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‘The Sims:’ How virtual reality is changing motorsports

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CONCORD, N.C. — A man leans his head into the window of Rajah Caruth’s race car. Caruth does not know him.

The man bows his head and prays, just as he’s done with the other drivers.

Shortly afterward, Caruth cranks the 125-horsepower engine and guides his white No. 13 Legends car from the staging area to pit road. Rain earlier rid this June night of humidity. The heat that baked drivers during the day is bearable as the sun sets behind the Charlotte Motor Speedway grandstands.

While Caruth and 18 competitors wait for the first semi pro feature of this year’s Bojangles’ Summer Shootout, an official walks between the rows of cars fist-bumping each driver.

Rajah Caruth prepares to run his first Legends car feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

“For those folks to come up and say ‘you got this’ or ‘good luck,’ that was pretty cool,” Caruth later said.

Clad in a plain black uniform and helmet, Caruth focuses on staying calm inside his car before he takes a monumental step in his racing journey.

Then comes the order to start engines. Each car, a 5/8-scale version of the NASCAR modifieds that ran in the sport’s early days, fires off with the buzz of bees on to the quarter-mile track.

As Caruth weaves his car from side to side to warm the tires, a thought strikes him.

“OK, we’re in it.”

Just what it is, Caruth doesn’t know.

He’s seen what’s about to happen for years but never from this viewpoint. His previous racing experience came on a computer with a reset button. There is no such button here.

Days shy of his 17th birthday, Caruth is about to start his first race.

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A first-generation NASCAR fan who traces his interest in the sport to the 2006 animated film “Cars” that included characters voiced by Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, Caruth wanted to be a driver. He wore a Jimmie Johnson uniform for Halloween in the second grade. But with no tracks near his Washington, D.C. home and the prohibitive costs to enter the sport, even for his two-income family, Caruth settled for racing on a computer, hoping to follow the path William Byron took to NASCAR’s premier series.

While many of NASCAR’s top drivers were racing by the time they were 8 years old, Byron did not begin until he was 14, gaining his experience with an iRacing simulator. When Byron hit the track, he quickly succeeded. He won the K&N Pro Series East title at age 17, a Truck series rookie record seven races at 18, the Xfinity championship at 19 and Cup rookie of the year honors at 20 last season for Hendrick Motorsports.

Byron notes that others can follow his unusual path.

“It’s still based on the interest that you have and the will to kind of make it happen,” he said. “If they are expecting to just decide they want to go race at age 14 … it’s going to be difficult for them to make it work. But for me, I had studied it for years and watched it.

Rajah Caruth on the track in a Legends car. Photo: Dustin Long

“Once I was 14, I was well ahead of my time even though I hadn’t been in something. I think there are a lot of kids out there that have a lot of potential that I’ve seen on iRacing and just racing against them, that would do very well in a situation if they could get there.”

Caruth’s quest does not take place in a vacuum. He is a part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development program and is the only one of the four who came from iRacing. The other three have actual racing experience. While there are various avenues to NASCAR, Caruth’s path will become a gateway, says a Toyota Racing Development executive who oversees the company’s driver development program.

“In the long run … I’m thinking three to five years, the simulation investment and the time and effort to find new top-level talent, it will come from simulator racing,” said Jack Irving, senior manager, commercial director for Toyota Racing Development, whose duties include TRD’s driver development program.

Three to five years is too far away for Caruth. Now is his chance, piloting a car similar to what former Cup champions Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano once drove.

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Five days before Austin Dillon wins the 2018 Daytona 500, Caruth prepares to race. On foot. It is the day of the District of Columbia State Athletic Association indoor track meet. He will compete in the 800-meter run.

A seventh-place finish is not the day’s most significant event for Caruth.

Instead it is the conversation he has with his father, Roger.

Roger Caruth and son Rajah. Photo: Dustin Long

As others compete, Caruth and his father discuss Caruth’s racing future. The previous summer Caruth drove go-karts in a league at an indoor facility located between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He had not raced in the winter.

“I was a little stressed just because of trying to figure out what I could do,” Caruth said.

He presents various options to his father. One is for the family to purchase a Legends car or something comparable. The costs, though, are too much. Another option is to find sponsorship, rent a car, and run whatever races they can afford. iRacing also is debated. 

iRacing is viewed as the best option. Caruth will upgrade his setup. He buys a steering wheel and eventually purchases a new computer, spending more than $1,000 combined on those items, but it is still much cheaper than buying a car or renting one for multiple races.

