When the NASCAR season was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Timmy Hill was 37th in the Cup Series standings.
Behind the wheel of the No. 66 Carl Long Motorsports Toyota (and Ford at Daytona), Hill’s average finish in his four Cup starts was 35th. The 27-year-old racer from Port Tobacco, Maryland, was nearly invisible running at the back of the field.
That changed after iRacing took center stage in the absence of traditional motorsports. Suddenly, the spotlight shone on the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, and Hill was more than prepared for the challenge.
On Sunday, Hill won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 at Virtual Texas Motor Speedway—his second podium finish in the league's second event.
“I couldn't be more excited,” Hill said. “Very exciting times for us, because we just don't get the recognition on a normal basis. To be on an even playing field is excellent. To be on this platform, the Cup platform, is exciting.
“The amount of folks that reached out to me has just been tremendous. The last lap was just one I will definitely remember for a while.”
After executing a skillful bump-and-run on then-leader William Byron with three laps left, Hill held off Ryan Preece by .050-seconds for the win. He celebrated with a stellar virtual burnout, a glass of milk and a hug from his wife, which is customary for driver/team owner who is no stranger to virtual Victory Lane either. Hill’s 1676 Cup starts in iRacing ranks third among NASCAR regulars. His 673 wins are second only to Ty Majeski.
“I had quite a few friends that were in my channel throughout the race that were spotting me, crew-chiefing me throughout the race,” Hill added. “I kind of got to chat with them.
“I am not surrounded by all my loved ones right now because everybody is trying to be safe. But I got a lot of phone calls, messages. I feel like the hero today."
For more than a decade, Hill has been building a following—and a resume—on iRacing. After FOX Sports elected to televise the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 22, the buzz surrounding the second event picked up significantly as did the quality of the programming and the level of competition.
“Obviously I think it was way better,” Hill said. “I think all around between the drivers and the iRacing officials, the broadcast team. I think obviously last week was put together super quickly. Whenever something is thrown together quickly, you find bugs. Everything got better.
“I think the drivers understood that this isn't an arcade game. It takes effort. It takes practice. They couldn't just jump into a server and expect to compete well. You saw a lot of competitors that you didn't see at Homestead doing well, driving fast time. For me, I qualified 10th, I got shuffled back to 20th at the beginning of the race. Took me a while to get back to the front. These guys were that tough to pass. Hats off to drivers working on it.”
With no other live sports competing at this time, and the iRacing broadcast reaching more than four million households worldwide, NASCAR and FOX have every reason to invest in the product. Hill believes the show will continue to improve as the broadcasters become familiar with the nuances of the system and the iRacing officials acclimate to NASCAR’s rules.
“The broadcast team did an excellent job of learning iRacing, how it works, between the tires you put on, the restarts, the way the caution process works. I think iRacing officials learned a lot about when to throw a caution, when not to. Obviously, when somebody spins, we had the luxury of not throwing a caution where, in the real world, you may throw it every single time.
“It keeps the entertainment factor going. I think this week's show was probably a hundred times better than last week’s.”
Hill might be a bit biased, but he has every reason to be. On Lap 122, he used his virtual chrome horn to knock Byron, the pole winner, off the point to take the lead.
Certainly, the excitement level escalates when there’s a bump-and-run for the lead--and drivers aren't even racing at Bristol Motor Speedway or Martinsville.
“For me, it was a situation where I don't get the chance to win much on this big of a platform,” Hill said. “I told myself If I have a chance to win any race, NASCAR, short track level, if it came down to it, that's what I would do. It doesn't change because it was iRacing. That's what I would do in real life.
“Going forward, I'm sure William isn't happy about it. I'm sure he'll do the same back to me. Reverting back to what I said before, you race others how they race you. I'll probably get a lot of abuse going forward. I'll have to accept that. But that's in the future. I'm kind of living in the present and happy to get the win.”
Still, Hill is hoping this platform provides a glimpse of what his potential could be behind the wheel of better equipment on the real race track. With all things being equal in iRacing—including the setups on the cars—the driver defines how far his talent will take him.
“Some of the best drivers are under-recognized because of the opportunity they're in,” Hill said. “I've made a career personally out of taking cars that were 35th to 40th place cars, qualifying 25th. The reason I've been able to stay in this sport is because I can take a car and elevate it to a level to make fields, ultimately make a paycheck for teams.
“I wish people would kind of focus back towards that side of the garage, understand the deficits that we're facing going into a race, because I think a lot of guys are shortchanged, some of their talents. I feel like I'm one of them. I feel like a lot of the guys in the top five are in the same boat as I am.
“I'm glad this is kind of showing a little bit of that. I don't know if it will transfer in real life. I'm glad at least for the last couple weeks and going forward that can kind of showcase that a little bit."