By: Tanner Watkins
May 28, 2020 | 9:00 AM
More than two months into the COVID-19 pandemic, most of you race fans have had some sort of exposure to simulation motorsports by now. While NASCAR and local race tracks crawl its way back to weekly competition – with INDYCAR and IMSA returning soon – “sim racing” has been offered as an alternative form of entertainment.
The first thing to make clear here: No, sim racing does not replace the real thing. For anyone who has had the pleasure to attend professional motorsports events – in particular, the massive, history-laden races such as the Indianapolis 500, 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Daytona 500 – there is no substitute for the grand spectacle of thousands of race fans in one place, enjoying the sights of high-speed cars ripping around the track while the smell of burning rubber and racing fuel serve as a delightful compliment.
Sim racing will never overtake real-world stalwarts such as Formula One, NASCAR, INDYCAR, IMSA, NHRA, or any other national touring series. What needs to be understood, though, is that this was never the intention.
When NASCAR rolled out their invitational series in March (with INDYCAR and other forms of racing following shortly thereafter), the idea was to bring the stars of your favorite racing series together for some sort of exposure during the time periods when they should have been on track.
Was it going to be perfect? Of course not – imperfection has been the theme of 2020, across all facets of life. The product wasn’t quite comparable to its real life counterpart (more on that later). But at the same time, sim racing provided the racing industry with value and opportunity in a time where most sports had little to add.
Yes, there were negatives to this unforgettable era of virtual racing. Kyle Larson’s use of the word which should never be spoken has cost him a premier ride in NASCAR while (at least, temporarily) derailing his stock car career. Bubba Wallace lost Blue-Emu as a sponsor when he rage-quit from a NASCAR Pro Invitational event. Daniel Abt looks to have lost a Formula E seat after he used a sim racing veteran in his place for a virtual event.
For fans of those drivers, the overwhelming response I have heard reads as such: “Well, it is just a game! Why should his real-life racing career be affected by some actions that took place sitting in front of a computer screen?”
It is easy to understand that Wallace would never park his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet during a race just because he was upset – but at the same time, there is no reason why he should have done it in the sim race when he is representing a sponsor. For that company, it does not matter whether or not you are at the virtual Bristol or the real-life track in Tennessee – this is their chance to expose their brand and product to race fans, and Wallace cut that opportunity short.
And about Larson? I am not sure how anyone can defend his actions, yet some have tried. Picture this scenario: Larson is preparing to join a radio show or a Facebook Live stream and he spouts the same racist term he used in April, even though he doesn’t know the stream is already live and the audio has been sent instantly to hundreds, even thousands of people. Would it be okay then? Hell no, and just because his mistake was made on iRacing doesn’t mean that sim racing is at fault – Larson spoke the words, and the punishment he currently endures comes as a direct result of his actions, not the sim’s presence in the scenario.
At the same time, not everything associated with sim racing during the COVID-19 pandemic was bad.
Drivers like Sage Karam and Conor Daly successfully used sim racing as a platform to connect with fans and grow their own brand while also flashing a bit of personality – a topic that has been relatively dull in INDYCAR racing during modern years. It gave a driver like Robert Wickens – still recovering from injuries sustained in a crash nearly two years ago – a chance to rejoin his open-wheel friends on-track while turning in a couple impressive performances.
Additionally, Karam’s win at the invitational’s opening (virtual) Watkins Glen round gave Dreyer & Reinbold a chance to step into the spotlight aside from their normal month of May foray.
We all know that DRR was on-location and ready to go in St. Pete for the real season-opener, but we also know that the round has been postponed to October. That left zero chance for the team to showcase their sponsors on the race track – until Karam dusted the field at WGI on iRacing and provided an immediate, marketable bright spot for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
A simple look at the team’s social media – plus their affiliated partners – shows how much that exposure meant to them, and really, that matters as much as any entertainment factor that sim racing could have brought.
Quite frankly – in what alternative scenario do we see Sage Karam on ESPN’s SportsCenter in March?
The bottom line is that the teams and their sponsors had to make lemonade out of lemons with the short end of the stick provided to us by COVID-19. The teams did their best to provide as much return on sponsorship investment as possible by marketing the sim races just as they would with a real race weekend – and to be honest, they did a pretty good job.