Instead of going to a track, Caruth will race from home.

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As simulator technology and racing games improve, they provide a way to train and evaluate drivers. Still, there are limits to racing solely on a computer.

“The actual models are becoming so good,” said Toyota’s Irving. “What hasn’t been mastered yet — and will be — is the feel of the car in your home systems. … To get a full immersion simulator, it’s still almost the cost of a race car.”

Irving acknowledges that there remain challenges even with the simulators Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have for their drivers in NASCAR, IndyCar and other series.

“You only get so much out of that,” Martin Truex Jr. said of using a simulator to prepare for last weekend’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, which he won for a second consecutive year. “All the visual cues are there, but you don’t have the feel, the sensation of speed, the G-forces, the rises and the falls, all of that.”

Even without that, Irving says iRacing can reveal talent, particularly a driver who succeeds in different types of racing on it. 

“You need to be able to race in multiple disciplines,” he said. “I think a simulation racer that we’re going to be able to engage with is going to have to be really, really good on dirt, really, really good on the rally race, really, really good on the road course, just absolutely exceptional on multiple modalities because their adoption of being able to learn. That is going to be important, no different than the great drivers (that) can typically get in anything and race.

Kyle Busch: “Everybody has their own different paths” to NASCAR. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“If Kyle Busch decided to run (a midget car) in the Chili Bowl, I think he would do quite well just because he’s a gifted race car driver. No different than Kurt Busch at the (Indianapolis) 500 and that kind of stuff.”

Kyle Busch credits his success to understanding his car. That goes back to when he started racing. 

“My vehicle understanding and the reasons why I’m somewhat successful at what I’ve done is a huge credit to my dad,” Busch said. “Growing up in the shop, working on the cars, building the cars, understanding what springs were and meant and how to rate them and what corner to put them in, shocks, cambers, casters – all of that sort of stuff, I learned.

“I built my cars from the ground up with my dad. I tore my Legends car apart one off-season when we were done racing for the year. I ripped it all the way down to the ground because I thought if I strip it, he will be OK if I wanted to paint it, to repaint the chassis and kind of go through everything. I stripped it all the way down and was like, ‘Alright, I’m ready, let’s take it to the paint shop.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’ll buy you a can of spray paint and you can put it all back together by yourself.’ 

Everybody has their own different paths of how they grow up and how they understand things and what they understand.”

Caruth seeks to gain such knowledge as he also learns to race.

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The green flag waves.

Caruth starts the 25-lap race at the back of the 19-car field since this his first start.

He passes three cars on the first lap.

He passes another car on the second lap.

On the third lap, a car makes contact with Caruth’s, sending it into the SAFER barrier. Caruth falls to last.

He fights the car’s handling and goes a lap down 10 laps into the race.

Rajah Caruth hopes to follow William Byron from iRacing to Cup. Photo: Dustin Long

Eight minutes after Caruth took the green flag, the race is over. He finishes 17th. The contact with the wall bent the right front ball joint, control arm and spindle, making the car hard to turn.

To understand the challenge Caruth faces, look at his competition. Jason Alder, who turned 16 a couple of days after winning this race, began competing at age 6. Alder started in go-karts, moved to Banderlos and is in his third season in Legends car. This was his first win in a Legends car at Charlotte. For as challenging as it has been to reach this point, he knows the difficulties Caruth may experience.

“Racing is really about the passion behind it,” said Alder, who is nearly a year to the day younger than Caruth. “If you have the passion and the determination to continue in the darkest of times, you’re always going to look to the bright side even when you’re learning.”

Caruth is not dejected with his result.

He’s determined.

“I cannot wait until tomorrow,” he said.

It’s another chance to race.

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Caruth is not alone in his quest. There are those who can relate to his journey.

Max Brady and his brother Kenny both didn’t start racing until four years ago. Max was 15 and Kenny 13. Before then, their racing experience consisted of racing video games on their Xbox. They’ve since moved to iRacing. 

Max and Kenny understand that a racing simulator or game can help a driver but also know it can’t prepare a driver for everything they’ll feel once they are strapped into their vehicle.

