Monday, March 8, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Still Buffering

There have been plenty of calendar shakeups. The 24 Hours of Le Mans will move to the end of August. The Portimão round of the FIA World Endurance Championship will move from Easter Sunday to the middle of June, filling the vacancy left when Le Mans moved, and Spa-Francorchamps will open the WEC season. IMSA countered and has moved Virginia International Raceway to October and Petit Le Mans back to November. Elsewhere, many Formula One teams revealed liveries. Gene Haas embarrassed him for a second-consecutive week. Sweeping was the theme in Sonoma. IndyCar had a media day. Jimmie Johnson had some food poisoning. Kyle Larson picked up his first Cup victory in his fourth start with Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Still Buffering
We know where we were a year ago. Looking at the calendar, we are reminded of our old lives, the plans and ambitions we had, completely lost and for 12 months we have been living without a roadmap. Our yearly highlights, landmarks to our lives, vanished. We weren't able to make another year worth of memories at the intended events or see the people we loved. Some of us lost more. In some cases, it was a job we loved. In others, it was loved ones. 

Back when this began, attempts were made to fill the void. Motorsports was shut down for two months. All sports were shut down. The world stood still. All our weekends were free but there was nothing we could do. Talk about being a hamster on a wheel, free to move as fast as we wanted and yet remaining in one place. 

The world of simulator racing got to shine and numerous iRacing events were put on. The big series all stepped up to fill the time. The drivers we were used to seeing slide behind the wheel of an automobile got behind a wheel in front of a computer monitor with much less fire-retardant clothing on. In some cases, we could see their bedrooms or offices in the background. Family otherwise off on the sidelines could be prominently in view during a competition.

It was fun, it was distracting and yet it could prove to be aggravating. 

Was this supposed to be a serious competition or an exhibition? Was it supposed to be a week-long exercise full of practices all hours of the day and night or a one-day fill-in? Were sponsors paying to be on these cars or was this free publicity for the races missed? 

We are still figuring it out and when competition returned the virtual events disappeared, but they were not buried. There was a future for these events, though hopefully in a lesser extent to what we saw during the pandemic. 

For the better part of six weeks, IndyCar and NASCAR had events televised while most of the other sports could not have their stars competing. The simulated world has allowed drivers to mimic their actual occupation, something we cannot see for basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer. It was a race, but in a different setting and yet the skillset transferred over. 

These events didn't change the world. The presence of IndyCar and NASCAR during the heart of the pandemic did not lead to record-breaking ratings for either series when either returned to actual competition. Millions didn't flock to see the Indianapolis 500 or the Southern 500. The masses were not left in awe of Scott Dixon's sixth championship. Even after six championships, Dixon remains a stranger. I don't think he minds.

I think we all realized this would never be a suitable full-time replacement, but it showed potential to be a complementary event. These events could continue without a lockdown shutting down the entire world. NASCAR announced its invitational series would return this year. The first five events have been announced, all on Wednesday nights on Fox Sports 1 and the final five events will be during the NBC portion of the schedule. 

The events are previews for the actual races coming up that weekend. There will be a Bristol dirt race days before the Bristol dirt race and the same will happen for Talladega, Darlington and NASCAR's inaugural visit to Circuit of the Americas. The fifth event is TBD on June 2. Perhaps a wild card event to mix it up. Sonoma is scheduled for that weekend.

While NASCAR announced a plan in late-January, IndyCar has not made a peep. There have been rumblings about a few events, but the season is growing closer. In fact, the IndyCar season opener was supposed to be yesterday. Last year, when IndyCar lost races, it filled those vacated race weekends with iRacing events. They held a Barber round when Barber was supposed to take place. They ran at Austin when Austin was supposed to be held. They ran additional events at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Motegi and had more television time spread over more weekends than if the season had gotten started on time. 

The series hinted at something happening during the winter and for all intents and purposes winter has passed. Spring doesn't begin for another two weeks but the offseason is effectively over. Testing has been going on across the country. Teams have been at Sebring, Barber and Laguna Seca. Drivers have been preparing for the physical race car. The season opener is still six weeks away, but the time is up for scheduling virtual events. 

This feels like a missed opportunity for IndyCar. It had all of November and December to make a plan for 2021. I am not saying it needed a six-week or an eight-week series, but it could have laid out a plan for an occasional event, something before the season to get back on the radar and have fun with it.

For a series that's frequent weakness is its offseason being too long, an iRacing series with two or three events before the first race of the season would be a great way for IndyCar to remind people it exists before the season began. The iRacing events could promote the drivers that have switched teams, joined the series and preview what is to come in the new season. It would be another chance to expose the drivers to the audience and perhaps create an unlikely fan favorite. 

Let's not forget that in the IndyCar iRacing events last year we got to see Robert Wickens return to competition and bring a smile to the face of everyone. We saw Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin both compete in what essentially turned into prologue for their switches to regular IndyCar competition. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Busch each were guest drivers for a race. Lando Norris ran two races, won one of them and was a major storyline in the other. These events exposed people who otherwise might not have considered watching an IndyCar-sanctioned event to the series and perhaps some continued watching in 2020 or will watch more in 2021 now that Johnson and McLaughlin will be dedicated to the series.

IndyCar already doesn't maximize the window it has given itself (American football offseason) for events. This is a chance to have more events without having to haggle over $1.5 million or $2 million for a sanctioning fee from a racetrack and it doesn't cost the teams anything in travel or crash damage. 

Even worse than not having a complementary plan for its drivers and teams is IndyCar hasn't made any progress growing its virtual reach. NASCAR has had a sanctioned iRacing series for the last few years. I know that costs some time and some money but that is an investment worth making for IndyCar to get some of the top simulator drivers interested and involved in IndyCar. It is another avenue for the teams and sponsors, and it is a boat IndyCar cannot afford to miss and it might have just left port.  

The last year has been a chance for growth and innovation during a difficult period in different areas. It has been a time to take chances a series otherwise would not have taken. Creating an iRacing series likely isn't free, but it couldn't have been too much of a hit on IndyCar's wallet and it could be something that pays for itself. It had a chance to engage with another audience and that opportunity to make a deeper connection is pretty much gone. 

After last year, I think we saw there is healthy balance for an iRacing component for every series. There is a space where the actual drivers and teams can compete and have fun while also having a serious competition that draws interests from the serious gamer. IndyCar engaged beyond its normal base with these events and welcomed in some other top names in the world of motorsports as guests. These events last year were a good thing for IndyCar, even if they provided some rather silly controversies. IndyCar had a chance to leave its impression on the simulator world and embrace it. It failed to do that, and it is a loss IndyCar chose to take.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Kyle Larson, but did you know...

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Daytona, his fifth Daytona victory, and it was his second victory of the season.

A.J. Allmendinger won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Las Vegas.

The #3 K-PAX Racing Lamborghini of Andrea Caldarelli and Jordan Pepper swept the GT World Challenge America races from Sonoma. 

The #4 DXDT Racing Mercedes-AMG of George Kurtz swept the GT America races from Sonoma. The #47 NOLASport Porsche of Matt Travis and Jason Hart swept the GT4 America SprintX races.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR will be in Phoenix.
Supercross returns to competition with its first of three races in Arlington.