NASCAR heads to the real Darlington Raceway on Sunday afternoon, but first, their stars will sit behind their computers for a virtual battle at the ‘Lady in Black’.
The eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series returns on Wednesday for their third event of the 2021 season. Erik Jones will be back behind the virtual No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet at a track he won at in the real world back in 2019.
As Jones prepares for his real and virtual events in the coming days, he took time out to speak to me about his thoughts on Darlington, sim work for real-world applications and the benefits of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series.
NEW TEAM IN 2021
In his first season at Richard Petty Motorsports, there have been some ups and downs for the fifth-year driver out of Byron, Michigan. Currently sitting 27th in the standings, Jones has two Top-10 finishes for the year coming at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Bristol Dirt Race. Still, it is a learning curve for both the driver and the team as they prepare for only their 12th race together on Sunday.
“It’s been a good start overall,” Jones said when asked about his season so far. “We’ve just been improving bit by bit, week by week. That’s kind of the big thing for us, with it being a new team for me and a new driver for them, it’s been kind of a work in progress. Overall, I think it’s been going pretty well and we’re just doing what we can to improve each week.”
The track next on the calendar was the site of Jones’ last victory in the series, back in 2019 when he was with his former team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Darlington Raceway is one of those ovals you either love or hate, and Jones has taken a liking to the historic track.
“I’ve always been a fan of Darlington and just the way it races,” Jones said. “It’s kind of a technical place. It wears out tires, and you have to conserve your stuff and make sure your car is good at the end of the run, not just the start of the run.
“I think that’s probably what lends its hand at my driving style a little bit, just the way I grew up racing. You really have to save your equipment and make sure that you’re going to have something to race with at the end of the race. You get to do that at Darlington, and I think that’s what really makes it fun.”
SIM TO REALITY
With the Covid-19 pandemic slowing down most NASCAR race weekends, forcing drivers to strap in for the first time in a race setting with no prior practice or qualifying, many have turned to simulator work to familiarize themselves with the layout and feel based on data collected.
Most teams have access to manufacturer simulators, which are usually just single car practice sessions running the most current data pumped through the rFactor Pro software. iRacing has the laser-scanned venues available as well in an online multiplayer setting, and with that, the Pro Invitational Series was born last year at the height of the pandemic.
“I’ll definitely get on [iRacing] and do some stuff before the race [this Wednesday] just to get a feel for it and kind of get comfortable with how the track drives on there, kind of what it’s going to race like,” Jones said.
“I do a lot of simulation work with RPM on the RCR (Richard Childress Racing) simulator, and it’s really been helpful for us without the practices, trying to be able to get a baseline on the car before we get to the racetrack. It’s pretty important without that practice, so it’s really helped us in a lot of ways of getting the car a little bit closer before we get on the racetrack.”
Darlington is one story, but what about a track that nobody has raced at with a NASCAR stock car yet? Circuit of the Americas is on the NASCAR schedule for the first time this season and NASCAR drivers will be taking to the circuit for the first time in those heavy stock cars.
I know I just said practice has been limited on race weekends, but for COTA, NASCAR will allow teams to practice and qualify. Still, the sim work is going to come in handy to get a feel for the track.
“I think the road courses are probably the most important thing we can do on the simulation,” Jones said. “You’re just learning the track, learning the shift points, and just trying to do all of that. The ovals, we race them our whole life and we can figure those out pretty quickly even if it’s a new track.
“When we get to road courses, it can be really technical, and you have to have a lot of marks and stuff to look out for before you hit the racetrack. I think the simulator for the road courses helps me the most.”
NASCAR EXPANDING ITS REACH
As far as Jones’ virtual racing career is concerned, his best finish in the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series came last year at Dover, a fourth-place effort. In the grand scheme of things, the Pro Invitational is not a professional esports league, it’s just a bunch of professionals playing an esport in their spare time.
There are some that find success more often than others on the sim, guys who have been on well before the pandemic like William Byron and Timmy Hill, but overall, it brings the professionals on to a more level playing field.
The added benefits and exposure are great though and allows for teams to promote their sponsors and drivers in a different, yet similar atmosphere. The first race at Homestead-Miami is even up for an Emmy, so it’s produced very well, bringing exposure to the real product through a medium that might contain new, future fans.
“I think overall, it’s worked out pretty well for NASCAR,” Jones said. “It’s a little bit different now that we’re back racing on the track, so we can’t quite do it as much, but I think we still get some great ratings, and the fans seem to enjoy it. If that’s what they want, and that’s what they like, I don’t see any reason why we stop doing it.”
Between iRacing, console games like the NASCAR Heat franchise, and other virtual areas, NASCAR is making a name for itself in attempting to attract a younger demographic. NASCAR is expanding into Rocket League later this week and Jones’ No. 43 will be a featured skin available in the pack.
“It’s definitely cool to see,” Jones said. “I hope that we can do more stuff like that. I think it’s great to try and reach that market for us and continue to get NASCAR better exposure.”
Catch Jones and the rest of the NASCAR stars in the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series on Wednesday night as the virtual series takes on the virtual Darlington Raceway, live on FOX Sports 1 starting at 6:00 p.m. ET.