By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Clint Bowyer is heading into Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 at the virtual Texas Motor Speedway with a positive mindset, knowing that everyone is making the most of a very tumultuous times in our society due to the COVID-19 health crisis.
Not only he’ll be competing in the second eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event, but also provides in-car coverage for the FOX NASCAR telecast where he gets a different perspective than his peers who either have years of experience in simulation racing like William Byron and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or trying to hone their craft like seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
“I can’t hear what those guys are saying in there,” Bowyer said Thursday morning’s teleconference. “The only thing I can hear is Jeff (Gordon), Mike (Joy) and the producer in my ear. I’m listening to the broadcast and try to chime in and ask as much as I can from the seat of my car.
“I can see on the board who’s chiming in because you push to talk, it puts your domain up there. I didn’t know what they said or anything else. That was one thing that I was hoping I can see, but it isn’t that way.”
Additionally, Bowyer literally watched Gordon, Joy and Larry McReynolds sit down during the production meeting, asking questions and writing down key notes to come into the broadcast prepared. Professionals they are, it didn’t took long for them to understand the virtual racing world.
“In a matter of an hour or maybe two hours and write every note and asked every question they knew to ask and learn as much as they possibly could to make it a production. I think they did a hell of a job,” Bowyer said. “I’m not kidding, they learned about what you saw last Sunday within an hour or two and nailed it. I think they’ll be even better this week having a race under their belt.”
Last Sunday’s inaugural race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway was aired lived on FS1. Not only it was the number-one trend on Twitter, but it garnered an esports record of 903,000 viewers that resulted in FOX Sports to air the rest of the campaign on FOX, FS1 and the Fox Sports app.
Bowyer understands the significance of having drivers across the three NASCAR national touring series (Cup, Xfinity and Trucks) competing and being a part of something special while everyone is quarantined.
“We’re all in this together. Everybody is doing the same thing. There’s no magic button or secret ingredient but we’re quarantined,” Bowyer said. “It does suck. It sucks for everybody, but we’re doing this for a reason. We’re trying to protect one another and we’re trying to keep everybody alive and healthy, and doing what our President and the Government ask us to do. These is the right steps, but it’s extremely damaging to everybody.
“Anywhere you look, you feel bad for restaurant owners, business owners and everything. We’re going to get through this and all longing for something to do, and boom. Here comes this iRacing thing right in our lap. It’s been there for a long time and it almost feels like it’s been built for this very moment.
“I cannot wait to be on the track this Sunday and continue to sell our sport. It’s a different model, but it’s still racing. It’s still extremely competitive and exposure beyond belief. It still shows the strength of our fan base and you can’t lose sight of that. It’s going to be bigger and better than it’s ever been.”
Whether it’s virtual or real life racing, not too often the sport has a “perfect storm” scenario where the outcome of a race gets people fired up in a positive way. Last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 150 was one of those instances where the drivers and fans put on a tremendous show from start-to-finish as Denny Hamlin passed Dale Jr. on the last lap to win.
The battle for the win was so good, that the 16th-place finisher got too distracted by the intensity of it all that he crashed but knew that it was a special moment for not just the fans who saw it at home, but NASCAR as a whole.
“I literally wrecked my car watching the screen in the broadcast studio where I had my sim rig there,” Bowyer said. “On the wall, I had a big screen where I can watch the broadcast as well. I was kind of down and out, as was a lot of guys trying to figure this thing out for the first time. I caught myself just not even paying attention and watching the end to see who was going to win.
“Who would’ve ever thought that this would’ve became a reality in our televisions and even more so that it would create a situation that had us all jumping up and down on the edge of our seats. It was an incredible opportunity for all of us to try to bridge the gap while we all wait to get back on the racetrack. I couldn’t be happier. I was extremely happy for our industry and all parties involved that provides us this entertainment.”
There are some elements of iRacing Bowyer feels it’s as good as his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang such as the lack of understanding air that he finds unrealistic but still better, and tire management which he emphasized it will be key for virtual Texas this Sunday.
However, the one thing sim racing can’t replicate whatsoever is the “seat of your pants” feel he kind of calls “the butt dyno,” as car balance is essential to not just himself, but for any driver.
“You balance a racecar kind of like putting a plate on the end of an ink pen. That’s how you balance a racecar and it’s how I’ve always explained it,” Bowyer said. “It wants to go on all four different axes, whether it’s a right front, left front, right rear, left rear. You can feel all those things and that’s how you balance a car through the seat of your pants.
“In iRacing, you don’t have that. All you have is your visuals but once you get the hang of that and your mind finally catches on to that, it’s exactly what you do in real life.”
Despite this, Bowyer praised the importance of having seat time that dates back to his dirt modified and motocross days. With iRacing, no matter the time of day a driver jumps on, it’s the perfect place to gain valuable experience.
It definitely was the case for the 10-time Cup Series winner as he raced with the likes of Hamlin, Dale Jr., Byron, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Alex Bowman. All revered the best crop of sim racing drivers over the past 15 years.
“I was pretty happy with my seat and had a heck of a race with Parker. Again, a guy that you look for but there’s certain guys when you get on in any given week that you look forward because you know they got experience and seat time in the sim and on iRacing,” Bowyer said.
“I was following that Garrett Smithley kid and try to learn as much as I could from him. (Those guys) have a ton of experience and when those guys get on the racetrack, trust me you need to get out with them and as learn as much as you can.
“Follow them and everything else, but that’s what’s cool because we’re all in this together and know that it needed to be a great thing for everybody involved. That’s why we’re all trying to help each other out and make it as good as possible.”
Additionally, Bowyer heavily praised the drivers that compete in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, where actual Cup drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports field entries.
“They have helluva races. It’s awesome to watch some of their races. If you think we’re good, we’re terrible,” Bowyer on the series. “You ought to watch some of these iRacing guys that do this each and every week. They’re literally professionals and we all have them now. Whether it’s our organization, Gibbs, Hendrick, we all have our drivers that represent us.”
With the exception of Tuesday night, Bowyer hasn’t had much practice time except Tuesday night as family life at the farm has understandably taken a lot of his time.
“Everybody’s different and have their different lives that they lead,” Bowyer said. “For me, I owe it to my family to try to keep the kids entertain and keep my wife sane. She’s got three kids and I only have two, trying to keep them entertained until they go to bed. Then I went over and jump on, and god be damned if I didn’t go on top of the board.”
The ever-so determined Bowyer is hungry to fight for the win at virtual Texas, knowing it’ll be aired on a major network and what it means for the sport he proudly represents after Hamlin’s win at virtual Homestead.
“Is it serious? Absolutely. Do I want to win? You darn right, I want to beat those guys so terribly bad,” Bowyer commented.
“Huge bragging rights and not to mention, look at the viewership! I want to win this thing for not only myself, but everyone involved. Denny Hamlin had an interview on SportsCenter for crying out loud. Everybody wants a piece of this thing, so I want to win for my partners, myself, everybody involved. I’m super excited about Sunday.”
Live coverage of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 begins at 1:00 pm EST on FOX, FS1 and the Fox Sports app.