That’s not an excuse to fail. Max recently won his first Legends car race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kenny won numerous Banderlo races in three years there before driving a Legends car this year.

Still, Kenny faced challenges with the move to Legends cars. He finished 21st in his first race. The next race, which Max won, Kenny finished eighth. 

While Max and Kenny don’t have as much experience as some of their competitors, they have more than Caruth.

Rajah Caruth receives guidance from Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Stefan Parsons. Photo: Dustin Long

“Being so new to it, it’s going to take some time to learn race strategy and how to keep the car clean, racing around others, being consistent, knowing how to make moves, when to make the moves,” Kenny Brady said. “He’s going to learn as he goes.

“When I started out, I thought if I just got in the car and I was fast, I was going to win right off the bat. It’s so different.”

Kenny is confident Caruth will excel as he gains experience. Kenny has been friends with Caruth for a couple of years. He and Max helped Caruth transition to iRacing last year so Caruth could have better results.

Kenny also has seen Caruth’s ability in a go-kart. Caruth and his dad went to Georgia in late May and Caruth raced with Kenny at an indoor karting facility.

“I was impressed,” Kenny said. “Rajah was on my tail. I beat him twice. He beat me twice. I was very surprised at how well he did, how smooth he was.”

Those traits were evident at the combine to select the Drive for Diversity youth development drivers earlier this year.

“We wanted him to build speed,” said Matt Bucher, director of competition for Rev Racing, which operates the Drive for Diversity program. “I think we got him within three- or four-tenths of where the fast guys were.”

Caruth showed enough talent, despite his lack of experience, to earn a spot in the program.

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Although Rajah Caruth’s racing uniform contains no sponsors, no website address and no stripes or other designs, it’s what is inside that matters this night to him.

He wears a Bubba Wallace T-shirt he got when he and his family attended last year’s Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway.

Wallace is competing this evening in a different division, a night after he ran the rain-delayed Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Caruth wants to talk to Wallace but doesn’t want to appear starstruck. Instead, Wallace approaches.

Caruth, coming off his first career race the night before, and the 25-year-old Wallace, who is in his second full season in Cup and has been racing for nearly two-thirds of his life, talk mechanics. Caruth is trying to get his braking down and maximize his car’s speed in the center of the corner. Wallace offers a few tips.

“Getting it from him just helps me understand it a little bit more,” Caruth said.

Chase Cabre also is here this night helping the Drive for Diversity drivers. Cabre is coming off his first career K&N Pro Series East victory June 1 at Memphis International Raceway.

Cabre knows that it will take time for Caruth.

“The difference between here and what’s he used to … everything happens very fast,” Cabre said. “Once he learns the speed factor, the feel, the smells and it all slows down for him, he’ll start to get one thing after another.”

Rajah Caruth’s car after the oil leak was fixed. Photo: Dustin Long

Caruth’s night has its challenges. In qualifying, debris causes an oil leak but Caruth doesn’t recognize the issue. He stays on track, fighting the steering wheel. The back of the car acts as if it wants to slide, a result of the oil getting on the tires. The problem is found and fixed in the garage in time for the semi feature. He finishes third in that race. In the feature, he starts 17th among 21 cars.

On the schedule, Caruth’s race is to take place after the school bus race among local principals and before the “Chicken Dance” contest. A bus oils down the track, delaying Caruth’s race, so the chicken dance proceeds. After it ends, the track is still not ready so the “Hokey Pokey” is played on the track’s speakers to keep fans entertained.

When Caruth gets on track, he notices an issue with his shifter and comes to the pits before the green flag. He loses a lap before the issue is resolved.

Even though he’s not on the lead lap, he battles another car in the final circuits. The duel goes through the final corners. Caruth is passed just before at the finish line. He finishes 17th.

It is in this race that Caruth gets his first taste of being hit from behind.

“That was a pretty cool experience getting moved, honestly, to feel it physically what it feels like so I know moving forward if I’m getting pushed or it’s a good shot,” Caruth said. “He was getting me square except for the last time he got me. He got me a little squirrelly. It was fine.”

That’s what they call “just racin.”

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Caruth’s first two nights have had their ups and downs but he’s staying true to a philosophy he picked up from Hailie Deegan, whose personality and K&N Pro Series West success — two wins this year, one point out of the series lead — has increased her popularity

“I have little goals, kind of like what Hailie Deegan did this last year,” Caruth said. “Little goals week by week and they ended up adding to her race wins.”

