Down in Uptown Charlotte, the Monday Night Racing Season 4 championship was decided this past week in front of a live audience. 14 weeks straight of intense competition led to a final four showdown for the top shelf iRacing league.
There were nearly 50 participants in Season 4. Adam Cabot, Collin Fern, David Schildhouse and Ryan Vargas made it to the Championship 4. Cabot was able to pass Schildhouse in the closing laps to win it all.
Used to racing hundreds of miles apart from each other, the four sat in four equally-prepared Sim Seats racing rigs up on the stage of the Carolina Esports Hub. They were only feet apart from one another for the final showdown of the season. The aptly-named Bob Jenkins Memorial Cup sat in the middle of the stage. It was ready and waiting for its rightful winner, Cabot, to hoist it by the end of the night.
The day before, 700 miles away from the event, I loaded up my tiny 2017 Chevrolet Spark at home. I packed up my new Next Level Racing Wheel Stand, a 32-inch 4K monitor, my old gaming PC and an old Logitech G29. 13 of the league’s drivers would be competing on the final Monday night race of the season live from the Carolina Esports Hub. I was lucky enough to be one of them.
To say this first-of-its-kind iRacing esports community event was a success might be a little bit of an understatement. Overall, having experienced it from both a participant and media standpoint simultaneously, this event completely exceeded my expectations.
Seeing how it all came together was incredible. The payoff at the end was well worth the hard work that was put into it by all parties.
LEADING UP TO THE FINALE
It took 13 points-paying races (and an IndyCar at Talladega All-Star Race) to get to the Monday Night Racing Season 4 finale. The season started at Daytona with the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars. As the season progressed, the league took the Super Late Models to Michigan and Nashville, brought Mazda MX-5s to Daytona’s road course and the Porsche 911 RSRs went to the Red Bull Ring.
It was a diverse schedule with a diverse field of drivers. The competition was at the highest it had ever been in this league. Collin Fern won his way into the finale with a win at Iowa in the NASCAR Trucks. Ryan Vargas took his place after winning the Super Late Model race at Nashville. David Schildhouse and Adam Cabot had more points by the end of Nashville than Will Rodgers, Rajah Caruth and Max Kennon.
A league created in the height of the pandemic for motorsport industry members, drivers, crew members, and media personalities, Monday Night Racing has been exponentially growing since the middle of 2020. A handful of their recent races have had more than 40,000 viewers across iRacing channels on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook with coverage provided by Podium eSports.
Last month, it was announced that the Season 4 finale would take place at the Carolina Esports Hub. The home to the newest eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series team, the Charlotte Phoenix, the Hub could fit a few hundred people, including the four championship competitors and a few other league members willing to make the journey.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP COMPETITORS
This season, real world drivers such as NASCAR’s Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr, NHRA’s Ron Capps, Supercars’ champ Shane van Gisbergen and IndyCar drivers Stefan Wilson and Conor Daly have competed in races throughout the season.
Ryan Vargas, a full-time driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, was the only driver on the roster to make the Championship 4. Collin Fern, Technical Director for NASCAR Xfinity Series team Brandonbilt Motorsports, joined Vargas on the side of real world racing participants.
On their opposite, iRacing talents David Schildhouse and Adam Cabot rounded out the Championship 4. Well known as a Twitch streamer, Schildhouse is currently the eNASCAR Competition Director for the Charlotte Phoenix. Cabot, on the other hand, won his way on to the MNR roster back before Season 3.
NASCAR driver Anthony Alfredo ran his own league, the Esports Racing League, and the champion of their final season, Cabot, was invited to race at MNR. Cabot is one of the few in the league to not have a tie to motorsports.
Later in the night, hours after winning the whole thing, Cabot was still soaking it all in. He never thought he’d be in a position like this, surrounded by a good contingent of people in NASCAR watching him beat some of the best iRacers from the industry.
SETTING UP AT THE HUB
Podium eSports and the folks at the Carolina Esports Hub worked together to bring the event to life. Tickets were sold online, and from the looks of my area, the arena was packed. The championship contenders took to the main stage.
The other invited drivers set up their racing areas along the perimeter. A few drivers had full rigs, like Landon Huffman and James Bickford who had borrowed Victory Sim rigs. League Co-Founder Ford Martin brought the FOX Sports rig to the party as well.
