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Tech + Life

These hyper-realistic video games train NASCAR drivers for the real thing

There is no other eSport like iRacing, where the skills translate almost exactly into the actual sport.

By Matt Crossman

Chase Briscoe, an up-and-coming NASCAR driver, found himself struggling on stock-car racing’s superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega. So he consulted Dale Earnhardt Jr. about how to get better at racing there, which is like asking Hank Aaron how to hit more home runs. They spoke for 30 minutes or so, and Earnhardt shared his best tips about how to get around NASCAR’s longest oval tracks, where he won a combined 10 races.

Briscoe had every intention of putting Earnhardt’s advice to work on the superspeedways. But first, he tested it in a video game.

That’s because he’s found that the games created by iRacing, a Massachusetts company with licensing deals with NASCAR and other racing leagues, are “millimeter accurate,” as the company touts and numerous drivers affirm. Racing video games have grown so realistic that Briscoe could try out Earnhardt’s advice — mainly, to be more aggressive — before using it on a physical racetrack with money and championship implications on the line, to say nothing of his own safety.

Without video games, Briscoe says, drivers arriving at new tracks need a ton of practice time to get up to speed: “You don’t know where you’re going; you don’t know what to do.” But with gaming simulations, he says, “That’s not the case anymore.” iRacing gets the details right: the cars, the racing surface, the entry to the pit road, the signs, the other visual cues drivers use as markers to accelerate and brake.

Chase Briscoe celebrates his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in February 2020. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

iRacing is more than just a tool for NASCAR up-and-comers. Lately, it has become a massive sport in its own right. At any one time, the company says, 100,000 people in 140 countries are competing in simulated stock cars and winged sprint cars, on digital dirt and pixelated pavement, from casual races to the company’s top-level professional league, the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing World Championship Series.

Coca-Cola has sponsored drivers and cars in internal combustion engine racing for decades. The fact that it signed on to sponsor internet racing this year is a huge step in iRacing’s rising legitimacy. So too is the fact that big-time NASCAR personalities, including Dale Jr., Stewart, and Joe Gibbs, now own digital teams in the Coca-Cola series. With those big-time names have come TV coverage and big-time purses. Last year’s iRacing champion, a 17-year-old homeschooled high school junior from Connecticut, pocketed $40,000. This year’s champ will take home $100,000.

All of these virtual racers are changing the future of real racing and creating a throwback culture that’s all about pure talent, not the hottest, priciest race car. Racing in America has been hemorrhaging fans for years. iRacing has the power to bring them back. Could it someday be a true feeder sport to the world of rubber and steel?

At the very least, it’s an alternate model — a happy parallel universe where racing works as it should.


I’ve covered motorsports since 2002. (I occasionally write for NASCAR.com, which NASCAR owns.) I’ve attended races large and small, from Florida to Maine to Alaska, and even in three foreign countries — Mexico, Belgium, and Talladega, Alabama. Everywhere, a race is more than just a competition, it’s an event.

A big-time NASCAR race is a bacchanalian Lollapalooza trapped in a circus. Auto races are visceral, a full-body immersion into a chaotic world of sights, sounds and smells. When 40 stock cars with 550 horsepower scream by in full song, my ribs shake, my ears ache and my nose flares with the scent of rubber. I’m so enthralled by what I see, feel, and smell that I barely care who wins.

A common lament I’ve heard from non-racing fans is that NASCAR fans only watch for the crashes. I don’t think that’s true. I think race fans watch not for the crashes, but for the tension that exists because of the possibility of crashes. I admire drivers for the guts it takes to drive a 3,300-pound stock car into a corner at 200 mph. But I wrestle with that tension, especially after a big wreck, such as Ryan Newman’s terrifying crash in the Daytona 500 in February.

It’s far too premature to suggest iRacing will replace actual racing. But it has answers to some of the sport’s biggest problems.

I wonder how it’s possible that Newman will ever get in a stock car again after a crash as scary as that one. My attempts to ask drivers about it are usually met with shrugs. They don’t understand why I don’t understand.

Newman survived that wreck because NASCAR’s engineers designed the car’s safety system to withstand every hit he took. Nobody has died in a national series NASCAR race since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001. Still, no matter how safe the cars become, real racing carries with it an aura of danger that iRacing doesn’t have and never will.

Sometimes I think that’s a shortcoming that fans will always hold against iRacing. Other times, like in the weeks since Newman’s horrific crash, I wonder if society’s moves toward safety and away from unnecessary danger will lead to the end of drivers racing in sheet-metal boxes. To safety fears, add a precipitous decline in attendance, worries about fuel consumption, and other factors, and the future of auto racing is a perpetual concern inside the sport.

It’s far too premature to suggest iRacing will replace actual racing. But it has answers to some of the sport’s biggest problems.


If you focus on a purely competitive, quality of racing standpoint, iRacing has several advantages over its oil-kissed counterpart.

Auto racing is so expensive, it weeds out potential stars who can’t afford the cost of engines, tires, and mechanics. There’s an old saying in the sport: If you want to retire with a small fortune, first amass a huge one, then start a race team. To riff on a line from P.J. O’Rourke, the three most important skills a race car driver must have are hand-eye coordination, guts, and rich parents.

By contrast, iRacing is a game for upstarts and underdogs who race their way to the top based on pure talent. Expenses are minimal. “For $1,000, you can buy a killer iRacing setup, download the software, buy a subscription, and race however much you want,” says Mike Conti, the 2014 iRacing champion, who will race for Dale Jr.’s e-team this year. “For $1,000 in the real world, you can race for maybe one weekend.”

