Smith: First Vegas eRace throws up pitfalls, huge potential, of sim racing as an eSport

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Formula E has a knack for thinking outside of the box and venturing where other series wouldn’t dare to.

So when the all-electric series announced last July at the London ePrix that it would be hosting a virtual non-championship round in Las Vegas, it really came as little surprise.

This is a championship that has one of the fastest-growing and youngest audiences in motorsport. In an era where video games are not only consumed directly en masse, but have also become a spectator sport, the move seemed to be a masterstroke.

And the massive potential of the concept was certainly evident in Las Vegas on Saturday night. But so were the unavoidable pitfalls of sim racing that make eSports so hard to match up with the real-world thing.

The race weekend was intended to go by like any other ePrix. The drivers were afforded a first taste of the track on the Friday before further practices on Saturday, followed by qualifying and the race later in the day. The only difference to the regular FE schedule was the presence of a qualifying race, necessary to reduce the grid from 30 to 20 drivers.

Joining the 20 regular Formula E drivers were 10 of the world’s finest sim racers, who had qualified for the event through the Road to Vegas scheme. Don’t go thinking these were kids mucking about on their PlayStation while sitting on their sofa. Their success on platforms such as iRacing and rFactor 2 – the latter being used for the eRace – has made them household names in the sim racing world, and have even led to a handful of real-life race car run-outs.

The ability of the sim racers was such that few expected the Formula E regulars to stand a chance. One Formula E driver told me before Christmas that they would be “fighting for 11th”, fully expecting the gamers to sweep the board.

And indeed, nine of the top 10 qualifiers in Vegas were from the virtual sphere. The only man to break their dominance was Felix Rosenqvist, who proved that not only is he superhuman behind the wheel of any real racing car, but that he can also cut his teeth as a sim driver.

Rosenqvist put up a good fight through qualifying and the race, but it was five-time Formula Sim Racing world champion Bono Huis who dominated. Huis topped every single practice and qualifying session before shooting off into the distance at the start of the race. Despite coming under pressure from Rosenqvist throughout, the Dutchman entered the pits with five laps to go with a comfortable buffer. Victory and the $200,000 top prize seemed to be his.

But then things turned around.

Finnish racer Olli Pahkala had been running on the fringes of the top five for much of the race before coming in to make an early pit stop. He’d benefitted from an almighty crash involving three sim racers in the battle for third, but somehow, he’d emerged nine seconds clear of Huis at the front. In a race without cautions or safety cars, it didn’t really matter when you pitted – but somehow he’d made the undercut work to great effect.

Pahkala rounded out the final few laps with ease to pick up the first Vegas eRace victory, but didn’t seem too overawed by his success. Huis, on the other hand, was fuming, appearing to refuse to initially take to the podium when called for.

It then transpired that something was up. Pahkala had received one of the FanBoost votes, intended to work in the same way as its real-life Formula E counterpart. But instead of having extra power for a short burst, Pahkala had it for six laps. His times were three seconds per lap faster than what Huis was recording.

As one sim racing reporter and commentator, Justin, put it: “You don’t just go two seconds per lap faster than Bono Huis. I’m sorry but that’s impossible. These are the best of the best, the gaps between them are in hundredths, not two full seconds every lap.”

A post-race stewards investigation – just like a real Formula E race weekend – deemed that Pahkala had gained an unfair advantage, resulting in a 12-second time penalty that dropped the Finn to third in the final classification. Huis was declared the winner with Rosenqvist now second.

While the affair was resolved, it was deeply embarrassing for all of those who looked to make the inaugural eRace such a success. It was like Balance of Performance on steroids. Pahkala did nothing wrong at all, and there was no foul play involved; it just proved that software is no replacement for the real world thing. The fact that Lucas di Grassi and Jerome d’Ambrosio were also denied the chance to race because of issue with their pods is another drawback of such an event.

