If you didn’t know better, NASCAR drivers were preparing for a race at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend as they would any other season. And even with a pause on the national sports scene because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR is still going to be racing at Texas – only this week it will do so with a popular twist.Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 125 (1 p.m. ET available on FOX – where available and subject to change, FS1 and the FOX Sports App) is the second race of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that has captivated NASCAR’s best racers and, equally as importantly, thrilled NASCAR’s large and loyal fanbase, which can count itself fortunate to still have the ability to watch so many of its favorites compete – albeit virtually.RELATED: FOX Sports to air eNASCAR races | iRacing scratches drivers’ competitive itch“What a wonderful opportunity for the sport, for racing in general,” said Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer, who last week served as an in-race commentator for the FS1 television broadcast and finished 16th out 35 in the opening race. “iRacing has been around a long time and it’s just something that keeps evolving and they’ve perfected. Here we all are, just longing for some sports action, some competitive action that we can broadcast and show a fan, and then – boom – here it is in our lap.”Certainly there was a bit of a learning curve for some of these NASCAR regulars in last week’s opener at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Denny Hamlin edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a dramatic bump-and-run on the last lap. iRacing regular Timothy Hill finished third, followed by Chase Briscoe and pole winner Garrett Smithley.Hill and Smithley, who compete for smaller teams in the NASCAR Cup Series, may not be race favorites on the real track yet, but they are strong and experienced iRacers who turned some heads with their performances last week. And they competed with a comparatively modest set-up – steering wheels attached to their desks at home with a single computer screen. Hamlin, for example, sat in a rig with roll-bars and three computer screens – a set-up he estimated probably cost upward of $40,000.Both Hill and Smithley said this week’s virtual race on the notoriously tough 1.5-mile Texas high banks will be an entirely new test for the field because its new repave has only recently been updated in the iRacing format.“It’s so neat with iRacing how they laser-scan these race tracks and it’s identical to real-life,” Hill explained. “So, Texas was repaved not too long ago and iRacing went down there and scanned the new re-pave and actually for iRacing. We’ve been running the old pavement up until this year. They’ve just recently come out with the new race track, so I’ve never even been on it yet.”That new competitive element may well come into play. But regardless, many of NASCAR’s top drivers have spent the week upping their iRacing game with much more practice or even a new simulator.Two-time and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch finished 29th Sunday, driving friend Ty Gibbs’ sim rig with very little practice on it. Busch said he went to great lengths to borrow a sim for his home this week. And to practice.“So now, after we put Brexton (Busch, son) to bed, I can go down there and start working on getting better,” Busch explained. “Texas seems like it’s going to be a heck of a lot more simple than Homestead was as far as the driving aspect. You just have to hit your marks in Turns 1 and 2 and get back to the gas in Turns 3 and 4, which are going to be wide open.”His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Erik Jones, who finished 10th last week at virtual Homestead, is equally enthusiastic about another chance in the competition. Jones conceded, however, he wasn’t able to put as much practice time in as he may have wanted this week because he is moving – the opposite scenario of what he’s expecting from the competition.“I honestly did not know how I’d do in last week’s race at Homestead,” said Jones, who drives the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series. “It had been forever since I last went iRacing, so it was like I was a rookie all over again. But things came to me fairly quickly, although I’m still nowhere near where I want to be.“Performance aside, I think we all came away from that race impressed with how the entire industry rallied around it, and fans seemed to like it, too. Now we’re on big FOX this Sunday, so even more people will be watching. Obviously, that’s good, but it does kind of ramp up the pressure. You want to do well. Even though it’s a simulation, we’re all competitors and we want to win.” Bowyer confirmed as much.“It reminds me of a rookie coming into the Cup Series,” Bowyer said. “You’re up against guys who have been doing it for years, decades and you’re expected to jump right into the deep end and compete with them and run door-to-door with them and beat them.“The pressure is on for all of us to gain that almighty seat time as much as we can. During the evenings and during the days, whenever you can jump on it, we’re all doing it.”Bowyer, Busch, Jones, Hamlin, you name it. So many of the sport’s top names are certainly all onboard with this opportunity to simultaneously stay on their game and provide good racing for the fans. The chance to showcase the sport again nationally on the FOX network is a huge plus, and both competitors and fans seem to be enjoying this new normal.“Everyone’s doing it – it’s the hot thing to do – and it was certainly fun to do last weekend to help everyone forget about everything that is happening in the real world,” Busch said. “Everyone seems to enjoy it. A lot of guys are getting a little more serious about it and everyone is spending more time on it, so I figured if I’m going to stop running 30th, I’m going to need to get some more laps.” 00:0000:0000:00LIVEFacebookTwitterEmailEmbedSETTINGS_SPEEDSPEED_NORMALSETTINGS_AUTOPLAY
By AARON WALKERIndependent Candidate Los Alamos County CouncilThroughout my campaign I have stated the need for honesty and transparency in our government, and it’s time for me to honor that need by having a discussion regarding mental health. I have been running my campaign at full steam since late May when I was trying to get on the ballot. Since then, it has been a roller coaster of emotions with some highs, lows, and a ton of anticipation.At times, my mental health has suffered under the weight of the self-induced pressure. I’ve questioned some of my strategies and wondered if I’ve done enough. I have had tremendous support from my wife, friends, and family that have been very encouraging throughout this whole process. I’ve bounced back with renewed motivation and vigor each time, but only because I have learned the tools I’ve needed over the years.Mental health is a big issue within our community, and it’s time that people in the spotlight start talking about it so that people (especially our youth) understand that it is okay to talk about it. Struggling with mental health is not a sign of weakness, and there is nothing “wrong” with it. We must find a way to make people comfortable talking about their struggles, and it starts with having this conversation publicly. Again, it is okay to not be okay.Los Alamos County has a myriad of services at its disposal regarding health services, including the health council. I would like to see those services leveraged to provide better mental health services within the county, especially to our teens and youth. I want to see if we can provide better services at the schools, as well as the teen center. We need more providers for mental health services for children within our community as well. We need to foster an environment that gives our teens and youth the tools they need to better confront mental health issues when they come up. These tools will prove extremely valuable as they navigate the waters of stepping into adulthood, and throughout their lives.It’s not just our youth that need better services. We need more/better services for the adults within our community as well. Again, that would mean finding more providers for these services and having a discussion at multiple levels on how to increase their availability. I also want to look at the possibility of “traveling” providers that could assist our senior population at our senior centers in Los Alamos and White Rock, as well as our senior housing locations.If we are to continue to have a wonderful community, we need to address the hard topics. We need to have discussions that may be hard to talk about. Mental health is one of those discussions. I will say right now that I struggle with mental health sometimes, and that is OKAY. It doesn’t define me or make me a weak person. It makes me human being with real emotions and real feelings. I am willing to discuss this openly and honestly, and it’s time we start erasing the stigma of mental health.