Bobby Labonte Returns to Spotlight with eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series

Bobby Labonte Returns to Spotlight with eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series

04/05/2020

It’s another Sunday morning in April and Bobby Labonte once again finds himself in a familiar routine.

This is race day at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Of course, ‘race day’ has taken on a wildly new meaning for everyone involved with NASCAR right now. Due to the coronavirus shutdown, televised exhibition races are now taking place on iRacing rather than the actual venues replicated by the simulator.

As a result, Labonte once again finds himself turning laps for Joe Gibbs Racing, the partnership coming two decades after capturing the Winston Cup for the three-time Super Bowl winning head coach and legendary car owner.

Sure, it’s not the No. 18, but it’s a pixelated version of the No. 19 typically driven by Martin Truex Jr. with sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops and Auto Owners Insurance. The strange times we live in has allowed Labonte to once again become a weekly fixture in televised NASCAR racing with one of the most prominent organizations in the industry.

“I came across our neighbor on the way to my storage shed this morning and we got to talking for a minute,” Labonte told Autoweek earlier in the week. “She doesn’t have FS1. But she says: ‘I heard you were racing this week.’

“I pointed towards my upstairs office and said, ‘Yep, we’re racing!”

Labonte finished 18th and 13th in the first two eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational races at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway but looked capable of winning each of them.

While Labonte hasn’t raced in the real-life NASCAR Cup since 2016, he hasn’t stopped competing on iRacing since becoming an inaugural member in 2008. Taking it a step further, no one who takes the green flag on Sunday has a deeper history with iRacing and sim racing than the 55-year-old.

Not even super advocate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Labonte was a spokesman of sorts for the NASCAR RacingPC simulators in the 1990s, even filming a series of how-to VHS tapes for the Papyrus Design Group.

iRacing emerged from the ashes of NASCAR Racing. The first installment came out in 1994 and peaked with the 2003 Edition. That game became so popular for its physics and presentation that a cult following developed around it and still utilizes the source code for unofficial builds of the game.

Prior to NASCAR Racing, Labonte was an avid player of the Indianapolis 500 simulator released by Papyrus in 1989.

“I can actually take you back to the very beginning,” Labonte said. “I remember going to tests with (engineer) Terry Satchell and the Indianapolis 500 simulator is what we would do during our lunch breaks or after we wrapped up at the end of the day. …

“I worked with Papyrus and made some VHS tapes. I’ve always had such a passion for the games and simulators. As time moves on, you have kids and they take up your time, but I’ve found myself back at it every day right now. I always thought this was the coolest thing.”

Dave Kaemmer is the co-founder of both Papyrus and iRacing. The veteran programmer recalled having a conversation with Labonte that resulted in pages of data that went into future builds of the NASCAR Racing series.

“I remember sitting down with Bobby back in the mid-to-late 90’s,” Kaemmer told Autoweek. “I don’t remember exactly where or when, but what I remember most is that he talked us around all the Cup tracks, giving us a lot of detail about the reference points drivers would use, the track surfaces, the preferred lines they would run, and how the races tended to progress at each track.

“He also told us how the tracks that we had built differed from real life–corner radius too tight, too little or too much banking, the way the corner entries worked; did you tend to climb into the corners or fall into them.”

This is before laser scanning tracks became the norm, mind you.

“I think it might have been as far back as when we were working on NASCAR Racing 2, which would have been around 1995,” Kaemmer said. “But it might have been when we were starting NASCAR Racing 4, which was based on the GPL engine. That would have been more like 1999. I just remember that he loved the sim, even way back then, and was just so excited to help us.”

Much has changed since then.

Labonte went on to capture the 2000 Cup Series championship and was inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January. He has 21 victories in 729 Cup starts. He has 10 wins in 203 Xfinity Series starts and was the 1991 champion.

But through it all, Labonte has maintained a consistent passion for sim racing, making him a natural fit to join Earnhardt in a post-retirement tour against the Cup Series elite in the digital world until crowds can return to the real one.

“It’s a blessing for NASCAR and its fans for what we’ve been able to do over the past two Sundays,” Labonte said. “We are making the most of this and providing that sense of normalcy every week.

“We have such a unique platform that other sports don’t. It’s amazing how iRacing has come into its own because of this. I know it’s not the circumstances anyone would want, but they’ve worked really hard to be in a position to be recognized. And I’m having a lot of fun racing on it.”

Just like old times.

Jumped in my virtual airplane & made home to enjoy the rest of the afternoon on my back porch 😂 hope you enjoyed @TXMotorSpeedway as much as I did. @BassProShops TOYOTA #camry was fast, happy with the 13th place finish #ProInvitationalSeries thanks to the fans for watching @FS1 pic.twitter.com/StH4lNIYXX

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