Joey Logano (22) races Tyler Reddick (8) out of Turn 4 during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix Raceway, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso) Credit: Ralph Freso | AP

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With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down every sport worldwide, NASCAR and other auto racing organizations are turning to virtual racing.

Fans starving for live sports are able to watch NASCAR races that are part of its iRacing League, the organization’s version of esports.

It enables house-bound drivers to stay engaged while competing with an elaborate computer setup that includes a steering wheel, a brake pedal and any number of other items that mimic what they have at their disposal in a race car. It is up to the drivers to decide how much time and money they want to put into it.

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There also are iRaces happening at lower levels across the country, including this past Saturday’s irace that served as a substitute for the Super Late Model Northeast Classic. That race was previously scheduled to be held at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire, but was postponed until May 8-9.

Saturday’s Northeast eClassic included a host of drivers from the Pro All Stars Series and the American Canadian Tour. The lineup included Scarborough’s Kelly Moore, a former K & N Pro Series East champion and the series’ all-time leader with 27 victories, and Derek Griffith of Hudson, New Hampshire, who led the PASS North Super Late Model division with five wins last season.

Fans could have watched the Northeast eClassic at speed51.com/northeasteclassic

Another driver who was involved was Fort Kent native Austin Theriault, who made his NASCAR Cup Series debut last season and ran five races for Rick Ware Racing.

ACT driver Ryan Kuhn from Massachusetts won the Northeast eClassic. Theriault wound up in several wrecks and didn’t finish the race.

Theriault had competed Friday night in an iRace involving Daytona International Speedway. Other drivers in the field were 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, his Indy Racing League competitor James Hinchcliffe and NASCAR Cup regular Michael McDowell.

Theriault was involved in several wrecks in the Daytona iRace but finished it.

Theriault had made his 2020 iRacing debut earlier last week, but his computer broke down at the outset of a qualifying race.

“I’m used to having mechanical issues with a race car and now I had issues with my computer and internet,” joked Theriault, who intends to invest in a new computer soon and used a friend’s computer this past weekend.

He said motorsports are a “little easier to replicate than other sports because of the mechanical and digital nature of the sport.”

It provides a valuable outlet for racing fans.

“There’s not much going on right now so anything exciting and fun is watchable,” Theriault said. “And you get the opportunity to see drivers who have won [Cup] races embarrassing themselves and having a laugh about it.”

Theriault said it is significantly different racing in a video game than driving a real race car, especially when it comes to avoiding spinouts.

On the track, every part of a driver’s body reacts to a potential spinout and those senses help you to avoid it or minimize the impact, said Theriault.

It is much easier to spin out in iRacing because you aren’t using as many parts of your body, he explained.

One of the neat aspects of iRacing is that he has an opportunity to help sponsors like the 24 food pantries in Aroostook County, which are under the umbrella of Catholic Charities of Maine, by putting their logo on his virtual car.

“It’s the reverse of [real] racing because they don’t pay me. I help them [raise money] for the food pantries [through use of the logo],” Theriault said.

The format of iRacing enables multiple races to be streamed using different sets of drivers competing simultaneously using the same virtual track.

Shawn Martin of Frenchville, who now lives in Turner and races at Oxford Plains Speedway, used to compete in iRacing during the offseason before it became too expensive.

But he loves the NASCAR Cup product.

“I thought it might be a little corny, but I’ve been watching the Cup races and they have been fantastic. It’s kind of funny, it’s some of the best racing I’ve seen in a long time,” Martin said.

He said driving a virtual car feels pretty close to a real race car.

“It’s harder than you think. But it’s pretty fun,” Martin said.

Mike Hopkins of Hermon, who races Super Late Model cars, agrees.

“It is harder and way more realistic than you think,” said Hopkins, who tried it out this week without being in a race. “It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty intense.”

Hopkins said he doesn’t plan to do any virtual races for fear he would become “addicted” to it.

He said it is good for youngsters to learn the fundamentals of driving a race car before getting in a real one and that NASCAR iRacing is “good for the sponsors so they can get the recognition they need.”

Theriault said NASCAR drivers often use simulators like those you see in iRacing to get accustomed to upcoming tracks they haven’t raced at before.

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