‘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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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 

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”