NASCAR, like pretty much every other sport's league, was forced to seriously shift gears due to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. With races having being postponed through May 3 that year, it certainly wasn't business as usual for the auto racing sanctioning body.
But, just because it wasn't business as usual, that didn't mean there wasn't any business to speak of. Unlike most sports, NASCAR was in a unique position where drivers could still compete, thanks to an immersive simulation experience called iRacing. First launched in 2008, iRacing isn't new, and a good chunk of NASCAR drivers regularly compete in iRacing series events every year. That said, the sim racing video game actually ended up taking the place of regularly-scheduled NASCAR Cup Series races in 2020, thanks to the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, an esports series that was put together via a partnership between NASCAR and iRacing.
Sure, it's not the kind of stock car racing you may have been used to, but any racing is better than no racing.
With NASCAR's finest competing from the comfort of their own homes and fans getting to watch the action on live Fox Sports broadcasts, the iRacing craze was a classic example of making the best out of a bad situation. Well, for the most part. There were a couple of major snags along the way, chief among them being Kyle Larson's N-word controversy, which earned him a temporary NASCAR suspension and got him fired from Chip Ganassi Racing. As it turns out, that whole snafu would come a week after Bubba Wallace "rage quit" the virtual race at Bristol Motor Speedway. It obviously wasn't as big of a deal as the whole Larson situation, but it did lose Bubba a major sponsor in the process.
William Byron may have won the 2020 Food City Showdown at Bristol, but it was Bubba Wallace who ended up capturing headlines that weekend, after he unceremoniously exited the event following a wreck with Clint Bowyer.
"Y'all have a good one. That's it," Wallace said after Bowyer put him into a wall on the 11th lap of the iRacing event. "This is why I don't take this s*** serious. Peace out!"
NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace was intentionally bumped in this past weekend's iRacing event, ragequit the game on national television and stream, and then got dropped by his sponsor after the race for doing so
esports are definitely sports now pic.twitter.com/XvCAq8eJnW
— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) April 6, 2020
Bubba's virtual actions had real-life consequences, as the pain-relief brand Blue-Emu pulled out of their sponsorship deal with the then driver for Richard Petty Motorsports (2023 will mark his third season with 23XI Racing). Bubba didn't seem to take the incident all that seriously, tweeting "Bahaha I'm dying at my mentions right now... I ruined so many peoples day by quiting (sic)..a video game..Bahaha. A video game. Damn quarantine life is rough." But, Blue-Emu wasn't joking around with its ultimate response.
GTK where you stand. Bye bye Bubba. We're interested in drivers, not quitters.
— Blue-Emu (@BlueEmu1) April 5, 2020
— Blue-Emu (@BlueEmu1) April 5, 2020
"We aren't sponsoring Bubba anymore," Blue-Emu's executive vice president Ben Blessing told The Action Network. "Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?"
"I used to work in NASCAR, and you aren't going to find the dollar-for-dollar return on investment we were getting on this. We thought this was a blessing in disguise for us. But then you find out that you aren't sponsoring a NASCAR driver, you are sponsoring someone like my 13-year-old son who broke his controller playing some game where he builds houses."
Strong words from Ben Blessing there, but he wasn't completely off base. The decision was probably warranted, as well. That said, maybe Blue-Emu's whole Twitter exchange with Bubba wasn't the best way to solve things, especially since they were trying to preach maturity. Handle it behind closed doors. No need to make it a whole public spectacle. But, considering they're not the biggest brand out there, it's possible they were using the controversy to build a little bit of clout. It wouldn't be surprising, anyway.
In any case, Bubba Wallace has clearly moved on from the iRacing incident and obviously hurting for sponsorship opportunities these days. It was probably a good learning experience when it was all said and done.
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