely, Ty Majeski and Timmy Hill had steering wheels attached to a computer desk, which were also sufficient.
It doesn't make that big of a difference. I had literally just a desktop computer in NASCAR 2003, which was the version before iRacing, and just a Logitech wheel, similar to what Ty Majeski had.
“The equipment means really, really small,” Hamlin said. “It is like nothing, because the fast drivers are the fast drivers. I know my driver Keegan Leahy in the Coke iRacing Series has got a seat that he found out of a junkyard, his wheel is nothing special, and his computer is nothing special, and he's the fastest guy I think out there right now. A lot of it comes with experience.”
Commentators Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon, and Larry McReynolds stationed in Charlotte, N.C. at the Fox Sports studio with Clint Bowyer competing in the race while sitting in another room at the studio.
The iRacing simulators are considered very sophisticated and ones drivers use to help prepare them for races during the season.
“It is very realistic in so many ways,” Gordon said. “The way the cars drive is very similar to the real cars.”
There were unique moments throughout the race, not typically seen in a real race such as when Hamlin received a shaken Coca-Cola from his young daughter as part of his pit crew.
“My extra man/child over the wall that was supposed to hand me my drink and get a tear-off gave me a shaken Cherry Vanilla Coke bottle, which that didn't work too well with electronics,” Hamlin said. “That was a bit of a problem. We got through it, though. Got the hands clean, threw the towel out the window and I was off.”
Hamlin bumped Earnhardt Jr., who had the inside line in the final lap, with his No. 11 FedEx Toyota coming out of the final turn as Earnhardt held on for second. Hill, Chase Briscoe, and Garrett Smithley, the pole-winner, rounded out the top five with Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, Ryan Preece, Majeski, and Erik Jones following.
“I thought he’d be hard to beat,” Earnhardt said.
With the success of the first event, FOX Sports announced a commitment to cover the remainder of the season, beginning Sunday from virtual Texas Motor Speedway.
“This rapid-fire collaboration between FOX Sports, NASCAR and iRacing obviously has resonated with race fans, gamers and television viewers across the country in a very positive way," said Brad Zager, FOX Sports Executive Producer, EVP/Head of Production & Operations. “We have learned so much in a relatively short period of time, and we are excited to expand coverage of this brand-new NASCAR esports series to an even wider audience.”