Caruth’s progression of goals are to run a clean race, finish in the top 15, finish in the top 12, score a top 10, finish in the top seven, score a top five and eventually win. They are listed in his phone.

He is ready for his third chance to score a top-15 finish. Caruth starts 20th.

Lacy Kuehl salutes Rajah Caruth after he finished 12th in his feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

He charges to 15th in two laps.

He climbs to 14th.

A couple of laps later Caruth is 13th.

He moves to 12th.

Coming through the second turn, Caruth deftly bumps the car ahead of him, moving it up a lane. Caruth zips by to take 11th with the veteran move.

Caruth goes on to finish 12th. Another goal met.

But after the race, he’s unsure of what to do next. He looks for the car he bumped out of the way to talk to the driver.

“I don’t know if I should apologize or what,” Caruth later said. “I didn’t do it right. I got him up out of the groove but my right front caught their left rear so it knocked the wheel slightly out of my hand. I just held it.

“I was full intent trying to move him. I wasn’t trying to hit him hard. It was to the point where I could tell he was already free. If I hit him too hard, he would have spun out and I would have (been penalized) and gone to the rear. In iRacing, I hate hitting people.

“Today kind of helped me realize that OK, I’ve got to get physical.”

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Hurry up and wait.

Tuesday night marks Caruth’s fourth race of the season and it’s his longest night. His class will run the final race of the evening, one slowed by multiple red flags in other divisions.

Rajah Caruth scored his first top-10 finish in his fourth race. Photo: Dustin Long

When it comes time to race, Caruth is ready. As he makes progress, the handling on his car becomes more difficult. The car wants to break free.

Oil is overflowing on to his tires. He spins in Turn 1. Caruth keeps his foot in the gas to turn the car but sees it headed for the curb and stops the car. The caution is out. Caruth heads to the pits. The hood is opened and engine checked. He’s sent back out.

It’s a caution-filled race and Caruth moves up as others have problems.

When the checkered flag waves, he is 10th. He will be scored ninth when the winning car fails inspection.

In less than three weeks, Caruth has gone from a teen who raced solely on a computer to going on track and scoring a top-10 finish in a 20-car field.

This is a night to celebrate. He and his father head to Friday’s so Caruth can get some chicken fingers and watch the video of his race from the GoPro camera mounted on his car. There’s much to savor but also much to learn.

“It’s been a crazy first leg of the journey,” Caruth said, “but I’ve got still go more to go.”

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Coca-Cola 600 recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at both the Coke 600 and Indy 500

Parker Kligerman, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan will discuss both races.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader? ‘Bring it on’ say some drivers

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CONCORD, N.C. — What do NASCAR drivers think about the prospect of their world colliding with IndyCar’s in a hypothetical doubleheader weekend, with their top series competing at the same track?

The idea of a doubleheader has been part of the conversation this week in Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 preceded tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At least three NASCAR drivers would embrace it with open arms.

“Sure, bring it on,” Daniel Hemric told NBC Sports. “I have nothing against it. Obviously, Chevrolet does a lot for our garage, as well as that side of it. I think it would be cool.”

Denny Hamlin echoed Hemric’s sentiment about the possible mixing of the two different motorsports circuses.

“I think it’d be great,” Hamlin said. “I mean I think that sometimes our fans are not the same and so it would be an opportunity to introduce each other. I’ve never been to an IndyCar race before, so it would be an opportunity for me to kind of see it up close and personal and I wouldn’t mind wandering around the garages and seeing how they do things.”

Former Team Penske driver Justin Allgaier experienced the NASCAR-IndyCar overlap when he competed for the team in the Xfinity Series. Allgaier is “all for” a doubleheader.

“When I was at Penske, being able to go through the IndyCar shop, I’ve made a lot of friends over there,” Allgaier said. “The technology in those cars are fantastic. I love watching IndyCar races. I’m hopeful that we can make it happen.

But Allgaier admitted “there’s a lot of challenges” facing the two sanctioning bodies.

“There’s safety, (NASCAR’s) AMR team vs (IndyCar’s) Holmatro team,” Allgaier said. “The difference in tires. Having the different rubber compounds. For us it doesn’t affect us as much, but it affects them a lot. There’s a lot of question marks. You know what, if any two series can make it happen, I really firmly believes it’s NASCAR and IndyCar. It’d be great to have a doubleheader.”

