Fox Sports Zooms Into Post-Pandemic Future With Virtual NASCAR

Eric Shanks - Steve Meyers - Getty -Publicity - Split - H 2020
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images; Courtesy of Subject

Fox's Eric Shanks and iRacing's Steve Myers, among THR's Top Hollywood Innovators, say the popularity of the competition, where pro racers compete on virtual tracks from their homes, has opened the door for more esports on TV.

On March 13, two days after the NBA announced it would suspend its season amid the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR followed suit, canceling all future races. That same morning, Fox Sports' Eric Shanks contacted Steve Myers at game company iRacing about replacing real-world races with virtual ones.

“Your gut told you it was the right move,” Shanks tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Within 10 days, the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series debuted across Fox networks featuring 35 NASCAR drivers — including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson — using iRacing rigs to compete on virtual tracks from their homes. In a world devoid of live sports, the series has become a hit, with races routinely pulling in more than a million viewers.

In addition to the star drivers, Fox NASCAR broadcasters Jeff Gordon, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds are there to call all the action. Former football player Troy Aikman has waved the checkered flag, and Rita Wilson, recovered from her COVID-19 diagnosis, has sung the national anthem.

The new competition came together so quickly that no contracts have been drawn up, confides Shanks, explaining that "Steve Myers put out one call and literally the entire NASCAR world said yes."

The key to its success, Myers says, was iRacing's preparedness. Originally launched in 2008, the company has produced and broadcast esports competitions for more than a decade.

"One of the real struggles for TV companies now is that they don't have the ability to fully staff broadcast rooms amid social distancing," he says. "Ninety-five percent of what you're seeing on the air is coming from our broadcast rooms."

“I think NASCAR was definitely ahead of the curve because they had already embraced this simulator racing for driver training," says Shanks. "Who knew that would end up being a lifesaver once this whole thing hit?”

The shutdown may be temporary but it has opened the door for esports on TV going forward. Notes Shanks: "I don't think anyone wants this to go away." 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.