BY ALEX ANDREJEV
William Byron is the iRacing success story the sport needs right now. The Charlotte native began racing in front of computer monitors long before he got behind the wheel of an actual car as a teenager. With the NASCAR world pivoting to virtual racing in the wake of its coronavirus-related postponements, Byron is a face fans will see more of in the coming weeks.
The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports driver is in his third season in the Cup Series and second season competing with seven-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus (formerly crew chief to Jimmie Johnson).
Byron remains ranked 19th in Cup Series points after Friday’s announcement that NASCAR races are postponed through early May to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But as the sport turns to simulators and screens, Byron has an opportunity to shine. He finished in second place in Sunday’s Replacements 100 race, an impromptu iRacing event that streamed online in place of the Atlanta QuickTrip 500.
This Sunday, the 22-year-old driver will compete alongside drivers such as Dale Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin for an eNASCAR race that will be viewed by a much larger audience. FOX Sports announced Thursday it will broadcast the virtual race on FS1.
A few minutes after running a practice iRace against Dale Jr., Byron gave The Observer the lowdown on his sim setup, who he expects to be good (and bad) on the cyber tracks and how he’s keeping calm amid the coronavirus cancelations.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Alex Andrejev: So these are weird times. What have you been up to this week?
William Byron: I’ve just kinda been iRacing. My sister’s back in town, so I’ve been spending some time with her. I went to the go-kart track yesterday and worked out like normal. I’ve been doing normal things for the most part and trying to pass the time.
AA: What’s your iRacing setup like?
WB: I have three screens and a nice wheel and pedals that are pretty realistic. I’ve had the same setup for four or five years now and I like it. It works well. Honestly, what iRacing comes down to is having a good wheel, good pedals and good Internet connection. That’s all it is. It doesn’t take a certain thing to be faster.
AA: Except maybe practice, right? How much of a crossover is there between iRacing and real racing?
WB: I think there’s definitely crossover. There are little nuances between iRacing and the real thing, but it comes down to the same thing — finding the right line on the track and the right rhythm and speed, and managing your tires as best you can. Things like that. Probably the biggest difference is that you can’t make as much contact with other cars because it’s virtual, but ultimately there are more similarities than differences.
AA: I watched the Replacements 100, but I couldn’t tell from the stream how communication with the crew chiefs works. Do you use crew chiefs in iRacing? It seems less team-oriented.
WB: There is a team element still. I have this thing called TeamSpeak, where I can chat with my friends through a headset. All the guys on my team own Logitech headsets so we’re all able to be on the same channel and chat throughout the race. I essentially have my own crew chief who makes the decisions about how many tires I need and how much fuel I need. Especially when it’s a serious race, I have someone who helps with that, so I can focus on racing. When I’m racing casually — like I was just racing against Dale Jr. and some people a few minutes ago — you can do it on your own. It helps to have someone else help you with the strategy. The people that help me race in the Coca-Cola Series on Tuesdays, so I’m not racing with them.
AA: You raced against Chad in the Replacements 100. What was that like?
WB: Yeah that was funny. It was cool because he obviously hasn’t driven the cars, so I think he gained some appreciation for what it’s like behind the wheel. To me, the coolest thing about iRacing is logging on and seeing a name that I know. I’m so interested to see how they do, and sometimes they do way better than I’d expect. Chad did well. He obviously finished a few laps down, but he did well for a while. (Knaus finished 26th out of 35.) It was fun to be able to talk to him about what he felt in the car.
AA: Did you talk to him after or can you hear other competitors during the race on the headsets?
WB: You can hear the other competitors. There’s an open chat going on, and then I have my own TeamSpeak that’s private, but I talked to Chad during the race. He’s done a couple of races. He got a simulator rig set up a couple of weeks ago, but that was probably the first time I raced against him.
AA: Anything surprising about how he raced?
WB: He wasn’t as all over the place as I thought he would be. He was pretty smooth. He just didn’t really know what to do.
AA: Guess he needed a better crew chief.
