From iRacing we actually watched on national TV to an Indy 500 with no fans, it’s been a forgettable year.
Fom the first shutdown of racing at the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix in March forward, 2020 has been a year we can’t wait to put in racing’s rear-view mirror.
We have COVID-19 to thank for some of the bizarre headlines. We’ll chalk up the others to racers just being racers stuck in lockdown a little too long.
Here’s 10 storylines from the 2020 racing year that we never could have predicted when we flipped the calendar back on January 1.
The year 2020 will be remembered for the year we actually watched real racers play video games. We watched virtual NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, F1, Formula E, the WEC and others race on iRacing and other rival platforms. Some of the racing was livestreamed, some of it was even on national TV.
In fact, NASCAR, iRacing and FOX Sports aired the most successful of the virtual racing offerings—the first eNASCAR iRacing Pro invitational Series that began less than two weeks after the racing world shut down in March. The inaugural NASCAR event was won by three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and drew 903,000 viewers on FS1, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Daniel Abt, a regular driver on the Formula E circuit since its inception in 2014, was suspended by his Audi team after he was caught using a ringer—a professional egamer—in his place for a Formula E “Race at Home Challenge” virtual event on May 23.
The 23-year-old Abt, who was basically a backmarker in the early races in the virtual series, was suddenly racing with the leaders in the fifth race of the season. Abt was called out by fellow drivers. He apologized for not taking “it as seriously as I should have.”
Abt, despite the apology, was still fined 10,000 euros (about $11,000) and suspended indefinitely by Audi.”Integrity, transparency and consistent compliance with applicable rules are top priorities for Audi—this applies to all activities the brand is involved in without exception,” Audi said in a company statement.
Daniel Abt wasn’t the only racing casualty when the sport went virtual this past spring. NASCAR Cup Series veteran Kyle Larson lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing when he uttered a racial slur during an exhibition iRacing event on April 12. Larson’s “hot mic” moment was caught on Twitch and quickly made the rounds on social media.
Within hours, Larson sponsors McDonald’s and Credit One Bank pulled their support. Manufacturer Chevrolet also cut ties, making Ganassi’s decision an easy one.
Larson was reinstated by NASCAR on Oct. 19. He is eligible to return on January 1, 2021.
New track owner Roger Penske’s first Indianapolis 500 was one he’s probably just as soon forget. First, the race was postponed from its traditional May date due to COVID-19 concerns and ultimately moved to August 23.
The August 23 date came first with limited attendance provisions. First, it was 50%. Then 25%. Finally, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing was held with empty grandstands. Organizers tried their best to keep at least some of the traditions alive.
Despite an entertaining race, Takuma Sato’s win fell flat. Without the 300,000 fans (and there weren’t even any balloons), the whole event came up short.
After missing back-to-back races without so much as a press release explanation when the NHRA returned from a coronavirus pause, John Force announced on July 31 that he was taking his cars and drivers and going home until 2021.
That meant that the show went on for the rest of the 2020 NHRA season without the 16-time Funny Car champion. Also sitting out were defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight, past Top Fuel champ Brittany Force and up-and-coming Top Fuel star Austin Prock.
Force said the decision came after he realized that he couldn’t deliver for his sponsors in a shortened season.”No matter how I looked at it I couldn’t deliver on those commitments,” Force said. “It just wasn’t fair to them. The impact of not being able to deliver on these commitments makes sitting out the rest of the 2020 season the right thing to do. No matter how I looked at it, no matter how much I personally invested, I couldn’t make it.”
COVID-19 disrupted to team (so far, anyway) than the Formula 1 Racing Point entry. Driver Sergio Perez tested positive for the coronavirus in July, and that forced him to miss both the British Grand Prix and the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Perez was fifth in the championship standings at the time of his positive test, and he eventually fell from that perch and ultimately lost his ride with the team for 2021.
On Oct. 31, Racing Point’s other driver, Lance Stroll, announced on social media that he, too, has tested positive and will miss at least the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Bubba Wallace taught us non-gamers a new racing phrase on April 5 when he “rage quit” the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series event from virtual Bristol Motor Speedway after getting taken out by the virtual car “driven” by fellow NASCAR racer Clint Bowyer.
The actions did not impress sponsor Blu-Emu, which dropped Wallace the next day.”Bye bye Bubba. We’re interested in drivers, not quitters,” the sponsor posted to its social media.
The Indy Lights Series, which is the top rung of the development Road To Indy series, announced on June 1 that it was canceling its season due to coronavirus and planning its return in 2021.
The Indy Lights Series thus became the biggest major series to take 2020 off.“I was sad,” said Jack Harvey, IndyCar Series driver of the No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda and an Indy Lights graduate. “I know everything that’s going on is bigger than just motorsport and stuff like that, but it doesn’t take away anything. You hear the news, you think, ‘That just sucks for so many people.’ I have a lot of friends who are involved in Indy Lights, whether it’s drivers, mechanics, team owners, team managers, whatever.”
Jimmie Johnson’s pursuit of a record eighth NASCAR championship ended before the Cup Series Playoffs even began when he failed to qualify for the postseason title run.
Johnson, who was caught up in a multi-car crash in the regular-season-ending Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, ended up missing the final Playoffs spot by six points to Matt DeBenedetto.
Looking back, the difference might just have been the Brickyard 400 in July, which Johnson missed after a positive COVID-19 test.”That’s the disappointing part, to look back at ones that got away—ones that I never got a shot at, like the Brickyard—and to miss it by only six points,” Johnson said.
And finally, the NHRA sued its sponsor Coca-Cola and its Mello Yello brand in September after Coke officials told the racing series that it was ending its sponsorship that the NHRA said was supposed to run through 2023.
In the lawsuit, NHRA claims that Coca-Cola missed a $2.86 million payment on May 15. The sponsorship deal is a six-year agreement with Coca-Cola that calls for Coca-Cola to pay the NHRA $5.72 million per year.
The lawsuit also alleges that “Coca-Cola has seized on global tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic, as a pretext to claim a “breach” and “terminate” the sponsorship agreement early to save money. But neither the Agreement nor the law allows Coca-Cola to do so. This action seeks to hold Coca-Cola to its contractual promises.”The series subsequently announced on October 4 that it had struck a sponsorship with Camping World to replace Mello Yello.
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