Most Monday nights, there’s an iRacing league where Shane van Gisbergen goes head-to-head against Kyle Busch, Chad Reed and Ron Capps. Oh yeah, there are guys like myself in that league too. It’s Monday Night Racing, and it’s arguably one of the best things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the surface, MNR isn’t unlike any other iRacing league out there. They’ve got some guys in charge, they put on an online broadcast, and they hand out prizes to the winners. However, it’s turned into one of the biggest virtual series out there, at least of those that aren’t official esports or eseries. Tens of thousands of viewers have tuned in on Podium Esports to watch familiar names from the real world battle it out.
Beyond that, MNR goes much deeper. Some nights, there’s a lineup of all-star level commentators brought in for a special event. The league has tons of household name sponsors lined up to promote the series. I’ve run online racing leagues since 2008, and I can honestly say that Monday Night Racing is what every league owner wishes they could have.
The Monday Night Race Season 3 finale will commence at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway on 30th August. The field of drivers will utilize the NASCAR Camping World Trucks on iRacing for the event, and four drivers are still eligible for the season championship. It’s not only incredible who is participating, but also where the league has grown from.
How Monday Night Racing came to be
Last year, Ryan Vargas put out a tweet which sparked a flood of different ideas as the world closed down for the COVID-19 pandemic. Vargas ran a successful trio of races since that time, but Podium Esports was the first to strike in the NASCAR sphere with the Replacements 100.
Born from the social media push for entertainment in the pandemic, Monday Night Racing took the leap to create something bigger from other ideas such as the Lower Half Dash by Ryan Ellis and Cody Ware and the Big Green Egg Media Mayhem that was put on by Rob D’Amico.
“In our mind, it didn’t really seem like there was a structure, and there could be something more,” said Paul Sutton, Co-Founder of Monday Night Racing.
While those get-togethers were admittedly fun, they somewhat fizzled out as other pop-up ideas took their place.
“It started out where it was Monday Night NASCAR at first,” said Ford Martin, Co-Founder of Monday Night Racing. With the desire to try different disciplines on the iRacing service and a most successful race utilizing the Dallara IR-18 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the name needed an update. “Next thing you know, Monday Night NASCAR didn’t make any sense. Let’s try Monday Night Racing.”
It’s NASCAR-focused, but with a twist
Wacky but fun combinations became MNR’s shtick. Normal schedules would take drivers in one type of car to one or two types of tracks. MNR will take any iRacing vehicle to any iRacing track, but as long as it makes sense.
Martin said he’s found a ton of fun combinations that doesn’t cost league members an arm and a leg. He’s also willing to try anything for the sake of having fun.
Now, nearly three seasons in the books, Monday Night Racing is one of the premier leagues on the iRacing service, and it’s somewhat because of this mishmash of cars, tracks and personalities. The series is mostly made up of people who don’t regularly race on iRacing. Half the league races in real life while the other half work somewhere in motorsports.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Martin said. “Will Rodgers told me during media day that this is a great way where he feels he’s been able to stay relevant in a big league like this and get my name out there more. James Bickford said the same thing as well.”
Big names in motorsports battle weekly
Rodgers is the reigning champion in the series, having won the title in a battle at Atlanta in the truck back in March. He was celebrated as the champion with a banquet at GoPro Motorplex where the tables turned and the league drivers went real racing instead of computer racing.
This season, NASCAR Cup Series driver Garrett Smithley headlines the Season 3 championship class. Smithley is joined by NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series part-timer Robby Lyons from the top divisions of NASCAR.
Rajah Caruth, an up-and-coming driver from the ARCA Menards Series East and Late Model ranks, is the third member of this title battle. Caruth is the most recent winner in the series.
Adam Cabot, a 27-year-old sim racer from New Jersey, rounds out the Championship 4, competing for the title in his first full season at Monday Night Racing. Cabot doesn’t fit the profile of a Monday Night Racing driver, but he won his way into the series by winning another iRacing league championship put together by NASCAR Cup Series driver Anthony Alfredo earlier this year.
