Stories of success and growth within motor racing during the coronavirus shutdown have been a rarity. One significant outlier has been found in the corner of the market dedicated to sim racing, as vendors of steering wheels, pedals, seats, and custom systems have struggled to meet demand.
Atop the list of busy Esports companies sits iRacing. The Massachusetts-based online simulation service went live in 2008 to great fanfare, and with its ongoing growth over the last decade-plus, its subscriber base has expanded appreciably.
And with a large portion of racing fans sheltering at home, iRacing.com has become synonymous with sim racing as pro racers, sim specialists, and first timers have come together to flood the site service with activity.
“Certainly has been an interesting couple of weeks here at iRacing,” said marketing director Kevin Bobbitt, one of the company’s most vocal evangelists. “We’ve had pretty steady growth since we launched our product back in 2008,” But certainly the last three, four weeks, whatever it’s been now, it’s been even crazier in terms of how many people are signing up. People also kind of come and go through iRacing. iRacing is a membership system, so you, when you have an active membership you can join our servers and race.
“And some people maybe race for a few months and then they go do something else. Maybe they’re a real-world racer and they don’t use iRacing while they’re in their race season. But nobody’s in season right now. Lots of people returning, as well. It’s old customers and new customers all looking for an outlet and a way to be competitive and to race and to be part of a team that does this is, it’s super rewarding. But it really talks about kind of the groundwork that we’ve done over the last so many years to get here. Because we’re able to scale everything up without breaking the internet so far. That’s been pretty good.”
In the age of social distancing, iRacing has found its perfect audience.
“Obviously, we’ve spent the last 15 years or so building and developing an infrastructure that is based around internet racing and racing from your home against other people from all around the world,” Bobbitt said. “It’s kind of social-distancing racing. I mean, it is what we do. That’s how we built our business and it’s been growing and we’ve over the years we’ve added all different types of racing, for sure.
“Everything from NASCAR to IndyCar, sports cars, dirt, all that stuff. And the community has been growing and now more than ever, people are finding that, ‘Hey, maybe I should check that out and find out what’s going on. I can’t go down and watch racing this weekend or I can’t go out and go bowling or whatever it is you might normally do.’”
Meeting the immediate demand for distraction and entertainment has been another aspect of iRacing’s recent efforts. Whether it’s onboarding new members and helping them through the formative stages of driving simulated race cars, or working with racing series and television networks to broadcast weekly events during the COVID-19 pandemic, adapting to mounting needs and requests has been Bobbitt’s reality since mid-March.
“Obviously, things based on the internet are pretty convenient,” he said of the service’s immediate access. “We’re happy that we have an infrastructure that can support this and that we built it over the many years. And if we’re able to provide a little bit of entertainment in these unusual and strange times, we’re glad to play a part in that. It’s gone on so much further than just our regular customers, [who’ve] been using our product for years. But we have these relationships with various series, NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and so forth.
“And they are also in the same position as our fans. They can’t do anything. You’re not going to tracks these days. Neither are the sanctioning body’s crews, the drivers. They’re all looking for ways that, ‘Hey, how can we engage with our fans and still put on a good show?’ We’ve been able to ramp up at a pretty quick pace to put together some pretty special events that have been either streamed, some of them have been on television.
“We’ve got more than are coming on streaming and putting these real-world drivers from a series that fans are used to watching and putting them in a similar situation. A simulated race with the cars they’re used to driving on tracks that they’re familiar with. And so far it’s been really well-received. I think that people’s eyes have been open to say, ‘Hey, wow, there’s something to this sim racing.’”
Bobbitt’s hope is for iRacing to hold its place in the sport as a high-value addition to real motorized competition once the pandemic has passed.
“First and foremost, we’re kind of top of mind right now, but it wasn’t just overnight,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a long time and it took awhile to get here. Situations kind of brought us to the forefront to many more people with everything that’s going on in the world. But we, just like race fans, hope that real racing returns. We’re race fans, that’s why we do this. That’s why we’re simulating racing, right?
“I mean, we love racing, so we want the real racing to return just as much as everybody else. But I think that when it does return, I think iRacing will continue to be more a part of all these series. I think the series have seen, ‘Wow, this is a great way to engage with fans.’ And that’s what it’s all about. Whether you’re IndyCar, IMSA, NASCAR, whoever you are. I mean, you need your fans, right? That’s what makes these series exists. That’s how teams get sponsors. That’s how races get sponsors. That’s how race tracks sells seats.
“If you’re XYZ Speedway and you have one or two big races a year, well how do you keep people engaged the rest of the year? There’s 50 other weeks that nothing is happening at your track. And that’s an exaggeration. Obviously, they do other things, and they have concerts, other races, but they only have a couple of big ones. And we offer a way to keep people engaged, keep people thinking about it and kind of growing their love for whatever form of motor sport they’re into. I really hope that we can grow these relationships that are continuing to grow already with the series we’re working on.”
Catch the rest of the conversation with Bobbitt on sim rigs, TV production, and more below: