Column: iRacing is our racing oasis

iRacers compete in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Pro Invitational at the Dirt Track at Charlotte. (JZ iRacing Photography)
iRacers compete in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Pro Invitational at the Dirt Track at Charlotte. (JZ iRacing Photography)

By Jeremiah Davis

There’s a famous (infamous?) moment in the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” where in an interview, Ricky Bobby hilariously says, “I don’t know what to do with my hands,” during a TV interview.

That’s kind of how we all feel right now, but instead of our hands it’s our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So it’s pretty amazing for us in the racing community to have an outlet that so closely replicates what we  love so much in iRacing. I’ve written about the platform here before, and I’ve lauded its service to our world many times, but it’s hard to overstate just how important it’s been for our sanity – let alone our adrenaline fix – since the world essentially was shut down.

The last month or so has felt like a year or so, and with sports shut down it’s made the time crawl even worse. Then came TV, streaming services and our favorite racecar drivers going to the virtual racetrack.

NASCAR, IndyCar and the World of Outlaws have each hosted exhibition races that have included the biggest names in racing. Denny Hamlin won the first NASCAR Pro Invitational race and nearly one million people watched it. A week later, 1.33 million people watched Timmy Hill win at Texas on FOX. Thousands watched real-life Sprint Car racer Logan Seavy win the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Pro Invitational and real-life UMP Modified racer Mike McKinney win the WoO Late Model Pro Invitational. Thousands more watched Sage Karam win at Watkins Glen for IndyCar’s version.

The racing community has converged on iRacing like a starving man on a steak. 

Scott Bloomquist, who just might be the last person you’d ever expect to race a virtual racecar – save for maybe Kenny Schrader – even took part, and in a video his team produced, spoke highly of the effort. WoO Competition Director Erik Grigsby did a virtual driver’s meeting before their race, and it wasn’t a joke. NASCAR racers spent hours upon hours preparing for their races, taking it very seriously.

Like Bloomer said in his video, no, this isn’t as cool as the real thing. But if you’re behind the wheel of a sim rig, it feels pretty real when you’re in it. Watching Landon Cassill’s Twitch stream of the NASCAR race, my heart rate went up like it was the end of a real race and his chance to win wasn’t virtual at all. It reminded me of the last 10 laps of my own racing and the anxiety I feel to make the right moves.

iRacing won’t actually replace being at the track, but it was never going to – and that’s not the goal here. We all need an outlet, and not just because of an offseason like normal. 

We needed this to remind ourselves racing can be fun. We needed this to remind ourselves racing doesn’t have to be so cutthroat or even serious. We needed this to show that on equal footing, the guys we don’t know as well can hold a pretty wheel. We needed this for a distraction, and we needed this to having something to look forward to.

It doesn’t matter how many people watched those NASCAR iRacing broadcasts, or streamed the WoO races. It’s cool to set records, but the number ultimately is irrelevant because the longer we’re stuck at home and this is the only outlet for racing, the novelty will wear off for the casual viewer and those numbers will go down. And that’s OK. It’s not why this matters.

Right now, somewhere, a dad – out of sheer boredom or desperation, pick whichever – has set up himself and/or his kids with a wheel, pedals and monitor and is going racing. They get to feel close to racing and close to their favorite racers, and maybe literally compete against them.

That’s going to do two things: keep them engaged for when real racing returns and possibly increase their attention to the sport as a whole. 

I’ve always hesitated when pointing to iRacing as a gateway to a real racecar because the paranoid side of my brain wonders if the costs associated with real cars vs iRacing will simply entice a potential racer to upgrade their graphics card instead. But I have to get over that because being forced into this situation made me realize one hand feeds the other.

When we look back on 2020 – hopefully just the first half – we’ll remember how damn difficult the COVID-19 pandemic was to navigate, but us racers might also look back with some fondness at how we rallied in our little corner of the world, and the industry might see it as a tipping point.

I doubt the sports world at large will ever give iRacing the credit it deserves here, and that’s OK too. Other sports will have joystick competitions and it’ll be championed as the stars helping patch the wounds of losing our favorite pasttimes, and even that’s OK too. We know who set the trend here, and we know which is closest to the real thing.

At bare minimum, iRacing will have soared through this. I hate to say it as taking advantage, but the captive audience will turn out to be a financial and existential windfall for their group. In a way, this has been their 1979 Daytona 500. It will allow for future endeavors that will expand the service, but hopefully also their involvement at real racetracks and with real race teams.

At the most, this could mean people try a virtual car and then desperately want to go try the real thing when we’re freed from our shelter-in-place demands. It could mean the guy who has had a racecar but not the motivation to get it ready does so, and car counts go up. It could mean appreciating just getting to be at a real racetrack at all, and less bitching when we’re there. It could mean having fun again at the races, and taking ourselves just a little less seriously thanks to a dose of perspective.

I’m proud our resiliency as a racing community, and proud to have been an iRacing subscriber for the last four years. I’m grateful for the distraction, and for something to look forward to. Hopefully it stays that way, at least until we see the dirt flying again for real.

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