The success of NASCAR’s iRacing Series, which continued with a national broadcast this week of a virtual road race through the streets of Chicago, can still be considered a happy surprise by those within the sport.
What started last year during the pandemic as a way to keep fans engaged while the sports world was shut down during the pandemic, NASCAR’s iRacing series turned into a hit with national broadcast exposure averaging 1 million viewers per race. While the Cup Series returned last summer, the organization has continued to keep its iRacing visibility going with special events including the one on Tuesday won by James Davison in the Windy City 110, a conceptual street course in the downtown Chicago Loop around Grant Park, a 2.2-mile virtual circuit that included Lake Shore Drive and Buckingham Fountain.
“Early on in the pandemic when we started with the Pro Invitational series, it was quite honestly something that came together so quickly I’d be lying if I told you that there was much strategy in terms of who the specific audience segment that was targeted,” said Tim Clark, senior vice president and chief digital officer for NASCAR, during a recent LeadersWeek Direct virtual event. “But I think it quickly became something that could appease multiple types of fans.”
Clark said that avid fans picked up on the events faster than NASCAR ever thought they would. The added benefit comes from younger and more casual fan bases who remain intrigued by the virtual version that allows drivers to show more personality than they normally would during a real-life event.
“The data showed that there was a pretty significant portion of that audience that had not watched NASCAR before,” Clark said. “For us to have the opportunity to engage with younger fans and newer fans, that was increasingly important. Having the data backup that we were successful in reaching the new fan was a pleasant surprise and to a large extent played a part in the decision to continue the series going.”
NASCAR’s ability to do digital events and pair with other games, notably Rocket League, is also part of the overall strategy in attracting fans no matter the platform, said Clark. Having virtual races also allows to work with existing sponsors to give added value as well as find new marketing tie-ups with companies such as Logitech. But he also mentioned that iRacing specifically can have another benefit in potentially identifying a new generation of drivers.
“For us to use an esports platform to develop the participants of the future in our sport is an incredibly unique position for us and one that resonates,” Clark said. “I don’t think esports is the cure all. I do think it has a very unique place within motorsports and the NASCAR landscape. … I think we can use this virtual world as kind of a sandbox to build out new tracks, new competition elements, identify new drivers. It’s certainly more cost effective to do that in the virtual world as an entrée into the real world.”