Ryan: Some highs and lows amid the lessons from IndyCar and iRacing

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The never-ending debate – and dichotomy – over sim racing was encapsulated perfectly by one of the wildest shots you’ll see in any form of auto racing this season, real or virtual.

Graham Rahal’s wild flight above the iconic pagoda and scoring pylon on the front straightaway of Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a theater of the absurd, and it reflected the upside down, weird space that auto racing has been forced into by the past two months of pandemic living.

With engines silenced in a real world paralyzed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), virtual reality was virtually the only way for auto racing to stay on the radar. And relevance is essential in an industry designed for perpetual motion and exposure to keep the wheels greased in its corporate sponsorship mechanisms.

To that end, the iRacing phenomenon was an unqualified success.

No less an authority in business and racing than Roger Penske declared that, and the IndyCar and NASCAR team owner’s endorsement should be the only proof needed that simulated racing was worth doing in the interim since real-world tracks were put on hold in mid-March.

Between broadcasts on NBCSN and the Fox networks, millions watched iRacing in NASCAR and IndyCar over the past several weeks.

There were some downsides, though.

Drivers lost rides, sponsors and some integrity as they faced ethical quandaries and moral choices somehow bigger than real life.

And the resultant churn of the news cycle driven by those consequences sometimes left a dizzying feeling that the ubiquitous world of iRacing – in which races literally happen every second of every day – was a little bit too much with us.

“It’s unbelievable in a time when racing isn’t happening, and our lives should be very calm,” 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi said on the most recent episode of his “Off Track” podcast with James Hinchcliffe, “it’s more stressful and chaotic than it’s ever been.”

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

That theme of being simultaneously stuck on opposite ends of the spectrum was driven home by the indelible image of Rahal’s virtual car soaring into the pixelated nothingness.

His Dallara-Honda’s wonderfully detailed rendering was a reminder of how eerily realistic iRacing could be, but the ridiculous setting of being catapulted across the sky also firmly said this wasn’t reality.

And reality, thankfully, is about to reign supreme once again in racing.

With NASCAR throwing the green flag May 17 at Darlington Raceway and IndyCar following June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway, the simulation debates will end for the foreseeable future.

But with talk of having pro drivers compete in offseason iRacing series, virtual racing also has achieved a new foothold in the public consciousness. It’s worth mulling what was learned from this experiment.

For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll focus solely on the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

Here were takeaways from the six-round virtual series that produced some unexpected moments, storylines and winners.

–Does it translate or not? The biggest chicken-and-egg debate surrounding iRacing is how seriously it can – or should – be taken.

There are some elements, such as G forces, physical bumps and the element of fear, that are impossible to replicate in simulation. Drivers, though, also have praised the realism of the games and have logged ridiculously long hours trying to master the craft.

Tony Kanaan said he spent as many as nine hours daily on his rig trying to relearn some longtime driving principles. The hardest part might have been learning how to retrain his muscle memory to make the equipment work with a lack of feel in the corners, where there was more steering input and less throttle.

“To have that in mind after 38 years of driving, it’s really hard,” he said. “We have things we’re used to that’s not representative. Drivers feel the cars in their butt. Here I don’t feel anything in my butt. It’s all in steering and how heavy the wheel is. It’s quite weird to accelerate and don’t feel your neck pulling back. Your neck goes forward.

“The graphics are awesome, and the cars sound perfect. It’s still not the real world. Of course, for someone who never has driven an Indy car, it’s real. It’s actually fun.”

Tony Kanaan (right) talks with Alexander Rossi (middle) and James Hinchcliffe on Pole Day for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 (Khris Hale/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

 

In trying to help Hinchcliffe qualify for the Indy finale, Rossi discovered he could pick up a 10th of a second just by changing the percentage of steering wheel force and damping while staying wide open on the accelerator around the 2.5-mile oval.

Such an adjustment has no real-world application, which Rossi felt underscored “it’s absolutely asinine that this has actually become a measure of capability” for real-world success.

That’s why there are many who are hoping to forget the entire experience.

“I said to my coaches (at Driver61, a simulation consulting group) I hope I’m able to compartmentalize,” Kanaan said. “Because I can’t apply anything here to a real race car and vice versa.”

But there could be a positive byproduct from the nerves and stress that many typically unflappable drivers felt while trying to excel in a nationally televised exhibition that depended on a secure Internet connection.

