Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart is doing his final lap in NASCAR. After 18 years of racing, the 45-year-old driver, who also owns Stewart-Haas Racing, has watched technology improve everything from the safety on the track to the way fans can experience the sport. Fox Sports, for example, recently livestreamed the Daytona 500 in 360-degree video to virtual reality headsets, the latest experiment in bringing fans closer to the action.
“I’ve done a little bit of VR with dirt racing, there are some programs and simulators out there where you can dirt race and talk to each other,” Stewart said. “[…] I haven’t had a lot of free time between owning a NASCAR Sprint Cup team, a World of Outlaws team, a track, a series. I’ve had a lot of jobs. But VR is a lot of fun, I like it. The scary part for me is that I know what happens when I get hooked on new technology. I’m not going to sleep, and stay up at all hours of the night trying to figure it out and perfect it.”
“What happens when I get hooked on new technology? I’m not going to sleep, and stay up at all hours of the night trying to figure it out and perfect it.”
Virtual reality is also being employed by NASCAR teams behind-the-scenes. Driver Denny Hamlin, of Joe Gibbs Racing, recently unveiled a new Fed Ex Cares paint scheme through 360-degree video for fans to check out on devices like Google Cardboard.
“The biggest thing I see, that nobody would see other than the race teams and drivers, is that the automotive manufacturers are building simulators,” Stewart said. “I’ve been to Mobil 1 Racing partner McLaren and seen their simulator. They will sit there between practices, and they are running on simulation trying to find solutions to whatever problem they’re fighting. They make those changes before the next practice session, so the drivers can feel it. There’s value to that.”
Another form of virtual reality has long been a mainstay in NASCAR, as well as F1 and other professional racing leagues. Video games – in the form of complex driving simulators that many drivers have set up in their basements or in their team headquarters – help drivers prepare for the next race.
“I’ve got a buddy, Rico Abreu, who is new to racing […] and he runs a simulator all the time, and talks about how important it is,” Stewart said. “I’ve been to the Chevrolet Performance simulator, and it’s getting better and better. There’s a lot of value to that. As much as these teams try to get wind tunnel time, now they’re trying to get simulation time.”
Stewart is old enough to have watched the evolution of video games from early titles like Pole Position and OutRun to today’s NASCAR Heat Revolution.
“Shoot, I’m still living video game memories,” Stewart said. “I’m a 45-year-old kid. I remember Ratbag Games came out with Dirt Track Racing: Sprint Cars. And I would literally play for 12 hours at a time. I was a cup driver and playing these games for 12 hours through the middle of the night and it’s like, ‘Man, I’ve got stuff to do the next day!’ But when you get started, you can’t stop.”
And it wasn’t just racing games that Stewart found addictive.
“When Rock Band came out, I had an 18-hour day of Rock Band playing a concert,” Stewart said. “I could not get myself to stop. I’ve broken guitars on that game. But, because of that, now I have a bass guitar with Rocksmith, which teaches you how to play guitar. So I’m learning to play a real instrument because of Rock Band.”
“Teams try to get wind tunnel time… now they’re trying to get simulation time. It’s that valuable.”
Stewart put his experience behind actual steering wheels, and virtual ones, to the test last month. He took on some of the top eSports drivers in iRacing as part of the Mobil 1 Virtual Showdown competition, which was livestreamed to the world. Stewart said iRacing is the most accurate simulation he’s ever played, right down to the bumps in the track.
“I would recommend getting a fan put in the seat, because you don’t realize how hot it starts to get when the intensity ramps up,” Stewart said. “It ended up being much more intense and immersive than I thought it was going to be. It’s not just some game you drop a quarter into at the arcade.”
There’s a large international community of iRacing fans. NASCAR tracks are featured in the game, as well as other racing courses. This has ratcheted up the skill level for the best of the best.
“These iRacing drivers are incredibly skilled and take this series amazingly seriously,” Stewart said. “This game is so realistic that I hoped I’d be able to step in and compete right away. It was tough, though. I ran up front for a while, but that didn’t last at all. I need more practice!”
The world of gaming has changed a lot since Stewart’s youth. Today, kids can make a living playing video games in front of sold out crowds in sports arenas around the world – with millions of others tuning into livestreams.
“They can make a living doing that? I’m in the wrong business,” Stewart said. “Seriously though, I think it’s super cool. There are a lot of fathers who have to eat their words now because they want you to go to get a 9 to 5 job, rather than play video games. But, if you’re actually good enough to play games for a living, that’s amazing.”
Stewart’s career in real-world racing is about to come to an end. But he hopes to cross the final finish line in the winner’s circle. The veteran has four top-5 finishes in his last five races and six top-10 finishes in his last eight.
And even when he’s retired from real world racing, he’ll still have his simulators to race on.