With NASCAR expected to make overhauls to its schedule in the coming years, the possibility of the two different racing disciplines’ top series coming together for a weekend under one tent has picked up momentum.

IndyCar president Jay Frye has said he would be a “huge supporter” of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend.

“It could be a cool American motorsports extravaganza-kind of weekend,” Frye said. “We’ve talked about we’d run a Saturday night, and that Cup stays in its normal spot on Sunday. There are a lot of crossovers with manufacturers and amongst teams. We’ve talked about the friendships we have with them.”

The two worlds already get a small taste of one another each June when IndyCar and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series share Texas Motor Speedway for a weekend. There’ll be a second IndyCar-Trucks weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway starting next year.

Other tracks NASCAR and IndyCar compete on at different times of year include Iowa Speedway (Xfinity and Trucks), Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Road America (Xfinity), Mid-Ohio (Xfinity) and Pocono Raceway.

Texas and Charlotte Motor Speedway are among the eight tracks that Cup visits that are owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

SMI CEO and President Marcus Smith said he was aware the topic had come up earlier in the week.

“I wouldn’t say it’s on my top 10 list at this point,” Smith told NBC Sports and the Athletic prior to the Coca-Cola 600. “But we’re certainly open for discussions because we like to do things that are different and fun. So who knows? Our schedule for NASCAR is set for next year. I’m sure if it’s interesting to IndyCar after they finish the Indy 500 then they’ll want to talk about it.”

Which of his eight tracks would best fit the bill for a doubleheader?

“We have a lot of tracks that could run IndyCar,” Smith said. “I don’t know off the top of my head where it’s best suited. People have talked about maybe running the Roval in the fall as a doubleheader. There’s a lot of logistics that need to be worked out. Our entire business is a logistics business. We’re in the entertainment business, but in order to do that we’ve got thousands upon thousands of items that need to be to kind of checked off the list. The details, the space, the timing. So many things that come to my mind. We’ll just have to look and see. Certainly, all of our tracks except Bristol could host.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes Indy 500 should never have guaranteed starting positions

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INDIANAPOLIS – Like many viewers watching last weekend’s Indianapolis 500 “Bump Day” on NBC, former NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was captivated by the drama.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedule

He also believes INDYCAR should not follow NASCAR’s path of “Chartered Teams” locking up positions in the major races; such as the Daytona 500. That has taken away the excitement and drama of the Daytona Duels.

“Not trying to get myself in the weeds here, but I think Indy could look at the history of NASCAR and how it has changed the excitement for some of the Duels and qualifying,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports.com. “I would not go in that direction. If I was in control of things, I would not pull those levers to have guaranteed spots. The thrill of Bump Day and the battle for the final row, increased the value of Sunday and viewership for Sunday. It taught people about other drivers and teams. We don’t learn those things if you don’t see them going through that battle and experience.

“I thought it was a tremendous win for the people that want to keep things at Indy as they are.”

Earnhardt, who is part of NBC’s crew for Sunday’s telecast of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, believes the way it all played out created a storyline that enhances the interest in the 500-Mile Race.

“I experienced the drama before with Bump Day that has happened here in this race in the past, but I thought it was symbolic with the conversation going on about guaranteed spots,” Earnhardt said. “For the folks who are the traditionalists who believe you have to earn your way in, it was a great day for those folks and their argument. Fernando Alonso and how that story played out and his reaction to not making it, I thought he handled it like the champion he is. All of that was interesting.

“The little teams beating the big teams was pretty cool. It created some really exciting stuff and did nothing but build excitement in the race.

“Even though Alonso is not in the race, I’m just as interested, or more interested, than I was before. Them not being in the race didn’t change it for me. If anything, that whole drama and how it played out made me more excited to see the event.”

Earnhardt is attending his first Indianapolis 500 in person. He will be part of NBC’s Indianapolis 500 Pre-race show along with Mike Tirico and 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick.

Earnhardt will also drive the Pace Car to lead the 33-car starting lineup to the green flag to start the 103rdIndianapolis 500. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 12:45 p.m. Eastern Time.

