By Damien Sordelett
William Byron has a routine each week during the NASCAR Cup Series season.
There are team and competition meetings Tuesday at the Hendrick Motorsports facility. Byron frequently meets with his athletic trainer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the 22-year-old completes classwork through his Liberty University online program.
He crams as much as he can in during the week before he leaves for a two- or three-day weekend at the race track with his No. 24 team.
The spread COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has altered Byron’s weekly schedule with the NASCAR season on hold until at least May 9, when Martinsville Speedway hosts its first Cup Series race under the lights.
Byron, a junior at Liberty, has filled the void with plenty of racing on his simulator. And he, along with several of the Cup Series’ top stars, will showcase that side of racing on a national stage.
NASCAR, in conjunction with the simulated racing platform iRacing, created the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that will run on a weekly basis until the racing returns to the tracks across the country.
The virtual schedule will line up with the tracks that were slated to host races.
“We definitely got together and a lot of guys agreed to do it,” Byron said this week in a phone interview.
“I think that’s really where it’s generated from, just the fact that everyone’s agreed to go all-in on it. I definitely am a fan of it because I’ve always done well on iRacing. I feel it’s kind of the way for me to get my name out there, even now, to show how I can do. That’s really where it generates for me, being able to kind of use it as a platform to succeed and grow as a driver.”
The virtual series was announced Tuesday, with NASCAR stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell joining Byron as competitors.
The race on a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway will be televised at 1:30 p.m. today on FS1.
“Until we have cars back on track, the entire NASCAR community has aligned to provide our passionate fans with a unique, fun and competitive experience on race day,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’S vice president of racing development. “Our long-time partners at iRacing offer an incredible product, and we are excited to see how many of our best drivers will stack up in the virtual domain of competitive racing.”
The drivers had a test race last week at a virtual Atlanta Motor Speedway after that track’s race was postponed.
Josh Williams, spotter for Ryan Blaney, won that race, and Byron finished second.
Earnhardt and Hamlin were also in the field.
“iRacing has obviously taken off big in the last couple of days,” Byron said. “I’ve been trying to do all of that and get ready for the race that we have on Sunday on iRacing. Hopefully that goes well, and really just kind of preparing for that.”
Another national racing series, IndyCar, announced Friday that beginning March 28 it will have a six-race schedule on the simulated racing platform called the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.
The national spotlight only serves to highlight a virtual racing craze that has picked up speed in recent years.
NASCAR already sanctions a yearly iRacing Series — the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series — that serves as an eSport World Championship.
The first season was held in 2010, and its popularity has soared in recent years with esports becoming more mainstream, particularly on college campuses.
NBC Sports Network aired the 2019 eNASCAR Series finale live from virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Cup Series drivers such as Bryon, Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Larsen and Bowyer field teams in the eNASCAR series. The Wood Brothers, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway, JTG, JR Motorsports and Stewart-Haas also have teams in this series, and Richmond Raceway is fielding a two-car team.
Byron got his start in iRacing when he was in seventh grade, and he used his success racing in the virtual series to springboard his quick ascension from the virtual world to the asphalt.
He competed in Legend Cars in 2013 and then joined the stock car ranks in 2014.
By 2018, he was racing in the Cup Series.
“It’s kind of a way for me to use my passion for the betterment of the sport. Having a team for me is all about giving back to what I started with, giving other people opportunities to maybe get that chance in a real car one day,” Byron said.
“Maybe one of my drivers does really well and he impresses enough people and the sponsors that we have, and that sponsor gives him a chance to go race a Legend car or something.
“... If I hadn’t gotten those opportunities and been fortunate to just be in the right position at the right time and have a good supporting cast around me, I would have never made it to NASCAR. I think that for me, that’s where it generates. If this guy can beat me on iRacing, maybe he’s going to be good in a real car, maybe not. At least he gets himself out there. Obviously there’s no direct translation to a real race car, but it’s a good start for sure.”
The coronavirus impact also has been felt at the local level of stock car racing.
South Boston Speedway announced Tuesday it was closing its offices for two week, and the 0.4-mile oval’s season opener scheduled for Saturday was postponed with no makeup date set.
The track was set to host a 150-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race and twin 75-lap Late Model Stock races.
Motor Mile Speedway in Dublin announced Friday night it was temporarily suspending operations, effective immediately, and closing the facilities until further notice.
The Associated Press contributed