We’re not learning anything in terms of improving our technique or our driving capability, but I have to say I think our ability to execute a lap under pressure is gaining capability,” Rossi said on his podcast. “We’re getting better at it. It’s so difficult to even keep the car on the track without crashing or spinning and then to qualify and know you have one lap to get it done and put it together.

“I think when we get back in the real car, qualifying will maybe become a little easier.”

Teams got a lot of benefit from iRacing evaluations of drivers and crews: Just as in NASCAR, the 2021 season looms large for free agency in IndyCar with several stars in contract years.

For at least one powerhouse team, the IndyCar iRacing Challenge was being used to learn more about potential candidates.

“What a lot of us saw for the very first time, was the true personality of all the drivers,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBCSports.com. “If you engaged yourself in all the media options, which I did, and I’m looking at how all these drivers operate, where they are on the integrity scale, how they interacted with their team. How they go about daily lives to go about being ready to race.

“That was a really good case study in the future hiring potential of any of those drivers. That’s how I looked at it. Would those people represent us well if we chose to hire them? How good are they with interacting with their internal people, and are they willing to go the extra mile on the racetrack?”

To that end, IndyCar teams got heavily invested in their drivers’ iRacing results (curiously, much more so than in NASCAR, which was noted by some on the Pro Invitational Series side).

IndyCar team engineers were heavily involved with formulating strategies and helping drivers adapt to the series’ fixed setups, and it wasn’t just because they wanted to perform well.

“It’s more than a video game, but it’s somewhere between a video game and reality,” Hull said. “From March 13 until June 6, we could have been sitting idle. It’s afforded us to work like we normally work. We got all our engineers together. We got all our managers together. We have our drivers. We always share everything with each other.

“So everybody’s mind is on the product. When we race at Texas, we’ve raced all those (iRacing) weekends. And we have a new engineer-driver combination with Mike Cannon and Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson and Brad Goldberg. In Marcus’ case, he has a new spotter. So we’ve tweaked on those interactions, and that’s really helped us.”

–IndyCar got some much-needed rivalries: Much of NASCAR’s popularity has been built on cantankerous ill will between its drivers, and that animosity often seems missing in IndyCar.

The open driver chat during iRacing changed that dynamic. It was easy to lose track of how much sniping, cat-calling and backbiting was happening every lap, and there are some who believe the feuds will linger.

As Hinchcliffe told RACER.com, “real-life rivalries will be born out of sim racing, out of fake-life driving. … Not to me, because I just didn’t get invested enough to get angry enough at anybody. But for sure there are going to be people that carry some of the grudges from this over to the real world. … I don’t think this disappears at all.”

Kanaan said during his YouTube channel stream at the Indy finale that “we have some people getting mad at each other, some supporting each other. It’ll be funny to see what happens next time at real racetrack. I think some rivalries have arisen.”

Lando Norris clearly remains angry with Simon Pagenaud, telling Leigh Diffey in a Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel interview last week that “I don’t think he’s done a lot in terms of trying to make things better between me and him and also what he did in front of thousands of people.”

(Norris also said he would make the same move that angered Pagenaud if an Indy 500 win were at stake, which brought amusement from Kanaan.)

Others were less sure if the hard feelings would remain, blaming it more on cabin fever that will dissipate when wheel to wheel at 200 mph in the real world.

“There’s a lot that’s been said that probably shouldn’t have been said,” Conor Daly said. “But in reality, we’re all probably going slightly crazy. I know I certainly am.”

Said Ferrucci: “There could be some rivalries born between a few people that have had issues, but those that have been preexisting in iRacing might have made it worse. But people will make amends and we’ll be going racing again and not have to worry about it.”

–The rivalries came at the expense of some reputational damage: This was evident in the finale when Pagenaud took out Norris after vowing to prevent the F1 McLaren driver from winning.

Then on the final lap, there were the scraps between Pato O’Ward and Ericsson, and Santino Ferrucci crashed Oliver Askew a hundred feet from the finish line.

The moves reverberated through the racing world. Veteran IndyCar winner Adrian Fernandez (who has become a sim racing enthusiast during the pandemic) said he was “shocked” by Pagenaud and Ferrucci, whose decision he singled out in particular.

“I would kill that guy if he did that to me,” Fernandez told NBCSports.com. “Are you kidding, man? Just out of respect for everyone spending so much time (practicing on their sim rigs). And it’s not just the game. People are watching you.

