Never has there been anything like this for the combined efforts of iRacing and NASCAR before.
On Tuesday, 25th October, the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series concluded their 18-race, since February schedule with a live championship event. Four title contenders on stage, in front of hundreds of fans, right smack dab in the center of Uptown Charlotte in the Grand Hall of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
XSET’s Casey Kirwan took the title with a second place finish, finishing only behind the 2021 Series Champion Keegan Leahy (23XI Racing). Bobby Zalenski brought his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota home in second in the championship after a third place finish.
Graham Bowlin (Charlotte Phoenix) and Steven Wilson (Stewart-Haas Esports) were the other two contenders, but finished 18th and 22nd in the race, respectively. Both drivers suffered following the one and only pitstop on the night after being in the conversation in the first half.
I was lucky enough to be in attendance for the big race. Before and even afterward, the air was absolutely electric. For iRacing and NASCAR’s esport, this was a huge undertaking, but the folks behind the scenes smashed it out of the park. We can only hope this leads to bigger and better in the future.
LEADING UP TO THE BIG SHOW
The live title fight event was announced on 13th September, the day of the first Round of 10 playoff race at Bristol, just over a month before the championship race would commence. Nobody punched their ticket that night, instead waiting until 27th September for the first driver to lock into the finale.
Zalenski was that driver, taking it in the closing moments at Talladega to lock his place. He would be joined by Wilson, Kirwan and Bowlin two weeks later after the results of Homestead-Miami went official.
NASCAR and iRacing would be working together to get the drivers there. If they couldn’t bring their own equipment, they were working hard to have something similar that they could use in the interim.
A limited amount of tickets were available from iRacing, but it seemed like there were a lot of well-known people in the eNASCAR sphere in attendance.
Names ranged from NASCAR drivers like Aric Almirola, Anthony Alfredo, and Rajah Caruth, as well as iRacing executives such as Steve Myers, Kevin Bobbitt and Otto Szebeni.
Folks at NASCAR such as Tim Clark, Ray Smith and Brianna Clark to the minds behind Monday Night Racing such as Ford Martin, Matt Stallknecht and Gary Sexton, plus so many more fans and family members.
Wilson said before the event that his whole family would be there, and sure enough, the Wilson clan had their own cheering section right in front of where his rig was stationed. Kirwan had his family and his neighbor who got him into iRacing in attendance. It was absolutely packed out.
From Friday to Monday, the drivers practiced on what they had or had gotten for them. Kirwan had the advantage of living close to the Hall of Fame, so he was bringing his entire sim rig by Sim Seats along. Everyone else had to take time to find a new comfort level.
ZALENSKI: “IT WAS PRETTY PAINFUL”
Zalenski likely had the biggest challenge in finding that level. One particular storyline from the event was the revelation of Zalenski’s severe scoliosis, a condition that he’s dealt with his whole life, never before something he’s felt the need to bring up as he’s competed for the title five times in the last six years.
“Something I never talked about was my condition because it’s never been relevant,” Zalenski said. “I was born with very severe scoliosis, so I had surgery about 10 years ago. It was like 200-degree curves in the spine, if I didn’t get surgery, I wouldn’t be able to be here racing for sure.
“My lungs will be squished because it just gets worse. I had surgery and the best I could do is two 50-degree angles. Some of the spine is metal nails and screws. I’m all patched up. With all that considered, it’s crazy that I’m doing this. I always wanted to be a NASCAR driver. It just wasn’t in the cards for me.”
Zalenski said it was only the second time that he’s ever flown on an airplane, opting not to travel to eNASCAR Media Day back in 2020 due to the condition. While it wasn’t the rig he was used to racing in, it was good enough to show the most speed in the first half of the title race and ultimately finish second.
NO NEED FOR DIRECT DRIVE OR TRIPLE MONITORS
Another part of the story would be the various pieces of equipment, not only for Zalenski, but for Wilson and Bowlin as well. While Kirwan had the advantage of bringing all of his own stuff, the rest needed to get the pieces put together for them by the event organizers.
One of the voices of the eNASCAR iRacing broadcast that night, Blake McCandless, pointed out on Twitter earlier in the day that three of the four title contenders were on Direct Drive wheel components. The outlier was Bowlin, running a belt-driven Fanatec wheel, but that was completely by his own choice.
Bowlin was also only utilizing a single monitor for the race. When asked about it by Kickin’ The Tires’ Seth Eggert after the race, Bowlin stated that it was exactly what he wanted. “That’s what I chose,” Bowlin stated.
“I’ve been racing around with just one monitor. There’s no reason to change. My muscle memory is good, it’s like my driving has been the best it’s ever been, so I’m just ready to race.”
It didn’t seem to matter what Bowlin was on, he was fast throughout the weekend. The prior day, the Championship 4 took a trip upstairs in the NASCAR Hall of Fame to the iRacing simulators, built into showcars lined up in a mock track layout, catchfence and all. Bowlin was the winner of that exhibition.
