Ligonier racer Garrett Smithley experiences iRacing success

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Saturday, April 25, 2020 | 12:01 AM


Over the past two months, sports leagues around the world have had to find a way to adapt because of the the coronavirus pandemic.

Most leagues have suspended play. Some have brainstormed ways to restart their seasons, and others have come up with completely new ways to play their sports and deliver a product to their fans.

On March 17, NASCAR partnered with iRacing, a motor sport racing simulation, and announced the launch of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that would include several of the current NASCAR drivers.

Among those drivers was Ligonier native Garrett Smithley, who drives the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

“I was excited for this because I knew that this was a good opportunity to hit a different demographic and hit that younger generation that we really want to bring into iRacing,” Smithley said.

The 28-year-old has 20 career NASCAR Cup Series starts and a career-best 28th place finish at Indianapolis in 2019.

Through the first four races, Smithley has earned two top-five finishes and also has placed ninth and 17th. The first race of the iRacing Pro Invitational series took place at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 22, the same location and date of the real race. Smithley took fifth.

A week later, Smithley followed up by placing third at Texas Motor Speedway. Timmy Hill, another driver making a name for himself on the iRacing series, held off Smithley and Ryan Preece in the final laps.

“It’s been super cool, and I’ve really enjoyed running up front,” Smithley said. “With real racing, we’re a smaller team so we really don’t have that opportunity all that much. But for us, it’s been a good opportunity. It’s been fun to turn the tides a little bit, and it’s helped our real racing too.”

iRacing, which is based in Bedford, Mass., and is co-founded by Boston Red Sox principle owner John Henry, is the world’s premier motorsports racing simulation. It was founded in 2004 and has developed dozens of formal partnerships in the motorsports industry to help create the most authentic racing simulation in the world.

Smithley, who also has raced on the NASCAR Xfinity Series, said he has been using the service since 2009 to help him visualize tracks in preparation for races. So, when there was a possibility the NASCAR series was going to be postponed, Smithley jumped at the opportunity to be involved with iRacing any way he could.

“I felt like it was a good opportunity for us to put something together for the fans,” Smithley said. “It wasn’t even to benefit us. I just felt bad that we weren’t going to race, and I felt that we owed it to them. So, I immediately reached out to one of the marketing guys at iRacing and said, ‘if you guys put something together, I’m in.’”

Not only did the familiarity with the program pique his interest, it also has made the transition from racing on the track to racing in his home that much easier.

“I definitely couldn’t have gotten out of the gate as good as I did,” Smithley said. “Not many people know, but I ran a ton of practice laps to prepare for this stuff. So, that part of it has been tough.”

As a part of the races, drivers have a full set-up in front of them. They have a wheel to control their virtual car and are in communication with other drivers through voice chat. Smithley also works with a team during the races on Sundays, which he said has provided a little normalcy to the races.

“I have someone who keeps track of everyone’s pit stops,” Smithley said. “Then, I also have a crew chief who selects all of my tires and feel in the service with me and kind of helps me out with strategy and stuff like that.

“It’s kind of funny, it feels like the real deal with all these people involved, and I think it’s been cool for them to be involved too.”

The series has had success through its first four races.

A few days after the series was announced, FOX Sports announced it would broadcast the first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and nearly a million viewers tuned into FS1 to watch. A week later, 1.3 million viewers tuned into for the Texas Speedway race, which broke a record for eSports TV viewership, according to Nielsen Sports.

The eNASCAR iRacing Series has three races left to go with the next one being Sunday at Talladega Speedway. It can be watched on FOX, FS1 and the Fox Sports App.

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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