During the shutdown because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, athletes and sports fans have turned to the virtual world for entertainment. Auto racing has led the way because the sport is perfectly suited for simulated competition.
Some drivers are getting some much-needed fan recognition by exceling in iRacing.
Sage Karam has always been fast and fearless in an actual Indy car but has not been able to land a full-time ride. He is scheduled to drive a limited-race schedule for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.
MORE: Felix Rosenqvist fuels the competitive fire in iRacing
ENTRY LIST: IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Michigan (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Karam is one of the top virtual drivers in IndyCar and drove to victory in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge opener at Watkins Glen International two weeks ago. He was a leading contender for the win at Barber Motorsports Park last Saturday, before he was involved in a crash with Felix Rosenqvist.
Karam’s profile has been elevated through his iRacing prowess, and that actually has his phone ringing with potential sponsors once real racing resumes.
“I think it can help you get in a ride because it can only help you running well and running up front,” Karam said Friday. “I’ve already gotten calls from sponsors that have been past sponsors of mine. Also, new sponsors that are wanting to get on board with this and are already talking to the team about what’s after this, how do we get on the real car and stuff because they’ve seen how exciting this is.
“It can only help. But it’s not going to hurt you. It’s just for a fun thing. But it’s been really cool to see how the racing world has embraced it. It’s really cool to see how it’s growing. That’s why I’m so into it because I’m not a full-time race car driver right now, I’m part time in the real thing, so it keeps me busy, and it’s something fun, but I also take it seriously. You can kind of make a living off of it now. I’m trying to get to that level, and it’s been a challenge, but it’s been fun.”
Karam has spent countless hours competing in iRacing, and that is one of the reasons why he is one of the best on the gaming platform. He believes even when real racing returns, iRacing and other forms of virtual competition have their place in the sports world.
“I’ve just been a part of iRacing for a while, and it’s cool to see the progression of it,” Karam said. “Just a few years back when you’d have world championship races that iRacing had put together and everybody would be running those. The amount of money that’s coming into sim racing, you look at the NASCAR world championship series presented by Coca-Cola, it’s a $300,000 prize pool. That is pretty incredible for sim racers.
“Porsche just put together a $250,000 or $200,000 prize pool for their championship, so the money is starting to get pretty huge in sim racing. People are starting to make a living more so than honestly a lot of real race car drivers are getting paid.
“It’s pretty insane.”
Though these virtual races are highly entertaining, they remain games. Race fans long for the real-world product of speed, thrills, noise and even the element of danger. That is what makes a race driver a hero because of the constant risk versus reward that comes from such a hazardous pursuit.
In a sim racing contest, there are few actual consequences that come with making a mistake. Of course, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace lost Blu-Emu as a sponsor because of a rage-quit in last Sunday’s sim race at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.
Conor Daly, who has been playing the role of court jester in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, saw that as somewhat of an overreaction.
“It’s not like we’re getting on the Internet and going into crazy mode,” Daly said. “Yes, we’re getting emotional and we’re shouting at people sometimes, but only Will Power is the only one really insulting people, so I don’t really know what else is going on. We’re just all kind of having a great time.
“I’s just one of those things where, is it a business? Absolutely. We are still wearing our sponsors. We can’t necessarily go out there and go super crazy. But yeah, you are going to get more emotional drivers or let’s say emotionally reactive drivers on the Internet.
“We are trying to entertain people. I don’t think anyone is going to get a job in a real race car after the iRacing IndyCar Challenge, and I don’t think for sure anyone is going to lose their job because of what they do on the iRacing IndyCar Challenge.”
Daly is scheduled to run the full season in IndyCar with the street and road course races plus the Indianapolis 500 for Ed Carpenter Racing and the remaining oval races for Carlin. The virtual racing has provided an avenue for showcasing sponsors.
“We didn’t really know what to expect from it at first,” Daly said. “Obviously we have this incredible looking U.S. Air Force car, and we want to put it out on the Internet because they’ve committed to us in real life. They are willing to invest in me and our sport. In this difficult time in the world right now, we’ve got to give them as much as possible for being willing to commit to us in the first place. I think we are honestly still in the early stages of figuring out how to make this work as good as we can.”
Public awareness and name recognition are just as important to a potential sponsor as speed in a race car. Daly said he’s focused on marrying iRacing with Twitch, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — and possibly YouTube — to increase his value.
“It’s all about building your brand,” Daly said.