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Virtual Indy 500 Replaced Traditional Memorial Day Weekend Race

The Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 are Memorial Day racing staples. They have been for decades. This year is no different. Racing is alive! Both races will be run Sunday, sorta. 

Indy cars racing nose to tail at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 23: Tom Ingram, driver of the 80 during The Race All-Star Esports Series powered by ROKiT Phones at a virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 23, 2020 in Indianapolis, Indiana | Photo by Sam Cobb/Torque Esports via Getty Images

Race Day Weekend

NASCAR has resumed real-life racing, although they do not have fans in the stands at this time due to the global COVID-19 health concerns. After a few weeks for racing virtually, NASCAR reviewed safety precautions and re-started their season. To make up for the lost races, the season was accelerated. Multiple races have been occurring each week. But, the actual Coca-Cola 600 will be run on Sunday afternoon. 

Running the Indianapolis 500, however, well, that is a different story. The sanctioning body that was scheduled to run the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing”, has still not returned to racing. It will not until June 6th. So, the actual Indianapolis 500 has been postponed to August 23rd. However, Memorial Day weekend is such a big deal, that it is often called, An American Institution. Therefore, there could not be a racing hole left on the calendar in its place. 

Driver Kurt Busch stands by his NASCAR racecar while wearing a facemask
MAY 24: Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 GEARWRENCH Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway | Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

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Filling that hole was accomplished with a multi-part approach. The first, and most exciting part, was a virtual race at the Indianapolis raceway on Saturday that was broadcast on ESPN. The second part of the approach was to have television partner, NBC, bring together drivers in an appropriately socially distanced way, on Sunday, to rebroadcast and comment on the 2019 running of the race.

Virtual Indianapolis 500

The popularity of virtual racing platforms has made it possible to bring together current and past champions for Saturday’s virtual Indianapolis 500. So, drivers like Mario Andretti and Dario Franchitti were alongside Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves. Torque Esports, the sponsor of the Saturday Indianapolis 500 event, summarized the field entrants as,

  • “Six F1 World Championships. 1462 starts, 81 wins and 67 poles”
  • “13 Indy 500 wins. 13 IndyCar titles, 2906 starts, 204 wins and 246 poles”
  • “21 wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, three World Touring Car championship titles, two World Rallycross Championship, one World Rally Championship crown and an FIA World Endurance Championship title”

The virtual lineup for the race, as mentioned before, included current and past champions. Some of those drivers have been retired for many years but jumped at the chance to compete virtually. That shows how deep racing can get in a person’s bloodstream. 

Mario Andretti on a seat in his race suit
Racing Legend Mario Andretti at the 2019 Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach on April 11, 2019 in Long Beach, California. | Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images

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Mario Andretti first won the Indianapolis in 1969. He is 80 years old and still loves racing. He put together his race rig just days before the event. When asked about preparing for the virtual race, he said, 

“I have a pretty steep learning curve ahead of me. Its been a long time since I’ve been a rookie at Indianapolis.”

Torque Esports has had the series running during the COVID-19 shutdown of motorsports. But, the attention on the series has even surprised them. 

“We started this series ten weeks ago to provide motorsport fans with much-needed entertainment while real-world motorsport was on hold. But the championship quickly developed a life of its own in attracting some of the biggest names in world motorsport,” Torque Esports President and CEO, Darren Cox said.

“To have the likes of Mario Andretti and Fernando Alonso join our event is just staggering. We have drivers in the race who are absolute legends at Indianapolis and plenty of other amazing stars who never had the opportunity to compete at this incredible venue.”

Spoiler Alert: How the virtual Indy 500 went down

Mario Andretti qualified in 19th and finished 26th.

Fernando Alonso was the race winner. 

Sunday’s Indianapolis 500

In a stunning letdown, the race in the Sunday afternoon slot that was previously planned for the real Indianapolis 500, was instead filled by an NBC rebroadcast of the 2019 Indianapolis 500. There were no clips, discussions, or even interviews with the drivers from the previous night’s virtual race. Of course, the virtual race on Saturday was covered by rival network ESPN. So, it seems, ESPN got the better end of the Indianapolis 500 weekend.