By Mike Vorkunov
William Byron's trailer, docked on this day at the Pocono Raceway, opens into a hallway leading to a back room with a work desk and a mounted television. He is just an hour away from hitting the two-and-a-half-mile track in his No. 9 truck and securing pole position for the weekend's race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Tomorrow, he will win it, leading 44 of the 60 laps.
Byron is just 18, a freshman at Liberty University—his sponsor as well as his school—and a driver on the side. Still, success has come quickly. He has been at or near the top of the standings for most of the season, with a series-best seven wins and 11 top-five finishes. And while he finished fifth in the chase for the series championship, Byron had more than twice as many wins as any other driver. Next year, he'll leave Kyle Busch Motorsports for Hendrick Motorsports before moving up to the Xfinity Series, just one rung below the top level, NASCAR's Sprint Cup.
At the rate Byron is progressing, he'll race there soon enough.
The story behind Byron's rapid rise begins in a room similar to the one adjoining his trailer. Five years ago, he wasn't racing at all. Unlike some in his sport, he does not come from a premier racing family. He didn't get behind a wheel when he was a small child.
Instead, Byron learned to drive indoors, in his childhood bedroom, dominating online races on an iRacing simulator. And that could portend a future of young racing fans leveraging technology to become bona fide drivers, and young drivers doing the same to build up their on-track careers.
Byron's father, Bill, can remember how his son multitasked with ease: a cell phone in his left hand, the wheel in his right, a football game on TV, and the pedals at his feet as a race played out on the track. "He's got three or four things going on at one time," Bill said. "And he's racing these other cars on the computer and he's leading the race and he's winning the race. To him, it's just an evolution over time to be able to understand."
Driving simulators have become an important tool for stock car drivers. NASCAR drivers face limits on track time and how many test runs they can make. Getting simulated reps is an end-around, allowing users to run a race or practice a course. Ford Racing, which has a 13-driver stable this season, has even built a full-motion simulator at its North Carolina facility.
"The biggest help for me is just more seat time," Chris Buescher, the reigning Xfinity Series champion, said last year of the new facility. "Last year before Watkins Glen ... we were able to get on the simulator and run some laps leading up to the road races. And that's one of the places that I think it works the best, at this moment."
Of course, Buescher already is a professional driver. He won his first Sprint Cup race in August. For him, simulators are just another way to augment his 11 years of driving experience. More intriguing is how technology and simulators could flatten the path for young drivers who want to one day make it onto a NASCAR track, lowering some of the sport's traditional barriers to entry.
"I think there's definitely more possibilities to get into the sport if you're not directly involved with your family, or something like that," Byron said. "So the sport is changing how it approaches things like that. I think there's a lot of different ways to get into it now."
Byron's No. 9 truck. He has only been racing automobiles for five years. Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Byron grew up in North Carolina with few natural ties to racing. His father, Bill, is a wealth management adviser. His mother, Dana, stayed home to take care of Byron and his sister. William Byron became a NASCAR fan when he was young, and started a tradition of taking an annual father-son trip to tracks around the country, including the local speedway in Charlotte.
At 13, Byron picked out his own simulation program, seat, and wheels as a present from his father. He set them up in his bedroom, at his desk. Byron had never raced anything other than go karts before, but he fell hard for virtual racing.
He learned how to drive on his computer, turning corners in hundreds of simulated races. iRacing, the online racing league sanctioned by NASCAR, allows drivers anywhere to compete against each other. When Byron started, he imagined it would be the closest he'd ever get to being in the car himself.
"I never kind of let myself think of it as a possibility because I was not into racing at all as a family or anything like that," he said. "So I had to get into it on my own, completely."
Byron would spend, on average, two to three hours a day racing for the next year and a half, running some 500 races, according to Bill, and winning 104 of them. The tracks were realistic and nearly identical in detail to their real-world counterparts, Bryon says. Bumps in the simulator came with a vibrating shock to the wheel. His parents would ask what he was spending time on, assuming it was just video games.
When Byron decided to get into racing on a real track and in a real car, he adjusted quickly. At 15, he began driving on the Legends circuit, which utilizes makeshift versions of American cars from the 1930s and 1940s. According to Byron, he had only practiced real driving for two months.
"It was so different," he said. "It was so intense. You're going so much faster than what you assume. When you're on a computer you just have no idea how—I hadn't driven a street car, either. The speed and everything was so different and new. It took a little bit of learning but when I got used to it I was pretty decent."
For a year, Byron's parents paid for him to race. Byron picked up a sponsor in Liberty University after a meeting with the school's chancellor, Jerry Falwell Jr. This year, in just his fourth season of racing, he debuted in the Camping World Truck Series.
Rudy Fugle, his crew chief, says that despite missing some of the experience other drivers accumulate by driving from as early as age seven, Byron has been a quick study. He still uses simulators, too. Bill Byron compares his son's virtual driving to the business world concept of "intellectual capital"—that is, the intuitive understanding of a topic, based on years of practice.
"He has stored so many experiences in his mind through the simulators of what he's out to accomplish that when he goes out there in the real world he's so close to real life that it becomes natural to him to experience it," Bill Byron said. "The other thing about it is, OK, he's our kid or whatever, he's smart. He has a very high IQ. And he's had a very high level of comprehension so he learns quickly. And that's something you can't take for granted because he learns from his mistakes and he doesn't duplicate it very often."
Bill saw that play during a race in Texas this summer. As Bill listened on the radio, Byron and his crew chief strategized about how to navigate the final ten laps. Fugle told his driver that it mirrored a situation he had faced two years earlier, and immediately Byron understood. With five laps to go, he surged into the lead and won the Rattlesnake 400. A success first simulated was now realized, and real.