Bowlin also went on to score the pole position for the Phoenix finale. For a time in the final run to the finish, it looked like he had the winning strategy, as did Wilson. Kirwan passed them both and held off Zalenski. It’s easy to say it was the home field advantage, but they were all just as good as ever.
ON SITE AND REMOTE PRODUCTION
One of the big tasks for producing the show would be to combine the efforts of the NASCAR Hall of Fame site together with the usual production crew up in the Chelmsford, Massachusetts headquarters.
At the Hall of Fame, there were the four drivers competing for the title, their racing systems and multiple live cameras to showcase the event area. Some cameras would point to the broadcast booth, and up there, all of the on-air talent sat at one point or another to talk about the event.
Not just a few, but all of the commentator crew were on-site. Camille Salazar Hadaway led the Countdown to Green alongside Blake McCandless and Alan Cavanna as they usually do, just this time sitting at a big desk and not having to worry about a green screen behind them.
During the race, the voice of eNASCAR, Evan Posocco, was joined by Cavanna, McCandless and Hadaway through the night, as well as special guests Steve Letarte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr was also there to present the trophy, a new reward to the champion that would bear the name of the very first eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series winner’s name, the Dale Earnhardt Jr Championship Trophy.
When Earnhardt Jr took that win in the opening race of the entire series at Daytona in 2010, nobody thought back then that this type of event could be a reality today.
I’d personally never have thought I’d be sitting in an office in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, adjacent to the stage writing and capturing a live sim event. Although it was more of a walk than I’d probably wished for, the ability to capture it both in-person and through the sim was an incredible experience, no doubt.
Back up in Chelmsford, Senior Broadcast Producer Drew Adamson was still calling all the shots as he usually does. The Control Room up in the iRacing offices had all hands on deck to push the buttons and make the show flow smoothly.
34 other drivers were also competing and trying to cap off their seasons with a good race as well that weren’t at the Hall of Fame, and Adamson had to work in his usual load with the added stress of the live event happening 1000 miles away.
It worked to near perfection, an event that was captivating both in-person and through the livestream. Every special moment of the race captured, and a celebration like no other for Kirwan after the checkers.
PRESENTING THE TROPHY
Crossing the virtual line, Kirwan pumped his fists and yelled out. The emotions were quick to come over him. His father was almost instantly on stage hugging him. Anthony Alfredo went up on stage to share an embrace. Earnhardt Jr went up and congratulated Kirwan, then brought him over to his new hardware.
The trophy had been updated from earlier in the day. Before the race, the base had blank spaces, but afterward showed an engraved portrait of Kirwan and his name underneath on the look-alike to the prior NASCAR Winston Cup trophy.
Earnhardt Jr and Kirwan lifted the piece together, I believe I overheard it weighed nearly 60 pounds. After a hat dance and a round of photos, the giant check for $100,000 was presented. Both Seth Eggert and I then got to speak with each of the four drivers.
IN THE MAKESHIFT MEDIA CENTER
The three that didn’t win, there was obvious disappointment. Bowlin’s team put an adjustment on the car that set it up for the short run after the third caution, expecting there to be short runs to the end. It turned out to be one long run after the fourth and final caution.
Wilson was already last of the group, running back in sixth, and as he entered his virtual pit box, he locked up and overshot it. On the reverse, the team quickly changed strategy to a two-tire pit stop, which would get him up to second place. Two tires was good for only a few laps before he started plummeting.
Zalenski was the closest of the trio, and he showed the most pace through the night as a whole. After starting second, he moved up to the lead on lap 11 and held it until the pit stops. Unfortunately, he restarted in fourth and had the entirety of the Championship 4 around him on different strategies.
Maybe if he could have stayed ahead of Kirwan on the restart, he could have pulled away or at least up to his teammate Keegan Leahy, the eventual winner of the race. Instead, Kirwan made quicker work of both Wilson and Bowlin and ran near perfect laps to the end, something Zalenski congratulated him on.
Kirwan wasn’t sure if it had sunk in yet. In that time, he had managed to bring the trophy up to the second level to pose with a life-size model of Lightning McQueen on the second floor. The #95 that Kirwan drove this season comes from being a fan of the Cars movie franchise.
All he wanted to do was get back home and get his rig reinstalled in his streaming room, now with a new backdrop of the Dale Earnhardt Jr Championship Trophy and a check worth $100,000.
For eNASCAR and iRacing, it wasn’t the first live event for either. It was the first for both entities combined, with the official esport of NASCAR in eNASCAR and the official simulation partner in iRacing.
All signs point to this becoming a tradition, possibly even a bigger and better event in the years to come. While this is still small fries in comparison to some esports such as League of Legends or Rocket League, the eNASCAR Championship finale was a magical night for sim racing.
Hopefully events like these will lead to more throughout the motorsports industry, for not only eNASCAR, but all types of racing esports around the globe. I can’t wait to see what we get in 2023.