When the 2020 NASCAR season was halted in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sanctioning body passed the time with the creation of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. A sim racing league for drivers across all national series but primarily emphasising those in the Cup Series, the series proved to be at times entertaining, and at times chaotic.
The series ended shortly before the real-life season restarted, but it will be back for 2021. On Tuesday, NASCAR announced the PIS will return as a weeknight series, rather than the weekend daytime slots it filled in 2020, intended to provide fans with some type of racing between actual races. While no official standings were kept, Timmy Hill—a small-team driver in real life but a wildly successful name in iRacing—mathematically won the championship. A support series known as Saturday Night Thunder, intended for Xfinity and Truck Series drivers with some Cup names, would hold races the previous day as absurdly large entry lists necessitated its creation and the introduction of heat races.
Many other racing series worldwide would also join in with their own esports leagues. For example, the IndyCar Series had the IndyCar iRacing Challenge that featured cameos from Formula One and NASCAR drivers, while Formula E operated the Race at Home Challenge and F1 had the Virtual Grand Prix. The Virtual Grand Prix series will return for 2021, with its season opener set to take place this upcoming weekend.
“The success of our eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was underscored by an industry-wide effort to entertain fans during the early months of the global pandemic,” NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer Tim Clark stated. “This year the Pro Invitational will return with a schedule of midweek races that will bridge the gap between our real-world races each weekend.”
The restarted PIS will run ten races during the spring and summer, though on a more varied schedule than the 2020 edition that sought to replace real-life dates lost to the pandemic.. Fox Sports, which provided exclusive coverage in 2020 as the PIS ran during their half of the season, will air the first five races on FS1 before NBC takes over for the final five in June.
“Fox Sports embraced the eNASCAR iRacing Invitational Series in the spring as a way to keep race fans entertained, but we quickly realized it was a product and collaboration that we would continue to explore,” the network’s executive producer Brad Zager added. “The product is best-in-class, it delivers NASCAR to an even broader audience and, let’s face it, it’s a heckuva lot of fun.”
As 2020’s PIS served as a virtual replacement for events that could not be run, much of it emulated the real-life schedule with the exception of the finale at the long-closed North Wilkesboro. Unless more pandemic-related complications arise, the 2021 slate will effectively be extra seat time for the drivers as they are held days before the actual event.
Of the four confirmed dates, two are new to the NASCAR schedule: Bristol dirt and Circuit of the Americas. Talladega and Darlington will not host practice or qualifying in real life, meaning the PIS will provide any necessary track time. The fifth and final FS1 race does not have a confirmed location but will take place on 2 June, the same week as the Cup Series’ trip to Sonoma.
iRacing executive producer Steve Myers commented, “After last year’s Pro Invitational success, we’re proud that our partners at NASCAR, Fox, and the race teams view the series as an integral part of their marketing and fan engagement strategies for 2021. It’s even more fulfilling that the industry has rallied around our platform not only as the most authentic re-creation of the sport, but also a terrific tool to help grow NASCAR’s audience and generate revenue to strengthen the entire ecosystem.”
The PIS was a hit early on, regularly setting and breaking its own records for the most-watched televised esports event while Fox helped bring a sense of normalcy back for race fans. However, the series was also subject to much drama such as the struggles to balance a serious atmosphere with antics.
The divide between the real and virtual worlds was also greatly tested across all sim racing leagues set up by real-life sanctioning bodies; in the PIS’ case, it was best evidenced when Bubba Wallace lost a sponsor after rage-quitting a race. Other incidents pertaining to the latter stretched into other disciplines too such as Formula E, while some series like the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series and GT World Challenge Europe raised eyebrows when they elected to award real-life championship points for virtual race resuls.
Nevertheless, the Pro Invitational Series is here to stay for another year.
2021 FS1 schedule
|1||Bristol Motor Speedway dirt||24 March|
|2||Talladega Superspeedway||21 April|
|3||Darlington Raceway||5 May|
|4||Circuit of the Americas||19 May|