IndyCar’s different strokes for different folks in iRacing Challenge

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When Simon Pagenaud drove to victory in last Saturday’s Chevrolet 275 at virtual Michigan International Speedway in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, the defending Indianapolis 500 winner was in full race gear. That included his Team Penske firesuit and driving shoes.

When five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon started to build his sim rig for the virtual racing series, he wanted to install a beer holder.

For three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, his sim rig is located in his garage in Miami. Because it’s 85 degrees outside, it’s even warmer in Castroneves’ garage. He has been competing in sim racing shirtless and wearing a pair of flip-flops.

The diversity of apparel is indicative of the range of attitude toward virtual racing and how it has replaced real racing during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The fourth race of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge is the Firestone 175 at virtual Twin Ring Motegi (Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). New to this week’s field is two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch and three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves.

“I’m probably the old-timer here,” Castroneves quipped on Friday. “The sim that I’m normally used to was in Mooresville. When it was myself, Josef Newgarden, and Will, Simon, they were so much faster than me. I wasn’t very much into video games.

“In this situation I’m excited because we’re not doing anything, so why not try something? Hopefully the oval is still challenging, don’t get me wrong, but it looks like I’m hustling just like a race car. It’s very interesting.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Dixon is 39. This is his 20th season of IndyCar Series competition, but his first in sim racing. He admits, he doesn’t really know what to think of the virtual series that has become a phenomenon during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“I ordered my sim with a beer holder,” Dixon said. “I’ve actually had to move past that now because it wasn’t serious enough.

“It’s not really the same (as real racing). The format itself is fun. I think having the accessibility and ease to have that crossover is pretty cool, probably more so for the sponsors.

“The reality of it is very unreal in a lot of ways. I think the racing has been a lot of fun. Yesterday I think Motegi leading into this weekend, the multiple lines, what we’ve seen so far, it’s going to be pretty cool.

“Last week at Michigan, even though I had to watch most of it from my couch, it was pretty cool to watch.”

Dixon admitted it didn’t take long for the competition level to escalate as many IndyCar Series drivers started enlisting their ace engineers to help in iRacing.

“I think anything gets taken to next level,” Dixon said. “You had guys that were just using very simple sims, to now teams using their full-on engineers, strategists, spotters, all that kind of thing.

“It can be fun at a level, then I think we’re very competitive people, and it keeps going and escalating to the next level. It quickly reached that level where it’s extremely competitive.

“I think if you win, it’s probably fun, otherwise it can be probably very frustrating.”

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Castroneves tries to play it cool in the heat of competition from his garage in Miami.

His sim racing apparel is much different than the racing uniform he wore as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series competitor when he won four poles and two races at the real Twin Ring Motegi in the 2000s.

“I have to say I will try this time to not use sandals,” Castroneves cracked. “I’ll probably put a little bit of shoes to see if I’ll be okay. But I still have to use shorts, sometimes no shirt, because where my sim is right now is in the garage. Right now, it’s 85 degrees in Florida. It’s melting.

“Other than that, I’ll see what happens. Actually, I did some race yesterday, and man they take too much serious. It is like pushing, get out of the way. Let’s see what happens. I will try to have as much fun as possible and hopefully see what happens.”

Castroneves has been a regular competitor in the Legends Series at The Race, which uses a different sim platform than iRacing. The Legends Series includes older and retired drivers from international racing including Formula One and IndyCar.

“I tell you that that has been hilarious,” Castroneves said. “Obviously it’s everyone that’s not very familiar with the virtual world, especially with the sim. To see everyone exchanging messages, trying to figure it out, it’s more fun than actually driving.

“Plus, we are driving a very old car, by the way. The first race was a 1983 or 1975 McLaren, or something like that. It’s really kind of fun. But the most fun actually is the interaction with everyone.

“Again, we just trying to keep ourselves busy, no question. Let’s see what’s happening in the end. Now it’s been very interesting this whole new virtual world that I’m getting myself into it.”

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And then there is 29-year-old two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden. He’s in the middle group of drivers where he isn’t considered old, but he’s not a gamer, either.

“I went through a roller coaster of commitment,” Newgarden recalled. “Didn’t get my sim setup until 24 hours before Watkins Glen (the opening race on March 28).  I crammed in about 12 hours of testing in 24 hours before the race and I did okay.

“Then, I got so excited and serious about it, so for Barber I spent the entire week practicing. I mean, I practiced every day for like eight hours. It was out of control.

“I didn’t have that great of a race, got like three different wrecks for different reasons. I got so angry at the thing, I spent four days off of it, didn’t touch it. Then, I only did a couple days before Michigan.”

Newgarden is seeking moderation in his approach to iRacing. He wants to improve but doesn’t want to become obsessed.

“I think that is when I learned you have to find a balance with this,” Newgarden said. “You have these sim racers that they spend every day on this for hours and hours and hours. I just don’t think you can catch up that quickly, within a couple weeks. You have to try to find a nice middle ground where you’re not losing your life to this simulation, but you’re prepping enough where you can still have fun in the race.

“The ovals have been better for that. At Motegi you haven’t had to do as much practice. It’s not as technical as a road course where the sim is very specific on how you can drive it, what you can get away with on the tires. It’s just a lot easier to learn that on the oval on the sim. I think you’ve had to spend less time. I found that middle ground where you can put a lot of practice in and be competitive.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500