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iRacing opens up new world for NASCAR

Jeff Birchfield • May 9, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Virtual racing has the spotlight Saturday before NASCAR’s scheduled return next week.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series is at virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway (3 p.m. Fox/FS1), bringing back to life a layout last seen in the Cup Series in 1996. The virtual event gives modern race fans a chance to see what South Carolina’s unique five-eighths-mile oval, located a little more than two hours from the Tri-Cities, was all about.

That’s one of the many ways iRacing has served its purpose during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sim racing has given fans sports live content at a time when it was desperately needed. The races are close to a real sport and have been competitive.

William Byron, who isn’t competing at North Wilkesboro, has won three of six iRaces. That’s hardly surprising considering he’s the highest-rated iRacer amongst the Cup Series drivers, but his victories haven’t been runaways. Journeyman drivers like Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley also have had a chance to showcase their skills in the virtual world.

Being treated to virtual visits to place like North Wilkesboro, Rockingham and other tracks no longer on the circuit gives older fans a chance to reminisce and younger fans the opportunity to experience something they haven’t seen before.

The virtual races also have helped NASCAR connect with younger folks, even those that weren’t race fans. It appealed to them as gamers and, in turn, piqued some curiosity about real-life events. Stats show that about 25% of the viewers for the first iRacing event at Homestead-Miami were new to NASCAR.

The Pro Invitational Series also opened the possibility of future events. A cheap alternative to the old International Race of Champions (IROC) Series was a recent virtual event that included NASCAR champion Kyle Busch, IndyCar champion Will Power, NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps and 24 Hours of LeMans winner Patrick Long among the participants. They were able to mix it up in different kinds of cars on multiple virtual tracks.

Virtual racing also has brought extra attention to IndyCar, the World of Outlaws and Formula One, all of which are running their versions of virtual racing.

While fans are certainly ready to get back to reality, NASCAR and iRacing have provided good entertainment and filled the void.

LOCAL DRIVERS AT NORTH WILKESBORO

North Wilkesboro’s history features over a dozen strong performances by Tri-Cities drivers.

Johnson City’s Paul Lewis leads the way with two top-five finishes. He ran third in the 1966 Wilkes 400 and followed that with a fifth-place finish in his last North Wilkesboro start in 1967. Lewis totaled three top-10 finishes in 10 starts at the track.

Jonesborough’s G.C. Spencer has the best finish of any area racer at the short track, a runner-up to Jim Paschal in the 1966 Gwen Staley 400. Spencer had five top-10 finishes in 22 races on the short track.

Johnson City’s Brownie King, driving the No. 32 Jess Potter-owned Chevrolet, was the most consistent performer with three top-10 finishes in five North Wilkesboro races.

Church Hill’s Bill Morton had top 10s in the NASCAR Convertible Series races held there in 1957 and ’58. He also posted a pair of ninth-place finishes in Cup Series races.

Johnson City’s Herman Beam also had a pair of top 10s at North Wilkesboro. He was sixth in the 1959 Gwen Staley 160, two spots ahead of another Johnson City driver, George Green.

Two more Johnson City racers, Brad Teague and Mike Potter, each made a single Cup Series start at North Wilkesboro, as did brothers Layman and Sherman Utsman of the famed Bluff City racing family. Teague was 2-for-2 for top 10s in the Xfinity Series, including a fourth-place showing in the 1984 Coca-Cola 300, where he finished behind NMPA Hall of Fame drivers Sam Ard, Tommy Houston and Jack Ingram.

Jonesborough’s Tommy Hilbert also made two Xfinity starts at North Wilkesboro, finishing inside the top 20 each time. Bristol’s Kelly Denton made a truck series start there in the 1996 Lowe’s 250, a race won by Cup Series star Mark Martin.

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