PRUETT: Lessons from the IndyCar iRacing Challenge

Image by Miller/Lumen

PRUETT: Lessons from the IndyCar iRacing Challenge

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Lessons from the IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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What did we learn after six weeks of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge events? A surprising amount, actually.

It was equal parts boring, thrilling, monotonous, and amusing. Very close to the real thing. But just different enough – like those Impossible Burgers made from plants – to leave us craving a return to the real thing.

We learned that while the racing might have been virtual, the real-world sense of fair play carried over in every lap turned at Watkins Glen, Barber Motorsports Park, Michigan International Speedway, Twin Ring Motegi, Circuit of The Americas, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Especially the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the brazen actions by Simon Pagenaud and Santino Ferrucci transcended iRacing.

“Everything was going to be heavily debated and over-analyzed, because people have the time to do it right now, so you had to watch your moral conduct the whole time,” says Sebastien Bourdais. “I’m glad I didn’t say or do anything stupid! Unfortunately, we’ve seen things that nobody wanted to see. And yeah, it is virtual, but in the meantime, when you start to put the race suit on and the team polos or whatever, and you’re on live TV, you’re taking the effort to represent people.

“There are real consequences to what you can do, say, or what side of yourself you show. And it’s one thing when it happens when we’re practicing and insults start flying and people start driving crazy, but obviously when it’s in front of a few hundred thousand people on TV, I’m not sure it’s the right thing to display.”

Considering how big and prosperous the Esports world has become in the last decade, dismissing its fans with throwaway lines like “it’s just a video game” struck a blow to legions of potential IndyCar fans as being out of touch and disrespectful. After five weeks of validating sim racing and embracing a new audience, two idiotic decisions seemingly unwound all of the positive gains made by the series within a coveted demographic.

“We’ve already seen a couple things,” Bourdais continued. “You look at Kyle Larson, and Bubba Wallace in a smaller way, and the stuff that’s winding down with Simon and Santino, and the heat they’re going to have to deal with that, following those guys. And there were some pretty ugly things said, and done, and there were some consequences. That’s the world we live in. And I’m not being judgmental on any of the above, but I think some guys probably wish they could wind the clock back and have a redo.”

We learned new ways to love our favorite drummer and hip-hop enthusiast for stripping away all filters over the drivers’ group chat.

“Look, I know that I’m not going to be alive forever, so, it just doesn’t matter man,” Will Power says. “I’m almost 40; it’s gone by so fast. Am I lucky enough to live another 40 years? That would be amazing, but you just don’t know. You just can’t care what people think. Say the truth. Say what you think and that’s it.

“I just call it as it is at the time, and I don’t dislike anyone; I just say what I think at the time, even if I’m a bit mad. So, it’s not what I truly believe. I don’t think whoever I call w*****s at the time are really w*****s, but they were at that time.”

We learned that unlike real races where everyone takes the sport seriously, the same level of commitment was not always present from start to finish. It might have left a sour taste for some with IndyCar’s iRacing product.

“For me, the lesson learned is that there are two ways to go about sim racing: Very seriously and very competitively with something on the line and in a well-structured system, or loosey-goosey, have some fun with it, and let’s entertain some fans,” James Hinchcliffe says.

Drivers can choose to take iRacing seriously. Or, they can choose not to. But when drivers who taking opposite views of virtual racing start going side-by-side, well… Image by Miller/Lumen

“And I think what we realize now is that we landed way too much in the middle, because you had half the field that were kind of taking it seriously, half the field feeling that we’re taking it extremely seriously, and you just can’t do it that way. Everyone has to be out there for a good time or everyone has to be out there to win, and then the show, and the product we’re offering, and the point of it all, makes more sense. But we were stuck in no-man’s land. We were in the neutral zone, and it wasn’t the best place to be.”

We learned Bourdais has a cat. His name is Oscar. The clip of Oscar, riding shotgun on the bed behind Bourdais during the first race, generated an insane number of views. More, funnily enough, than any of the videos he and I have churned out…

We learned that with the various shelter-in-place orders in most states, the IndyCar iRacing Challenge became an all-consuming affair for many drivers who invested an unbelievable amount of time preparing for each round. A prime example comes from Lando Norris, who admitted to spending a combined 24 hours learning the art of oval racing for the finale at IMS. And in many cases, the time spent by a driver was compounded by the support received from the team. For Norris, three Arrow McLaren SP engineers were attached to those 24 hours of practice, meaning almost 100 hours of collective effort was sunk into prepping for a single 70-lap virtual race. The colossal time investment in this case was a significant contributor to the Briton’s frustration in the race’s outcome, and the lingering sense of loss.

We learned that teams viewed televised iRacing events on NBCSN as a lifeline to generate value for sponsors. It worked, in some cases, and IndyCar went to great lengths to produce internal reports for its teams to quantify the value and share the info with their sponsors and partners. There weren’t a ton of viewers, but credit NBC Sports and iRacing for rising to the production challenge during the coronavirus shutdown.

We also learned that some sponsors were either pushing to have money returned, or to skip making upcoming payments during the shutdown, which meant the furor raised last week at the Indy finale wasn’t helpful. As only four spots were made available during pre-qualifying to make the field of 33 – with no explanation why – the subsequent loss of popular drivers Kyle Busch, James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens, and more who failed to qualify for the race brought confusion that wasn’t needed. Add in the late-race stupidity and negativity produced by Ferrucci and Pagenaud, and real-world problems were caused for some teams clutching to the televised iRacing events as a way to appease and retain their sponsors.

We learned to enjoy some drivers in new and different ways as their personalities shined through during practice sessions, and even in a few races. And especially on Twitch, where tuning into Conor Daly’s stream was always entertaining, as was Scott McLaughlin’s.

“I really liked getting to know some of the drivers more than I did before,” Daly says. “I think because there was so little else going on in the world, you could almost look at every single sim session a driver did and learn something, because it’s an open mic. Everything was public about what we were doing. Everything on the driver chat, everything on the streams. So, I certainly learned more about some people, and if they watched me, they got the real me.”

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