For the first time in a while last Sunday, Colton Herta entered a race in which he was less than a threat to win.
There were drivers competing from around the globe — Formula One, IndyCar, IMSA, Formula E — but it wasn’t the depth of the field that made the rising IndyCar star, who won two races in 2019 as a rookie, an underdog.
It was the field of play.
Herta finished 10th in “The Race All-Star eSports Battle,” a racing simulation that was won by someone named Jernej Simoncic from the Czech Republic. He also finished well ahead of Felix Rosenqvist (seventh) and Max Verstappen (11th).
Though Herta, Rosenqvist and Verstappen are quite accomplished in real-world racing, racing against online professional remains a challenge. And now the challenge might become how quickly can the real-world drivers get up to speed against gamers who have raced countless laps in cyberspace.
Darren Cox, CEO of Torque Esports that played host to “The Race” (which will return again at 1 p.m. ET Saturday), believes in the next three weeks that professional racing drivers will begin to show their ability.
“I believe Colton Herta will win one of these races in the next few weeks,” Cox predicted. “The gamers have been playing for years; but the professional drivers are just now learning the platform.
“I love the fact that these drivers are communicating back and forth with each other. When I asked who was in for next weekend. Within 27 seconds, Herta messaged back that, ‘I’m in.’ He wasn’t happy that he didn’t win, and he is already working on his setup.
“We’ve got more big names joining us this weekend, but Colton Herta is going to be an absolute superstar.”
Technology and the booming eSports industry is helping to fill the void created by the shutdown in sports over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
On Friday, IndyCar announced it is teaming up with iRacing to stage six virtual race events featuring current NTT IndyCar Series drivers and possibly some special guests beginning Saturday, March 28. Each race will be streamed live on indycar.com and via other platforms (IndyCar YouTube and Facebook, iRacing’s Twitch accounts).
Each virtual race event, which will last approximately 90 minutes to two hours, will begin at 4 p.m. ET each Saturday through May 2.
Also in partnership with iRacing, NASCAR is running a race at Homestead Miami Speedway featuring its real-world drivers that will be televised live on FS1 on Sunday.
The Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring had been scheduled for Saturday but has been postponed until Nov 11-14, so “SuperSaturday” at Sebring will continue on iRacing. Herta, Santino Ferrucci and Dalton Kellett are among those who will represent IndyCar.
World Wide Technology Raceway executive vice president and general manager Chris Blair has organized an iRacing version of the WWTR Bommarito 500, which is scheduled for Aug. 22 on the IndyCar NTT schedule this year.
The race will be open to 62 drivers and broadcast on Speed51 at 8 p.m. ET on March 29. The race will carry a throwback theme for entries.
After a successful sim race last weekend, Torque Esports has organized “The Race All-Star Esports Battle” that will feature some of the world’s best sim racers competing against professional drivers from Formula One, IndyCar, Formula E and more. That will be on the rFactor 2 platform.
According to Torque Esports, the inaugural event had a combined total of 12.1 million minutes watched on “The Race” YouTube channel. The fan engagement featured nearly 30,000 combined comments and millions of impressions on social media.
Formula One’s Max Verstappen along with IndyCar’s Felix Rosenqvist, Herta, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power competed in last Sunday’s contest.
Nico Hulkenburg, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya (and son Sebastian), Rosenqvist and Verstappen are among those who will race in the March 21 contest that will begin at 1 p.m. ET.
Cox is a former racer who has competed in four 24-hour endurance races during his career.
His company was among the first to get professional drivers to compete in sim racing when all racing series began shutting down last weekend.
“There’s that brilliant saying of, ‘How many nights does it take to be an overnight success?’ ” Cox told NBCSports.com in an exclusive interview. “Whatever 15 times 365 is because my core crew have been involved in this for that long. It’s now called eSports, but back in the day, it was sim racing or online racing or gaming. We’ve worked in the industry for 15 years. We started 12 years ago with GT Academy and now, suddenly, everyone is rushing to it.
“We got on the phone Thursday night and started calling in favors to our friends. By 1 a.m. on Sunday, 72 hours later, we had the best virtual grid of racers ever assembled.
“This isn’t about us suddenly arriving on the scene and taking an opportunity; it’s making many mistakes over the last 10 years and learning from it. We had all of the right people in all of the right place. Then we had a lot of drivers that were suddenly interested in what we were doing. Some were avid eSports racers, and others were hiding their interests.”
Cox said he is turning away real-world drivers because of the demand.
