During a typical NTT IndyCar Series race, NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey is in the broadcast booth along with analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Seated to his left is longtime statistician Russ Thompson, who provides valuable information throughout the telecast.
These days, however, Diffey is seated at the family dinner table at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. That is his “broadcast booth” during the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, a six-event virtual racing series that is being broadcast on NBCSN (Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET from Twin Ring Motegi is the next race).
Diffey’s has been turned into an NBC studio because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. With current technology, the NBCSN crew is able to call the virtual racing series from three different locations as if all three were in the same booth.
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“It’s a little odd not sitting next to each other with me being in Connecticut and Paul being in Arizona and Townsend being in California,” Diffey told NBCSports.com. “But the iRacing product is very, very realistic.”
Diffey noted the similarities and differences between calling a real NTT IndyCar Series race compared to an IndyCar virtual race.
“There is one thing experiencing it as a viewer and then something totally different when we go inside of that world,” Diffey explained. “When Paul, Townsend and I are commentating, from where we sat, it’s like it is real. We treated it that way. It felt that way.
“You are calling the action. In this case, there is some very limited extra information as opposed to what went on at the previous race or testing or activity back at the shop. This is more like ‘What kind of rig are you using? Did you build it? Were you up until 3 in the morning? How many laps have you done?’ The information flow is very different.
“As far as the nuts and the bolts, it was very similar to what we normally do, but strange not sitting next to each other. Just getting used to some of the nuances of the iRacing virtual world.”
There are some broadcast locations in the series where the NBC booth does not have a view of the track, such as at some of the street courses on the schedule. But the three-announcer tooth is seating next to each other to call the race.
During the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, however, they have to dramatically improvise.
“It’s weird when you are on your own,” Diffey said. “It’s really weird. Once they say, ‘3, 2, 1 go,’ and you have to start speaking, it feels very normal. We don’t spend the time during a three-hour broadcast looking at each other a whole lot.
“You might gesture, or I might tap Townsend on the shoulder or Paul might put his hand out, there will be some kind of gesture. We do look at each other, we’ll smile, we’ll laugh if someone cracked a joke. If someone has something really pertinent to say, they will raise their hand right in front of all three of us. That dynamic was very different and very weird.
“We have our statistician, Russ Thompson, with us each week at the race track. He sits to my left. Russ wasn’t there. He wasn’t sitting at my dining room table. But Russ was on with us. He was logged in. He is a regular iRacing user and texts us some information that wasn’t readily available to us in that moment. It was a huge learning curve, and it has gotten even better.”
Diffey likes the fact that in virtual racing, drivers are able to get two full resets to their cars in case they are involved in a crash. In the real world, the car either would have to be repaired or eliminated.
In last Saturday’s Michigan 275 at virtual Michigan International Speedway, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin crashed at the start of the race. He used one of his resets to return to action once the race resumed and the Virgin Australia SuperCars star finished second to teammate Simon Pagenaud.
The opening race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Watkins Glen International was shown on YouTube and various streaming platforms. Every race since has been televised by NBCSN.
“There was a lot of uncharted waters for many of us, so it was good to have a practice run like that,” Diffey said. “That being said, there were still hundreds of thousands of views and it was very well watched. It wasn’t like we were doing it for ourselves.
“But the point is valid to knock the rust off and get into the groove. We have production meetings with the iRacing folks to go over what the reflections were from the week before and incorporating the NBC Sports broadcast. It will be the same, but you have to juggle the ins and out for commercials, but that is no big deal.
“The biggest surprise for me that first weekend was based on watching one of the practice races on Friday in comparison to how they raced on Saturday. The Friday race in practice was wild.”
The real form of NTT IndyCar Series racing features drivers such as five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and 100thIndianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi racing up front, fighting it out for the win.
In the iRacing version, however, the field is a bit mixed up. Many of the younger drivers, such as Watkins Glen winner Sage Karam and second-year driver Felix Rosenqvist have been impressive. That’s because both are avid iRacing veterans and familiar with the sim rigs and eSports platform.
“A lot of the very experienced and successful IndyCar guys in the field have been very open about their lack of experience in iRacing,” Diffey said. “Normal family life takes up too of their much of their time and they don’t have time to allocate getting better or grinding out the laps. They are working out new daily routines how they can. I’m really looking forward as this goes along to see who feels more at ease with it.
“Once they are able to invest a certain level of time to it, you will see them more in the mix.”
“I’m not surprised because of his experience,” Diffey said of Karam’s virtual racing experience. “He has some very good statistics on his side as far as his iRacing pedigree is concerned.
“I hope when we return to real racing, he has more fans because of this. He disappeared from the IndyCar scene and then came back to do the Indy 500. Dreyer & Reinbold were working on an increased program for this year. I hope there is more there for him and he will come back with a little more confidence.. .. He has been with iRacing for a long, long time. When he was a kid, he was a beta tester for iRacing. He was helping with the development of that program. He knows the system very well and that has been evident so far.”
When the day comes that the world is allowed to return to normal and real racing returns, there could be a boost of interest from the gamers who are experiencing IndyCar for the first time. After seeing these drivers compete in the sim world, would those gamers be interested in seeing the real IndyCar drivers in an actual race?
“I think so, and I hope so,” Diffey said. “I think it’s very interesting where the crossover point is as far as your diehard IndyCar fan who goes to the races vs. the hard-core sim racing world. I’m not sure where that crossover point is. There is a difference.
“Let’s hope they blend, and that crossover point grows and spreads. It can’t hurt, that’s for sure.”
IndyCar on NBC and NASCAR on FS1 are two sports that have been able to have some form of competition on live TV by taking advantage of iRacing’s natural fit.
Although the racing may not be “real” the virtual form of racing is certainly “realistic.” That has allowed NBC Sports to continue its support of IndyCar on a weekly basis.
“It has worked out convenient that way,” Diffey said. “It’s been a huge challenge for our management and programming, and everybody involved. It has brought out everybody’s creative bits on how to provide programming for our viewers, week-in and week-out.
“This has been wonderful to have these six weeks to look forward to for the IndyCar fans to give them something. It’s a terrific fan base.”