Brave new world: Two SCCA champions tackle virtual racing

Image via Fanatec

Brave new world: Two SCCA champions tackle virtual racing

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

Brave new world: Two SCCA champions tackle virtual racing

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Tom O’Gorman and Kenton Koch are no strangers to the SCCA. O’Gorman’s record boasts multiple SCCA Solo National Championship titles and a World Challenge championship from when the series was sanctioned by SCCA Pro Racing. Koch, meanwhile, came through the motorsports ranks during a then-SCCA Pro Racing-sanctioned MX-5 Cup series, and he now owns a Rolex courtesy of winning a rather famous 24-hour race in Daytona. Both still actively autocross with the SCCA, both are professional race drivers in a variety of series, and both – thanks to COVID-19 pausing motorsports – are stepping into the world of virtual racing.

Actually, that last one is a rather misleading statement. Hold on and I’ll tell you why.

Koch and O’Gorman celebrate atop the Road Atlanta podium last fall. Image by Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

Koch and O’Gorman were thrown together as co-drivers of the eEuroparts.com ROWE Racing Audi in 2018 and became fast friends who stayed in regular contact even as rides with different teams in different professional racing series took them down separate roads. Still, both of them ending up in a 46-car field at Sebring in late March 2020 was no surprise — North Carolina resident Kenton Koch aboard a Porsche and O’Gorman a few rows behind in a BMW.

Had this been the famed Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours, SCCA champions Koch and O’Gorman so well placed on the grid in the GT Le Mans-class field would have been big news. As it was, the news was big, but the news was also virtual: the COVID-19 outbreak had pushed the fabled 12-hour race back to November 2020; in its place, on Saturday, March 21, a 90-minute iRacing event, the first in what would become an Esports feeding frenzy over the next few weeks as all the major sanctioning bodies – including the SCCA – grabbed ahold of “virtual racing.”

The iRacing Sebring SuperSaturday IMSA event, though, served to kick things off – a strong 50-driver entry featuring Koch and O’Gorman who, several weeks prior, had accepted their invitations, selected their virtual race cars, and worked diligently on setup through qualifying on the notoriously bumpy Sebring airport course captured so well on the iRacing platform.

Koch finished the race an impressive sixth. The transplanted Californian lost time on the first lap, forced to drive off course to avoid a spinning car, triggering an automatic time penalty. He then had to claw his way back through the quality field. O’Gorman, meanwhile, was 12th in the end.

“Yeah, I finished 12th — about where I expected,” said Solo National Champ and Michelin Pilot Challenge race winner O’Gorman. “I could have done better; without some mistakes, I could have been in the top 10. But I was honestly just praying for a top-15 in the race after a couple days of practice.

“I was really intrigued to see who else from the IMSA community spends time on iRacing,” says O’Gorman. “It was fascinating to see who spends plenty of time on there, and it was kind of intimidating, especially the first day of practice. There were some big names, and I was like, ‘OMG, these guys are really fast!’”

Not their first (online) rodeo

Both of these young drivers can actually claim a wealth of previous Esports experience. O’Gorman’s goes back almost 20 years, ironically getting started with the Papyrus MS-DOS NASCAR game when he was just 7  or 8 years old – ironic, because Papyrus morphed into today’s premium iRacing platform.

Later, on PlayStation, O’Gorman had Need for Speed and Gran Turismo. “And then, as those console games started to get better, I engaged with the online community,” he says. “There were a couple of games that had a really big online following.

“The first one was TOCA Race Driver 2, then 3,” O’Gorman continues. “Those are where I really got involved playing with clubs and racing with groups of people, all organized through forums. It was all very grassroots because none of those games were really designed for you to play with other people in a formal way. It was just, you go online, you find a room full of people that race with you, and you have a good time.”

That led to simulators, the point where O’Gorman got a steering wheel. “I found this game called GTR 2, which was only for PC and it had a bunch of real race cars and real racetracks in it, and figured out that I couldn’t just play with the keyboard; I had to get a steering wheel. So, I bought that and bolted it to my desk.

“Then I found out that there was this whole big group of PC simulators – this is all still pre iRacing – GTR 2 and GT Legends and R Factor 2, a bunch of games that each had its own following.

“Finally, I stumbled onto the first, I think, really formalized community of online racing: Race2Play,” he recalls. “You had to register for the series, and it was all run through a website. It was very formalized and some of it was streamed.

Soloing champ in real life, Tom O’Gorman. Image via SCCA

“iRacing came into play a couple of years later,” O’Gorman continues. “All that spanned the years 1995 to 2008-ish. In 2007, I started autocrossing, and when I finally got into a real car, my butt hit the seat and I took my first autocross run, it was very inherent – kind of built in – of what to do. I had to get used to the sensations of the car underneath me, but the fundamentals of how a car works – well, I think all the years [with games and simulators] allowed me to get up to speed in real cars quickly.”

As for Koch, racing sims clearly aided in his rapid rise through the ranks from karting to MX-5 champion and many-time IMSA race winner over the last decade.

Sim racing remains a key element in Kenton Koch’s toolbox, helping him learn new tracks and refresh before returns to tracks he’s seen. Image by Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

“I’ve been on iRacing for nine or 10 years,” Koch explains. “But what I used it for was helping to make the transition from karts to cars – to learn new tracks and use it as a learning tool to get up to speed quicker. When I go to a racetrack I haven’t been to, I’ve got that knowledge of the layout, what bumps are where, things like that.

“But currently, well, I still use it for things of that nature, as a tool; but more now because it’s fun,” Koch admits. “It’s fun to be with peers and race each other on level playing fields. I still use it as a tool, though, to get reacquainted with places.”

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