‘It felt like real life’: Exploring the surreal sides of simulated Sebring


In these bizarre, disorienting and unsettling times, winning Saturday at Sebring International Raceway wasn’t much different for Bruno Spengler.

He was as nervous as he often gets prerace. He began sweating profusely during qualifying and throughout the race. And he had goosebumps and was screaming on the radio as he took the checkered flag.

“I was very happy,” Spengler said after winning “SuperSaturday” at Sebring. “It felt like real life.”

Except it wasn’t.

The presence of his wife, Julie, and his French bulldog, Nala, inside the simulator training room at their house in France confirmed that fact.

“I had my dog and my wife sitting next to me watching the whole race,” he said. “So that was very different. Normally they’re watching from home far away! So yeah, what a great day.”

It was especially good for BMW Motorsports, which was at the vanguard of a new (but hopefully temporary in some ways) era for auto racing.

The German automaker earned a sweep of the podium in the 90-minute race at Sebring, one of many online races with real-world driving stars since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic effectively shut down auto racing 10 days ago.

NASCAR will hold its own iRacing showcase at 1:30 p.m. ET today, pitting several Cup stars (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and late addition Jimmie Johnson) in a 100-lap race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

That event will feature fixed setups, meaning drivers can’t adjust their cars. The IMSA race allowed open setups and a choice between four cars.

The 50-car field hastily was organized last week by IMSA in partnership with iRacing, and aside from a few last-minute driver changes and connection problems (Colton Herta had been expected to race here and in other series but didn’t make any event Saturday), it went off without a hitch.

Nicky Catsburg, whose No. 26 BMW M8 GTE finished second to Spengler’s No. 25, received a message from Jens Marquardt, the director of BMW Motorsports.

“He was also watching, Catsburg said. “It shows the importance of this event. Sim racing is obviously something that’s helping us get through these tough times.

“Hopefully, some of the fans who would have gone to the race have now watched us race, and I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.”

The hope is that IMSA will return to Sebring in the real world at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, which was rescheduled to a Nov. 11-14, 2020 season finale.

But in the meantime, virtual racing is what the sports car series has, and BMW drivers might have an edge because the manufacturer has spent so much money and time on getting its drivers into simulators the past few years.

Bruno Spengler celebrates after a DTM in Nuremberg, Germany, last July. (TF-Images/Getty Images)

Spengler, Catsburg and third-place finisher Jesse Krohn had practiced and worked with BMW engineers and full-time simulation drivers to prepare for Sebring the past two days.

“It has been a topic for quite a while, more than a year at least,” Catsburg said of online racing. “I remember having a meeting about it them asking us and encouraging us to do more sim racing. We really have upped our game. And I think it’s only going to get more and more.

“We also need the practice. There are some pros in the sim racing world that are so unbelievably quick that we definitely need a lot of practice, and we need to have a serious approach. Because if you look at what they do, it’s almost like what we do in reality in terms of creating a setup, analyzing data, trying to see what the competitors are doing, looking at fuel usage. It’s really professional.”

Though Spengler (France), Catsburg (Belgium) and Krohn (Finland) all hail from Europe (and all raced from home Saturday in their native countries), the preferred platform for online racing is the U.S.-based iRacing.

“I have to say definitely iRacing is the one you want to be in because It’s very close to reality,” said Spengler, a former DTM champion who was entering his first full GTLM season in IMSA with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “It’s a lot of fun to drive. It’s very difficult to drive consistent. So I think that’s the platform that helps you the most as a racing driver.

“What’s nice in sim racing is that it’s one of the only places you can drive and test as much as you want. In real life testing is getting more and more limited. Here you can test and work on the car, which is fun.”

Said Krohn, who is in his third full IMSA season: ”Everyone can go have as much (simulation) as they want. They can really fine-tune the driving and get the best out of themselves and the car. iRacing is really the platform that I like to use that I find the most realistic; as they laser-scan the tracks, and they really do a great job with the cars as well. The M8 is pretty much the same thing as what we have in real life.”

Catsburg was able to improve his lap times in practice by using real-world techniques, including a system called Motec.

“We do the same data overlays in reality, and I’m seeing where (Spengler is) faster than me,” Catsburg said. “Where I have to try to improve, which is exactly the same as in reality. We know that sim racers, they spend so much time working on setups. We have to do that.”

Saturday’s IMSA field featured only real-world drivers and no professional gamers, who likely would have dominated if in the race. In “The Race All-Star Battle Round 2,” which matched Formula One, IndyCar and Formula E drivers against sim drivers, the highest-finishing real-world driver Saturday was Felix Rosenqvist in fifth.

“We didn’t have any of the usual suspects that mostly win the races on simulators,” Catsburg said with a chuckle. “If we had them there, Bruno and me wouldn’t have been P1 and P2, and Jesse wouldn’t be P3.”

Nick Catsburg celebrates after a WTCC win at Moscow Raceway (Mikhail JaparidzeTASS via Getty Images).

But that still didn’t diminish the joy of feeling somewhat connected to racing a car again.

Using a full-immersion virtual reality setup with wraparound goggles, Krohn, 29, said it “really feels like I’m sitting in the car. Some people say it’s a disadvantage because of the refresh rate of the screen. But I feel it’s more beneficial that I can look around the corner, and feel more like I’m in the car, and this helps me concentrate. This way it feels more real than it would I just had three screens and I could see my living room around me and other distractions.”

Said Catsburg, 32: “I would have obviously loved to do the real event, and nothing beats the real thing. But in terms of realism, a big thing you miss is the feel and there’s a little bit of fear obviously always in reality as well, which you don’t have (in simulation). But all those other things, it’s so unbelievably close to reality.”

There is one thing that Spengler, 36, missed,

“The contact with the people and the atmosphere of a race weekend,” he said. “I miss the people just being there, cheering. They are doing the show; the people who come to watch us at the race, come on the starting grid, be in the paddock, the whole atmosphere. This is what I miss a lot.

“This is what we don’t have in sim racing. Although we had a lot of people watching us, which is great.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”