Esports bringing fun and frustration for IndyCar drivers

Image by iRacing/IndyCar

Esports bringing fun and frustration for IndyCar drivers


Esports bringing fun and frustration for IndyCar drivers


Throw 20-plus Type A personalities into a loop of indefinite boredom, and you’re bound to get what we’ve seen over the last week or so in iRacing.

IndyCar’s six-round virtual racing series has been a welcome distraction for many of the NTT IndyCar Series drivers, and for others, it has become a genuine pain in the backside as some participants have found a distinct advantage while preparing for each race.

For those without major life responsibilities — no spouse or kids or businesses to serve as distractions — practicing for last weekend’s iRacing opener at Watkins Glen turned into a full-time job.

By the end of the 45-lap race, Watkins Glen winner Sage Karam says he completed 385 laps around the 3.37-mile laser-scanned circuit across 24 combined sessions.

For those who love math, that’s 1,297 virtual miles — the equivalent of 2.5 Indy 500s — spent in the Pennsylvanian’s sim rig, produced by nine hours and five minutes of on-track activity. Factor in the downtime between runs, and Karam burned more than 10 hours prepping for the American Red Cross Grand Prix, which he thoroughly dominated.

The A-types are at it again for Saturday’s event at Barber Motorsports Park, and the numbers continue to grow for the IndyCar drivers who are willing to spend a disproportionate amount of time in their basements, guest rooms, or garages where their sim rigs live.

Compare the hours consumed and the laps turned by the drivers who are married, homeschooling their children and feeling the effects of life in the coronavirus lockdown more than their youthful counterparts, and the levels of iRacing preparedness vary massively based on available time.

And then there’s Sebastien Bourdais.

As you might suspect, a few of the veterans who got off to a poor start in Round 1 — who should be spending more time with their families — have cast aside their marital and parental duties and lost their damn minds on iRacing.

Through Wednesday evening, the prime culprit was the four-time Champ Car champion. Inspired by a forgettable start to his Esports career at Watkins Glen, Bourdais’ unofficial count around Barber reached 316 laps by Wednesday night before his wife Claire pulled the cord on his iRacing OCD.

That’s five hours and 47 minutes; last year’s real Barber race took one hour and 55 minutes to complete. Prior to amassing more laps on Thursday and Friday, Bourdais turned the equivalent of three race distances to get ready for Saturday’s 45-lap contest.

“I suck, and I’m trying to un-suck,” he said. “No luck yet.”

A few of IndyCar’s newlyweds had some work to do to catch the Frenchman prior to Thursday, with James Hinchcliffe (246 laps) and Josef Newgarden (224 laps) next on the list at Barber. And those are from the public sessions available for all to see; private testing where untold laps have been turned is another popular option being used.

Towards the bottom of the list, you’ll find Ed Carpenter (175 laps), Jimmie Johnson (161 laps), and Scott Dixon (140 laps), as all three juggle the needs of being husbands and fathers and trying to avoid being embarrassed at Barber on Saturday.

“My lap count would have been lower, but I did two full-tank runs before I stopped,” Dixon told RACER. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, and when I did, I found most all of the sim rig components were sold out! There’s been a total run on it. The intensity of settings and programs you need to do well is ridiculous. The fuel settings stuff, and being able to communicate with people while you’re driving…I had no idea.”

With his wife Emma, two daughters, and a new son at home, the five-time IndyCar champion isn’t sure his Esports debut at Barber will be more than a one-and-done.

“Emma’s already over it…I told all the drivers on our group chat that I’ll have a nice top-of-the line sim rig for sale next week,” he said with a laugh. “It’s hard. We’ve got the girls at home, and a newborn, so it’s just knowing if it’s time worth spending. I know some guys are doing private testing and doing like 10 hours a day. It’s kind of insane.”

Dixon’s 28-year-old Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Felix Rosenqvist has been a resource for the 39-year-old to use during his crash course in iRacing. As a few of his rivals have found in their introduction to Esports, the online simulation platform is incredibly realistic, but far from real when it comes to replicating the actual feel and reactions from a real Indy car.

“I’ve been leaning on Felix for help with a lot of things, and he’s like, ‘Oh, just go here and click this, and change that,’ and I’m like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about…can you just film it and send me a video?’” he said with another laugh.

“The problem is, too, it’s a generational thing where you’re trying to catch up to guys like Felix who’ve been doing this for four or five years, at minimum. And the car’s not even close to the real thing. That’s thing I’m worried about. We were talking at Spring Training, and Felix said he thought his sim was teaching him bad things when he drives our real cars. I can see where that’s the case.”

In another parallel mentioned by other IndyCar drivers taking their first crack at iRacing, Dixon says using multi-million-dollar driver-in-the-loop simulators at Honda Performance Development, or Dallara, has made the transition to Esports harder than expected.

“I remember my first sim test this year; I spent the first three hours just trying to get the tire model right before we did any testing,” he added. “That’s the level of realism you’re dealing with. Then you start on something like this with iRacing, that is a real game, where you need to learn the tricks to cheat it. It’s interesting, but also uninteresting to me.

“It’s like driving a version of the real thing, but it’s more of an impression than anything real, and it’s nothing like the actual sims we use. This is a bunch of drivers training to be their best at iRacing, really, instead of it being IndyCar drivers using their experience to carry over and go right to the front in sim racing. Two completely different worlds. I’d say this is fun, but only as long as I go in approaching it as something fun to do.”