The chatter on Twitter and in the online chat accompanying the video was of particular interest when gauging how the event was received. There was a definite fervor surrounding it, such was its enormity in sim racing and eSports circles. But you also felt certain level of cynicism; a cynicism that appeared justified in the wake of the FanBoost faux pas and the on-track clashes.

It is admirable what Formula E is aiming to do. The YouTube generation is part of a late-millennial era, a time where teenagers don’t spend their time playing games as much, but instead like to watch others doing battle and having fun online.

While games such as Call of Duty and FIFA remain the biggest hits for YouTube stars, there has been a rapid growth over the past couple of years for motorsport gamers. The likes of Tiametmarduk, Aarava and xMattyG may not be household names in wider motorsport yet, but they could well be in years to come. If you’ve watched any racing video game footage on YouTube, you’ve likely seen one of their videos.

Their popularity is such that they were often the main discussion point in the Twitch chat, not the race itself. Sure, the comments were tongue-in-cheek, but it shows what Formula E is going up against. It is trying to bridge the gap between real-life racing and virtual entertainment. It’s a big, big ask, particularly in something as sensory as motorsport. Fans thrive on the smells and the sounds of a motorsport event; it’s impossible to recreate that in the virtual world.

And despite the pitfalls, for a first go, it was a good effort from Formula E. The presentation was slick, with regular Formula E commentators Jack Nicholls and Dario Franchitti on hand for the call. Nicholls was seamless as ever throughout, and was able to offer an insight that other commentators would have struggled to provide, given he started out on the sim racing scene himself.

Should Formula E push on with plans for an eRacing series, it has the potential to be very lucrative indeed, such is the interest in eSports. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but Formula E has never been about pleasing the traditional motorsport fan. It’s different and fresh.

And that will help to foster a new kind of racing fan, something that the motorsport YouTuber clan is already starting to do.

Instead of going from watching motorsport to racing video games, why not flip that around?

The motorsport YouTubers are helping to create new fans: kids who love their videos and then decide to check out the real-life thing. It may seem like backward thinking to the motorsport purist, but in an ever-changing, millennial-driven world, it could be the right course to take.

The inaugural Vegas eRace wasn’t as smooth as the organizers would have wanted it to be, sure. At times, it was difficult to watch and consume; even a little shambolic, given the ending. I went to bed at 2:30am a little disgruntled given the confusion over the result.

But there are still plenty of positives to be taken from this first event. Formula E has taken the first step towards something that could be huge in years to come; it must take great pride in that.

World of Outlaws release 2023 Sprint Car Series schedule

2023 Outlaws Sprint schedule
World of Outlaws
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The 2023 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series schedule features 87 races, almost identical to the last year’s number, to be contested at 36 venues across 19 states. With cancelations for mostly weather, they closed out this year’s calendar on November 5 with 69 events in the books. Carson Macedo won a series high 11 races.

In 2022, David Gravel chased Brad Sweet into the three-race finale on the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one of the most hotly contested championships in Outlaws history. Sweet emerged victorious for the fourth straight year.

For the 19th consecutive season, the Outlaws Sprints will begin their season at Volusia Speedway Park for the DIRTcar Nationals from Feb. 9-11 and will return March 5-6 for another two-day show before hitting the road with a three-track swing into Pennsylvania to take on the Posse.

MORE: 2023 World of Outlaws Late Model Schedule

“Every year we continue to build the best schedule we can for drivers and fans across the country,” said World of Outlaws CEO Brian Carter is a series release. “I’m excited for the journey we’ve put together, which includes the biggest races in Sprint Car racing, our new Spring Swing through Pennsylvania, the thrill of combining the World of Outlaws and ‘Bike Week’ and so much more.”

Some tracks returning from hiatus and one brand new course include 81 Speedway in Park City, Kans. in April and again in October, Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon City, Ill. in April, Ogilvie (Minn.) Raceway in June and BAPS Motor Speedway in York Haven, Penn.

