Elle Cayabyab Gitlin
When it comes to sports, 2020 will be one of those asterisk years, like 1919. Over the next few years, people will scroll down the page to explain that "* normal things should happen, but then we had a pandemic instead. "The Summer Olympics will be postponed by a year, and virtually every major sporting series will be interrupted because the organizers are excited to see whether public gatherings can take place later in the year.
Motorsport is no exception, and its prospects are bleak considering the impact of a drop in sales on marketing budgets. But as the pandemic rages, drivers, teams, and series come together online to host a show for the rest of us. Or, as Scott Warfield of NASCAR puts it, "to distract people 90 minutes, two hours on Sunday, and bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives."
The change from the real world to online racing began in mid-March, on the weekend when the F1 should have started its year with the Australian Grand Prix. The first events that attracted a large audience were organized by sports organizers. In the second week, major racing series such as F1 and IMSA started to participate. Nowadays every real series has an esport league, so none of them are exactly alien to the concept. However, NASCAR was the first company to expand its esport for the broadcast of television programs with the launch of its iRacing Pro Invitational series. It's also a leader when it comes to offering fans something that is close to normal.
"Our content team was wondering what we should do in the next eight weeks after looking through the archives and running all of the old races of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. Well, here's Jeff Gordon calling Dale Earnhardt Jr … who is going to go up against Clint Boyer that people have been asking for. Sportscenter wants drivers to come on Sunday morning and do an interview before the race. It’s hard to repeat. You know, it’s our eleventh year with iRacing we had a decade to build this thing, establish it as a partner, and make it happen, "said Warfield. That pays off – NASCAR's production values are high, as are the valuations.
So far, the other major professional real-world racing series have been slower to adapt to social isolation. F1 has launched its own series of Virtual Grands Prix that uses Codemasters' superb F1 2019 game. But the sport has been less successful than most others when it comes to involving its real-world stars, and even allows riders – including names from other sports like cycling and golf at the first event – to help drivers in their races to use, which also feature reduced damage.
IndyCar was the last to join the fight and I think it deserves a special mention here. No studio is broadcast here. Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell, and Paul Tracy are still calling the races, but obviously everyone from home. Somehow it seems very prepandemic to bring a few moderators together in one place to start the action.
People play together
Many professional racing drivers turn to sim racing for the same reason that you or I do – it's fun and good practice too – so it wasn't too difficult for Darren Cox and Torque Esports to put together a grid This included some big names from series such as F1 and IndyCar, which started alongside esport professionals. Some of the younger real racing drivers, such as Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, are driving professional esport teams in addition to their better paid normal jobs and can therefore assert themselves against the Sim professionals who spend a lot of time practicing. "The problem is these aliens – they just grind it up, right? They give them the car the day before and they practice 24 hours while the real drivers do a few hours and then they're done." Cox told me. (And yes, I'm pretty sure he called the rFactor 2 experts "aliens" – at least that's what the tape says.)
The participation of real racing professionals is getting easier, which is probably a good thing to increase the esport audience. Warfield believes the fear of feeling exuberant will attract unruly or skeptical racers online, and the fear of being beaten (and let's face it, a lot of free time) will make real professionals improve their game. "These boys and girls are essentially racing drivers and they are competitive as hell. And they don't like to lose. The boy who won our race in the Coca Cola iRacing series on the virtual Miami-Homestead Speedway – drove 1,000 laps of training Homestead."
Perhaps most encouraging, so far everyone seems happy to be playing together, and apart from the occasional Snafu schedule, where two races take place simultaneously, no one locks drivers into exclusive leagues. "When you start talking about contracts, you decide to make it fun. If these guys want to run on an open bike or on a dirt road or anything else, as long as this allows our fans to get involved." It's fantastic, "said Warfield.
"We put all rivalries aside and say:" Right, that's the best of sport. "We hope that there is no land grab from other people that disturbs the balance of a community that has existed for about 20 years." Cox told me.
It's not how chic your rig is, it's what you do with it
Moving online has messed up a bit for Sim rigs, some of which are fancier than others. Our friends at CXC Simulations, who build extremely high quality sim racing systems, were pretty busy. Classified as an essential company due to its military contracts, it is still operating even though it operates in separate shifts. "Our sales department was very busy with the interest in new simulators as well as our certified used simulators, and our customer service department was extremely busy. We have a lot of customers who are now very active and don't use their simulators just as a training tool, but also to get organized To participate in sim races, so we have a lot of demand, but we're somewhat limited in how quickly we can make and ship new simulators, "CXC chief Chris Considine told Ars.
Considine is also happy to share its knowledge with people who create their own setups. "I've made a lot of phone calls and emails, not only from people who are interested in our simulators, but also from people who may not be on the market for one of our machines, but need guidance on what type of components I need to build what I know because I want them to have a pleasant sim experience and use platforms like iRacing for a long time, "he told me via email.
Drivers weren't shy about showing their attitudes on social media, but unlike in the real world, sport is much more about the driver than their gear. Timmy Hill, winner of NASCAR Pro Invitational last weekend on a virtual Texas Motor Speedway, did so with a ten-year-old Logitech G27. And Ross Chastain beat Jimmy Johnson out of an even more ad hoc setup, including a slightly rusty garden chair. A racing driver is an exception to this rule – Robert Wickens of IndyCar, who was paralyzed after a fall in 2018. Wickens is determined to get back into the cockpit and has made amazing strides in walking, but must use a special modified Fanatec wheel when he returns to IndyCar's virtual series on April 4th in a virtual Barber Motorsport Park.
The mastermind @maxpapis from @MPI_INNOVATIONS built the bike in a race against the clock to ship before 6 p.m. last night! This is what the finished product looked like. I can't wait to try it out soon. pic.twitter.com/j7ZKvdZFf3
– Robert Wickens (@robertwickens), March 28, 2020
Is that what the fans want?
So the drivers make the best of the situation, but does that mean fan pleasure? Asking the question on Twitter drew some answers. The locked auto setups in most series were a turn off for people like Sam Collins. On the other hand, the freedom to set up your car to your liking in the IMSA Super Sebring race and the consistent work of BMW racing engineers to help their Sim drivers have been praised by Dan Carney of Design News. People also praised the sense of normalcy that we got from John Hindaugh et al., The crew at IMSA Radio, and suggested that the F1 virtual grand prix was "the best way to deal with F1 esport".
I leave the last word to Will MacFarland, not least because he took the time to send me a long email after watching one of the Porsche Club of America sim races
I'll probably see more synthetic races, but only the best stuff. I also wonder who uses which hardware and who connects to which ISP. I think it might be interesting to find out who uses gigabyte hardware and who uses MSi hardware or who connects to Mediacom and who has AT&T, for example. The part "My sponsors' earnings" in the post-race interviews would be even more fun than usual, "MacFarland wrote.