RICHMOND – On the day of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series 200-lap virtual event at Richmond Raceway, Garrett Manes saw that the track was celebrating its 75th anniversary.
He offered his congratulations on Twitter – and he added: “I’ve got a great idea for an anniversary gift. Been working on it all week.”
He delivered – and it ended up being a gift to behold for more than just the raceway alone.
Manes put on a master class in patience on Dec. 1. He methodically worked his No. 2 Smithfield Toyota to the front from the 23rd starting position and passed Alex McCollum late in the running to win his first career eNASCAR iRacing Pro Series race.
“This could not have come on a better night – honestly, I’m in disbelief,” Manes said in his postrace interview shared on Podium eSports’ Twitch channel. “For us to win on the 75th anniversary of Richmond Raceway – just, man, that’s absolutely perfect.”
Interestingly, the young Powhatan driver had also surged from 23rd to the front across the 200-lap Road to Pro truck series race at the half-mile Virginia track of Martinsville Speedway in September. In that race, which only had two cautions, he took the lead on the bump-and-run with four laps to go to earn what he called in November the biggest win “hands down” out of the 2,100-plus simulation racing victories he’s collected.
That win has a new successor.
“This is by far the biggest win,” Manes said of his Richmond victory. “With all the people that run this series that come out of the Coke series, and to be able to represent Elliott Sadler eSports and Richmond Raceway eSports as well as we did . . . I know we were kind of the underdog coming into the series, and to be able to show up when it really matters is really cool.”
He showcased his long-run speed throughout the first half of the Richmond race. The winningest driver in the history of Podium eSports chipped away at the field over the first 100 laps to charge from 23rd to the lead before green-flag pit stops and a caution for a crash on lap 111 relegated him back to 12th.
Another yellow flag followed with less than 73 remaining, and a two-tire stop catapulted Manes into the lead.
He anticipated from experience that the race would turn into a caution-fest, and another yellow flag did end up waving after that. But that’d be the last one. The rest of the race stayed green.
Manes, however, knew he’d be in a good spot when he went down into the corner and “it was actually a solid feeling . . . I wasn’t handling poorly.”
He did know that McCollum was going to pass him for the lead on fresher tires. McCollum did just that with less than 70 to go.
Yet Manes only faded as far back as half-a-second behind the leader, and as the green-flag run wore on, his car once again got better.
“We reeled him in seven seconds the run before. The two tires, I was able to reel him in [by] .4 seconds, so I knew we were in a good spot once we kind of leveled out there,” he said. “I’m like, ‘He’s going to come back to us.’”
Manes jumped under him on the front stretch coming to 30 to go and went side-by-side for the lead. Manes got by. McCollum crossed under him as he tried to grab back the top spot. It didn’t work. Manes cleared him with 29 remaining and took off.
His Elliott Sadler eSports teammate Ashton Crowder started tracking him down in the closing stretch, but Manes held on for the win.
“That strategy call was potentially the difference in the race,” he said of the two-tire stop.
Manes also secured the first Pro Series win for team owner, former NASCAR driver and fellow Virginian Elliott Sadler, who hails from Emporia. Crowder maintained second and their teammate Vicente Salas finished fourth.
“It was so cool – for our team to finish 1-2-4 just shows the amount of effort that went into this car ... it really paid off,” Manes said. “We came in with the mindset of top 10 as always and we got far more than that.”
The six-race Pro Series, which uses the current NASCAR Xfinity car models, features the bottom 20 racers from the top-level eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series – the virtual equivalent to the NASCAR Cup Series – and the top 20 drivers, including Manes, from the Road to Pro Series. The top 21 drivers in the Pro Series points will move up to the Coca-Cola Series in 2021.
That group will definitely include Manes.
According to his team, he locked up his spot after getting the necessary top-20 finish last night with a 17th-place result at Dover. He has two more races to go for wins with the 1.5-mile tracks of Charlotte and Homestead up next. Manes' teammate Ashton Crowder also locked up a transfer spot when he earned his first Pro Series win at Dover to make it back-to-back wins for Sadler eSports.
Manes has been around racing throughout much of his life; he started Arena Racing when he was 10 and went on to win three consecutive championships.
He was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 3. His strengths include his strong mental focus, exceptional peripheral vision and the ability to observe his environment in great detail.
There have been challenges, too. In a video interview with Autism Hope Alliance, he shared that, when he was coming up through grade school, he wasn’t putting himself out there socially; while Manes said he had a couple friends (who are still his best friends today, he added,) he “wasn’t that extrovert that was going out and talking to everybody.”
“I kind of just stayed in my own lane,” he said.
But for Manes, racing “definitely opened up the doors.”
