Ty Dillon has competed in 130 NASCAR Cup races over the past seven years.
The grandson of famed car owner Richard Childress has blasted around Talladega Superspeedway at over 200 mph and navigated his way around the treacherous high banks and maddening traffic jams at Bristol Motor Speedway.
So how did the 28-year-old feel before Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event at a virtual version of Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’ve never been more nervous before a race,” said Dillion in a Monday phone interview.
There was a good reason for those nerves.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Dillon said. “That was my first race like that ever and I didn’t want to be the first driver to mess up.”
The 35-driver Homestead-Miami exhibition, won by Cup veteran and iRacing expert Denny Hamlin, has generated a wave of interest among gamers, NASCAR diehards, and sports fans desperate for any sort of competition.
According to Adam Stern of the Sports Business Journal, the race dubbed the Dixie Vodka 150 was the most viewed esport event in United States television history with 903,000 viewers. That figure surpassed a showing of the video game Mortal Kombat on The CW channel in 2016.
While Dillon never ran among the leaders Sunday, he achieved his goal. The driver of No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet in the Cup Series earned a 19th-place finish.
“I just wanted to survive and be around at the finish. I was pretty happy that I was able to do that,” Dillon said.
Dillon’s plan of staying near the back and exercising caution hit a snag early.
“I started watching the TV and hit the wall,” Dillon said. “I actually destroyed my car twice. But I went for it in the closing laps was able to move up from 26th.”
The Pro Invitational format involved a mix of big-name drivers like Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer with grinders from the Xfinity and Truck series like Parker Kligerman, who has driven for the Abingdon-based Henderson Racing truck team.
Earnhardt, another veteran iRacer, was instrumental in gathering support from drivers last week.
“I found out about the race on Thursday,” Dillon said. “After I brought my iRacing rig to my house, I went to work setting it up. I was able to get in two practice days, but it was kind of a mad scramble to get everything ready.”
Like other drivers, Dillon was encouraged by the widespread positive response of Sunday’s grand experiment.
“I thought it was a lot of fun, and I was happy to be part of something that could provide entertainment and distraction for people,” Dillon said.
Dillon’s wife and daughter also got caught up in the Sunday afternoon fun.
“They were screaming and cheering,” Dillon said. “Competition is always fun, and I learned a lot.”
Dillon said he’s open to competing in more Pro Invitational events, including the virtual version of Bristol Motor Speedway.
“Bristol will be a lot of fun,” Dillon said. “That track is always tough.”
In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, iRacing executive vice president and executive vice producer Steve Myers said the buzz for the NASCAR version of esports is loud and growing.
“Just two weeks ago I was the executive producer of a software company, and now I’m executive producer of a software company and a broadcasting company,” Myers said.
So what sort of feedback has Myers heard?
“It’s been unbelievable,” Myers said. “I think my favorite part of this whole thing has been seeing the reaction of people on social media that had never seen anything like this before. They were able to relax for two hours, listen to familiar voices and see familiar faces, and just get away from hearing about the coronavirus.”
Myers said interest continues to build among established racers.
“There was overwhelming positivity with the NASCAR world,” Myers said. “With the drivers, Sunday was a major success.”
After working 11 days straight with his staff, Myers said the payoff made all the long hours worthwhile.
“Seeing all the positive tweets from people really lifted us all up and made us realize that we pulled off something awesome,” Myers said. “It was way bigger than we expected in that sense.”
Myers is working on refinements, such as more driver interviews and in-camera shots. The next event will be Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
Details on the remainder of the schedule, including the BMS event, are still being discussed.
Dillon said the iRacing idea can be a galvanizing force in the racing community and beyond.
“Everything is pretty much shut down in NASCAR, so this is a good way to bring people together,” Dillon said. “There will be hard times in life, and some things are bigger than racing.
“For me, life is all about making relationships, spending time together with family and relying on my faith. I try to think about good things.”