Virtual racing or real, sponsorships matter, Dale Jr. says

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Bubba Wallace’s sudden departure from Sunday’s Pro Invitational Series race and his sponsor’s reaction provides a reminder that even though virtual racing — “a video game” as Wallace called it in a tweet — doesn’t seem to have consequences, it can.

It’s something Dale Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged on a NBC Sports teleconference with reporters promoting this week’s Racing Week in America and the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge on NBCSN.

Wallace was upset after an incident with Clint Bowyer early in Sunday’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway and quit the event, which was broadcast on Fox and FS1.

Viewership totals weren’t available Monday for the virtual Bristol race but the previous week’s race at a virtual Texas Motor Speedway drew 1.3 million viewers, a record for an eSports event on TV).

After the incident with Bowyer in the virtual Bristol race, Wallace said on his Twitch stream: “You all have a good one. That’s it. That’s why I don’t take this (expletive) serious. Peace out.”

Blue-Emu, which sponsored Wallace’s car in the virtual race, expressed its disappointment with Wallace’s decision, tweeting: “(Good to know) where you stand. Bye bye Bubba. We’re interested in drivers, not quitters.”

Ben Blessing, executive vice president of Blue-Emu, told The Action Network: “We aren’t sponsoring Bubba anymore. Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?”

Earnhardt was asked on Monday’s call with reporters about the the balance between fun and business with virtual racing in light of Wallace’s situation.

“All of the race teams are trying everything they can to keep their sponsors and keep their employees,” Earnhardt said. “Keeping their sponsors allows them to keep their employees. I think as a racer, I think of someone who is participating, competing in these events online, it’s an opportunity for you to get engagement for the fans. Obviously, they’re going to enjoy the content and the race, but it’s also an opportunity for you to get your sponsors and partners, who are getting nothing right now, on TV, which lends to social engagement, either promoting the race or after the race talking about it. It’s not as good as the real thing, there is not the at-track engagement or activation, but it’s really the only thing we’ve got going.”

Such engagement was noted by car owner Rick Ware in an interview Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Ware anticipated his team would lose $600,000 – $800,000 in sponsorship with no races taking place.

“There are two things that are happening,” Ware told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Some of our sponsorship revolves around just the social media, the amount of TV time, the way sponsors leverage it. Some of it is they are regional or franchise companies, so they bring in a handful of people and use it as an opportunity to do some light hospitality, meet and greets, promote sales, etc.”

Rick Ware Racing, seeking to leverage Garrett Smithley‘s iRacing success, announced last week that GunBroker.com would sponsor Smithley in the next five eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series events, starting with last weekend’s race at a virtual Bristol Motor Speedway, and be offered the primary sponsorship for the July 5 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt also is using his virtual car in the Pro Invitational Series for JR Motorsports sponsors until racing returns.

“When I go and get on there, for example for (virtual) Texas we ran the Hellmann’s car and when we run the Sunday race at Richmond, I’m going to run another JRM initiative. It’s basically kind of appease and make those partners feel some value, which in turn helps our employees, helps us keep our employees.

“I told (sister) Kelley (Earnhardt Miller), when we don’t have an initiative that we can do or use at JRM, I’m just going to run that FilterTime car, but if we can, or if there is any opportunity for us to run anything else to help Hellmann’s or any of our other partners, I want to be doing that. I want to do anything I can to help us maintain our employees.

“I think as a driver that’s how you have to approach it. You’re going to be on (iRacing). You’re going to be doing it. Your team wants you to be there. Your partners want you to be there. Enjoy it. Have fun with it. Obviously don’t let it get under your skin if you get wrecked. Video games have a real good way of doing that.

“I’ve seen a lot of friendships get lost either playing Madden or racing online. If you’re going there and doing that, have fun and enjoy it. But also remember that you also have to maintain some professionalism because there are some other things bigger than what’s happening in that room on that sim rig. There are implications beyond what you are doing on sim racing.”