Is virus-inspired eNASCAR a glimpse at the autonomous racing future?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Former General Motors vice chairman and car guru Bob Lutz created a buzz in the auto world three years ago when he described a dystopian future in which professional drivers would safely pilot their race cars remotely while fans watched online.

America got a taste of such a future last weekend.

Looks like real racing: The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race last weekend at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway might preview a world in which autonomous cars are driven remotely.

With the U.S. auto industry in lockdown and professional racing canceled due to the COVID-19 crisis, major race series televised virtual races featuring top-name drivers remotely driving their cars. For sure, the cars weren’t autonomous, but the experience was similar: fans got to witness a thrilling race free of the threat of injury.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, for example, was put on via iRacing's popular online game platform and broadcast via Fox Sports 1. Viewers saw a thrilling, crash-filled race with NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Daytona 500-winner Denny Hamlin dueling to the stripe. But Hamlin’s victory came without the carnage that accompanied his real-life Daytona win this January that sent competitor Ryan Newman to the emergency ward after a harrowing last-lap pileup.

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway featured in car views as well as track views of the race on FS1.

“I insist that autonomous racing would be fantastic to watch,” Lutz told The News in 2017. “A battle of the sensors and adaptive software. There would be huge progress, and on the way to human-level perfection, spectacular crashes — but with nobody hurt! What's not to like?”

The NASCAR race — and the IMSA Sebring sports car event and Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix that were also virtually run this weekend — are experiments meant to entertain fans in a desperate time. But they also dovetail with a zero-risk era where public venues have shut down for fear of transmitting the virus, and auto companies promise a future of zero fatalities.

“Zero, zero, zero,” is the new mantra of GM, for example.

“General Motors has committed itself to leading the way toward this future, guided by our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion,” wrote Mary Barra in 2017 describing an autonomous, battery-powered transportation revolution that she said would eliminate 1.25 million global auto fatalities, global warming and time-killing traffic jams.

Her vision dovetailed with Lutz’s own prediction of a self-driving future at Road & Track magazine’s 70th anniversary at the 2017 New York Auto Show, and again in an Automotive News column. Lutz sees a future where autonomous, ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft and Cruise would crowd out personal driving.

“The tipping point will come when 20-30% of vehicles are fully autonomous. Countries will look at the accident statistics and figure out that human drivers are causing 99.9% of the accidents,” wrote Lutz.

NASCAR used Massachusetts-based iRacing's popular online game platform to televise its eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Racing would soon follow, with autonomous events promising zero-risk entertainment.

The idea horrified racing legend Mario Andretti, who appeared on a panel with Lutz at the Road & Track anniversary.

“You're talking about autonomous cars?” Andretti recalled in an Automobile magazine interview about the evening. “I don't know. I wish I would have had a magic wand to look into the future a little bit, but there is cause for concern. Just thinking of the young talent, the young careers, looking forward, I'm always concerned about that, because I love the sport so much.”

On the virtual, eNASCAR track Sunday, young and old talent mixed. Chase Briscoe, an up-and-coming 25-year-old with Ford in NASCAR’s Xfinity minor-league series raced fender-to-fender against NASCAR Cup stars like Hamlin and Jimmy Johnson.

Retired superstar Earnhardt, now a TV analyst, also competed to amp up the entertainment. He retired in 2017 for fear of injury after multiple concussions over his career. Racing insiders say virtual, autonomous racing would spare drivers injury.

The eNASCAR Homestead race was broadcast with NASCAR’s familiar play-by-play trio of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds — each socially distanced from the other.

Country singer Dylan Scott sang the national remotely for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The field of racers all participated remotely via home computer simulators ranging from Hamlin’s estimated $10,000-plus setup to Timmy Hill’s more basic, off-the-shelf Logitech hardware. The racing around the virtual, 1.5-mile oval speedway was tight and full of wrecks given the wide range of experience at computer racing. The damage inhibited cars' performance just as in real life, but racers were given two opportunities to “reset” their cars to keep racing if the damage got too bad.

Virtual cars carried their usual corporate sponsors including automakers Chevy, Ford and Toyota.

“There's not another sport that can simulate to this degree,” marveled Joy.

Veteran racing auto writer Steven Cole Smith, who covered the weekend's virtual racing for Autoweek.com, was unconvinced that computer-based or autonomous racing is the future.

“I hope I don’t live long enough to see that,” he said, musing on the inherent risk in racing that inspired Ernest Hemingway to write: “Auto racing, bullfighting and mountain climbing are the only real sports. All others are games.”

For his part, Lutz says the virtual weekend racing gave a glimpse at the inevitable future. “With passing and crashing, it will soon be as much fun as watching the real thing. You could even imagine a future master-computer that randomly feeds in mechanical failures, including yellow-flag ‘debris on track.’" 

The virtual racing series will continue in the weeks ahead, joined by an IndyCar e-race at Michigan International Speedway next weekend.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.