Ron Capps was sim racing long before it was cool.
While many of his motorsports peers only recently have jumped on the iRacing bandwagon because of the COVID-19 crisis, the veteran NHRA Funny Car driver has been racing online for nearly a quarter-century.
“It was 1998, I had just signed to drive for Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme, and I finally could be able to afford an actual good computer,” Capps told NBCSports.com. “One of the first PC racing games that came out then was called ‘Grand Prix Legends.’ Still to this day, it’s considered one of the most realistic racing games ever.
“You could pick drivers like Dan Gurney and Jim Clark and race these old Lotuses and things like that. The physics, graphics and realism of these old Formula cars was so realistic, it was crazy.”
Capps became so proficient and well known racing online while also starting his pro drag racing career that he was one of the original beta testers of the first iRacing platform that debuted in 2004.
iRacing was founded by David Kaemmer, who was the original co-founder of the Papyrus Design Group that produced several popular racing games including NASCAR Racing 2003 and Grand Prix Legends. The other co-founder of iRacing was Boston Red Sox owner and Roush Fenway Racing co-owner John Henry.
“After college I heard that David was starting up a company along with John Henry, and starting an auto racing platform where people can race online,” said Capps, who studied software engineering in college. “I wound up racing with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., some road course racers and a couple Formula One guys.
“Since I had been lucky enough to drive different cars, I got on a list to beta test new cars and give feedback. I’ve been involved since then.”
iRacing has proven to be a salvation for thousands of race fans, including virtual race broadcasts on Fox, FS1 and NBCSN.
“Unfortunately due to the coronavirus, everybody realized we’re on lockdown,” Capps said. “One morning, probably the third or fourth day of the virus here in the states, I logged on to iRacing, and there was over 12,000 users online. A couple of nights ago, I logged on and there were over 14,000 people racing, which is nuts.”
Capps has turned on several of his fellow drag racers such as Cruz Pedregon and Shawn Langdon into the iRacing fold.
And they take things VERY seriously.
One of Capps’ biggest competitors for several years was Tommy DeLago, former crew chief for Capps’ teammate at Don Schumacher Racing, Matt Hagan.
Like the Hanson Brothers in the movie “Slapshot” would take their toys with them on road trips, DeLago and Capps “would take our computers and gaming consoles on the road,” Capps said, adding with a laugh, “at night after dinner, we’d go and play games all night.”
Capps has become one of the top go-to guys when someone within the overall motorsports community wants to learn more about iRacing and sim racing.
“One of the coolest emails I got was this past December by Dave Despain,” Capps said. “He heard I was on iRacing and since he retired from broadcasting, he wanted to get on iRacing.
“I pretty much gave him the setup I had for less than $1,000. Timmy Hill won that NASCAR race a few weeks ago with the same wheel setup that I had. It was a Logitech wheel for like $200 or $250. You just need a decent seat, clamp it to the desk and have a computer monitor, just like Timmy Hill had.”
While drivers like Denny Hamlin have sim racing rigs that can cost several thousands of dollars, Capps said success in iRacing and other variations isn’t about how much money you spend on a rig, but the talent you develop.
“I finally got a new setup last September,” Capps said. “The one I had before that I probably had since 2000, and it was a used one from someone graduating from UCLA.
“It was nothing fancy, probably cost me $200 with a frame and a little racing seat. The one I just got cost me $600 for the frame and seat, and I think the steering wheel was $400 for the wheel and pedals and everything, and the monitor probably cost me about $700. It’s nothing like you see what Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch have.”
Capps’ rig is set up in his suburban San Diego garage, parked next to his classic street rod and a drag racing simulator built from one of his old Funny Cars to practice his launches for his day job.
“I’m on it every day,” Capps said of his iRacing setup. “I’ll just log a few laps of seat time and before I know it, four hours has gone by. I go into the house and it’s already dark outside.
“Whenever we have parties at the house, it never fails that the girls are in the kitchen and the guys are all around the simulator in the garage, watching somebody race and take turns at it. The garage is just a guy’s place to hang out.”
While Capps sim races primarily in stock cars, sprint cars and the like, all the time he spends online has helped him with his drag racing exploits.
“Since the beginning of my career, I feel me being involved in sim racing, it’s helped the hand-eye coordination more than anything,” Capps said. “There’s so much going on, a lot of people don’t realize that in 3.8 seconds what your brain and your hands and eyes have to look at and do, all while you’re looking down the track trying to see where you’re going and keep the car straight, and also like every time I’ve jumped into another car in real life and go race like at Prelude to the Dream or formula cars.The
“The difference is with my NAPA Funny Car, everything is built for me, my seat is formed to me and everything is perfect for me and I know exactly where it is without thinking about it it’s so home. When I go drive something else, I’ve got to really think about what’s going on. Everything is in a different place, the shifters are different.
“It’s just a matter of adapting to it, that’s why guys like Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt back in the day were so good just at adapting at different cars. There’s no doubt my time on a sim in a dirt car or whatever else has definitely helped driving a Funny Car, no doubt.”
The 54-year-old Capps has helped other drivers and teams realize the nearly limitless possibilities in sim and iRacing. He was one of the first drivers/sim racers who decided to deck out their virtual rides with representation of his primary real-life sponsors, NAPA and Pennzoil.
“On the flight back from Gainesville (the first NHRA race cancelled due to the virus pandemic a month ago), I asked myself, ‘What can I do to keep myself relevant to my sponsors?’” Capps said. “The first thing I thought about was iRacing, but I had no idea how it would blow up until they put the first NASCAR race on TV.
“So I had a bunch of my cars on iRacing, sprint cars, trucks, road race, Indy cars, a bunch of them painted up like my NAPA car. So when I got on to race, it’s all my sponsors, NAPA, Pennzoil and all of them. This iRacing thing has been seamless. NAPA even put my and Alexander Rossi’s in-car shots on their YouTube pages.”
Capps is currently helping develop several new racing games, including one for drag racing and another for sprint cars. But he admits he really is hungry to get back on a real-life dragstrip.
“I really am missing drag racing a lot,” he said. “When the season ends and all the grind that happens through the playoffs and into our final race at Pomona, it takes about a month until you really want to get to a drag race. You just try to calm down and decompress. Then in about January, you’re ready to get back in it.
“With this coronavirus thing, the first week, it was great to spend more time with the family, but now, I’ve been talking to other drivers, if we didn’t have iRacing, it’d be much worse.”
He then added with a laugh, “The good thing about iRacing is that if I crash or something, I don’t have to worry about spending time in a hospital and missing my next drag race if something happens.”