MOORESVILLE, North Carolina – Simon Pagenaud’s secret weapon in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge is a true veteran of the virtual racing platform. It’s race engineer Ben Bretzman, who was a ‘beta tester” for iRacing 13 years ago.
“I was actually a beta tester back in 2007 before iRacing was officially released,” Bretzman told NBCSports.com in an exclusive interview. “I’ve been a member since August of 2007. I’ve seen the evolutions of it. I took a lot of years off after we had our child, but I’ve seen a lot of years of iRacing.”
Because Bretzman has seen iRacing develop over the years, and with his real-world expertise as Pagenaud’s race engineer, he is an important reason why Team Penske’s IndyCar drivers have finished 1-2 in the past two iRacing Challenge events.
Team Penske Virgin Australia SuperCar champion Scott McLaughlin won at virtual Barber Motorsports Park two weeks ahead of teammate Will Power. Pagenaud, the defending winner of the real Indianapolis 500 in 2019, won at virtual Michigan International Speedway last weekend just ahead of McLaughlin.
“Penske Pride” is evident with success, even it’s in the virtual world.
“One thing that makes us chuckle a little bit is in the virtual points right now; we are 1-2-3 with all of the same cars,” Bretzman admitted. “It gives us satisfaction with the way we train our drivers and the way our drivers go about their business and the way we try to help them goes directly in line with how we operate in the real world.
“It shows that we are doing things right in the virtual world, also.”
Bretzman called Pagenaud’s race strategy last week while also broadcasting the driver’s streaming channel on Facebook Live. This week, Bretzman will have the same roles as Pagenaud’s channel moves over to YouTube.
Winning is winning, but is the satisfaction level the same as winning a real race?
“It was just as stressful, that’s for sure,” Bretzman confirmed. “In this virtual environment, the drivers don’t have as much feedback. They are just as concerned about crashing other cars as they are crashing themselves. They were making sure they don’t crash other people. Some finished a pack race and it became a fuel race. It was fun to watch that, and the strategy play out right in front of you.
“It was satisfying. I wouldn’t say it’s on the level par of a real race win, but we are all racers, we are all competitive, we all want to do well. When you stick us in a room with guys we compete against every weekend, if you can win that, it’s fun.
“It’s a lot of fun.”
Although Team Penske’s virtual success reflects on the same level of success the team achieves in real racing, it’s not necessarily by design. There is no unified team effort that is being managed all four of its drivers during the six-race IndyCar iRacing Challenge.
“We haven’t done too much on the team side with our team,” Bretzman admitted. “We’ve tried to set up some stuff if the drivers want to compare notes, they can. Honestly, we haven’t done much as a team across all four of our cars running in it. It’s been mainly the drivers talking to each other themselves. When the engineers can help out, we will. But it hasn’t been a ton across all of our channels. The drivers talk to each other a lot. Simon and Will talk to each other quite a bit about what is going on. We have to let them do that.
“Then, the drivers come to the engineers and ask for help during the race. That has been good.”
For Bretzman, he is able to use his vast knowledge of iRacing from his days as a beta tester to help Pagenaud be competitive in iRacing. He also used some of the same basic fundamentals of engineering that has helped Pagenaud win the 2016 NTT IndyCar Series championship and the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in 2019.
“I come in and help him out, but iRacing is good enough to where you can see how much fuel burn you have per lap,” Bretzman explained. “You can come up with generic fuel strategy at that point. If I burn this much fuel, I can run this many laps. If I run that much fuel, I can run that many laps. It depends on the situation.
“Something we used last week at Michigan, we knew how many laps we could do in the draft and how many laps we could do if we were leading just from practice. It was easy to see once that first yellow came out at Michigan, it was an 85-lap race and we knew we could run 40 laps in the pack, it was super easy to figure out we only needed to do one more stop after the yellow flag. I was surprised more people didn’t stop during the yellow flag because you could make it home on one more stop.
“That is the fun part of what makes it racing. Anything can happen. That is what is making the iRacing thing fun and keeping people interested. It’s like being at the race track. There are lots of variables that are random, just like a real race. You have to keep your best guess at it. We’ve been working on it.
“The nice thing for us is we are able to use our communication like we do. I call his race during the actual race. Here is how the race is playing out; who we are racing on our strategy or not our strategy. Here is what you need to do to go fast or go slow here or manage the tires. It’s keeping our communication level up while we’re not racing. That is healthy to everybody to stay in a rhythm of quick decision making. It’s a fun way of doing it.
“The fun part of it is not only are the drivers all the same drivers they are racing against week-in and week-out, but there are a lot of different engineers and teams helping their own drivers. You are racing the pit lane, which is the really fun part of it and keeping it entertaining.”
Engineering fundamentals are often created in the virtual world. IndyCar team engineers spend most of their duties with computer simulations. Those involve aerodynamics, mechanical grip, vehicle dynamics and other key aspects of racing.
Then, they apply that knowledge to the real world.
Because of that deep background and understanding of the iRacing platform, Bretzman believes virtual racing compares favorably to the real form of racing.
“I’m not too surprised,” Bretzman said. “They have been working on their tire modeling and vehicle modeling and their vehicle dynamics for 15 years. They have had some good people through that program to get the cars up and going and understand the proper fundamentals of cars and tires. There are a lot of things the iRacing model struggles with because they don’t have the proper data. Firestone and Dallara aren’t going to give them everything they have so they won’t be exact replicas of that. But they have made it where the cars are relatively realistic to drive and a consistent car to drive. Over that long of a period, they have had time to get there and that I good.
“The thing about iRacing is it is such an established brand and an established vehicle model that most of the drivers can get on and be happy with how it is performing right away.”
So, how does the process work? In a real race, Bretzman is part of the Team Penske engineering stand, working in conjunction with race strategist Kyle Moyer. In virtual racing, Pagenaud is in his sim rig while Bretzman is looking over all the data on the iRacing feed on a separate screen.
“For what we look at, I can see more,” Bretzman explained. “Simon can see the same stuff, but the way Simon drives, he is mentally focused on his driving. For him trying to click around on the screen while he is driving, he wouldn’t like too much. That is what I’m adding is the fact he can 100 percent focus on his driving and I can relay information to him that I think is important. That’s what we would do at the real track.
“In theory, he can get the real stuff. But his style of driving, he prefers to have the help of someone tell him what’s important, so he doesn’t have to find it.”
Bretzman believes sim racing can play a role with IndyCar once the current COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end. IndyCar Series owner and team owner Roger Penske has seen levels of fan engagement rise. That is important to moving the series forward.
Bretzman sees that fan engagement first-hand, because in addition to calling Pagenaud’s race, he also broadcasts to his fans on Pagenaud’s streaming channel.
“Where does it go? I don’t know,” Bretzman said. “I think the fans like it and any time we get content to the fans, is a pretty big deal.
“I’m talking with him and interacting with fans as they ask questions on the broadcast. I engage with the fans more and explain what is happening in the race and what we are doing. If we are under yellow, I’ll ask Simon a question from the fans. That is my biggest thing, trying to learn about broadcasting and streaming. It’s been two weeks now and we have a consistent stream. That has been fun.
“The fan engagement side has been awesome. We’ve had a lot of viewers and a lot of questions during the races. For me, during these events, it’s a lot of fun. We are racing, racing with Simon and having fun with it and also interacting with fans.
“It’s been a lot of fun.”