As racers shelter from a virus, sanctioning bodies like SCCA keep the motorsports community together with online racing series
Gran Trak 10 was a revelation. Arguably the first racing video game, this 1974 arcade hit saw players flinging what now resembles a social media hashtag through a series of asterisks, with direction changes coming via a quick-spinning wheel, loud-clacking gas pedal, and an inaccurate gear lever. Night Driver, landing two years later at the arcade, was beyond an evolution; it exchanged the overhead view for a near-first-person perspective. When the game was ported to the console a few years later, I spent many an hour wheeling my Atari 2600 paddle controller even after Pole Position hit the market. But while these weren’t racing simulators, they set the stage for the amazing online motorsports competitions we’re seeing today. Indeed, virtual racing is nothing new, but it’s the best that it’s ever been – and we’re extraordinarily lucky it is.
This trip down memory lane isn’t just nonsensical nostalgic musings by a nostalgic Gen X’er. The fact is, every generation currently playing (or even simply watching) today’s online racing action during the COVID-19 shutdown has their own racing game story to tell. Yet, while I look back so fondly on my wasted youth, I equally stand in awe of the astounding breakthroughs in technology that have allowed online racing leagues to sprout up to fill the void now left by the absence of physical motorsports.
There’s little reason for back-story here, as we’ve all been living it: a global pandemic forced the world into temporary isolation from a never-before-seen virus. Shortly thereafter, motorsports events shuttered for much of 2020. But rather than sitting still, racers ranging from amateur to professional took to the virtual racing world, and just like that, motorsports lived on.
None of this is to say that online leagues via iRacing, Assetto Corsa, R Factor 2, and beyond didn’t previously exist – they just existed at a different level. Case in point, SCCA already offered an SRF Challenge series via iRacing and was plugging away launching a virtual Hoosier Racing Tire SCCA eSports Super Tour, but the outbreak jumped those plans into action at lightning speeds.
The club goes virtual
“When the coronavirus started kicking up and all of the motorsports events were being cancelled, I sent an e-mail to SCCA’s John Hunter and Heyward Wagner and said, ‘Hey, I think we need to jump on this now,’” Steve Ray explains of the quick action that ultimately launched SCCA’s virtual Hoosier Super Tour series in early April. John and Heyward rigorously agreed that online motorsports was the direction, and from there, the ball rolled on a new iRacing league.
Steve is just one component of the team who made this pivot happen, and he readily admits that he’s picking up a ball that was already rolling. As such, SCCA already touted its SRF Challenge on iRacing – but that was back when a virtual racing league was complementing real-world action. Suddenly, physical motorsports were halted, and SCCA’s virtual racing program would – at least for the time being – become the only part of the Club in active competition.
The initial Hoosier eSports Super Tour offering on iRacing boasted not only three racing groups – Spec Racer Ford, Skip Barber Formula cars, and Global Mazda MX-5 Cup cars – but also live streaming of practice, qualifying, and races, as well as event commentary from SCCA members and experienced racing commentators Larry “Lefty” MacLeod and Gregg Ginsburg. “Then we pulled in Kyle Heyer with SYM TV in order to broadcast the races,” Steve says.
Broadcasting the virtual races was key, because while every SCCA member loves racing, not everyone has a sim setup, an iRacing membership, or the desire to compete – but the ability to watch changes the game.
“The broadcaster can watch an overall view from above and see all of the action, and then they can pick a different camera and zoom in,” Steve explains. “Then there’s the replay function where they can see where the action happened and slow it down. This is all going on in the background, and the commentators are talking about it all in real-time.”
There are limitations to the broadcast, however, as Steve notes: “We had to limit the races to 40 cars because of the iRacing software. Typically, within iRacing you can go up to about 60 cars in a session that you want to broadcast, but there was a software limitation where over 40 cars caused broadcasts to have errors. We decided to limit the races to 40 cars, and for the first race group, the Spec Racer Fords, I think we filled up the practice server in about 10 minutes,” Steve says.
A second race group was added and about 20 racers joined that session, but only one race could be broadcast at a time, so only the larger race group hit the airwaves, so to speak.
“The next race group was the Skip Barber Formula 2000s, and we filled that first session in about two minutes,” Steve says.
Truly, there is pent-up demand to go racing.
The first Hoosier SCCA eSports Super Tour weekend, entries were open to anyone on the iRacing platform. Thereafter, races were limited to SCCA members. “People now have to request membership to the league, and I sort through those requests,” Steve says.
So, how was the racing for the opening round of the Hoosier SCCA eSports Super Tour? “The guys who specialized in just the online racing had an advantage,” Steve admits, adding, “The overall racing was pretty clean. I was really impressed. And I received a lot of comments about how clean and respectful the racing was.”
FR Americas jumps in
Amy Greenway is the Communications Director for SCCA Pro Racing’s Formula Regional Americas Championship and, as such, her job promoting the series and its races quickly changed with the virus outbreak. “As soon as we made the announcement that FR Americas’ first race in April was going to be postponed, we had to scramble in order to keep our audience engaged, because suddenly we were not going to have a race until June,” Amy explains of the birth of the FR Americas Invitational iRacing Championship. But unlike SCCA’s Hoosier eSports Super Tour launch, FR Americas organizers had no foothold in the world of virtual racing. Regardless, the process happened fast.
