For many, the cancellation of major sporting events was the moment when the coronavirus pandemic felt real for the first time. But while fans of baseball, basketball, and soccer are wondering when they'll see the players in action again, racing fans don't have to wait – because many of their favorite drivers are already participating in online sim racing competitions that have been spun into The Days Since The First Races in the real world have been canceled.
The first of these replacement Sim races that took place last weekend were successful in ways that surprised even the organizers. Now, many of the people who put them on have spent the intervening week figuring out how to use that momentum to fill the void that racing has left in the real world as fans around the world Home trying to slow the spread of a global virus.
However, it will probably not be that difficult. The success of these first replacement races was a testament to how far sim racing got during the rise of the sport (and the era of Twitch), but there is also a truth that many motorsport fans are familiar with: that a new era of competitive, virtual motorsport is imminent.
A screen cover from The Replacements 100.
Image: Podium eSports / iRacing
Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar decided a little more than a week ago to cancel their Sunday races and to skip their season in the face of a growing pandemic. For F1 and IndyCar, this meant that they closed their respective season openings, the Australian Grand Prix and the Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg. For NASCAR, this meant canceling the annual race at Atlanta Motor Speedway – usually the most-watched race of the season outside of the Daytona 500.
But within minutes of these races being canceled, people like TJ Majors started making calls and sending text messages.
Majors is the “spotter” for NASCAR team No. 22, which means that it stands on the roof of the stands every Sunday during the season and tells the driver (by radio) which cars are around him if it is safe to change lanes like that. No wonder he helped find a virtual replacement for the canceled race in Atlanta. After all, it's literally your job to keep an eye out for other people.
"When I got home on Friday, it just felt really weird," Majors said in an email to The Verge. "I was with my daughters and when we got confirmation that everything was closed for two weeks, I thought of all the people in the NASCAR industry who could probably do something on Sunday."
When he prepared lunch for his daughters, majors thought he and some of his colleagues might be able to take part in an already planned race hosted by iRacing, a very popular sim racing game that also enables a variety of online racing leagues. But it wasn't long before Majors received text from his NASCAR colleagues about starting their own race in the in-game version of the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Where do I sign? & # 39;"
Majors liked the idea and called the iRacing executive vice president to get the green light. He also contacted NASCAR personalities, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who retired last year after multiple concussions), aspiring star driver William Byron, and Chad Knaus, who was the crew chief for each of Jimmie Johnson's seven championships was.
The majors also named James Pike of Podium eSports, which delivers broadcast-quality sim race productions. "I got the call from TJ on Friday afternoon and he told us about the idea they put together," Pike said on a phone call to The Verge. “He asked if we would be interested in broadcasting the race and I said, 'Are you kidding me? Dale Earnhardt Jr. and all these other drivers will run in our race? Where do I sign? & # 39; "
With a sudden surge in interest, majors said he and his colleague Kevin Hamlin had quickly realized that, like everything in NASCAR, they needed good branding.
"One of the funniest moments was that (Hamlin) called me and asked for the name of the race," said Majors. He kept thinking about the movie The Replacements and suggested with one small change: "The Replacements 100", an allusion to the number of laps they would run.
When they started promoting The Replacements 100 on social media, majors, Hamlin, Pike, and other dozens of calls, text, and direct messages came from people across NASCAR who wanted to join.
In an interview with Pike before the race, Hamlin estimated that at least 50 percent of the people working in and around NASCAR are already using iRacing and have a home setup – including a steering wheel, pedals, and often custom-made PCs. So he and majors tried to fill a field that reflected this large tent, and let in other NASCAR crew members as well as some PR and social media specialists. But a few more drivers squeaked through, including Parker Kligerman, who has driven in all three top series from NASCAR and is now driving in the official eNASCAR series from iRacing.
"When everything collapsed and all real races were canceled, my phone went up in the air and people said," Let's run a race! "So I wasn't surprised that everything came together so quickly." Kligerman explained. "It was cool to see how everyone gathered behind it."
The race went smoothly. There were a few more wrecks than in the eNASCAR series. And yes, at some point (and while he was fighting for the lead, no less), Pike said Kligerman's computer was trying to force a Windows update and sent it straight into the wall. However, the combination of the realism of iRacing and the professional quality of Podium eSports was an excellent simulacrum – a "replacement" race in almost all parts of the world.
The result, according to iRacing, was a really good audience for a sim race. The main disconnect stream on Twitch reached 23,000 simultaneous viewers and brought over 70,000 unique viewers over the two hour broadcast. The highlights of the race were even hosted on NASCAR.com. "Pretty impressive, with almost no notice or advertising," said Kevin Bobbit, marketing director of iRacing, in an email.
"If a child hits LeBron James on NBA 2K, it doesn't mean the child climbs onto a basketball court and shoots him."
