I’ve kept my mouth shut, at least in column form, during this sim racing epidemic of the past couple months because my two employers, RACER and NBC, embraced the world of make-believe racing. But I can’t look the other way any longer. It’s finally gone beyond incomprehensible.
Daniel Abt, one of only four drivers to have contested every Formula E race since its inception in 2014, was fined, suspended and appears to have lost his full-time job with Audi because he snuck a ‘ringer’ into his place in last weekend’s round of the virtual FE series last week.
Think about that. He was fined 10,000 euros (payable as a donation to charity) and is out of work because he got somebody else to drive his car in a computer game. Let that soak in for a minute.
It’s the latest and by the far the most head-shaking of all the consequences arising from this fake racing b.s. that earned an audience because race fans were bored during the pandemic.
Thankfully, two-time Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne questioned the sanity of such a heavy penalty for an exercise in make-believe. “After all this is a game that should be taken seriously but it’s a GAME,” he tweeted.
Laurens Vanthoor, a Porsche GT driver, also weighed in with some logic. “This all started as a show to entertain and now it has cost multiple careers. Yes, there are dos and don’ts and some are unacceptable. Consequences are needed, but this? It’s a virtual thing to entertain you, not our daily job. But it costs us our daily one.”
Of course he was referring to Kyle Larson, who lost his NASCAR ride with Chip Ganassi and was suspended by NASCAR after using a racial slur during an iRacing competition back on April 12. No one disputed the punishment and Larson won in World of Outlaws last weekend after completing his diversity program, but his stock car career remains in limbo.
A few days before that, NASCAR regular Bubba Wallace had quit during the virtual race at Bristol after being crashed out. And Richard Petty’s new sponsor, pain-relief brand Blue-Emu, immediately pulled its backing.
“We aren’t sponsoring Bubba anymore,” said Blue-Emu VP Ben Blessing. “Can you imagine if he did that in real life on a track?”
How comical is that? NASCAR lives for on-track hatred and drivers throwing helmets or insults at each other. They love post-race dust-ups, and Bubba isn’t afraid to mix it up if he feels wronged. You can’t buy that kind of PR. But this reaction meant nothing in real life. Or as Wallace said: “I ruined so many people’s day by quitting a video game.”
The coup de grace for me was the Indy race earlier this month on iRacing. Simon Pagenaud, who captured the real Indy 500 in 2019, intentionally took out leader Lando Norris in retaliation for an earlier incident that ended the Frenchman’s chance to be competitive.
Norris blamed the misunderstanding on something called a netcode error that has to do with the computer lag between the U.K. and America. I wish I could run that one by Vuky, or Jimmy Bryan, or Rodger Ward.
Anyway, the fallout was instantaneous and vicious. People called for Pagenaud to be fined, banned or executed at sunrise. A few thought that Roger Penske should fire him. A couple others wondered if he would drive like that in real life. And several said they would no longer be fans of the personable veteran.
Seriously? After the heart-pounding duel between Alexander Rossi and Pagenaud to decide the 103rd Indy 500, people are going to question his race craft or professionalism? Rossi said it best last Sunday on NBC’s 2019 replay when volunteering that he enjoyed racing wheel-to-wheel at 220 mph with Simon because of the trust factor.
Now I realize I’m an old half-assed midget driver stuck in the 1960s and 1970s, but I do know what real racing is all about. It’s risk vs. reward, whether it’s midgets, sprints, stocks, super-modifieds, motorcycles, F1 or Indy cars. It’s pushing the limits and going for it like Takuma Sato on the last lap in 2012, or Ryan Hunter-Reay’s inside pass in Turn 3 in 2014, or A.J. Foyt leading the first 22 laps in 1982 while not knowing if his front suspension was damaged. Or Duane Carter setting a track record at Winchester in a sprinter after the previous two drivers were killed. Or Lee Kunzman winning a USAC midget race a year after nearly dying, but not being strong enough to pull the car out of gear in victory lane. Or Jim Hurtubise and Mel Kenyon not letting severe burns slow them down. Or Merle Bettenhausen racing with one arm. Or any of Rick Mears’ qualifying runs at Indy.
It’s not sitting in a chair at your house in front of a screen eating Cheetos with no consequences for a mistake, or flipping at Eldora and pushing a button and rejoining the action. It’s great that my pals, Todd and Cary Bettenhausen, get to iRace because their eyesight robbed them of the chance to follow in father Gary’s footsteps in USAC, and obviously a lot of people enjoy running on the computer circuit. And maybe it made some new, younger fans for the real thing, so that’s great.
But please stop acting like this madness matters to real racers, because it doesn’t. And in the past couple months it’s been more damaging than Twitter to four professionals. Fake racing shouldn’t have any consequences in the real world unless you make a mistake like Larson, who is paying for it dearly, but learned a tough lesson.
All I know for sure is that I was so sick of hearing and reading about computer racing that I was happy to watch a real NASCAR race.