WB: Ha, yeah. He probably needed some advice on how to qualify and all that. His qualifying line was a little off, but that’s alright. Hopefully we’ll connect with him soon and get him on our team and up to speed.
AA: You mentioned that you just finished an iRace. How much time are you spending on the sim now?
WB: I probably race five times a day right now. Every two hours there’s a race, so that’s a lot of time. About 10 hours a day, but there’s nothing else going on. I try to get outside and do other things. Tomorrow I’m not gonna be on the sim much. I’ll go out to the lake. But if I’m home, I’d rather do iRacing than watch television. It’s fun and it makes me better, and I feel like it’s a challenge because there’s always somebody really good online. It’s never easy to beat everyone on there all the time.
AA: How did the Replacements 100 come about? That seemed pretty impromptu after Atlanta was postponed.
WB: Yeah, basically Kevin Hamlin, the spotter for Alex Bowman, texted me on Friday after we left Atlanta and got back home. He said he was thinking about doing an iRace on Sunday and asked if I wanted to participate, so I said sure. I got some practice in on Saturday, then raced on Sunday. The cool part about these races is that everyone has the same setup, so you don’t have to fight the battle of who has a better setup. It was really good to race against those guys. I wish I could’ve won, but finishing second was solid, and it was good overall exposure for iRacing. I’m glad the race went like it did. We had a few wrecks at the beginning, but then it smoothed out by the end. I thought it was just a good race overall and I think it sparked some interest to do more events.
AA: Yeah. You’ll be iRacing this Sunday against a lot of Cup guys. What are your expectations for that?
WB: I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great race. There’s going to be a mixed bag of experience level with iRacing, which might be tough for some guys. Hopefully it’s not too difficult to get a hold of for those guys, but I’m sure that at the front of the field, it’ll be competitive. I know Dale Jr.’s gotten a lot better with how much he’s been (i)racing lately, so I think he’ll be a challenge. Parker Kligerman will be fast. I’m just looking forward to doing it and seeing some different faces and seeing who’s good. With guys like Kyle Busch on there, I think it’s gonna be fun. I’m excited.
AA: Are there any guys you think will be particularly good, or rather, particularly bad?
WB: I think there will be guys that are really bad. It’s not like they can’t do it. It’s just a matter of time. Obviously there are things that are different between iRacing and a real car, but hopefully it’s not too much of a struggle for some guys. I think if you give everybody a little bit of time over the next few weeks to race on the sim, everyone’s gonna get better and better. I’m sure in a few weeks, it’s going to be highly competitive.
AA: Who do you think will be a dark horse?
WB: I’d say Kyle Larson. Obviously he’s really talented and seeing him on there a few times, I don’t think it’ll take him long to figure it out. He might not be able to put it all together right away, but I think he’ll be fast.
AA: Are you a big gamer outside of iRacing?
WB: Not really, no. I was a big gamer growing up for sure and then once iRacing came along I kind of stopped playing the other games because it didn’t really intrigue me as much as iRacing. I think that’s still true today. I’ll play other games if I want to and I’m really bored, but part of the reason I do iRacing is I know I’m getting better for the real thing.
AA: Do you think Sunday’s race could help grow the iRacing series or esports in general?
WB: I think so. I’m interested in seeing how once everyone gets up to speed. It’ll be really cool because you can have a lot of different people racing non-stop. Relative to what real racing costs, it’s infinitely cheaper, so I think that’s a huge avenue to help iRacing grow. The fact that it’s affordable. Hopefully we can get a community of real racers going. I think the more real racers that are on here, the more it legitimizes the sport.
AA: What’s it been like for your team since NASCAR postponed its upcoming races?
WB: We’ve just kind of adjusted our schedule and really I just did my normal routine. I’ve been working out still and I’ve been going to the karting track. I haven’t been going to the shop and haven’t been around the guys. I’ve just kind of self-quarantined and I’m still seeing a few friends.
All we can really do now is wait until we’re ready to go. There’s no sense in really stressing out about when we’re gonna go back to racing until they tell us. That’s how I’m approaching it. I’m not stressing out about what I can’t control.
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