One reason for the popularity, said Kligerman, is the similarity of the skills. "It is the only sport that connects to the real world in such a parallel," he said. "The reason why so many real-world drivers do this all the time is that it's not just fun, but in many ways it literally feels like I'm doing something that could help me as a real driver. "
This is obviously not the case with other sports. "If a child hits LeBron James on NBA 2K, it doesn't mean the child gets on a basketball court and shoots him out," said Kligerman. "But the funny thing about this stuff is when someone comes in there and surpasses me or surpasses William Byron? If they got the chance to get into a real car, it could translate very well. "
And a lot of it just comes from the technology that is in the game, Pike said.
“Anyone who's worth their salt weight runs on a bike and pedals like you would in real life. The only thing that has really been removed is all G-forces, but many of the same skills are much more directly applicable in simulation racing than shooting a knight on a controller compared to shooting a knight in real life, ”he said.
Even majors, who watch over a driver who drives 200 miles an hour every weekend, agree to some extent. "Real racing requires an enormous amount of skill and bravery," he said. "Sim races are still incredibly difficult."
The start of the race's all-star sports battle.
Picture: Torque Esports
On the other side of the virtual pond, and just a few hours before the green flag flew at the NASCAR virtual race in Atlanta, two more replacement races were pulled by F1 stars Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, IndyCar drivers Simon Pagenaud and Felix Rosenqvist, and a crowd of popular professional sim racers and YouTube personalities. (While IndyCar is an American sport, the ability to drive open cars is often easier to apply to other open wheel series like F1, even in the simulation world.)
And similar to how The Replacements 100 was born, after the decision to cancel real-world races, these sim races were thrown together in a flood of calls and messages.
The first to be announced was The Race & # 39; s All-Star Esports Battle – a competition in rFactor 2, a racing simulator advertised by a relatively new motorsport news site, The Race, and its parent company, Torque Esports. Although The Race may not be known to most, one of the organizers was a man who has built some of the cornerstones of Sim racing for over a decade: Darren Cox.
Cox launched Nissan's GT Academy back in 2008, where the world's best video game racers competed against each other in the popular PlayStation racing simulation, Gran Turismo. The ultimate winner got the chance to become a real world driver. While it seemed like a lark at the time, the GT Academy (and a spiritual, cross-platform successor to Cox called "World’s Fastest Gamer") ultimately helped prove that there is a connection between the skills, that make up a good sim racer, and the one needed to control the real thing.
"It was really this great old-fashioned line," build it and you will come "."
"It was the launch pad for many of the things people are doing today," said Cox, who now heads the Mercedes-Benz F1 Esport team, in a phone call last week.
Cox said he started "rumbling" that the Australian Grand Prix would be canceled about a day before F1 was announced and immediately thought, "You know what? We have to do something for the fans. We have to try to race on Sunday. "
He worked with The Race and Torque and announced that drivers – including Verstappen, Pagenaud, Rosenqvist and even ex-F1 and IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya – were starting to ask how they could get involved.
"I said, look, you know, let's do it, I'll fund it. We didn't get drivers confirmed. We didn't know if anyone would come. And it was really this great, old-fashioned line," Build it and it will come, "said Cox." And they did, you know? And I can now stand on the record to say that nobody was paid to compete in this race. Nobody asked for money. Nobody asked for one Branding. Nobody asked for certain terms. Nobody asked for a favor. "
Unlike The Replacements 100, Cox and The Race have not tried to create a virtual replacement for the canceled Grand Prix of Australia. Instead, they said the track and the car everyone would drive on were a surprise. They also filled the field with Sim racers and YouTube personalities to keep things easy. The result? Hundreds of thousands of views, numbers that Cox called "crazy", although this was not entirely surprising under the circumstances.
“The fans are hungry for races. Nobody wants to see the news. We all want to be distracted and this is just a lighthearted way to get through a difficult time for everyone, ”said Cox.
Mid-race action during the Not the AUS GP.
Picture: Veloce Esports / F1 2019
The other major sim race of the day was billed as a direct replacement for the canceled F1 Australian Grand Prix. Veloce Esports, a company that sets up teams from various esports disciplines, was called “Not the AUS GP”.
Jamie MacLaurin, one of the founders of Veloce, said in a phone call late last weekend, as soon as the Australian Grand Prix was canceled, "We got together as a team and thought: Can we do it?"
"We thought we can do it?"
