The entry list for the opening round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge includes plenty of proven talent in actual IndyCar competition, along with a few intriguing newcomers, but their experience levels in the world of virtual racing differ widely.
Australian Supercar star Scott McLaughlin has never raced an Indy car for real, although he did impress in his testing appearances with Team Penske during the offseason (pictured). In the virtual realm, though, McLaughlin is the grizzled veteran of the field for the American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, set for Saturday at 4 p.m. ET. McLaughlin has made 528 iRacing starts on road courses, scoring 178 victories and 138 poles. McLaughlin is one of three drivers in the field with more than 100 career iRacing wins on road courses, heading Penske teammate Will Power with 156 in 1,145 starts) and Sage Karam — virtually representing Dreyer & Reinbold — with 143 wins in 532 starts.
“I will have a little more of an advantage here because I’ve spent some time in an Indy car on iRacing — much more than I’ve spent in a real Indy car,” acknowledged McLaughlin. “What I’m really excited about is to race against other drivers in the series. While I wish my first IndyCar race was in person, I’m really looking forward to racing against my Team Penske teammates and all of the other guys in the field. I love iRacing, and I’m looking forward to getting a lot of laps in between the IndyCar Challenge and the Supercars All-Star eSeries.”
On the opposite end of the virtual experience scale are series veterans Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan. While the latter has made 317 straight IndyCar starts, he admits to being a complete novice in digital racing.
“The world of sim racing is new to me, and when I say new, I mean it,” said Kanaan. “When IndyCar announced that they were planning on creating something to keep the drivers and fans connected through this difficult time, I went after getting a sim setup for the house. That was last week!
“Since then, I’ve spent some time getting used to it and learning the basics to be able to participate but I’ve got to admit that the younger drivers that are used to iRacing or other types of sim racing have a huge advantage over a guy like me that just started four days ago. Nonetheless, I believe that it’s a neat idea and as a driver I support the initiative of IndyCar to go iRacing and keep creating content and interacting with the fans. I’m looking forward to seeing how this first race goes!”
Bourdais is similarly new to the sim racing game, but sees IndyCar’s iRacing venture as both an opportunity and a responsibility in the present circumstances, with the forced hiatus of motorsports.
“I never did iRacing or more real simulation games because we had the kids and life is busy enough without me saying, ‘Hey I’m just going to play games,’ admitted the Frenchman. “Since our job right now is going to be restricted to only virtual stuff, that’s the route we’ve got to take. We just have to try and do the best we can with it. Ultimately it is just another challenge. Hopefully we give some real entertainment to the fans, keep engaged with them and put on some good shows. Then it is a win-win situation.”
Meanwhile, another form of crossover could be in the works for seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who will make a virtual IndyCar debut on Saturday as a “special guest” in the field. Johnson — who had a rough debut in the eNASCAR iRacing event at Homestead-Miami Speedway last Sunday, when he was involved in a wreck and finished 31st — is already thinking about a possible non-virtual racing opportunity in IndyCar. Johnson told NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey that intends to take a “very hard look” at racing in the rescheduled IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course July 4 — which now takes place a day before NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.
“I think that would be an awesome opportunity,” Johnson told Diffey. “Clearly a lot of things to sort out, and I haven’t even asked permission yet to pull it off. But I love the idea and am thankful Graham (Rahal) brought it up because I would have probably missed it and reacted too late.”