Those Saturday races on NBCSN provided not only a chance for fans to watch their drivers wheel a video game Dallara around courses they are familiar with – it provided teams a chance to generate content, market their partners, and even the opportunity to get creative and try some things their social departments wouldn’t be able to explore otherwise. Without these opportunities for exposure, there would have been little to offer the sport’s partners in this downtime.
Would some companies have asked for a portion of their funding back? Maybe, maybe not. But I feel the associated entities did an admirable job of making the best of a poor situation – and enough so that we aren’t actively worrying about the topic of lost sponsors due to inactivity. I applaud the teams, INDYCAR, NBC Sports, and iRacing for their efforts to try and replicate the product we were missing out on – with some parts of that puzzle operating with staff reductions that only complicated matters.
And now back to the actual racing product. iRacing does a fine job of replicating an intensely-complex sport like auto racing, and their service adds features that make it more realistic by the day. Titles of notoriety like Forza and Gran Turismo are far from simulation, and even marketed sims like Assetto Corsa and rFactor lag behind iRacing in my opinion when you talk about the nuts and bolts of realism.
With that being said, even the most advanced simulator could be made out as an amateur product if you don’t have complete buy-in with its competitors. How does that old saying go? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink – that is what you have when you bring professional drivers to sim racing.
While some INDYCAR and NASCAR competitors took their respective sim racing ventures seriously, there were just as many drivers who shrugged off its existence and treated it more like a nuisance. That part doesn’t bother me – it is understandable to believe that an Indianapolis 500 champion won’t care about wrecking out of a virtual auto race while sitting alone in their bedroom.
The issue comes when you have some drivers taking it seriously and some not – that is what creates a product which can end in some truly thrilling racing (see INDYCAR at Motegi, Barber) or an absolute eyesore like the Simon Pagenaud/Lando Norris incident at Indianapolis. Normally, the races were clean and exciting, but clear conflicts in interest levels produced absolute eyesores at times.
So here is the bottom line: Take sim racing for what it is, and you will enjoy it much more. The best sim racing competitions in the world have a full field of competitors who have bought into the idea of battling it out online – bringing not only a level of respect amongst the drivers, but even a measure of investment to lose.
It takes time to be a top-flight driver in sim racing just like it takes time to hone your skills for the real thing. Scott Dixon didn’t become a five-time INDYCAR champion overnight, and Sage Karam didn’t just wake up and decide to be a world-class sim racer one morning in March, either.
So no, it is not sim racing’s fault that you don’t enjoy the on-screen product.
It is not sim racing’s fault that Kyle Larson no longer drives for Chip Ganassi Racing.
It is not sim racing’s fault that Daniel Abt no longer drives for Audi in Formula E.
It is not sim racing’s fault that Bubba Wallace lost Blue-Emu as a sponsor (while Landon Cassill deftly picked them up as a partner).
Sim racing exists at the same macro level that celebrity tabloids, social media, and music do. For each of us, we decide how much of those forms of entertainment we want to consume. Some enjoy those things and will spend more time on them than the next person. Those same principles can be applied to sim racing – if you like it, then great. If not, then move on and choose not to engage in its activities – and don’t feel the urge to cut it down while it tries to make its largest leap forward.
Just because sim racing is there doesn’t mean you can blame it for all of the issues that seem to be afflicting something you enjoy consuming. If you are saying “none of this would have happened if we hadn’t done this dumb sim racing,” then you might as well just change your tune to “none of this would have happened if COVID-19 wasn’t around.” That is a bit more accurate.
Sim racing didn’t force the issues that these real-world professionals are dealing with now. It is a channel which can effectively expose auto racing to a younger demographic – which is critically necessary in this modern era of motorsports – while providing the opportunity for normal people like myself to at least come close to feeling that rush of racing through Turn 1 at Indianapolis at over 230 miles per hour.
If you don’t like it, then fine. But feel free to avoid shitting all over a product that hundreds of people have poured countless hours into since March – all while trying to create value for a fanbase that seems perpetually unsatisfied.
Header image by Open-Wheels/iRacing.