CHARLOTTE, N.C. – “Sim racing deserved this 10 years ago, and now, finally, it’s getting some really awesome exposure. I’m very excited for it.”
A blue collar worker by day, Steve Sheehan is a computer-based racecar driver, or “sim racer” who is making his return to the highest level of sim competition for the first time since 2013.
Sheehan has been sim racing for over 20 years, before iRacing.com Motorsport Simulations officially came into existence as it is known today.
Sheehan is not the only one here in Charlotte who can admit to that, either.
“When it started, we always hoped it would turn in to something, but I don’t know that we knew back then what the potential was. Within the last two years, our sport has grown so much, and has gotten so popular out of nowhere it seems, it’s just incredible.”
That perspective is from Brad Davies, who is currently employed by JR Motorsports, both in real life and for the team as one of their top-level sim racers.
Davies is the IT administrator for the JR Motorsports team based in Mooresville, North Carolina. Davies was also drafted for the same team for the eNASCAR iRacing Series in 2019, re-upping again for 2020.
That’s only two of the 40 drivers that will compete in the 2020 eNASCAR iRacing World Championship Series. It’s two of the veterans in the field… two of which who have seen what it started as, and what it has now become.
Anyone want to take a guess how much iRating is in this room? pic.twitter.com/pjxSikJOjo
— iRacing.com (@iRacing) January 9, 2020
The eNASCAR push, and really, the eSports push in general, has landed the top-tier NASCAR sim racing series in national headlines in the last few days.
The rumblings and interest started ramping up just last season, and ultimately led to what positively occurred for the series at the end of last week.
To kick off its 11th season of competition, iRacing and NASCAR Productions invited all 40 of the sim drivers qualified for the 2020 season to Charlotte, North Carolina, to participate in the series’ first “media days” inside the NASCAR building adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The media days in Charlotte put a close to what was known as the first ever “free agency period” for the series. Last year, drivers participated in a draft, and didn’t have too much control on where they raced in 2019.
This year, all 40 drivers participated in a couple of weeks of negotiations and all were able to come to agreements with one of the 20 official teams, setting the stage for 20 teams of two drivers competing not only to crown a driver’s champion, but for the first time, a team championship is also on the line.
— Wood Brothers Racing (@woodbrothers21) January 9, 2020
This is the second year of “official” teams in the series, and features well known real-life NASCAR teams such as JR Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and for the first time in 2020, Stewart-Haas Racing joins the fold. 20 teams in total, two drivers per team.
“Doing stuff like this is just work,” said Justin Bolton, driver of the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing’s eSports team in 2020. Bolton is in a similar situation as Davies is – he now drives for the team he works for in the real world.
“I don’t have to take vacation days or whatever for it. Being at the track every week is a lot easier when they need someone for fan events. Just being around the shop, I’m available every day for them, you know, this is part of work.”
Bolton is another one like Sheehan who is coming back this season after a period of time away from the highest level of competition.
— Evan Posocco🎙 (@evanposocco) January 9, 2020
38 of the 40 drivers were in attendance during media days. The NASCAR Productions and iRacing staff members led drivers around the building to different stations, giving them insight into what a driver in the NASCAR Cup Series might go through on a regular basis.
Drivers met up with their team representatives, heard a few words from the executives running the show, were led through competition meetings, media trainings, video productions, interviews, and the whole nine yards.
They even dragged many of the drivers over to the dungeon (or what felt like a dungeon), where Jacob Seelman (Speed Sport) and I conversed with drivers throughout the event.
— Richmond Raceway eSports (@RReSports) January 9, 2020
Social media was a buzz with drivers announcing what teams they had signed with, fun activities they got to partake in, and overall, just the experience from the days events. Drivers were attentive and absorbed a lot of what was being told to them, especially with how to conduct themselves being in such a large spotlight now.
However, for many of them, the takeaway for most was that they got to put faces to the names that many of them have competed against for years.
The night of the first media day, many of the competitors took a trip down to GoPro Motorplex to stack up against each other in a real world setting.
The air was cold and the times were quick. As part of the event at GoPro, the track officials set up a series of events to ultimately decide a 20 car A-Main event. 32 drivers participated in separate practice sessions, two heat races, and a B-Main to decide the final lineup for the night.
The competition was about as fierce as it would be in a natural setting for these drivers, with drivers bouncing off of one another, making aggressive but fair moves.