Even $1,000 might be on the high side. Nathan Lyon won a major race last season from his home near St. Louis, using an old steering wheel and pedals attached to a 10-year-old laptop that sits on a folding card table. It looks like something a college kid would cobble together, because that’s what he is — a 22-year-old meteorology student. That meager rig has not hurt his career: When the free agent season opened this year, 10 teams wanted to sign him.

On real racetracks, the fastest cars almost always belong to the team with the biggest budget, and there’s a huge disparity in what teams can afford to spend (or are willing to spend) on their cars. The search for speed costs a ton of cash, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find it.

“Backmarker” is a derogatory term for a car that has no chance of winning a race. iRacing has no backmarkers. There’s no such thing as spending a ton of money to buy speed, because there’s no way to buy it. The cars are all equal, because they’re all digital, based on the same specifications. That puts the race entirely in the drivers’ hands — a scenario that old-school race fans would swoon for. “It comes down to driver talent,” says Ty Majeski, a stock-car driver who’s also the world’s highest-ranked iRacer. “That’s very, very different from the world we live in in real-life racing.”

Because each virtual race features cars and drivers on equal footing, the competition is intense. Bryan “Boris” Cook, who helps to run the eSports efforts of Joe Gibbs Racing, enters an iRacing event at least once a week. “My hands at the end of a race are gripping that wheel so tight that I have to strain them off,” he says.

And that’s in races with nothing on the line. Imagine the tension when the race offers a big purse, and if you fare poorly, you lose your ranking. Most sports leagues say they have the best of the best, but any fan of the Detroit Lions knows better. Only the 40 highest-rated e-drivers in the world qualify for the World Championship Series.

“You don’t have anybody there that doesn’t belong there,” says Conti. “That’s why the racing is so close. The competition is just as fierce as it is in real life, if not harder. You’re going against an active membership of over 100,000 people to get to the top level. It’s crazy hard.”


Racers call other sports “stick and ball sports.” A kid can play any stick and ball sport — football, baseball, basketball, soccer, whatever — with other kids at the local park. That’s how he or she falls in love with a sport and becomes good at it.

In real racing, there is no equivalent to that idyllic form of talent development. Kids with dreams of celebrating in victory lane can’t call their buddies and tell them to meet at the local racetrack for a pick-up race. But in iRacing, there is always someone to play against: drivers can race all day and all night, on realistic tracks, against competitors all over the world. And because iRacing requires drivers to accumulate rating points before they move up to tougher divisions, they hone their skills against drivers of the same ability. Remember picking players from a group of kids on the playground? Imagine if they were all equal. It’s sport in its purest form. “This is a utopia for racing,” Conti says.

The romantic in me sees in iRacing an echo of racing’s old days, when talented nobodies from nowhere could race their way to stardom based on raw skill. I wonder if iRacing will one day level its real-world counterpart’s big-money playing field. Maybe, just maybe, a talented nobody from nowhere will rise up out of their mom’s basement and race to stardom on real asphalt.

I ran that idealistic theory past several people involved in iRacing. Not yet, they said, and probably never, at least not in the boot-strapping way that makes me wax philosophical. No matter how good a driver is online, it’s a different thing to prove yourself on actual racetracks. That will always require money, and a lot of it.

Still, many race car drivers have used iRacing to advance their careers. Majeski had a breakout performance last year in the ARCA series, and he credits prep time in iRacing in part for his strong showing.

And then there’s top-level NASCAR driver William Byron, 21. He was a race fan as a boy, began iRacing at 13, and put up good numbers. His dad, impressed by his dedication, bought him a physical race car, in which he continued to win. As an 18-year-old rookie in 2016, Byron won seven of 23 races in NASCAR’s third-tier national series, a remarkable season for anyone, almost unheard of for someone so inexperienced. He won the second-tier championship the following season. Now in his third year competing in the top level, he’s seen as a future star. He still uses iRacing to prepare himself for races.

William Byron began iRacing at 13. Now he competes at NASCAR’s highest level. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

So does Briscoe, who entered real-world races as a teenager. But while others made 100 racetrack starts, he made 30. Early in his career, iRacing helped him bridge the experience gap. More recently, after Earnhardt’s advice, it helped him in Daytona.

At big tracks, the cars run in tight packs. Imagine bumper-to-bumper traffic, two or three abreast, going 200 miles per hour. The slightest wobble can cause massive accidents that are so frequent they have a nickname: The Big One.

While the consequences of over-aggression are wrecks that “wad up” dozens of race cars, the consequence of a driver’s under-aggression is a reputation for “not getting up on the wheel,” a description synonymous with timidity, the greatest insult to a driver. And under-aggression can cause The Big One just as easily as over-aggression, because a too-slow car in a tight pack is nearly as dangerous as a too-fast one.

When Briscoe returned to Daytona in February, after testing Earnhardt Jr.’s guidance on a digital track, he showed evidence that he was far more comfortable being aggressive than before. He led five laps — his first five ever there — and finished fifth, his best showing there. Last year, in his first race at Daytona, Briscoe passed 93 cars. This year, he passed 164. “Oh, wow,” he said when I told him those stats. “It definitely shows a totally different mentality.”

His new, aggressive approach, inspired by a master and honed on iRacing, has become more natural to him the more he has done it. “Once I did it a couple times,” he said, “it was like, why haven’t I been doing this the whole time?”

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Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis.

 

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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