“In this rush, there is a virtual pot of gold, we can’t forget about the core community,” Cox said. “We will always reserve a place for people involved in eSport or sim racing or iRacing. These are the core of the sport. We can’t just focus on Max Verstappen or Lando Norris; we have to make superstars out of the kids that have been involved in this eSport and make sure they get their moment in the sun so they can be heroes as well.”
Cox said racing programs in the United Kingdom are manufacturing ventilators to help with the demand for the life-saving medical devices. Cox believes eSports events are providing some moments of entertainment and diversion during this unsettling time in history.
In the first all-star event last weekend, IndyCar’s Rosenqvist and Herta were the only two professional racers who finished in the top 10. The rest were gamers.
“Everyone knows Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is a very good gamer as well,” Cox said. “Max Verstappen is a gamer as well as a great racing driver. My chief marketing officer is very good friends with Simon Pagenaud. We’ve worked with Juan Pablo Montoya. We’ve been following Colton Herta through our relationship with the Steinbrenners.”
Cox predicts big things for Herta, 19, both in the real world and the virtual world.
“I think that guy (Herta) in the sim world and the real world is going to be a superstar,” Cox predicted. “Look at (Formula One driver) Lando Norris. He’s a big name in the UK, but in the racing world, he’s not one of the biggest yet. After this shutdown ends, Lando Norris will be the one everyone wants to talk to other than Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen because he’s the crossover guy. He’s been on Twitch and he’s streaming. He’s the man.
“If you want a United States equivalent, Colton Herta is your man. He’s young. He’s fast in the real car and he’s very fast in the virtual car. He understands social media and understands what it takes to do the streaming stuff.
“For me, the pick for the American audience is look out for this young kid, Colton Herta. He’s the future of IndyCar racing and in sim racing in the United States.
“Colton Herta is the future of IndyCar. They will lead the way for American motorsports. The American fans should get behind him.”
Cox’s company boasted an impressive n1.4 million viewers for all streams and 12.9 million impressions with an average view time of 12 minutes. He compared that to Sky Sports coverage of Formula One racing that averages 800,000 viewers in the United Kingdom.
That is behind a paywall, though. Virtual racing can be viewed for free on YouTube, Twitch and myriad other platforms.
“At the time we streamed, it was the biggest streaming event on Twitch and YouTube,” Cox said. “When it came to live streaming sports, we were No. 1. I think that number this weekend will be challenged by other streaming events, but I think you will see the biggest virtual racing weekend around the world in terms of views. A lot of racing in the U.K. is behind paywalls.
“We will have 40 drivers this weekend, and half of them will be streaming themselves. That is unprecedented. I should be buying shares in Logitech at the moment because they are buying webcams so they can stream themselves on their Twitch channels. Two weeks ago, a lot of these drivers didn’t know how to spell Twitch, let alone how to stream on it.”
Fan engagement with drivers was also high during last week’s stream.
“We launched a new platform called the-race.com,” Cox said. “Eight days ago, 92 percent of our traffic was real racing. We cover Formula One, IndyCar, Formula E, MotoGP and eSports. As of yesterday, 87 percent of the traffic on our site was eSports. If you don’t have eSports in your portfolio right now, no one talks about what you are doing. You are talking about what happened and what is going to happen.
“People are interested in what is happening now and what is happening now is eSports. What is important is the fan engagement. On our Twitch feed, we are getting 27 percent engagement. We used to get excited when it was 3 percent engagement.”
Another driver who will participate is IndyCar veteran Nelson Piquet, Jr., who has an elaborate rig that he uses for virtual racing.
“I’ve had a simulator at home for years but I’ve never played seriously, it was more for a bit of fun with friends, but nothing close to a professional sim race,” Piquet said. “All the races going on at the moment are way more competitive than I am used to for sure.
“Every day I’m trying to practice a bit more and get better, because I think it’s good at this time to be focusing on something like this. A simulator is a complicated thing; it’s not just a plug and play situation. There are so many set-ups and variations and a thousand different steering wheels, seats and computers you could choose from so everything has variables in terms of rig setup as well as car setup. I’ve been learning so much even the last couple of days that I’ve probably learned more this week than in the last three years.
“You get to know some drivers that maybe you hadn’t come across in the past and everyone is getting together and doing fun activities online. The motorsport community isn’t that big but there’s still people that you might not know well and we’re getting to know each other more and people are helping each other out.
“We love racing so what it’s doing is providing some fun in tough times and it’s helping us be united.”
Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500