April 16 (UPI) -- NASCAR's Landon Cassill is comfortable with iRacing, while Jimmie Johnson has struggled to acclimate to the virtual track. Both drivers say the platform presents unique challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic.
There is no stench of gasoline, burnt rubber or broken bones in this form of racing. iRacing drivers use computers connected to the Internet, a monitor, steering wheel, driver's seat and pedals.
"It's really competitive," Cassill said of iRacing. "Ultimately what's different in this compared to real world is it's completely up to the driver. There is no setting up the car and no designing and manufacturing the car.
"It just comes down to how much time you are willing to put in to learn the car, track and the setup."
Current and former drivers from NASCAR's Cup Series, Xfinity Series and the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series fill the field of competitors. Millions of viewers have tuned in to streams of the races, which air on Fox.
Three eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series Invitational races have been held, starting March 22 at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Races also took place at virtual Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway before the series went on Easter break. The three races were the highest-rated esports events in U.S. TV history and were broadcast in 165 countries.
Denny Hamlin -- who won the 2020 Daytona 500 in February -- captured the first race of the series. The 38-time winner in the Cup Series finished 24th and fourth in his next two races. Timmy Hill and William Byron won the second and third eNASCAR events, respectively. Hill and Byron never have won a Cup Series race.
Johnson is the most decorated NASCAR driver competing in iRacing, but has yet to finish inside the top 15.
"I'm not fast enough in iRacing yet to run up front for the TV time, so trying to be an in-race reporter or a part of spectacular crashes seems to be the only way I find myself [featured] on television right now," Johnson said.
Creating bad habits
Cup Series drivers try to build the most realistic iRacing setup, or rig, when competing. Hamlin's rig has a value of $40,000. Cassill's rig, including quadruple monitors, retails for $18,000. A basic rig costs $1,000, but NASCAR drivers prefer a more realistic setup.
"It's important for the professional driver to invest in more expensive hardware because they need to maintain their muscle memory and feel and not create habits from iRacing that don't translate to a real car," Cassill said.
NASCAR drivers also have to deal with new distractions like music playing or having other people talk in the room near their rigs. Drivers try to translate their racing mindset from the asphalt into their computerized cockpit.
The drivers have long used iRacing to prepare for real races, but younger and more tech savvy competitors have an advantage over those who didn't jump into the trend early.
"There are guys who have never played video games, let alone iRacing, so they've had a steeper learning curve for sure," Cassill said.
Johnson realized a certain level of focus for iRacing was required when the series started airing on TV. The seven-time Cup Series champion's rig is built to mirror an IndyCar equipment instead of NASCAR equipment.
Johnson plans to retire from NASCAR after this season and is interested in competing in IndyCar. He still is learning how to use spotters and third-party applications to determine how to calibrate his virtual car and achieve better results. He spends up to five hours daily working on his setup after his two children go to bed.
"Playing the game is certainly challenging on its own, but I had no idea the rest of it that went into it," Johnson said.
Johnson is one of the highest-paid Cup Series drivers in history, while other iRacing competitors still are trying to build their resumes. He wants to find ways to show value to his sponsors through iRacing during NASCAR's hiatus, until at least mid-May.
Johnson said drivers feel pressure from their own expectations and from their teams and sponsors.
"We're trying to figure out how to create value and how to deliver for our partners," Johnson said.
Earned, lost sponsors
Cup Series driver Kyle Larson recently learned how iRacing can impact sponsorships. He lost both of his major sponsors and was fired by his racing team after using a racial slur during an iRacing event hosted Sunday by Cassill. The event was streamed, making the slur audible for other competitors and viewers.
The incident came a week after driver Bubba Wallace quit in the middle of the second eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series race after wrecking his car. Wallace lost a sponsorship from pain-relief brand Blue Emu as a result.
Blue Emu continues to sponsor Cassill in iRacing. He said he hopes the partnership leads to a sponsorship on the real track. Companies can sponsor drivers at a much lower cost in iRacing because it doesn't require millions of dollars in equipment like real racing.
"I'm building a platform for my fans and partners that will carry over," Cassill said. "Now I have a sponsorship I didn't have before iRacing. I'm able to deliver them a ton of value for their investment, so much that they want to go real racing after this."
The next race in the series will be Sunday at virtual Richmond Raceway in Virginia. Future virtual races are planned for Talladega Superspeedway in Alabame and Dover International Speedway in Delaware.
NASCAR's managing director of gaming, Scott Warfield, said he sees "no reason" drivers won't continue competing beyond the next three iRacing events. NASCAR also is considering how to feature more iRacing on a long-term basis.
"I knew we thought it would be positive, I'm not sure we thought it would be this positive," Warfield said. "The opportunities are endless."