AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Turn on the Xbox, fire up the Playstation and get ready for the green flag to drop.
After long embracing esports as a way to grow motorsports and engage young fans, NASCAR is taking the experience to another level. It joined 704 Games and the Race Team Alliance in victory lane at ISM Raceway on Sunday to conduct the inaugural eNASCAR Heat Pro League Draft.
The online league features 14 teams and 28 drivers, each owned and operated by prominent NASCAR teams, and will begin this spring on Xbox and Playstation with a season stretching into the fall.
“This is another way to connect with our fans,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “Our industry understands that esports provides an opportunity to engage with our new and existing fans.”
This was serious stuff, too.
Teams were given a minute on the clock to make their selections, and most sent drivers or other key personnel to the podium to announce the pick. First on the clock in the Xbox round was Chip Ganassi Racing, and Kurt Busch strode confidently to the stage and peered out at the audience.
“With the No. 1 pick,” Busch read from a note card, “Chip Ganassi Racing selects Zion Williams from Duke University.”
OK, maybe it’s not quite that serious.
But it’s serious enough that the Race Team Alliance flew in the top draft picks of both the Xbox and Playstation rounds, and that teams are selling sponsorships for their drivers in the league. Many of them scouted the best gamers on the platforms — qualifying for the draft began in December and included numerous qualifying and race sessions to allow them to improve their standings in the draft pool.
Once he got done chuckling, Busch announced the real first selection was Gregory Matarazzo, who happens to be a fan of his and who goes by the gaming name “SkrrtBusch.” Matarazzo grew up racing go-karts, then became a fan of NASCAR, and has launched his own clothing brand.
“To be on top and get that first pick is important,” Busch said. “Our team went through all the different diagnostics, the telemetric, all of it, and he’s shown the talent.”
Matarazzo said he’s such a fan of Busch that he picked his number in karting.
“It’s literally a dream,” he said. “I’m still trying to take it all in.”
Which sounds a whole lot like what athletes in other professional sports say when they shake the hand of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or NBA counterpart Adam Silver on draft night.
Most gamers have run more than 1,000 races and tend to finish in the top three just about every time the green flag drops. But winning isn’t everything. The race teams hope to market their drivers, and that means social media followings also weighed heavily in the decisions.
So do their back stories.
Brian Tedeschi was the third overall pick of the Xbox round by Penske Racing. He has been involved in motorsports since he was 4 years old, and he is finishing a mechanical engineering degree at Purdue.
“He’s a really professional kid. He has his act together,” said Brad Keselowski, who announced the pick for the team. “We like really smart people at Team Penske. We believe in him.”
The selections came from just about every corner of the country, not just the traditional NASCAR hotbeds, and that is ultimately the point: Expand the sport to new, young audiences.
Richard Petty Motorsports picked 21-year-old Diego Alvarado from Chino Hills, California, and Chase Elliott announced the selection of 23-year-old Sam Morris from Dupont, Indiana. Joe Gibbs Racing went with Daniel Buttafuoco, an 18-year-old from East Brunswick, New Jersey.
Elliott was asked if he’d spot for Hendrick Motorsports’ new driver when the season began.
“If he wants to crash, I’d be happy to spot for him,” Elliott said. “But I think this is pretty cool, certainly an interesting way to get people involved. A different route.”