CONCORD, N.C. -- iRacing has filled the void left when the NASCAR season when on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading drivers and fans alike to take their shot at virtual racing.
When the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series began at the end of March, iRacing veterans such as William Byron were in their comfort zone. However, drivers such as Jimmie Johnson have never hopped in an iRacing rig to hit the virtual track.
Enter Bryce Whitson.
The Hendrick Motorsports aerodynamics engineer started iRacing 10 years ago as a fun way to get his need for speed. In recent years iRacing has been used as a tool to prep drivers for certain tracks and as a gateway to join the sport. Byron famously got his start with iRacing and used that experience to jump into NASCAR.
Whitson said he’s blown away, but excited over how iRacing has taken off over the past several weeks and that it has brought on a new and fun role for him.
“I’ve said for a long time that I wanted to give back to Hendrick Motorsports in any way that I could, and there were times over the last two years that I’ve done very little, there have been times over the last two years that I’ve done a whole lot,” Whitson said. “This has been the time that I feel like I’ve actually been able to give back and do and repay and Hendrick for standing behind me for so long.”
Whitson was hired by the organization in 2016 after working with the Navy for 11 years and graduating from Purdue. His life changed in August 2017 when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
He has been working from home since his diagnosis and said Hendrick Motorsports placed its full support behind him. This has prepped him to be extra cautious as the nation continues to work through the pandemic. Whitson said iRacing and coaching some of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers has been an exciting project for him to take on.
“To be part of the team and now being able to do what I’m doing with iRacing, which has been my hobby for the last 10 years, it’s like we’re taking racing, which was my number one love in life, working for professional racing, and ‘Oh by the way, you’re getting to bring in your other hobby of iRacing and work with the teams’,” Whitson said. “It’s a dream come true for me.”
Whitson said when it was announced iRacing would be taking off the calls started flooding in. He helped Johnson and Alex Bowman with tips and talked to No. 88 crew chief Greg Ives on how to work with the drivers.
He said the top priorities for drivers trying to get used to the simulator is practice and making sure the settings are set up correctly.
“Our drivers are used to going out and getting two hours of practice on Saturday or on Friday, a five-minute qualification on Saturday and running a three-hour race on Sunday. The iRacers are used to going out and doing 40 hours a week just driving around in a virtual car in order to race that weekend,” Whitson explained. “So that’s where you see people like William Byron those guys rising to the top of eNASCAR is because in the past they’ve run that many laps.”
Recently, Whitson served as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief for the North Wilkesboro race in the final event of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational series. Gordon said it was Whitson who helped convinced him to run the Talladega race.
“I visited him at the hospital a few months ago and we start talking about iRacing. That was really the first time anyone has given me all the details of what all is involved in iRacing,” Gordon said. “I knew when this experience started that he was my go-to guy. He’s getting me up to speed and all the saying that I need to know – we were on the phone for three hours. He said, ‘let’s go into a practice session’ and it was at Talladega.”
While Gordon finished 28th in that race, he took Whitson’s advice and practiced for the North Wilkesboro event. Gordon placed 18th at the historic North Carolina track.
Whitson said it was a group effort to get the Pro Invitational Series going. People from the shop and teams within the organization all chipped in to help run practices and get systems set up. He added the organization as a whole put its support behind esports and allowed NASCAR to pioneer a unique experience during this time.
“I am very, very thrilled that NASCAR and iRacing were able to put this together in such a quick manner and then get FOX Sports involved,” he said. “I’m thrilled and I’m amazed -- it took a lot of forethought for them to do that and to think of it.”