Indianapolis 500 could chart course for more IndyCar-NASCAR crossover

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INDIANAPOLIS – The first Indianapolis 500 for Dale Earnhardt Jr. will create indelible and vivid memories for a racing lifer who will enjoy an unusually fresh perspective in a long career.

Earnhardt will lead the field to the green flag in a Corvette pace car, hop onto the NBC broadcast for some high-profile commentary and probably duck into the Snake Pit to watch 30,000 grooving to an EDM song or two.

But what will he remember most about the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500?

The emotion and energy that will be coursing through Indianapolis Motor Speedway moments before all of that begins.

“The big takeaway from events like the Kentucky Derby or the Indy 500 is just the energy and it’s not a tangible thing,” Earnhardt recently told NBCSports.com. ” It’s a feeling that you get when the event is about to happen. When you’re walking with the horses to the gate or pushing the cars out onto pit road. And there’s a lot of emotion in that and a feeling that’s amazing and incredible that you can’t describe. That’s probably going to be the coolest part.

“I’m absolutely sure that the feeling I have standing on that grid before the race begins will be unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at a NASCAR race, much less at a Super Bowl, or the Winter Olympics. All these things I’ve experienced over at NBC over the last several months, I think this will be the highlight.”

The 103rd Indianapolis 500, Sunday 11 a.m. on NBC: How to watch

Look for no greater validation of the Indianapolis 500’s standing as auto racing’s marquee event than the endorsement of a retired driver whose surname is synonymous with NASCAR.

But it’s also confirmation that a new era of once unimaginable détente is under way between America’s two biggest racing series – offering the promise of newfound collaboration between two longtime rivals.

The olive branches are sprouting everywhere.

A seven-time NASCAR Cup champion jets to IMS just for a gander at cars whizzing around at speeds roughly 40 mph faster than he’d ever seen at the 2.5-mile oval … the defending Indianapolis 500 champion makes a cameo on Earnhardt’s popular podcast … series executives check out and talk up the competition amid louder rumblings of sharing a race weekend stage at the same track.

IndyCar and NASCAR seem to be together at last as unlikely, but increasingly necessary allies in a motorsports landscape facing constant scrutiny from corporate sponsors seeking greater returns and discriminating fans eager for more entertainment.

“For a motorsports perspective, this is good for all of us,” said IndyCar president Jay Frye, whose background in NASCAR as a team executive makes him a “great friend” to many of his stock-car counterparts such as Mike Helton, Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell. “This is an industry. This is something that I think that the more we can do collectively to enhance the industry from a holistic perspective is great.

“So we’re talking about doing more down the road with our biggest events. I think the more we can do together, the better.”

That includes growing support for an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader, which was recently floated on (where else?) the Dale Jr. Download Podcast by NASCAR president Phelps, who traveled Friday to Indy and attended Carb Day with O’Donnell.

It’s been a welcome thaw in what once was one of racing’s biggest cold wars.

“I think we have to get away from, and I think more people are coming to that realization today in motorsports, that I don’t think we can be one against the other,” said Chip Ganassi, who has teams in IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA. “We shouldn’t be in a circular firing squad. I don’t know what purpose that serves.”

The reaction to Earnhardt being named the pace car driver was a series of effusively welcoming social media posts, namely by reigning Brickyard champion Will Power (another recent Dale Jr. Download guest) and five-time series champion Scott Dixon, who was flummoxed as to why he was consulted on before final approval was given to bring in a 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver to drive an IndyCar pace car (Earnhardt was a last-minute fill-in choice).

“I think some people were a little worried about it, maybe just like it’s this NASCAR guy and all that,” Dixon told NBCSports.com with a chuckle. “And I was like, ‘This is awesome, man!’ And to come to his first Indy 500 and be part of the broadcast and also drive the pace car. It’s going to be his views of this spectacle for the first time in the broadcast. It’s massive.

“I think all around it’s a knockout great idea.”

Said Power, who invited Earnhardt to wedge into the cockpit of his Dallara-Chevrolet during a Thursday stroll through Gasoline Alley: “I think everyone in the paddock is happy Dale’s here, not only commentating but driving the pace car. I was happy to hear that. He’s a great ambassador for motorsports.”

Noting the “genuine” enthusiasm among his peers about having “a legendary name and great personality” with Earnhardt, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said, “it seems like this whole competition of who’s top of the heap – ‘We’re better! You guys aren’t great! Our series is more competitive.’ — just seems to be going away.