“In developing the online racing league, we announced the series on a Friday, began developing the series on Saturday, and I made the announcement on the following Thursday that FR Americas would host a virtual racing series beginning that coming Tuesday,” Amy says.
“A lot of factors went into this,” she explains. “FR Americas has drivers from all over the world who are racing, so we had to find a time that would be OK for racers all over the United States, racers in New Zealand, and those in Europe, although the Europeans got the short end of the stick since they would have to race at 2:00 a.m.”
It was quickly decided that the virtual FR Americas series would run on iRacing using the former international F3 car as the spec car. Next, Amy reached out to the drivers.
Since this would be an invitational series, the current FR Americas competitors and international F3 drivers were welcomed, as were some NASCAR drivers and a professional sim racer. “We also opened a fan iRacing league that races every Thursday at 3:00 p.m., with the top three fans joining our FR Americas league,” Amy notes. Sponsors were then brought into the fray, with real-world prizes offered to competitors on a per-race basis and for overall series performance.
That was the easy part, Amy notes. Having never done this before, logistical questions were bountiful. “How would the virtual races be streamed? How do I develop a league and put on a race? I read the iRacing online manual from cover to cover and then spent hours on the phone trying to set up things with the drivers who were helping me with this,” she says.
“The most difficult part was taking the information that I was learning and applying it within 48 hours,” Amy says. “We had a test day on Monday just to try out the broadcasting because we’re in three different locations. The drivers who were helping me, Jacob Loomis and Blake Upton, live in Seattle and Texas, and my announcer was in Ohio. Bringing us all together to make sure everything was working right was a challenge.
“We had an unofficial practice to test out everything, and it didn’t go well – but that’s why we practice,” Amy laughs. “It took me a few hours of back-and-forth with all of them to get the bugs settled. We then had another practice an hour before the first official race on March 24, so we could make sure everything was fixed.”
But no amount planning can account for everything, and the first broadcast resulted in a lower-quality broadcast than desired.
“The racing community is like a family – everybody wants to make sure that everybody is successful and wants to help out,” Amy smiles. “I had a sponsor reach out to me wanting to uplift the broadcast to make sure that the next one was on point, and then Apex Racing TV offered a really great partnership where they’re going to take over the streaming aspect for our events – we can still use our announcers, but now the races will also integrate driver interviews.”
But wait, there’s more
At the same time, the SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am Series had also dipped its toe into the virtual racing world, and while Amy is involved in that series, too, she wasn’t as integral in the launch of that series. That said, Amy was involved enough to say that Trans Am had similar issues wading into online racing leagues. Trans Am was also forced to swim in a different software direction.
“Trans Am didn’t use iRacing because iRacing doesn’t have a comparable Trans Am car in the software, so they went with rFactor 2,” Amy points out. “And then the process began again, because what I learned for iRacing didn’t really carry over to rFactor 2 because it’s a completely different simulation setup.”
At the time this story was written, Trans Am’s virtual racing didn’t involve a series, whereas the FR Americas Invitational iRacing Championship and Hoosier SCCA eSports Super Tour both incorporate seven rounds, with the FR Americas virtual series involving points and an overall series championship. Also, by the time you read this, all online series will have completed their initial calendars, but replays are available at scca.com, framericas.com, and gotransam.com, in many cases also appearing on their YouTube and Twitch channels. New series may also have been launched.
The question becomes, will these virtual racing series become integrated into the SCCA culture beyond COVID-19? Race fields filling up in a matter of minutes are hard to ignore but, at the same time, online racing can never replace the experience of real-world motorsports. Then again, it’s now equally hard to imagine virtual racing simply evaporating from SCCA’s culture.
Certainly, the answer will come with time, and it will undoubtedly be catered to fit the needs of the audience. For FR Americas, perhaps it’s a way to keep racers active and fans enthralled during the off-season; for the Hoosier SCCA eSports Super Tour, maybe the series parallels the physical Hoosier Super Tour. Right now, no one knows. What I do know is that no matter how much I liked Night Driver, I’m so glad iRacing is here now.
This story originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official publication of the Sports Car Club of America. A SportsCar subscription is just one of the many benefits of membership in the SCCA.
Extra, Extra: The Look
When racing in a virtual series, visual elements are essential. Beyond the obvious of having monitors or a VR setup to enable racers to see where they’re going, there are other factors to consider in the visual realm.
“In iRacing, there is a built-in software spotter you can turn on that will tell you whether there’s a car on your left or on your right, and it’ll say if you’re clear when you pass someone,” Steve Ray explains. “You can also have somebody sign in to observe and be your spotter over a voice channel. That person can watch the same view as the broadcast, from overhead, from directly in front of you, from other cars, or wherever, and be in your ear telling you what’s going on.”
Beyond that, there’s also custom racecar livery to consider. “Most of the SCCA Pro Racing FR Americas drivers already had liveries prepared from when they race on iRacing regularly,” SCCA Pro Racing’s Amy Greenway notes, adding that the Trans Am virtual series involved a different take on livery. “Because Trans Am was using rFactor 2 instead of iRacing, the developers took the Trans Am style guide and uploaded all of the sponsors onto the cars and then put the Trans Am logo on the hood.”
Watch the Hoosier eSports SCCA Super Tour replays and you’ll see that Club racers were also quick to upload custom – and often entertaining – livery. – Philip Royle