Matt DiBenedetto and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang will return to competition on network TV this weekend as the sport’s iRacing wing steps up to deliver live content to a sports world starved for entertainment due to the coronavirus.
Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway is the second event held this season featuring mostly Cup drivers but the first to be carried on FOX. Last week’s race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway was broadcast on FOX Sports 1, which also is airing this week’s race.
The Invitational races might seem on the surface like a hastily assembled affair, but they are made possible by iRacing’s infrastructure already in place.
Drivers participate via computers in their own homes, with their consoles varying from $40,000 rigs to some costing just a few hundred dollars.
The Wood Brothers, with backing from the dockless electric scooter rental company Spin, a Ford Motor Co. property, already were involved in on-line racing and fielded four drivers last year.
Two competed in the 18-race NASCAR Peak iRacing League, and two more in the 16-race season for the NASCAR Heat Pro League.
Jon Wood, senior vice president and co-owner of the Wood Brothers team, said the foundation already laid by iRacing is the reason NASCAR fans can watch Cup drivers in action even though the traditional cars are idled indefinitely.
"iRacing took a chance before anyone else in being a NASCAR eSports league," Wood said, giving much of the credit to iRacing Executive Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Myers, and to Otto Szebeni, who is iRacing’s director of sales and marketing. "We met them at Homestead in 2018 and they mentioned the idea of having an esports league.
"We really knew nothing about what they were planning, but the notion of an iRacing league, made up of some Cup teams seemed like a really good idea.
"We joined in and were actually the first team to commit, not knowing if it would be a total flop or a booming success."
After some initial difficulties explaining the concept of online racing to the old-school members of his family’s race team, Wood said his team now fully supports a venture that has become a leader in a sports world scrambling for ways to deliver content.
And, as with their traditional Cup team, the Woods have strong support from Ford in their iRacing venture.
Wood credited Brett Wheatley, who once oversaw the Motorcraft sponsorship and now oversees the company’s mobility and autonomous vehicle businesses including Spin, with recognizing the potential of esports like iRacing.
"Brett wanted to be a part of our esports venture, seeing it for what it could be at some point down the road," Wood said. I think he accurately called that shot."
Now, with few sports broadcasting options other than re-runs, the vision of folks like Wheatley and the iRacing execs is paying off.
"The shutting down of all of America has kickstarted the e-sports revolution, but iRacing was already there and totally killing it long before this virus took hold," Wood said. "If not for last year’s Peak Series and this year’s Coca-Cola iRacing Series, I can almost guarantee we wouldn’t be talking about iRacing in the way we are now."
"The infrastructure and relationships were already there because of team involvement."
Wood said it took no more than a single text message relating to last Sunday’s Homestead race. From letting the team know the race would happen to making sure Matt and his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang would be involved was a single back and forth text. No contracts, no delays.
"That level of trust and knowing whatever they do, we know it will be done right. That wouldn’t exist had it not been for the already existing relationships we have, and I think many other teams probably have very similar experiences," Wood said.
The O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 race at virtual Texas Motor Speedway takes place on Sunday, March 29, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time and is available on FOX, FS1, and the FOX Sports app.