‘Our sport is self-isolating by nature’: iRacing booms, intersects with reality


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.”

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WIDE-OPEN FIELD: Sizing up the contenders

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.

Felix Roseqnvist’s No. 10 Honda that he will pilot in the iRacing event at Watkins Glen.

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.”

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.”

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).”

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.

“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.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500