Drivers were all learning as the event went on as they’ve become accustomed to doing in the sim, absorbing everything they could, watching from the stands while not on track themselves.
In the A-Main, Liam Brotherton, a driver from the Pro Series who lives in the area, joined in on the fun and showed his talent running up against the eventual winner of the event, Santiago Tirres.
Eric J. Smith rallied from the back of the field, cutting up to eventually take the final podium position.
The allure from the 2019 season, the emergence of the teams from the real world counterparts, and the coverage from national media including two all-star events, as well as the Championship event televised live on NBCSN, were all factors in seeing many of the faces from previous campaigns rejoining the ranks of the World Championship series.
“There was a lot of hype back then, too, but not at this level.”
The only multi-time series champion, and a four-time one at that. Ray Alfalla has seen it happening from the beginning. “It was very much hyped within the sim racing community, but now it’s broader than that,” Alfalla said.
“We’re on TV, we’re being covered by the national media, and now we have our own media day here. It’s just nice to be a part of, even with the success and things that I’ve had, I’m just glad I’m here to begin with.”
The competition has ramped up over the past few seasons, and because of that, it wasn’t a given that Alfalla would even make it back to the series in 2020. A dismal year in 2019 left the four-time world champion on the outside of the locked in field at season’s end, having to prove his worth once more in the iRacing Pro Series.
The 4-Time Champ 📸
Wrapping up an awesome Media Day here in Charlotte. pic.twitter.com/QVlQFm6UoT
— iRacing.com (@iRacing) January 10, 2020
Alfalla took it in stride and added another championship to his belt a few weeks ago from the iRacing Pro Series, holding off some of the newer competition on the come up such as Graham Bowlin.
Bowlin was only three points away from calling himself the 2019 Pro Series Champion.
Bowlin will be a rookie in the 2020 series, along with drivers such as Tirres, Kollin Keister, Alex McCollum, and Bob Bryant.
“Everybody here is legit. I think that’s incredible,” Bryant remarked.
“I think that it’s something that has never been really seen before in sim racing.”
Another “rookie” to the series, but only by definition, Bryant has about as much sim racing clout as anyone in the 2020 series, only without any achievements on paper on iRacing’s stat sheet to show off.
Bryant invited many of his competitors out after the media days were complete on Friday evening to a local TopGolf to continue the fun.
— Bob Bryant (@BBryant53) January 11, 2020
Earlier in the day, a handful of series competitors took up an offer from one of the new team owners in the series, Denny Hamlin, to hang out at his house.
Their fun included basketball and bowling, plus just the fact that they were all chilling together with Hamlin.
Hamlin’s team, Denny Hamlin Racing, picked up the 2019 most popular driver, Casey Kirwan, as well as the runner up in the 2019 season standings, Keegan Leahy.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) January 10, 2020
The fun didn’t end there. The following day, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and T.J. Majors showed up to one of the lake houses where a group of the sim racers were staying to trade stories and hang out for a few hours.
All in all, there didn’t seem to be a single driver who made the journey that wasn’t smiling ear-to-ear at the end of the Media Days.
Good times today meeting some of the best @iRacing drivers in the entire service. I’ve been in sim racing for 30 years. It’s amazing how far it’s come and where it will be going. pic.twitter.com/Ie4qCAxOdM
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) January 12, 2020
Of course, there were some on social media who tried to spoil the fun for everyone after the fact, but in the following days, especially on Twitter and over the airwaves of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, the vibes continued to stay positive, as the masses majorly embraced the new market for NASCAR eSports.
Gotten a lot of notifications today and just wanna let you know…
From top split to bottom split, real world or virtual, you’re all racers and we appreciate your passion for Motorsports.
— iRacing.com (@iRacing) January 12, 2020
iRacing staff members are working overtime in making this the best possible season it could be. Many announcements are still being withheld, as many deals are still working to get finalized before the season begins. I do want to thank them all personally for my inclusion into the “Media Days” events.
The eNASCAR iRacing World Championship Series kicks off its 2020 campaign at the virtual Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday, February 11th, 2020.
On a new team with Richmond Raceway eSports for the 2020 season, Zack Novak looks to not only defend his win last year at Daytona, but to also start the defense of his 2019 Series Championship.
Stay tuned to The Racing Experts for more eNASCAR coverage leading up to the start of the 2020 season. We hope to have season previews for each team before the season begins!
CURRENT TEAM LINE UP AS OF 7:30 PM ET ON JANUARY 14TH, 2020:
Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com