But what is the profile of a Monday Night Racing driver?
Per the registration forms, members of MNR must be affiliated with the motorsports industry in some way or fashion. Some have won championships for a living, like Monday Night Racing members Busch, Capps, Reed and van Gisbergen. Will Power and Jeff Green have also tangoed on the virtual dancefloor, champions in their own right.
Other racers in the league are currently up-and-coming through the motorsports ranks, like the three championship battlers, Alfredo, Ryan Vargas, Preston Pardus, Brad Perez, and Rodgers, just to name a few.
Some are in the motorsports media ranks, whether it’s ESPN analyst Mike Clay, sports photographer Mark Rebilas, Frontstretch editor Michael Massie, FOX 46 Charlotte reporter Brett Baldeck, Kickin’ The Tires’ editor Seth Eggert, or yours truly in the Traxion.GG machine.
There are also just straight up industry folks, NASCAR managers like DJ Cummings and Matt Stallknecht, race team members like Gabe Wood and Kase Kallenbach from JD Motorsports or TJ Majors from Team Penske.
There’s even some inclusion from the esports side of the industry like Podium’s Gary Sexton or Kligerman Sport’s David Schildhouse.
The names are all over the board, but they are names that people care to watch. Schildhouse was the Season 2 Most Popular Driver, defeating all the real drivers in the process.
“People really love this series…”
One of the key components of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational was getting the real stars of the series on their computers to duke it out online. Honestly, MNR might just be at a higher level because the guys showing up actually want to be there. Sure, the whole NASCAR Cup Series isn’t showing up, but there are enough to keep people watching.
On top of that, younger drivers who are working up the ladder are maximizing on this Esports boom. Guys like Rodgers and Caruth are marketing themselves as hybrids, talented real racers combined with being popular sim racers.
“I saw a video that Rajah Caruth shared on his Instagram story,” Sutton said. “A young kid was cheering on Rajah as he won last week’s race. He was so excited that Rajah won.
“That means more than anything else. People really love this series and want to see the guys running in it succeed.”
A production on a different level
The Podium Esports team puts on a production like no other in sim racing outside of the official esports such as eNASCAR or PESC. A 20-minute pre-race show before every race sets the stage for what’s happened in previous weeks, introduces a sponsored segment featuring an in-race reporting driver, and goes through the lineup of drivers with number graphics, headshots and color coordination.
There are a lot of well-known names on the track, but even on the broadcast side, Podium Esports has been able to bring in talent such as NASCAR on FOX host Adam Alexander, well-known sportscaster Allen Bestwick, and even before we lost him, legendary broadcaster Bob Jenkins was on a few of the Monday Night Racing calls, usually when they went to Indianapolis.
“The majority of that comes from Ford’s connections,” said James Pike, Chief Executive Officer of Podium Esports. As Martin works at FOX Sports and is the son of former NASCAR Cup Series Crew Chief Gil Martin, he has a ton of connections to bring to the MNR table.
Podium is one of the few besides the in-house iRacing production that can make magic happen with it. The FOX Sports connection makes things even more magical.
The symbiotic relationship has grown both parties substantially. It’s at a point where Podium can grow past the barrier that separates real motorsports and simulation.
“Getting Alex Hayden was more of us, as Ryan Bauer, our producer, reached out to him,” Pike said. “As we’ve gotten more involved, we’re getting better at building our contact base, our directory of people. I think that’s helped up be able to get talent like that of our own accord.”
Growth for all involved
Monday Night Racing has also attracted a plethora of sponsors to the mix. Tufco Flooring sponsors the series entitlement slot. Other brands such as Max Papis Innovations, Big Green Egg, Sim Seats and Rowdy Energy have been a part of the promotion for the series.
From where it came from, Season 3 is a testament to persevering through and ending up with a product to be proud of. The production, the roster, and even the racing is top shelf.
“The one thing that stands out to me is that the racing in Season 3 has been remarkably better,” Pike said. “It feels like this is the season where everybody sort of knows everybody and understands how everyone else races.