“It was like that for the last 20 to 30 years, and it’s not necessary,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “We’re two different types of motorsport, but at the end of the day, we’re all motorsport. They’re equally as difficult and just totally different in a lot of respects. We’re racers. We all like each other. And just to see the respect now that we’re both interested in what each other does, I think we should work together.

“We should all respect each other because they’re both top-level motorsports. They’re all very talented drivers and teams that fill both fields. We should have drivers who want to go run in a stock car from IndyCar and have stock car guys who want to run on the IndyCar side.

“To see this ego and competition between the two get set aside, I think that just benefits everybody.”

Earnhardt, whose Indy welcome Thursday also included a two-seater ride with Mario Andretti, still felt more secure in having his choice as pace car driver be approved by IndyCar’s biggest names.

“I’m glad those guys are so excited to have me there,” he said. “We certainly wanted to make sure that was OK with the drivers before we accepted and make sure they’re OK with that. And they all seem to be on board. The IndyCar guys have a real unique perspective on whatever helps their sport, they seem to all be on the same page. They’re uniquely united in doing anything that helps get more eyeballs.”


United isn’t how the relationship between IndyCar and NASCAR would have been described over the past quarter-century since stock cars began racing at the Brickyard 400.

Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in 1994 after living in nearby Pittsboro while racing open-wheel cars on his way to stardom, but there was still some Indiana-bred animus about having NASCAR at the tradition-steeped track that had been devoted to open-wheel cars for the bulk of its existence since opening in 1909.

Tony Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who was elected Wednesday to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, has admitted he was one of those Hoosier natives who initially blanched at the idea of stock cars at Indy.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Jarrett recalled a chillier reception in part because NASCAR was rising as IndyCar – which split into rival series from 1996-2008 that damaged its popularity – was suffering.

“We at NASCAR were on such a huge upswing through the early ‘90s and 2000s that I think that even drag racing and IndyCar were being pushed aside and weren’t used to that,” Jarrett said. “And you don’t like to be the afterthought in anything that you’re doing, and I think maybe they felt that a little bit.”

As NASCAR has wrestled with the challenges of audience retrenchment over the past decades, it’s made for more common ground between two series that have had to deal with trying to enhance their relevance in attracting fans.

“Now that things have leveled out somewhat, and NASCAR been humbled a bit over the last decade, that’s changed sort of everybody’s perception,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But as a driver, I’ve always been interested and curious about not only IndyCar but other forms of motorsport. You want to go see and look and walk around and check out. You want to be welcomed into that world.

“Even at the height of the rivalry or whatever that was, if Mario Andretti or anyone else would have walked down the middle of the garage area, we would have all been like, ‘Hey, holy cow. Welcome! Incredible to have you here!’ You just know that’s a race car driver. He’s curious about racing. He’s wanting to see what stock cars are and what they’re about. I think the rivalry has probably been more fan driven than anything else.”

Indeed, more IndyCar and NASCAR drivers have built stronger relationships, some driven by sponsors and manufacturer ties, but others have been formed by authentic camaraderie.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has become a buddy of five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, and it’s easy to spot the similarities between two low-key superstars whose accomplishments often go unappreciated

“I talk to Jimmie quite often, and there is a lot more crossover talk” of NASCAR and IndyCar, Dixon said. “It’s hard work right now, and everybody knows that. No one has the captive audience. It’s shifting. Everyone is trying to keep up to speed with the changes.

“If we can do it as a group as opposed to, ‘Oh no, we have a bigger following and we don’t want you to take any of ours’ and all that kind of jazz. It’s nice to see the egos have kind of left, and everyone is trying to get on the same page to help each other. At the heart of it, man, we’re all motorsports fans.”

Last Thursday, Johnson hopped an early morning flight to Indianapolis just so he could spend a few hours watching Indy 500 practice.

“I wanted to see that place packed full of people and feel the energy that I’ve heard about so many times,” said Johnson, who also texts regularly with other IndyCar drivers such as Newgarden.

“He’s just a racer who keeps tabs on everything that’s going on,” Newgarden said of Johnson. “To get perspective from him on someone who has been in the sport and done so much and been so smart and savvy about it, it’s cool to have that line of communication. Jimmie cares about what’s going on outside the NASCAR bubble. He’s got so many friends in the IndyCar paddock. He knows everybody. He’s poking us and wants insider information on the event to learn more about it, which is fantastic.”

