Virtually the Same as Being There: IRacing

April 29, 2020

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The torrent of 200 mph wind against my helmet on the main straight of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Four Gs in the banked turns make my arms feel like 200 lbs. each. It was an amazing rush, even though I was not driving. Now I know what racers feel for two hundred laps. 

I attended my first Indy 500 in 1964.  I buy my tickets for the race each spring to relive this experience from the grandstands. Coping with the COVID-19 quarantine, I was nervous about the Memorial Day classic. My tickets arrived in the mail for 2020. I did not open the envelope for fear of cursing the event. Then, in late March, new Indy track owner and 2015 Automotive Hall of Fame Inductee Roger Penske announced that the race would, for the first time ever, be run in August. How could I make it through this pandemic without racing?

IRacing, which first hit the scene in September of 2004, is the virtual real deal. Drivers practice for specific race venues and encounter vivid track conditions using IRacing simulators. These are not toys. Ambient and track surface temperature affect tire wear. Wind conditions are precise and accounted for. The smallest bumps in track surfaces, like the one yard of brick at Indy’s finish line, can be felt through the servo motor-controlled suspension on the $75,000 + IRacing simulators located at dedicated practice facilities, as well as in professional drivers’ homes. IRacing is video simulation at aerospace level. Penske, in a post-race interview said, “This is something the ball and bat sports can’t do.  This is a part of how drivers today train.” 

The first weekend of April, more than 200,000 racing-deprived viewers tuned in to watch the pros race the virtual Michigan International Speedway. All of the drivers I would have expected to have seen were there: the younger ones. The “Nintendo Generation” has been racing virtually since they were too young to see PG-13 movies. Additionally, however, I was delighted and surprised to find retired NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the mix. 

Junior followed last year’s Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud’s clever pit and refuel strategy that preserved fuel and tires. His race strategy, however, lay to the back and slowly work your way through the field, worked out particularly well. In the virtual race, a calamitous accident occurred in the first lap of the race, taking out several top contenders’ cars. No one got hurt in the virtual race, but just like a real race there was no restart button for those drivers. Just like reality, if you crash, you’re out.

In this virtual race, Pagenaud worked his way to the front and played the caution lights perfectly. He was standing on top at the end of this Chevrolet 275 virtual race. Right behind him was the rookie to IndyCar, Junior.

Junior told Penske on the post-race broadcast, “I’ve always wanted to race with these guys.”  Penske asked if he “would like to try it out for real,” adding that he “would see about getting you in a good car.”  Junior responded that his “wife probably wouldn’t let him get into another race car, but if she did, Roger, you’d be the first guy I would call!”

In his early eighties, Penske continues to demonstrate why he is a Hall of Fame inductee. He has embraced the IRacing phenomenon and what it means to the future of motorsports.

I still have not opened the envelope on my shelf with my tickets for this year’s race. I am content to watch my heroes battle on the virtual speedways till I tear open that envelope and head for this year’s Indy 500!

Brian Baker, Principal Historian
Automotive Hall of Fame

Published: April 29, 2020 

Fun Fact: All that’s left of the original 3 million bricks that gave the speedway the nickname “the Brickyard” is one yard at Indy’s finish line.

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