Many sports are relatively easily accessible at a young age, but not motorsports. For the world’s most accessible sport, soccer, if you have cleats and a ball, you’re in. Football and hockey take considerably more equipment and cost, but many kids still take to the field or ice every year. Motorsport is a very unique and difficult sport to enter in childhood. Not only does it take a considerable amount of dedication, but a significant financial sacrifice. However, with the rise of eSports comes a new era of motorsport development. For William Byron, racing simulation has turned to a professional racing career.
New Roads: How William Byron and eSports could Change Motorsport
The Good Old Days
The traditional entryway to professional NASCAR stock car racing is on short dirt tracks, much in line with the history of the sport. For Formula 1, IndyCar, and other open-wheel sports, karting is the first step. Each of these approaches come at considerable cost. All require expensive machinery and constant maintenance. Entering competition ensures that you will be traveling constantly. For many, this commitment both in cost and competitive discipline is too much compared to other sports. Especially considering the competitors are primarily children.
This is the way NASCAR legends such as Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon came into the sport. For decades, it remained relatively unchanged. Technologies advanced to make racing and travel more accessible, but the high commitment aspect remained. This road to the pinnacle of stock car racing remains, as it is the path taken by modern star Kyle Larson among others. This status as the primary path to professional stock car racing thus remains.
With William Byron comes a new path to NASCAR: racing simulation video games. The 19-year old phenom dominated the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season. With seven wins in his rookie season for Kyle Busch Motorsports, Byron claimed Rookie of the Year honours and will advance to the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Rather than cutting his teeth on small dirt tracks across America, Byron has been competing on iRacing to hone his chops. Before first sitting in a race car at the age of 15, Byron had won over 100 races online.
Byron relates his success in NASCAR directly to his experience with iRacing, particularly when it comes to tracks with which he is unfamiliar: “When we went to Iowa this year, the race track in the game looked virtually the same as it does in real life“. As other eSports competitors are becoming professionals in their virtual fields, Byron remains unique in his practical application of eSports and how he uses it to move from simulating NASCAR directly into some of its top series. The Barclays Premier League made an earlier move of traditional sports teams into eSports, with West Ham United signing FIFA video game phenom Sean Allen or “Dragonn” to an online squad. However, Byron’s video game experience has brought him directly to a contract with one of NASCAR’s top teams, Hendrick Motorsports.
iRacing as a Path to NASCAR
With Byron being the first to make this jump, it is not yet certain that iRacing is the new path to NASCAR. However, he is proving to be an excellent test subject for such a path. His success in such a short period of time coupled with his direct acknowledgment of how iRacing prepared him for NASCAR is going to turn team’s eyes towards . A proper setup to race competitively and effectively in iRacing is not cheap, but it is certainly cheaper than a race car and all of the commitments that come with it. Now, racing experience can be accessible to more and more people, with a greater chance of showcasing their skills worldwide.
Ultimately, the success of William Byron will dictate the viability of iRacing as a way into NASCAR. If it does not become a path to professional racing, it is still useful as a training tool for drivers. NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a regular practicioner of iRacing. Regarding its usefulness, Earnhardt told ESPN: “It teaches you to be patient, to know when the time is right to make a move, good and poor judgment“. This echoes Byron’s belief that his racing improves through iRacing as he is able to learn the proper moves of each track before he experiences it in life.
The games do suffer a lacking of some physical aspects of motorsport. The physical fatigue, heavy hits, immediate danger, and feeling issues within the car through the seat. Despite these shortcomings, car tuning and fuel mileage strategy are as important in the game as in life. As far as physical fatigue, the mental fatigue and concentration are spot on. In short, for everything the simulations are missing, they impress elsewhere.
New Proving Grounds
In 2009, well before Byron’s first taste of driving, NASCAR proved that iRacing was on their radar with the creation of what is now known as the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series. The series is officially sanctioned by NASCAR and iRacing, with full live broadcasts and coverage. In 2016, Ray Alfalla would claim his third title in the series. Although Alfalla’s name may not be widely known in racing circles now, the rise of eSports could see these cyber drivers become new stars of motorsport. IndyCar sees similar involvement with iRacing, as well as a growing list of major motorsport partners.
With the recent surge of eSports into the mainstream, racing simulation could go one of two ways. First, it could become a new path to professional racing, such as with William Byron. Second, racing simulation could become a major sport of its own through the rise of eSports into international popularity. The accessibility of simulators compared to physical racing cars could see new generations of drivers choose the virtual tracks as their career paths. Only time will tell whether racing will embrace iRacing as a new form of motorsport development, or if eSports racing will become the newest major racing series. In either case, William Byron will have changed motorsport.