For the racing purists who believe real racing includes an internal combustion engine, their fear was the growing trend toward electric engines would be the end of auto racing.
Those purists decry the quiet shriek of an electric engine, comparing the sound to “fingernails on the chalkboard.”
It’s likely these people didn’t see the real competitor looming in people’s basements, home workout rooms or garages.
It’s the virtual racing world, where gamers can compete against each other all over the world in highly realistic competitive battles. Sometimes, those gamers are competing against the likes of IndyCar’s Will Power, Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist or Sage Karam and even NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
“Our sport is self-isolating by nature,” said Kevin Bobbitt, the director of marketing at iRacing. “You log on from home and I log on from home, and we race together. That’s the way it has always worked on iRacing.
“It just fits the world order right now.”
It especially fits the racing world as IndyCar, NASCAR, and IMSA have each organized online events with real-world drivers over the past two weeks.
All forms of racing were brought to a screeching halt because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The virtual racing world jumped in quickly to fill the void.
Torque Esports created “The Race All Star Battle” featuring top-name drivers from all over the world competing against professional gamers.
One week later, iRacing staged Sebring Super Saturday on March 21 and a virtual NASCAR race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 22 featuring a full field of NASCAR drivers. It was televised on FS-1.
On March 28 at 4 p.m. Eastern Time, IndyCar gets into the virtual action with the American Red Cross Grand Prix sim race from Watkins Glen International.
It’s the opener of the six-race IndyCar iRacing Challenge through May 2 and features a full field of NTT IndyCar Series competitors along with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Provided the COVID-19 virus is contained by then, the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series is now set to return to action on May 30 with the first to two races in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.
Virtual racing is filling the void while race fans are locked in their houses and in need of a distraction from the real world.
That point alone has been positive. It also provides a tremendous starting point for the future.
“I think right now we have a really cool opportunity where there’s not a lot of sports on television,” Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi told NBCSports.com “People are obviously stuck at home and don’t have a lot of choices as to what they’re going to do.
People that may have not necessarily known about or cared about motorsports before or watched an IndyCar race before would tune in because at the end of the day, they don’t really have much else to watch and they could fall in love with the sport. What we could see is a big increase, especially in a younger audience who are already pretty big into watching people on Twitch and virtual gaming and paying attention to that.
“I think if we do this right and we’re able to put on a good show for the next couple of months, we can really grow and introduce ourselves to a new fan base, a different fan base.”
Of all the drivers in IndyCar, Sage Karam is one of the most successful in the virtual world. Karam has 532 starts and 43 wins on road courses alone.
“Every year I participate in the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Le Mans. We do all those,” Karam told NBCSports.com. “Anybody can get in on those so you can do it with your buddies, having a good time, or if you have a team that takes it serious, you can train for it, do it just like you would in real life.
“I think it would be cool down the road in this championship to maybe open it up and see. Sim racers or fans, if there was a way like a competition or whatever to come race against us. The professional sim racers would probably beat us all pretty good.
“I think it would be cool, it would be fun. Like Alex said, it’s just a great opportunity for sim racing and racing right now. People want something to watch. We have that opportunity to give that to the people. I think it could be huge.”
— Sage Karam (@SageKaram) March 27, 2020
Simon Pagenaud won the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in 2019. The popular driver from France believes real world racing and simulation world racing can complement each other in the future.
“I think obviously iRacing and any other platform is really going to take off after this,” Pagenaud said. “A lot of people just didn’t know that there are teams out there, professional teams, actually racing in championships. They come from all over the world. It’s really exciting to see that.
“It’s the big thing of a new era.”
On Thursday, Graham Rahal had picked up a simulation rig to put together in time for Friday’s practice and Saturday’s race on iRacing.
“I feel like it is an interesting concept,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “I’m going to put my sim together and see what comes of that. I’ve never done this. I have seen it. I’m aware of it. I drove a simulator 12 years ago and it’s pretty different from where it is and what it is today. I’m definitely excited. It’s a good way to kill time. I’m not a big gamer. I have businesses to run. For me, it’s cool to have this in the house and play with it and see what it is all about.”
— Graham Rahal (@GrahamRahal) March 27, 2020
Kevin Bobbitt is the director of marketing at iRacing and has been with the company for 13 years. He has seen the company’s business explode in the past two weeks.
“We are extremely busy right now,” Bobbitt told NBCSports.com. “Our 120,000 members that we have, many of them are at home. There are various levels of quarantines going on around the world and they have more time to do some racing online.
“For the first time, some of (the real-world drivers) are getting set up. It’s interesting to see them embrace it and realize how competitive it is.
“We have heard from drivers in various series they are equally, if not more nervous, on the starting grid of an iRacing event than a real race. A lot of that has to do with comfort level. They are used to being on the real grid. It shows how competitive it is. They are sending us text messages asking us for tips on how to get an extra 10th of a second (per lap).”
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 27, 2020
Saturday’s race will pit one of the biggest names in NASCAR, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, against IndyCar drivers in a virtual race — with aspirations to drive a real Indy car in the future (as he told Leigh Diffey in a Friday interview).
“That is one of the coolest things about iRacing, guys from other types of motorsports can try different types,” Bobbitt said. “Ron Capps is a champion drag racer and he has been using iRacing as long as I’ve been around. He loves driving those Mazda MX-5s and road racing and all the other things he doesn’t normally get a chance to do. It’s super easy and inexpensive and you can get into one of those cars.
“If you were crossing over from one sport to IndyCar, it would be expensive to even get a test. To do that in sim racing, that is one of the things that makes our sport super cool. They can try these different forms of motorsport and find the ones that you like. Whether you are a champion in a different form of motorsport or a regular guy that gets to race NASCAR, IndyCar, sports cars, can try them all.
“The reset button is cheaper than buying a Dallara tub if you wreck it during a test day.”
Bobbitt said when professional drivers compete in a regular iRacing event, they are just “one of the guys.” To the other gamers competing against them, it’s their chance to become a racing hero.
“Sim racing and real racing will complement each other,” Bobbitt said. “Maybe sim racing will be a bigger role in that, but we are not aiming to replace real-world racing. Everybody that works at iRacing are super race fans. We love racing. Our goal is not to replace it. We are here to work together.
Finally got up and operational early this AM! Been running lots of laps today trying to understand this system and keep up with the quick guys! Tune in on @IndyCar and my accounts tomorrow for all the action. 🤙 #RELENTLESS | #INDYCARChallenge pic.twitter.com/pT3uhE3kLx
— Josef Newgarden (@josefnewgarden) March 28, 2020
“I think people that look for entertainment and things like this and The Race introduces them to the racing world. I think that will translate to fans to see the real thing. There is also the opportunity for people to start their career on the virtual world and then move over to the real thing. But it’s more about people who are fans and want to engage. There are only so many real-world racers, anyway.”
But will real world race drivers still have the same interest in sim racing once they are able to return to the track and enter into actual competition?
Two recent Indianapolis 500 winners said that virtual racing never will replace the real thing.
“I’m out I think,” Rossi, 28, said responding to a question from NBCSports.com about whether he’d be interested in a winter online series. “As long as racing returns to normal, I don’t think I’ll be doing this again.”
Kanaan, 45, also isn’t interested. “If I keep doing this, I’m probably going to have to live on somebody else’s couch because my wife will divorce me,” the 2004 series champion cracked. “I’m only participating on this because of the unfortunate situation. I didn’t start the season. I cannot miss my consecutive starts, so that’s why I’m taking part of it.
“I might ‘start and park,’ but that’s why I’m doing that.”