"It was difficult not to be too positive about something under the current circumstances," said MacLaurin. “But our philosophy was that we wanted to give fans something they would miss. And Esport can be done from the comfort of your own home. "
MacLaurin and Veloce had a domino effect similar to that of majors and Hamlin in organizing their race. "We have a good network in the real racing world," said MacLaurin. “When we had a couple of drivers on board, they sent a message to their friends. In the end, we had to start rejecting people because so many people were desperate to get involved. "
According to MacLaurin, Veloce deliberately tried to put together a field that wasn't very competitive, much like the organizers of The Replacements 100. “There is a time and place for competitive races, but with the nature of the corona virus, we wanted something more light-hearted, which is why we involved some YouTubers who … may not have been the best drivers, ”MacLaurin said with a laugh.
As Sunday rolled around, F1 driver Lando Norris led the field of Sim racers and YouTubers when they started F1 2019 in an abbreviated virtual version of the Australian Grand Prix. The Sim race got remarkable attention with Norris’s. Twitch Stream alone attracts 70,000 simultaneous viewers for most of the show. According to MacLaurin, a total of around 175,000 people watched the race at a certain time when they combined Norris' numbers with the main show and streams from other competitors.
"Lando is famous for an F1 fan … but for many people on Twitch, he's just a funny guy who plays PUBG."
"We all hoped that we would reach this number, but to be realistic, I never thought it could happen," said MacLaurin.
One of the reasons why Veloce's event has drawn so much interest is that many of the people involved on Twitch and YouTube have built their own trailers that go beyond competitive sim racing, according to Hazel Southwell, motorsport journalist and co-founder of Inside Electric, news Website for Formula E electric racing series
The Veloce race "theoretically had less big names when you get into" real life "from the motorsport perspective than that of the race," said Southwell. But the race ended up attracting large numbers because drivers like Norris also ran their own streams. "Lando is famous for an F1 fan as an F1 driver – but for many people on Twitch, he's just a funny guy who plays PUBG and has a screaming laugh and they think it's cute enough to subscribe to."
Richard Petty during the 1979 Daytona 500, which was a turning point for NASCAR thanks to a freaking snowstorm.
Photo by ISC Archives / CQ Appeal Group via Getty Images
In February 1979, a surprising, record-breaking blizzard buried much of the east coast of the United States under one to two feet of snow, leaving millions of people crouched in their homes for the weekend. The timing of the storm was crucial for NASCAR, said Pike, because not only was the Daytona 500 taking place, but it was also the first time that a race of this length had been televised live from start to finish.
As a result, he said, "A lot of people tuned in to this race – and it just so happens that this race itself was one of the best races ever."
Half a lap to go, NASCAR legends Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough fought for the lead. Yarborough tried a daring pass for victory, the left side of his car chewing on the grass in the central field. Allison wanted to block. The two cars got tangled and crashed into the wall. Another NASCAR legend (probably the NASCAR legend) sneaked by and won his sixth Daytona 500: Richard Petty.
"This race started single-handedly with the expansion of NASCAR from a predominantly southeast sport to a national sport," said Pike. "And we immediately recognized (last weekend) that this was a kind of 79er Daytona 500 moment."
Given the success of the three races last weekend and the events of the past few days, Pike seems to be right. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen not only three very different last minute sim races, but every group of organizers – and a few others – have now hosted or announced new races with deeper lists of well-known names and far more marketing.
"You just install the game, git gud and try it reddish."
The Replacements will now be an eight-race series that will take place every two weeks on Thursday evening. The Race and Torque Esports held a second race on Saturday. Veloce is holding a “Not the BAH GP” race on Sunday instead of the canceled F1 race in Bahrain. Existing Sim racing series also see a dent. The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing series, in which Kligerman takes part, attracted almost 300,000 spectators for a regularly scheduled race on Tuesday evening.
The secondary series also jump into the mix themselves. The F1 announced a “Virtual Grand Prix” series to replace the canceled races. IndyCar is holding a special series of races in iRacing. And NASCAR is working with Fox Sports and iRacing to host a pro-invitational sim race that will be broadcast on TV and online.
For some, validation was a long time coming. "Sim Racing has been a crazy runaway of other sports for a long time," said Southwell. “Not a lot of money, not a lot of enthusiasm, but things like the official F1 games that add the ability to set up online leagues have made it much more accessible as a form of competition. As with something like Dota, you just install the game, git gud and try it reddish. "
The mix of sim racing and streaming that was shown last week also has a certain dynamic. The well-known drivers attract fans who may not have had any sim racing experience yet. The YouTube personalities and Twitch streamers bring their own in real time and even make videos about the events before and after. And people like Norris do both.
However, growth is known to kill a good thing. And so others, like Cox, are a bit careful.
"Now is the time to work together."
"We spent the last week figuring out how to help each other, how to avoid clashes, what drivers drive and what championships they share," he said. "Now is not the time to have rivalries. Now is the time to work together because that is how the Sim Racing community was built."
When asked if that sounds a bit noble, Cox replied: "Now is the time to be noble. If you cannot be noble now, we will never be noble. It is a terrible situation out there."