“It made me more comfortable talking to people because it was something that I was passionate about as well. I’m still sort of that way. If you want to talk about racing I can probably talk to you all day long about it,” he said. “Now that I’m in the racing community, there’s tons of people that I can relate with.”
Manes first got into iRacing in 2015, and at the time, he was just kind of casually playing – it was just something to do, and it was also kind of to train for when he was racing Legend cars.
But in late 2016, he really started competitively playing the game, and he stepped it up to actually go for the pro level for the last two years.
He’s on the Richmond Raceway eSports development team and currently competes across multiple series with Smithfield as his sponsor and Elliott Sadler as his team owner.
“It’s been definitely the best team I’ve ever been on,” Manes said. “Everybody’s been putting in the work and we’ve got three drivers in Pro which is more than we could have ever asked for. Everybody that went for it made it, so that was really cool . . . just really hoping we can continue the success for the rest of the year and hopefully into 2021.”
He added that Sadler has been really helpful and has given them different angles from which to look at things.
“It’s really good working with him in races and also with him on setups. He understands really well where to put the car – which is kind of a given, he’s been in the top series of NASCAR for many years and has got lots of experience – but it’s really cool to be able to learn from all that,” Manes said. “He’s really involved with the team and it’s been really, really cool to get to work with him over the last few months and get to know him.”
Racing on the sim
With sim racing, Manes said there are a lot of things you get to learn that physical racing might not necessarily teach you.
Saving the car is one of them.
That can take trial-and-error, but it’s not cost-effective to take risks and crash a race team’s cars over and over.
A sim racer, on the other hand, allows you to reset over and over until you get a handle on how far-gone a car can get before you can’t straighten it out anymore.
“If you race a lot on the sim, you will get crashed every once in a while,” Manes said with a chuckle, “and there’s a lot of things that you’ll learn on how to save the car, where to put your car. People, they make very bold moves sometimes in the sim because the consequence isn’t the same.
“It really teaches you how to race in those situations and it just gets you more comfortable in situations like that.”
The competition is also really stiff across the board without the barrier of budget. NASCAR’s top series has changed to the point that anyone not racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Roger Penske or Hendrick Motorsports is typically considered to be an underdog because the aforementioned teams’ equipment is seen to be better.
In iRacing, however, “everybody has Joe Gibbs equipment,” Manes said.
“If you put the time in, you’ll get there,” he said. “If the cars are really similar, you’ve got to be the difference. You can’t rely on the car.”
And there’s a ton of time that goes into getting the virtual cars ready. Similar to a team that would log a ton of hours in the garage for a physical race, Manes said that, at home, they’re sitting in front of the computer and working in the virtual garage for hours at a time, with anywhere from 20 to 40 hours going into the pro-level cars to make them competitive.
“And that doesn’t even guarantee you success,” Manes said; your competitors are putting in that same amount of time, so “you’re having to out-think everybody.”
That commitment led to Manes’ entire team’s strong showcase at Richmond. In the previous race at the virtual Auto Club Speedway, where Manes finished in the top five, they recorded 24 hours of track time, and that didn’t include garage time or brainstorming sessions.
“We have been up late every night for the last three weeks getting these cars ready, and with the Pro Series being every week, you don’t have much time to prepare, so it really is: as soon as the race is over, the next day, you’re on it,” he said. “With everybody doing that on our team, and some of us being in different time zones, it makes it a little bit easier.”
A scene on the rise
When previewing this year’s race at the Daytona road course – an emergency addition this year with Watkins Glen dropping off the 2020 Cup slate due to COVID-19 – NASCAR took one of Manes’ virtual laps at the course, which he had run a little bit before the race was even announced, and shared it on their social media platforms to show what the track layout would look like.
“Just to see my car on a NASCAR Instagram page . . . there was a lot of sim racing content coming out from them during the lockdown and stuff, so to actually see my car on the screen, adding legitimacy to what had been previously going on with all the Cup drivers doing it – just to be alongside that was really cool.”
When the coronavirus sidelined the NASCAR series for two months, the Cup Series drivers made the transition to iRacing and competed in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The virtual races were televised nationally, and both Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon from the FOX Sports booth did the commentary.
NASCAR’s involvement further raised the profile of the iRacing scene. According to the website Statista, the service has seen 5,000 new users purchase access to the online racing simulation since NASCAR announced its virtual events.
“A lot of the NASCAR teams are actually involved with it and a lot of the drivers have their own teams,” Manes said. “There’s a lot of recognition in that series, and the amount of growth that the sim racing community has seen this year alone has been insane.
“There’s definitely more to come. There’s been lots of people that have been getting into it,” Manes said. “This is the time to be in sim racing, so to be in the Coke Series . . . it’s definitely a really good position to be in.”