BAPS hosts its first race in more than 30 years when the track was known as Susquehanna Speedway. This midweek show will give the local Pennsylvania Posse 14 attempts to beat the traveling Outlaws.

Ogilvie Speedway is completely new to the series and makes it the 224th different venue they will have challenged.

MORE: Brad Sweet protects his place in history

Notably missing from the calendar are Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park, Cotton Bowl Speedway in Paige, Texas, Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway and the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

In addition to the new spring Pennsylvania Swing, the second date at Volusia Speedway will coincide with Daytona Beach’s Bike Week and bring new eyes to the sport.

Knoxville Raceway adds another multi-night show to the calendar in April, giving this track eight sanctioned events in 2023.

And of course, there are plenty of mainstays and high dollar events, such as the Memorial Day Spectacular at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway, the 35th running of the Brad Doty Classic in July and the Labor Day Spectacular at Gray’s Harbor in Elma, Wash.

Several big paydays are on the line in 2023 including the 40th annual Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio paying $175,000 to the winner, the Huset’s High Bank Nationals’ $250,000-to-win finale and the grandaddy of them all, the 62nd Knoxville Nationals with a total purse exceeding $1 million.

2023 Outlaws Sprint Schedule

Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)

Sunday-Monday, March 5-6 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)
Friday-Saturday, March 10-11 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, March 17 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday, March 18 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday, March 24 – Talladega Short Track (Eastaboga, AL)
Saturday, March 25 – Magnolia Motor Speedway (Columbus, MS)
Friday, March 31-Saturday, April 1 – Devil’s Bowl Speedway (Mesquite, TX)

Friday, April 7 – US-36 Raceway (Osborn, MO)
Saturday, April 8 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, April 14-15 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Friday-Saturday, April 21-22 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday, April 28 – Tri-City Speedway (Granite City, IL)
Saturday, April 29 – Tri-State Speedway (Haubstadt, IN)

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, May 10 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday-Saturday, May 12-13 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Friday, May 19 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Saturday, May 20 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, May 26-27 – Atomic Speedway (Chillicothe, OH)
Monday, May 29 – Lawrenceburg Speedway (Lawrenceburg, IN)

Friday, June 2 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, June 3 – Ogilvie Raceway (Ogilvie, MN)
Friday-Saturday, June 9-10 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday-Saturday, June 16-17 – Beaver Dam Raceway (Beaver Dam, WI)
Wednesday-Saturday, June 21-24 – Huset’s Speedway (Brandon, SD)
Friday, June 30-Saturday, July 1 – Cedar Lake Speedway (New Richmond, WI)

Friday, July 7 – 34 Raceway (West Burlington, IA)
Saturday, July 8 – Wilmot Raceway (Wilmot, WI)
Tuesday, July 11 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Friday-Saturday, July 14-15 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, July 19 – BAPS Motor Speedway (York Haven, PA)
Friday-Saturday, July 21-22 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday-Sunday, July 29-30 – Weedsport Speedway (Weedsport, NY)

Friday-Saturday, Aug. 4-5 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 9-12 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 17-19 – Jackson Motorplex (Jackson, MN)
Friday, Aug. 25 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, Aug. 26 – Red River Valley Speedway (West Fargo, ND)
Thursday, Aug. 31-Saturday, September 2 – Skagit Speedway (Alger, WA)

Monday, Sept. 4 – Grays Harbor Raceway (Elma, WA)
Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 7-9 – Silver Dollar Speedway (Chico, CA)
Friday, Sept. 15 – Keller Auto Speedway (Hanford, CA)
Saturday, Sept. 16 – Placerville Speedway (Placerville, CA)
Friday, Sept. 22 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Saturday, Sept. 23 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, Sept. 29-30 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)

Friday-Saturday, Oct. 6-7 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, Oct. 13 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Saturday, Oct. 14 – Lakeside Speedway (Kansas City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, Oct. 20-21 – TBA

Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 1-4 – The Dirt Track at Charlotte (Concord, NC)