eNASCAR Heat Pro League takes Giant Step with First Championship

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Yes, NASCAR Heat 4 is a game, but the eyes of the championship competitors were an unmistakable affirmation of the seriousness of the competition.

In the center of the concrete floor of Arena 43 in NASCAR Plaza were four consoles featuring racing seats, large monitors and the racing apparatus of the competitors vying for the first eNASCAR Heat Pro League championship.

Two 70-lap races at virtual ISM Raceway in Phoenix—the first featuring PlayStation 4 drivers, with the second contest on Xbox One—determining which two-player team would take home the inaugural trophy.

The serious business, however, wasn’t confined to the players themselves. The eNASCAR Heat Pro League is a collaboration between NASCAR, the Race Team Alliance, and 704Games, all of whom are committed to building on a successful first season.

All 14 teams in the league are owned and supported by respective race teams that compete on the track in NASCAR’s national touring series. Among the spectators packed into Arena 43 on Wednesday night were Tim Cindric, president of Team Penske, and Marshall Carlson, president of Hendrick Motorsports, both there to support their drivers.

The Team Penske duo of Corey Rothgeb and Brian Tedeschi was top-seeded among four teams eligible for the title, but it was the mysterious helmeted Stewart-Haas Gaming team, known publicly as ‘Hotrod”’and ‘Slick,’ who won the first championship on a tiebreaker over the Leavine Family Gaming entry of Josh Harbin and Nick Vroman.

After a Victory Lane celebration complete with confetti and trophy photos, the winners were just as elated as any victor on a real asphalt track.

“I don’t think it’s settled in yet,” said Slick (Josh Schumaker). “I think we’re just feeling that high at the moment.”

Hotrod (Brandyn Gritton) dominated the first race on PlayStation 4, leading 58 of the 70 laps. The Xbox One race was a different story. Schumaker charged into second place behind Vroman on the final lap of a caution-filled affair, and the Stewart-Haas Gaming team claimed the championship based on most laps led in the championship finals.

“I knew he had it,” Gritton said of his teammate. “He’s one of the best racers in the world, and I didn’t lose faith in him for a second.”

For the most part, these racers are gamers who have no desire to compete on a real race track. Before the competition, the players worked together to make their racing seats, wheels (or controllers) and pedals as comfortable as they are at home.

“They gave us 20 minutes to get the wheel right, the pedals right, but it feels good now,” Jason Keffer of the JR Motorsports entry said before the competition. “It takes some time. It’s not like being at home, but it’s as close as we can get it to be as comfortable as possible.”

Arena 43 is as close to a real race track as Keffer, the oldest of the championship-eligible drivers at 34, would like to get.

“It’s not for me,” Keffer said. “I’m old, anyway. I’m too old to be racing. I went with some friends to the GoPro Motorplex (go-kart track), and now my arms are sore.”   

Each championship race featured not only the four title competitors but also ten other players who weren’t eligible for the championship. The finals were streamed on eNASCAR.com, Twitch via 704Games and Facebook.

As the eNASCAR Heat Pro League grows, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer Tim Clark expect to increase penetration into a non-traditional racing audience.

“I think there was common interest across NASCAR and the teams and the RTA and our partners at 704Games to create a platform that we could reach an audience and at the same time amplify the sport and amplify the NASCAR Heat video game,” Clark said of the origin of the league.

“So I think it was kind of an obvious choice, based on the interest and excitement around the esports categories. I think all those parties came to the table with an open mind and an open approach, and here we are.”

Jonathan Marshall, executive director of the RTA, said plans for expansion already are in the works.

“We do want to mix it up. We do want to add a lot more variety to next year, do some things that you may not necessarily be able to do in the real world—keep it fun, keep it exciting,” said Marshall. “That’s what I think we’re looking forward to most for Season Two on the schedule side.”