While there was an era roughly five decades ago when A.J. Foyt and Andretti, both winners of the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, regularly would switch between disciplines, racing has become more siloed as today’s drivers became much more limited by team commitments.

There are some rare exceptions, such as Kurt Busch running the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2014, but crossovers generally haven’t been feasible.

Aside from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway, the top IndyCar and NASCAR series race at separate venues, which also has contributed to limiting drivers’ interaction.

“I think we’ve just been removed from each other too much,” Newgarden said. “There were two bubbles created, and the bubbles didn’t cross over. We had that for too long, and now that we’re seeing that bridge be created again, everyone is very capable of getting along and enjoying what each other does. I think the IndyCar guys are very open minded to that.

“Maybe we’re more open minded because we got pushed more to the bottom. Stock car had a bigger rise than IndyCar. Maybe we’re more open minded to it because of where we were 10 years ago or so, but that’s not a knock on anyone. We’re all getting closer. Those bubbles are starting to disappear and we’re putting everyone in the same ecosystem, which is great.”

Jarrett, a three-time Brickyard 400 winner, spent last weekend at IMS, witnessing practice and qualifying for the Indy 500 for the first time. Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud was among those who stopped the 1999 NASCAR champion, who considered it “a little bit of a shock” that he was recognized.

“Everybody was very nice,” Jarrett said. “There’s only a few of the IndyCar drivers that I really know, but a couple that I had never met or talked to or anything actually stopped me walking through the pit lane. So it was pretty cool to see and be a part of it in their world. A lot of people stopped and talked about NASCAR and the success that I had there. Race fans are truly race fans.”


Many drivers point at potential IndyCar-NASCAR weekend doubleheaders as being the best way to expose the racing to fans of both series.

Power and Graham Rahal are among IndyCar stars who believe they can race Saturday night on the Charlotte Roval, followed by a Cup race Sunday.

“We have to all help each other grow,” Rahal said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Doing these joint events that only certain tracks can do are huge. We have to do it. We have to build our sports together. To do it independently, yeah, we might make ground here or there, but ultimately we’ll never make enough.”

Because NBC Sports Group broadcasts the full IndyCar season and the final 20 races of the NASCAR Cup season, the tracks on its networks seem the ideal places for the most seamless crossover opportunities. (It worked for The Avengers!)

During a motorsports summit in December, NBC Sports executives brought together industry leaders from its various properties (NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and Supercross) to discuss how to be more collaborative.

Frye, the IndyCar president, would be a “huge supporter” of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend.

“It could be a cool American motorsports extravaganza-kind of weekend,” he said. “We’ve talked about we’d run a Saturday night, and that Cup stays in its normal spot on Sunday. There are a lot of crossovers with manufacturers and amongst teams. We’ve talked about the friendships we have with them.

“I think it would be a game-changer in a good way. It’s not something you do every week. If you did it once or twice a year. You have to do it one time first. See how it goes. There would be certain tracks we would go to that would fit. At end of day, why not try it? It’s good for NBC, good for IndyCar and good for NASCAR.”

It still could be tricky, though, to avoid the “headliner” status and other ways that could result in one series being viewed as inferior.

“What’s been the reservation from both sides working together is the comparison between the two,” Newgarden said. “And that’s what we’ve got to make sure doesn’t happen. It’s not a competition of which car is quicker. Or which car is more difficult.

“They are different forms of racing. (A stock car) weighs twice as much. The horsepower levels are different. It’s a different art. We’re not there to compare what car is fastest. That’s not what it’s all about, so I think that’s where some of the reservation comes in doing the doubleheader, but I’d love to see it. If anyone is going to win in that situation, it’s going to be the fans.”

Given that possible outcome, perhaps it’s apropos that the latest example of NASCAR-IndyCar harmony will be symbolically led by Earnhardt, who holds sway over more fans than the 33 drivers combined who will be trailing him around the Brickyard at 12:45 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC.

It’ll be quite a sight even for a racer who has seen nearly everything.

“When you look in that rear-view mirror and you don’t see stock cars,” Earnhardt said. “But you see these wild, exotic open wheel Indy cars.

“It’s going to blow my mind.”