True to their counterparts in other genres, racing games have long offered players and drivers the opportunity to compete on "fantasy" racetracks that don't exist in real life. Thinking along those lines, NASCAR and iRacing have taken the idea of a fantasy racetrack to the next level: Putting the stars of stock car racing on a fictitious track, and showcasing a vision that may eventually become more than simple fantasy.
On Wednesday night, NASCAR Cup Series drivers will compete in the Windy City 110, an eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at the Chicago Street Course, a fictional track designed by iRacing that runs through some of the iconic streets of Chicago, Illinois. The 2.2 mile course connects some of Chicago's landmark streets around the perimeter of Grant Park, with the city skyline serving as a backdrop.
Wednesday night's race is more than simply a continuation of NASCAR's eSports showcase: It also presents a dry run of sorts for what a street race for stock cars would look like. According to Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune, the course was developed in partnership with the city of Chicago, the Specialized Marketing Group, and the Chicago Sports Commission.
iRacing's Chicago Street Course continues momentum that has been building towards NASCAR eventually adding a street course race to its schedule, as the idea of such a track -- traditionally run by open-wheel cars as well as V8 Supercars in Australia -- has been bandied about amid ongoing schedule reforms. Speaking to CBS Sports, Cup star William Byron shared that he believed street course racing, if done correctly, could be a welcome addition to NASCAR.
"I think that we could thrive in that environment with having fans on both sides and the excitement, the atmosphere. I think that would be really good for us," Byron said. "I think it'd have to be done in the right way and not have a track that's kind of gimmicky. I think that we need a place that has running room and places for us to pass. Our cars don't handle 90 degree turns like an IndyCar does, so we have to make sure that we're not setting up a track that is too difficult just to run laps on and not mess up and ruin the car.
"That'll create a good race. Oftentimes if it's too difficult, then none of us really race each other because we're just trying to drive the track. I think it's a fine balance, but it could be a really good opportunity."
In having practiced at the course, Byron -- an avid sim racer -- said that the Chicago track is a challenging one to drive, but commended its design as well as its potential for passing opportunities.
"It's not as narrow as I thought it'd be, which is good, but I think you're gonna have to get off of the corners that lead to a long straightaway to complete passes and stuff like that," Byron said. "I'm looking forward to it. It's challenging to drive, I think it's fun to drive as a racecar driver because it is a challenge. And I think that'll create something that's a good product."
As it stands, the Chicago Street Course presents a vision of the future for racing in the Windy City, which currently stands in limbo: For nearly 20 years, NASCAR made annual trips to the Chicagoland Speedway in nearby Joliet, but issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of last year's trip to the speedway. Then, Chicagoland was dropped from NASCAR's schedule for 2021, leaving the 1.5-mile oval mothballed as a mere standing testament to the opulence of NASCAR's bygone track-building boom.
Whatever the future of racing in Chicago may be, Wednesday night stands as a showcase of what is possible through sim racing, and a potential direction that NASCAR can go in through its eSports platforms: While Pro Invitational Series have mostly coincided with real-world races, NASCAR has also used the series to touch on racing fantasies: Last year, a race was held on iRacing's render of historic North Wilkesboro Speedway, which has not hosted a NASCAR race since 1996.
Expanding on the fantasy element of sim racing - whether through races at old tracks like North Wilkesboro or Rockingham Speedway, or conceptual races at tracks that NASCAR has never raced on - is something that Byron is interested in doing more of as the Pro Invitational Series continues to evolve.
"I think the best things for us would be to have tracks that are kind of new ideas to show off," Byron said. "I think that's a great idea, and I feel like that's where iRacing can really thrive on is the fact that we're trying this as a new idea and it could work and it could be really exciting for the fans. I think that's what we should do."
While it is unclear whether or not a street course race in Chicago or anywhere else would be part of NASCAR's 2022 schedule, former NASCAR driver and current NASCAR vice president of strategic initiatives Ben Kennedy stated earlier this spring that racing on tracks like the Chicago Street Course are indeed a consideration.
"We want to continue to innovate, we want to continue to protect those prestigious events like the Daytona 500 and the Coke 600, but also be able to go to new markets and shake things up," said Kennedy in a report by Zack Albert of NASCAR.com. "So I think a really unique opportunity to work with iRacing on this, to be able to test something out."
Wednesday night's race marks the fifth Pro Invitational Series event of 2021, which has seen NASCAR showcase both the new racetracks on the Cup Series schedule and its Next Gen car slated to debut in 2022. Winners of Pro Invitational races this season include Byron (Bristol Dirt), Brad Keselowski (Talladega), Erik Jones (Darlington), and James Davison (Circuit of the Americas).