By CARA COOPER
William Byron has technically only been competing in races for six years, but he’s been racing just about his entire life.
While other NASCAR Cup Series drivers practically grew up behind the wheel, driving go karts a decade or more before they could legally get a drivers license, Byron’s childhood was spent in front of the TV screen, competing against friends on NASCAR video games and the racing simulator iRacing.
“My parents when I was a kid were always like, ‘why are you on this game all the time? Why don’t you go outside or something?’” Byron said at a recent iRacing demonstration at Martinsville Speedway. “So it’s funny that I made this a career. It’s pretty cool.”
Byron’s success in iRacing, something he said he got into after hearing Cup Series drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Landon Cassill talk about it in the media, was pretty instant. The simulation, which Sales and Marketing Director Otto Szebeni called “the most realistic racing online simulation available to the general public” pits competitors in leagues based on their skill level, and drivers can compete in top levels on tracks nearly identical to tracks used by NASCAR, IndyCar and other road course series.
Byron won more than 100 races between 2011 and 2012, prompting his parents to explore opportunities for him to get behind the wheel of a real car.
Success there, was quick too. Four years after starting iRacing, Byron had carried those skills from the living room seat to a seat in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series and the Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. In 2017 he won the Xfinity Series championship, and the next year he was given a ride with Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR’s top level, where he is now a rookie.
FROM THE SEAT TO A SEAT
There was an obvious learning curve for Byron going from a simulation to an actual racecar. He said the toughest part was realizing that it is real, and the consequences are real too.
“I think you just have to take it with a grain of salt and understand what is going to be different when you step into a car,” Byron said. “The only thing that’s different is the motion and kind of the fear factor too. That’s obvious. If you’re going to hit a wall at 200 it feels a bit different.”
It took some time for Byron to learn how to finish races, because he said he has some issues with wrecking early on.
“I think just getting in the car for the first time. A couple races went by and I was fast but I didn’t really finish the races so I had to figure out how to not crash or things like that,” he said. “So I think learning that and when I was able to break through and win a race for the first time it was like a light switch kind of went off and I was able to win after that, but I think it took a break through to really understand it.”
There’s a ton drivers can learn from simulations like iRacing too, and Byron said he’s on it all the time, either racing against friends for fun or using it to get a better feel for different tracks.
Szebeni said the company works hard to make sure every single aspect of a track is exact. They use lasers to get measurements to the millimeter, and said they often take up to six months to complete updates because they want to make sure it’s as perfect and lifelike as possible.
NASCAR teams also have simulators specifically for their cars in Charlotte. Chevy has one simulator in the city that Byron said he and his teammates will use from time to time.
“It’s like being at Disney World and doing the rides there,” Byron said. “It moves up and down, it’s set on this platform but it’s honestly not that different, it’s just a lot more effort they have put in to making sure that’s the way it should be so it’s really specific to NASCAR.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
NASCAR hopes Byron isn’t the only youngster to make the move from games to the real thing. The sport held its inaugural Ignite Series season this year for iRacing earlier this year. The iRacing website says of the series it “will establish a legitimate entry point into real-world racing, providing young competitors with an unparalled simulation experience on iRacing’s ultra-realistic software.”
Connecticut teenager Zack Novak won the first series championship this season, and spoke via video chat to Martinsville at Henry County students at Martinsville Speedway earlier this month.
“The Ignite Series was designed by NASCAR to help scout talent for the future and to help bring in younger kids to be the future of the sport,” Novak said.
Novak, who has been racing in iRacing for about six years, won a $10,000 racing scholarship with the series.
“I committed to that and attempted to further my racing career by potentially winning the championship,” he said. “It will help me especially further my racing career and attempt to chase the dream of racing in NASCAR.”
Novak raced Byron on the simulation at Martinsville Speedway, and while neither said out loud who won, the Cup Series rookie was impressed.
“He’s good,” Byron told the crowd.
This story first appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.