Other drivers brought just their wheel and pedals. The Charlotte Phoenix provided PCs and desk areas for us to clamp our wheels onto. I personally went a little extra, setting up a half rig with that Next Level Racing stand. I utilized their desk and gaming chairs that they provided us for my monitor and PC.
Down the row, it was racing driver Brad Perez, Oakland Athletics pitcher Cole Irvin, Motor Racing Network reporter Chris Wilner, myself, NASCAR’s Matt Stallknecht and NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Anthony Alfredo.
Each of the Championship 4 drivers had banners hung on the wall. The Sim Seats rigs were equipped with Logitech G293 TRUFORCE driving systems. Their monitor live feeds were duplicated to a larger monitor facing the crowd. Two rigs sat on either side of the stage facing toward the middle where the Bob Jenkins Memorial Cup sat.
The winner’s cup was named in honor of one of the greatest American motorsports broadcasters and a friend to the league having called a handful of events, that being Bob Jenkins. Bob lost his life to cancer back towards the end of 2021. He was post-humorously honored with the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence this year.
THE MAIN EVENT
Doors opened at 6:00 p.m. ET with all drivers in attendance participating in an informal Q&A session at 7:00 p.m. ET. The broadcast began at 8:00 p.m. ET with driver introductions on the stage. There was a pre-race prayer, the singing of the National Anthem, and the command to start the virtual engines. Everyone took their seats and the final race began.
Broadcasted live on iRacing’s social channels once again, the race would be 85 laps in the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars at virtual California’s Auto Club Speedway. Rajah Caruth, racing from his normal racing area at home, took the pole position for the event. In total, 33 drivers would make up field for the final race of the season. The 20 other regular drivers participated from home.
Collin Fern had issues early after a wreck with van Gisbergen. Ryan Vargas would have a game error that failed to fully fuel his car on the first pit stop. David Schildhouse had the lead towards the end, but Adam Cabot had a slightly better strategy to prevail as the Season 4 champion. Cabot finished second behind Caruth, ahead of the other three title contenders that were up on the stage with him.
Cabot raised the trophy, popped the champagne bottle and celebrated with sponsors, friends and his fellow drivers on center stage. More than 35,000 viewers tuned in to watch Cabot win via the broadcast online.
THOUGHTS AFTER THE CHECKERS
While the race itself was fairly straightforward with the strategy, there was still that unknown factor of who would take it during the final stages. A caution at any point could have put it in any of their hands, but it stayed green.
The crowd made the race as good as it was. They would react live to the action on the virtual track. When Fern went head on into the wall on the first lap, there was a loud groan. Later on, when Cabot caught and battled with Schildhouse, there were oohs and aahs, and eventually cheering when the pass was completed.
There were some technical gremlins as the broadcast was the first of its kind for Monday Night Racing, Podium eSports and the Carolina Esports Hub. Overall, most of the comments that came in on social media looked positive from both those who watched in person and those who watched online.
As for being there as a competitor, that was pretty cool in its own right. The whole night, I felt like I was this big star even though I wasn’t even a main character. People came up to me and introduced themselves. It was really neat to see so many people there to celebrate the occasion. There were even some eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series drivers in attendance. It was incredible to see all of the positive reactions to the event afterward.
IMPACT MOVING FORWARD
While there have been eNASCAR live events from the eNASCAR Heat Pro League, broadcasted LAN events on the iRacing service, and well known esport competitions on other sims and games before in recent years, it can be argued that the Monday Night Racing Season 4 finale was the first of its kind for iRacers.
Esports, in general, have been on the rise in the last two decades. Other forms of esport, mainly those dealing with first person shooter types of games, have grown immensely. Racing esports haven’t really had the same successes just yet.
My initial feeling was one of cautious optimism as I entered the arena for the first time. I truly didn’t feel like it would be that big of a crowd. I knew people cared about the league, but did they care enough to spend money to come and watch it happen live?
The answer, in my opinion, is an astounding yes. The environment was electric, the fans were all engaged, and it felt like a true sporting event. To me, this is only the beginning. My hope is to see more events like this in the future. I believe the success of an esport not only falls with the number of online views, but also with how it will be perceived in a real-world type of setting with live crowds and big names competing.
Hopefully, for iRacing, for eNASCAR, and for sim racing in general, events like these continue to happen. Hopefully, events like these can someday be just as big, if not bigger than all of the other esports out there.