As COVID-19 made racers everywhere heed the yellow flag, the virtual sim experience has filled the gap for fans and drivers around the world.
With courses and tracks all over the U.S. closed, for now, many racers have turned to sim racing to feed their competitive fix, satisfy sponsors and stay sharp.
But how close is the virtual experience to the real thing? You don’t have the dirt flying, the spectators screaming, or the feel of being out there competing, but sim racing can still help drivers once racing resumes for everyone.
Though NASCAR will resume on-track races later this month (with other organizations likely following suit this summer), there’s a bright future ahead for sim racing.
‘The best training tool’
Accomplished trophy truck racer — and host of the popular Down and Dirty Radio Show — Jim Beaver sponsors an eNASCAR team and also manages sim racing circuits for dirt racers. He’s seen first-hand how virtual racing can be a necessary complement to actual racing.
“It’s so close to real life,” Beaver said of sim racing. “Nothing is going to replicate actually driving a race car, but it’s the best training tool we have access to at the moment.”
While the physical danger (outside of carpal tunnel) may be gone with sim racing, drivers have to worry about managing aspects like fuel and tires, so the strategy is still at play. In eNASCAR, all cars have the same setup, making it a test of a driver’s ability more than what’s under the hood. In Beaver's World Cup and Triple Crown sim dirt racing series, everyone has the same setup as well.
Virtual racing is something drivers take seriously. Dynojet-sponsored UTV racer Mia Chapman, who competes in one of Beaver’s eSports race series, was skeptical at first but has found that sim racing has been a great way to practice and prepare when she’s not in her vehicle. Through virtual racing, she’s competed with big names like Nitro Circus’ Travis Pastrana, NASCAR driver Greg Biffle and 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi.
“They have the tracks that we actually race on,” Chapman said. “We get to run laps and test different lines we wouldn’t normally get to, so I think it definitely helps keep my skills up.”
It’s a serious venture that has real-life rewards and consequences. Prominent NASCAR drivers Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson have lost sponsors (and in Larson’s case his ride) for negative actions taken during sim races.
While it’s easy to disregard virtual racing as a video game, it’s part of a massive rise in eSports.
To fill that Sunday void, FOX and FOX Sports 1 have shown eNASCAR races, drawing in a mix of NASCAR and eSports fans. According to FOX Sports, three eNASCAR races — Texas, Talladega, and Bristol — have surpassed the 1 million viewer mark.
Beaver said that over the past two months, viewership of sim racing has been “at an all-time high,” noting that among the events and teams he manages, it has doubled from pre-Coronavirus times.
According to market research firm Newzoo, global revenue growth in eSports has ballooned from $776.4 million in 2018 to $950.6 million in 2019, with 2020 projections topping $1 billion.
The NBA and NFL each have dedicated eSports leagues, but racing is actually a pioneer in this virtual arena. NASCAR launched what is now the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series in 2010. Legends like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson have raced against up-and-coming drivers and sim racers through eNASCAR, creating a unique viewing experience.
Racing is a great fit for simulations. While football players can have fun picking up the controller and playing Madden, they’re not physically dodging linebackers like they would in a real game. With sim racing, it’s much closer to the authentic experience.
As younger drivers make their way into motorsports, enthusiasm for sim racing will likely grow. NASCAR Xfinity Series racer Chase Briscoe — at 25, one of Ford’s rising stars — is a sim racing veteran and regularly responds to fans through social media and Reddit. Dynojet sponsored Briscoe’s car for his May 2 race at virtual Dover International Speedway and got to learn more about how sim racing can help drivers when they’re not on the track.
With NASCAR preparing to get back to the track on May 17, Briscoe said that sim racing has been a valuable asset and an exciting complement.
“Personally, I don’t ever get nervous in a real race car, but my heart feels like it’s beating out of its chest at the end of a (sim) race,” Briscoe said. “I don’t know what it is about sim racing, but it gets your heart rate up.”
Sim Racing After Quarantine
NASCAR isn’t the only racing organization making preparations, though they’re one of the very few with a confirmed start date. Off-road series Pro Rock Racing, according to owner Joey Beck, is hoping for a June return for their race in Rush, Kentucky, and they’re working with the state government to make sure they can do so safely.
Real racing will resume at some point soon, but that doesn’t mean sim racing will be black-flagged as soon as tires meet the dirt. Briscoe will continue to train with his impressive VR setup after the NASCAR Xfinity Series returns. Chapman said she’ll also keep racing virtually once things are back to normal.
For drivers, sim racing allows them to get vital track time without actually being there and risking costly mechanical issues or damage. As Chapman said, they’ll be able to try different lines risk-free and experiment in ways that aren’t quite feasible with a physical car. If a driver is preparing for a track they’ve never raced, they’ll be able to gain a sense of familiarity through sim racing.
Likewise, virtual racing has opened the sport up to new fans, as popular sim racers have been able to compete against seasoned drivers. Viewers who get to know traditional drivers through sim races could become fans once race season starts up again.
“Sim racing has become huge within the past 2 months,” Beaver wrote in an email. “Once real racing comes back, I see things having a regression, but I think that the industry and viewership will absolutely be higher than it was pre-pandemic.”
Top image via Jim Beaver eSports.