Friday 5: Drivers take fans behind the scenes online
As Landon Cassill streamed his practice laps Tuesday night on a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, he explained how he entered the corners. After he finished, he showed video of William Byron entering the corners the same way by letting the car turn naturally on the banking before he moved the wheel.
It was a discussion Cassill might have had with his crew chief or another driver at a race track, but with sports paused by the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a discussion he shared with anyone watching his Twitch page.
As NASCAR transitions to iRacing, some drivers are streaming their practices, practice races and eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events on Twitch, Instagram or elsewhere. Twitch, the world’s leading live streaming platform for games, allows fans to watch and chat with the person competing. On a driver’s Twitch stream, the viewer will see the driver’s in-car camera view with an insert box in the lower portion showing the driver.
Although he’s viewed others on Twitch, it wasn’t until last weekend that Cassill created a page for fans to watch him compete. He said he had about 5,000 unique viewers during his fourth-place run in last weekend’s iRacing event at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway. Garrett Smithley, who finished third in that race, has been streaming races on Twitch since 2017 and saidhe had about 2,800 viewers at any one time on his Twitch page during last weekend’s race.
Watching a driver’s livestream on Twitch, Instagram or anywhere else, allows fans to see a competitor in action and eavesdrop on conversations they have with their spotter, crew chief or other drivers. It’s like listening to a team’s radio channel during a race but this includes everything a driver says, not just what they say after they push the talk button in their car. And you can see the driver without their helmet.
It was during last weekend’s race when those watching Smithley’s Twitch heard him tell his spotter to text Timmy Hill’s spotter to suggest they work together. Smithley didn’t want to broadcast it over the audio channel all drivers are connected to in iRacing. So this was a way to do it without his competitors knowing.
Smithley knows the impact being on Twitch can have. He’s seen the crossover at tracks with younger fans.
“Even when I was doing it very, very casually and whenever I had some time in 2017 and 2018 … I found going to the real race track when I was racing full-time in the Xfinity Series, people would come to me, kids, very young, say middle school age and younger, they’d be like ‘Hey we love watching your stream,’ “ Smithley told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually getting into a new (fan) reach.’
“Now, doing the iRacing stuff, it’s opened up doors and I can start that back up and grow that. It’s just a way for me to connect to the fans.”
Smithley has a screen set up where he can see questions or comments from those watching his stream. That’s mainly for when he’s running practice or competing in races other than the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race.
“It’s a really, really good opportunity for fans to come and engage and get a lot more insight on what we’re doing,” he said.
For those who watched Cassill’s Twitch on Monday, they would have seen him testing with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson at the digital Bristol track and hearing their conversations.
“We practiced for a couple of hours at Bristol,” Cassill told NBC Sports. “Everything he said and everything I said was recorded and it was live-streamed and we had viewers. It was a great content. It was a lot of fun. I think we looked at data and talked about our driving styles at Bristol.”
After last weekend’s race, Cassill still had his livestream going when Dale Earnhardt Jr. started talking to him about the event. Fans watching got to hear two drivers discussing the race. For those who missed it, Cassill had the video segment clipped and posted on social media.
Cassill’s way of examining his driving style compared to Byron’s earlier this week was a benefit for those watching on Cassill’s stream.
“Breaking down the corner and what William was doing, what I saw him doing, what I wanted to replicate, his line, his steering wheel angle, all those things, if I weren’t streaming I still would have been doing those things and maybe have even been saying those things out loud to myself,” Cassill said.
“It kind of goes back to the summary of why I’m Twitch streaming, hey, this is content. I think that those types of clips can be repurposed to evergreen content that live on Youtube and can give people professional lessons on how to drive race cars on iRacing from a driver who does it in the physical world.”
2. iRacing sponsorships
Garrett Smithley and virtual Texas winner Timmy Hill are the only two drivers to score top-five finishes in each of the first two eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events heading into Sunday’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.
With last weekend’s racing drawing 1.3 million viewers on Fox and FS1 — that’s more than the viewership for the Xfinity races this season at Auto Club Speedway (993,000 viewers) and Phoenix (1.192 million) — some drivers and teams are looking to add sponsors for these races.
