Among the benefits of the digitization of most everything has been increased efficiency and practicality in certain fields in the auto racing industry. In order to get a feel for a certain racetrack, a race team no longer has to constantly haul their equipment cross-country and devote precious time, resources, and money to testing cars: They can simply start up a computer and gain many of the same insights they would gain in traditional testing.
In NASCAR, that practice has made preparing for the inaugural Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas an exercise unlike any that's been seen before. This weekend will mark the first-ever NASCAR race at the decade-old road course in Austin, Texas, and while some stock cars have run on the track - such as when select drivers ran a Goodyear tire test there in March - most drivers will not truly experience COTA until they arrive at the track for practice and qualifying.
This is where the benefits of the modern world come in: Learning the Circuit of the Americas as well as how NASCAR stock cars will drive on it can be done digitally through the iRacing Motorsports Simulation software as well as the simulation software designed by NASCAR OEMs, both of which Michael McDowell is utilizing in his COTA prep. McDowell, who won the Daytona 500 earlier this season, will race Circuit of the Americas alongside the rest of the Cup Series field in an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race on Wednesday night.
"It's definitely a tool that we all utilize. Not just iRacing, but the [Ford Performance] simulator as well is an important tool that we use not just for driver learning, but also for development of parts and pieces and things like that," McDowell told CBS Sports.
In preparing for the inaugural race at COTA, McDowell stated that he's made virtual laps at the speedway both in iRacing and with another simulator engineered by Ford. A veteran of the Cup Series, McDowell is something of a casual sim racer: He told CBS Sports that he uses iRacing two to three times a week, but can't easily devote long periods of time to sim racing as a father of four children.
As an experienced road racer, trips to road courses are always welcome for McDowell as they present some of the best opportunities that he and his Front Row Motorsports team have to compete for top 10s, top 5s and even wins. But even with his experience, Circuit of the Americas presents a complete unknown for NASCAR: The track has hosted mostly open wheel and sportscar racing since it opened in 2012, namely the United States Grand Prix for Formula 1 cars.
At 3.426 miles in length, COTA's configuration features long, high-speed straightaways combined with several sharp turns, uphill and downhill elevation changes, and several esses of quick left and right turns in succession. Compared to lighter open wheel cars that are low to the ground and have high downforce, the weight and high center of gravity of stock cars poses much different challenges.
"Left or right and transitioning like that, our cars are definitely a challenge compared to an open wheel car," McDowell said. "And obviously an open wheel car's got a lot of downforce too, so those esses are fast and pretty intense, where in our car it'll probably be second gear and not super quick down there. But with so much momentum and with so much weight in our cars, you're constantly fighting it and balancing. It's a bit of a handful."
As much as stock cars at COTA presents the Cup Series field with a unique trial, McDowell carries a great deal of enthusiasm into the weekend. From a competition standpoint, he believes the track's braking zones and long straightaways will mean good passing opportunities. And personally, his excitement for NASCAR's first trip to Austin stems from the belief that it is one of the best shots that he and his team have to run up front.
2021 has already been a banner year for McDowell. The 36-year old journeyman driver started his season with his first career Cup Series win, when he avoided a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 to score a major upset victory in NASCAR's biggest race. Through 13 races, McDowell has already scored as many Top 5 (two) and Top 10 (four) finishes as he ever has in an entire season in his career.
In spite of that, the competitiveness of a 2021 season that has featured 10 winners in 13 races means little is assured to McDowell - Including a spot in NASCAR's Playoffs, which he could have to fight for if more than 16 drivers end up winning before Race 26.
"We haven't felt secure in that sense, so we just fight hard every weekend and just continue to try and make improvements and don't think too far ahead as far as the 'what if' scenarios, but just trying to make gains and have momentum," McDowell said. "... I would say that we have some good shots coming up. I think that we're getting into the part of the schedule that we had been looking forward to, which is just some strong tracks for us coming up this next five to six weeks. So I think there is a chance for us to be in position to win a race.
"I think the road courses and superspeedways are our best chance to do that, and it's also a good opportunity for us to score some points. I think that that's the other side of it is that as we get more repeat winners and as we get a few more of the guys that are up front every weekend and are high in the points, we want to make sure that we continue to build on our points as well so that we can make sure that we have a little bit of security to the guys that maybe sneak a win out late in the season at Daytona or something like that."
For all that simulation can provide a driver, though, there's no prep work quite like actually driving a racecar and taking laps at a given racetrack. McDowell will have that opportunity as COTA is among the races this season that NASCAR is holding practice & qualifying sessions. Such sessions have been largely a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic and that condensed race weekend format NASCAR has adopted, and their return this weekend is most welcome.
"Having practice and qualifying will give us an opportunity to work through some of the things that we want to work through," McDowell said. "Obviously with road courses being more prevalent this year, you want to tune your package a little bit and try to get where you feel like you're making gains. It's hard to do that without real practice on the racetrack."
Circuit of the Americas comes at the right time for McDowell, as he and his team have hit a springtime snag after their hot start to the season. A third place run at Talladega and a Top 15 at Kansas have come wedged in-between four races where McDowell has finished outside the top 25, with no run better than a 25th place outing at Dover last weekend.