The sports world stopped on the night NBA star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Postponements and cancellations began raining down across sports leagues far and wide, ranging from the NCAA Tournament to the start of baseball season. For sports fans, the sense of normalcy was driven out the door, leaving many to question what was next. Will there be an NBA or NHL playoffs? Will outdoor sports like baseball and golf return without fans? How is this all going to work?
As the nation -- and the globe -- were gripped by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR was one of the sports holding out in hopes of continuing 2020 as planned. It has the benefit of being a non-contact sport (person-to-person, that is) and the advantages of open-air working in its favor. Still, the risk of spreading the virus was far too high, so NASCAR followed suit and put the season on hold as tracks closed following stay-at-home orders around the country.
But NASCAR has something else that other sports don't: an established online simulator that is already frequented by drivers and teams.
They had iRacing.
That's how the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was born.
"It was a pretty quick turnaround," NASCAR Managing Director of Gaming Scott Warfield told CBS Sports. "But we thought it was important and the right thing to do to offer something like this and provide a rest for fans needing a break from their Twitter timelines and the national news and give them a sense of normalcy for 90 minutes on a Sunday."
Warfield explained further that NASCAR already had the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series in place, a series that featured prominent NASCAR teams and online racers. He added that the team knew it would succeed on television because they had already aired the sim racing series championship last season.
NASCAR made the decision to postpone its season on March 13. Less than 10 days later, they put on an iRacing event at Homestead that featured multiple wrecks, driver interviews and a last-lap battle for the checkered flag between Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and one of the sport's most popular drivers of all-time, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The immediate success was recognized across the sports community. During the race, the event was the top trend on Twitter. Just like that, NASCAR became the most-watched televised eSports program in history.
"I think we were confident in what it would do because of what we've seen over the past 11 years," Warfield explained. "With that said, I'd be lying if I thought it would do 1.3 million viewers and it would be broadcasted in 160 countries around the world. I've gotten more emails and texts from friends and family and college buddies about iRacing and different events they're seeing over the last three weeks on Sunday than outside of the Daytona 500.
"It's not replacing the Cup Series, it's not replacing the NBA or any of this other stuff. We understand that. But it's filling a little bit of a void and it's real and it's dramatic and it's unpredictable and the finishes have been great. All of those things that make sports special, there's components of all of that in this."
IRacing continued to take on the braintrust of its real-world counterpart, opening the doors for gamblers as well. William Hill Sportsbook and others began offering odds on the races, while DraftKings opened daily fantasy contests up as well, providing real action to gamblers who had been deprived of sports betting.
"I think that it brings more attention to iRacing and what it's all about," NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron, who has already won two of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series events, told CBS Sports.
Byron, driver of the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports, has had the best odds for each race due to his experience in iRacing and has cashed in as the favorite, winning three times. While most drivers come up through the ranks racing cars on smaller tracks, Byron got his start behind the wheel of an iRacing simulator after listening to an interview on television where Dale Earnhardt Jr. was talking about it. Byron logged countless hours behind the iRacing rig before mustering up the confidence to get into a real race car and begin his journey as a physical NASCAR driver.
Byron noted that the fear factor and physically feeling the speed were the biggest differences, but iRacing was as close to real race action that you'd get.
"All the things you feel in your body is the majority of it," Cup and iRacing driver Ryan Preece added, "That would be the biggest difference for sure, but I would say that iRacing has done an incredible job when it comes to scanning the racetracks to making them 100 percent identical to what they are in real life."
With drivers like Byron and Preece behind the wheel, NASCAR was seeing great momentum in being the only sport out there. That is untilby using a racial slur while addressing a fellow competitor on the platform in a public session.
Instead of headlines detailing iRacing success, the Larson saga now dominated the news cycle. Larson's public apology and termination from Chip Ganassi Racing, as well as sponsorship dropouts, added to a diversity stigma that NASCAR has been focused on eliminating.
"Most of us learned early on in your career that people no matter where you are or what your doing, you're always on," Preece said. "There's always somebody with a camera or somebody doing something. You're representing your brand and a lot of these fortune 500 companies brands. It's definitely tough because Kyle Larson is a hell of a race car driver and I do believe that he will recover from it. I don't really know him that well but I know he's a good person so he'll be alright and soon we'll be seeing him again."
Larson, an Asian-American, came up in the sport through the NASCAR Drive For Diversity Program. He did so alongside African-American Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace, who was also in hot water with a sponsor during the iRacing season fora race. Wallace spoke out regarding the Larson incident in the following days on social media.
As Wallace looked to the future, so did NASCAR. In the ensuing weeks, Matt Kenseth was named as Larson's replacement driver, and iRacing continued. Through its first five races, the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series averaged over 1.1-million viewers per week. Despite a large-scale national interest, there was reportedly no money exchanged and no contract between NASCAR, iRacing and Fox Sports throughout the shutdown.
The quarantined iRacing season will conclude Saturday night at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track that is not on the regular Cup circuit, before returning to the physical track on May 17th at Darlington Raceway. The South Carolina race will be the first of four Cup Series contests over the course of just 10 days to wrap up the month., following UFC 249.
"NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer in a release. "NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community. We thank local, state and federal officials and medical experts, as well as everyone in the industry, for the unprecedented support in our return to racing, and we look forward to joining our passionate fans in watching cars return to the track."
Running the May races without fans in attendance is one of multiple precautionary measures NASCAR is taking in its return. The sport plans to have one-day shows, mandate the use of personal protective equipment, administer health screenings for all individuals entering the facility and stick to social distancing protocols.
As far as the rest of the season is concerned, O'Donnell addressed on a conference call that some tracks would be losing races as a result of the pandemic, but neglected to identify which. No dates beyond May 27th have been announced, but the sport is focused on running a full 36-race schedule and has reportedly secured premium broadcast windows for its unannounced schedule.
"There's definitely a huge transition going back into the season," Byron explained. "I think it's going to be totally different. We kind of started the season and we really had this rhythm going and now we have to stop. When we go back it's going to be a different feeling for sure."
For Warfield, NASCAR's early return is not only an opportunity to showcase the sport to new fans, but enhance the betting experience as well.
"I am hopeful that if nothing else, out of this that some light bulbs start to go off up and down the strip and beyond. When we get back to racing on real tracks with real cars, there's some fun, interesting ways to engage around this sport that can drive revenue for the operators and drive engagement and viewership for NASCAR."
William Hill Sportsbook has already added up on head-to-head matchups for iRacing, while Warfield is hoping live betting will be the next step. He hopes for head-to-head matchups throughout the race, next fastest lap bets, and adjusted driver odds to win the race throughout.
"It's been a glimmer of hope in a time where there hasn't been a ton to smile about."