“It’s not just a random amalgamation of drivers that happen to have a claim to fame. It feels more like a league now than it ever has.”
Season 3 Championship race preview
The title is destined to go to a new champion in Season 3. With Rodgers eliminated early on and Season 1 champion Nick DeGroot retired from competition, four news drivers have a chance at glory.
Each of the four drivers had their own unique path to make it to the dance. Each has a shot in their own right, and each has their own level of confidence entering the Homestead-Miami finale.
#63 Rajah Caruth (ARCA MENARDS EAST DRIVER)
Rajah Caruth had to win in the previous race at Auto Club Speedway in the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars to get to this point. In the race before that, the 1987 NASCAR Stock Cars at Michigan race, he was caught up in multiple incidents that ruined his chances at a good points day.
It wasn’t the first time he had his back against the wall, either. Caruth won his place into the playoffs after winning at Chicagoland Speedway, also in NASCAR Xfinity Series cars. When his back is against the wall, and the car of choice is a NASCAR racecar, Caruth can be nearly unbeatable.
“I feel confident making intense moves when I need to,” Caruth said on Podium Esports following his victory at Auto Club. “Cautiously aggressive is the mentality I’ll be about. I won’t wreck anybody for a championship, but I’ll race hard.”
#17 Adam Cabot (Esports Racing League Champion)
Caruth’s biggest competition may come from the iRacer in the group. Adam Cabot had to win a championship in a series open to many. Since he’s been in the league, he’s won one of the most prestigious races on the calendar at Indianapolis and has been a top driver week in and week out.
Cabot isn’t on the level of iRacing Coke Series just yet, but he’s got an Oval iRating in the Top 500 of all iRacers, currently at 5399. Cabot has been on the service since 2009. This could be one of his biggest breaks if he’s able to come out on top on Monday night.
“Historically, Homestead hasn’t been a great track for me on iRacing,” Cabot told Podium Esports. “(iRacing) did some updates to change the track surface properties. Ever since they did that, I’ve figured a few things out… I’m pretty optimistic that I’ll be able to have a good run.”
Robby Lyons (NASCAR Xfinity / Camping World Truck Series Driver)
One of the most improved and well-rounded drivers in the field is Robby Lyons. Lyons will compete for his first championship this season. Although he hasn’t found victory lane just yet, he’s been close on a couple of occasions. In the season opener at Daytona, Matt Stallknecht barely edged Lyons for the win. At Indianapolis, Lyons fought to the finish against Cabot.
In the playoffs, Lyons was consistent, taking advantage of those good runs when his competitors would find trouble. He’s the underdog in this story, but his strong suit of being there at the end may pay off in the end.
“Racing at Homestead, at the real life version, I have the most laps there than any track that I’ve raced on,” Lyons said to Podium Esports. “In the trucks, I’ve raced there twice, and I made my Xfinity Series debut there. I’m really, really comfortable running up by the wall. I’m not sure what the new updates to that track have done. Of all the tracks to be going to race for a championship, Homestead is THE championship track.”
Garrett Smithley (NASCAR Cup / Xfinity Series Driver)
Garrett Smithley could end up stealing the title from everyone, however. When the Round of 13 was set, Smithley was on the outside looking in by a couple of points. With van Gisbergen, a four-time winner in Season 3, unable to participate due to other commitments, the final spot was bumped down to Smithley, and he didn’t waste it.
Smithley swept the Round of 13 and was able to use the momentum to carry him to the Championship 4. Besides Caruth last week, Smithley was the only other playoff driver to score a win in the playoffs, and he got two of them. Quite the swing from the tough regular season that he endured.
“It feels a lot different now than when the season started,” Smithley said after advancing last week. “I honestly don’t know what to expect but getting a chance to compete for a championship is awesome.”
Tune in to Podium Esports on Monday, 30th August at 7:30 p.m. ET / 12:30 a.m. BST to watch the Season 3 championship battle unfold. Season 4 begins on 1st November.