“If you’re playing a game of poker, that’s just a game, right? Are you just supposed to drop the cards and throw them out and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a game.’ No. (iRacing) is not really a game. It’s something really serious. You have to behave and act as a professional because people are watching you. It’s a game that has turned almost professional.

“When you’re playing for a big win like Indianapolis, and you have a lot of teams and a lot of effort and you have TV and everybody watching, it changes from a game to a serious game. You just have to be careful and behave the same way as you behave in real life in these things. Because a lot of people are watching these days, and you set an example by what you do.”

It’s possible to take it too seriously, though: That certainly was the case with Ferrucci, who told IndyCar on NBC’s Townsend Bell in a Motorsports on NBC YouTube interview that he immediately texted Askew to set things right and then called team owner Jimmy Vasser to apologize for his actions.

Ferrucci said he was kicking himself and felt shame over the move but added it was a byproduct of his competitive intensity.

“The way I race the championship is I always want to finish and have the best results and least mistakes,” he told Bell. “Coming to the line, my head got a little big there and let emotions take over too much trying to win the virtual Indy 500.

“It’s just a game, but I see it as more than that. A lot of us have been racing all week trying to be perfect, even in race runs. We all took this incredibly seriously and put in tons of hours. I was eating meals on the simulator five days a week.”

The other side of that passion was evident with Kanaan, an elder statesman who admirably admonished his peers after being concerned their disastrous practices would be a preview of the Indy finale.

The 2004 IndyCar champion and 2013 Indy 500 winner was borderline despondent after failing to complete any of the six races in the iRacing Challenge. His IMS race ended after two wrecks in the first five laps.

“I’m glad it’s over,” Kanaan told his YouTube viewers while apologizing for a mild curse after his second crash. “This is really frustrating. I probably need a break from this thing.”

–The lead-up to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway finale could have been better: There was limited information from the outset about how the 33-car field would be determined, not just among the public but also the 10 drivers who were trying to secure one of the four open slots in the race.

It apparently was the result of some good intentions – IndyCar wanted to avoid embarrassment for big-name drivers who failed to qualify – but the result was confusion. Hinchcliffe learned only a day ahead about how qualifying would work, and there was little fanfare as he, Robert Wickens and Kyle Busch weren’t fast enough during an unpublicized Wednesday afternoon session on iRacing.

“I give IndyCar a lot of credit for a lot of things they do, but I feel this could have been a very good opportunity in a way to actually capture the intensity of a Bump Day,” Rossi said. “Had (qualifying) been televised or at least broadcast in some short 20 or 30-minute highlight reel, that could have been cool.”

The struggles of the stars: With a few exceptions at Team Penske (2014 series champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power was a consistent contender; Pagenaud, who won consecutive oval races; two-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, who was the unofficial series champion with two wins), it seemed as if real-world success wasn’t a great barometer for iRacing results.

Much of this was clearly because many star IndyCar drivers were relative iRacing novices. Power and others, meanwhile, had thousands of hours on sim rigs that provided an inherent advantage.

“When you’re not 100 percent comfortable with what you’re doing, that’s when you get nervous,” Kanaan said, explaining his agita over sim racing. “In the (real-world) race car, I’m 100 percent comfortable. It’s a new world here.”

The real MVP was Daly: Viewers of “The Amazing Race” knew of his charismatic and fun-loving personality, but it went to the next level with the humor in IndyCar iRacing Challenge Twitch broadcasts from a spartan setup (his sim “rig” was a computer on a table in his 90-degree guest bedroom). His channel became must-see second screen experience viewing during the series.

Daly was happy to play the court jester.

But he also was “excited to get back to reality. I love interacting with our fan base and the Twitch community is actually really cool. I’ve been streaming for like two years, and there’s like 15 or 20 people that have always been watching my streams for that long time period, and they’re still here and still supportive. We’ve obviously got a lot more now, and that’s awesome.

“I’m just a normal guy that happens to be very lucky enough to pursue what I love to do. Was (iRacing) a brand-building exercise? Absolutely. And I’m not going to stop streaming. For sure, my Twitch channel is definitely out there now, and you can’t stop once the hype train keeps going. We’ll see how we integrate that once the real racing kicks off, but I’m excited to keep it going.”

Conor Daly (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)