Smithley said he and Rick Ware Racing have been looking to leverage his success and added attention on TV for sponsorship.
“Rick is working on some different things, and I’m working on some different things to try to grow it and add more value to the real racing,” Smithley said. “We’re absolutely trying to leverage it. It’s so new, so we’re trying to figure out the space. I’ve reached out to several different people in the eSports world to try to figure out the scope of things and how to add better value in this situation. That’s been going well. Just learning a whole lot about the industry.
“The biggest thing is to try to get back real racing, but I hope we can continue doing some some type of eSports thing with NASCAR and all the drivers in some capacity because I think it brings out a different demographic, and I think it brings out a little different excitement.”
Michael McDowell announced Thursday that energy drink Celsius would sponsor his Front Row Motorsports car for Sunday’s race.
3. Staying busy
Each morning the 35-plus Team Penske pit crew members receive an email from Jonathan Rowan, the organization’s director of sports performance.
The email details the day’s home workout plan as they wait for the chance to return to the race shop and for the sport to resume.
Trent Cherry asked Rowan to develop a program to keep the pit crew members active during this break.
It will be at least two months between races. The last Cup race was March 8 and every Cup race up to May 9 at Martinsville has been postponed at this time.
Cherry isn’t worried about any skills slipping for the pit crew members during the break. Instead, he’s focused on another key area.
“Michael Jordan when he comes back from the offseason, he doesn’t forget how to shoot a jump shot,” Cherry told NBC Sports. “He also might not be completely game ready. I think there’s two separate things.
“I don’t think our guys will forget what they do or have done. It’s my job … to get them back in the groove. We left the first four weeks, we won two races (with Joey Logano). I felt like our pit crews were some of the best ones on pit road. My job is to try to maintain that when we come back. Part of that is just knocking the rust off once we get the OK to go back to work but it also means everybody focused on staying in shape.”
With NASCAR stating it intends to reschedule every postponed race before the playoffs begin Sept. 6 at Darlington, it likely means back-to-back races on some weekends and midweek races. It could lead to a few weeks with few days between races.
Cherry, a former tire changer, says his crews would look forward to such a schedule.
“I’m a big believer in if the guys go to the track fresh, they’re going to perform at the their best,” he said. “Our job as a coaching staff is to figure out what is enough to get them ready and what’s also enough to keep them fresh. Our guys have done a great job of responding to that.
“I would love to be able to pit Sunday, pit Wednesday, pit Sunday. Our guys like competing. Competing is winning races and being able to help the company out. I think our guys will really look forward to that.”
4. Potential help for teams
Today marks the first day businesses, which have 500 or fewer employees, can apply for the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program.
The $350 billion relief program is part of the government’s $2 trillion economic support package. With most race teams under the 500-employee cap, this program, should they chose to apply, could provide some financial aid while teams wait to return to racing next month at the earliest.
The relief program provides small business with funds to pay up to eight weeks of payroll costs, including benefits. The funds are provided in the form of loans that will be fully forgiven when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities. Loan forgiveness is based on the employer maintaining or quickly rehiring employees and maintaining salary levels.
NBC News reported that it wasn’t until Thursday that banks received 31 pages of guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how to lend the money and some banks had not decided if they could participate on Friday.
5. Additional NASCAR programming on NBCSN
Next week will feature the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge and Racing Week in America on NBCSN.
The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge features six different drivers competing in two races each Monday-Wednesday with the winners advancing to Thursday’s championship race at a virtual Martinsville Speedway. Full details are here.
The Monday race will be held at a virtual Rockingham Speedway and include Kyle Busch and William Byron.
The Tuesday race will be held at a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis and includes Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
The Wednesday race will be held at a virtual Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Speedway and includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Timmy Hill.
Those races will be from 7-8 p.m. ET each night. The races are a part of Racing Week in America, which will feature memorable NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA races, among other series, from the past two decades aired by NBC Sports.