CRANDALL: The value of a virtual chicane

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CRANDALL: The value of a virtual chicane

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CRANDALL: The value of a virtual chicane

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Steve Myers and the team at iRacing knew NASCAR was going to have to do something with the Daytona road course. Even before NASCAR entertained the idea of an additional chicane, Myers and company were already playing around with ideas.

How? Why? Simple: Myers jumped on his iRacing sim and drove the track himself, and found that the speeds and braking points were less than ideal.

“When I was driving the Cup car, I was having to start braking at the start/finish line to make it into Turn 1 without being completely out of control,” Myers explained to RACER. “So right off the bat, we knew that something was going to have to change.

“But honestly, we also figured out before we heard they went to the high downforce package that if they had stayed with the low downforce, I think they would have done something coming out back onto NASCAR Turn 4. It was scarier to go into that backstretch chicane than it was Turn 1, in my opinion, because you were over 200 miles per hour going into that chicane with the way it was configured with the low downforce package. When we heard they were doing the high downforce package that immediately was like, OK, we don’t necessarily have to worry about that chicane too much.”

NASCAR announced on July 8 that the three national series will run on the Daytona road course. Initially, the course layout was the same 12 turns used during the Rolex 24 each January. By July 30, officials had decided there would be the addition of a chicane off oval track Turn 4, leading to the start/finish line. And, NASCAR Cup Series teams will use the high downforce aero package.

iRacing had laser-scanned Daytona into its simulator quite some time ago, which helped limit the amount of work needed to add a chicane. For instance, when NASCAR went to running the Roval at Charlotte, iRacing had to scan the track multiple times because it was a new course, and the layout underwent numerous changes before a final design emerged.

With Daytona already on the iRacing platform, all Myers needed to do was get the technical data to add in the chicane. That is where Ben Kennedy came in. Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president of racing development, has been a big advocate of iRacing and has helped the team many times over the years.

“I said, Ben, the Cup guys, some of them are going to get simulator time, but we know that the Truck and Xfinity guys aren’t going to get any time in simulators, most likely,” said Myers “The only option they’re going to have to practice for this race is iRacing. He immediately got us all the technical data they had come up with to put the chicane together. He gave me that (on a) Sunday, and by Tuesday evening, we had released it onto the member’s site.”

iRacing has the advantage in its ability to iterate different ideas and concepts for what NASCAR needs. Plus, iRacing can immediately create an idea and and jump into a virtual car and drive it, which is what Myers and Greg Hill, the vice president of product development, were doing before an official announcement of the new chicane. But Myers believes that had there been more time, iRacing could have come up with some ideas that might have potentially worked out better.

“I’ll be honest with you, I still think this chicane is going to be a little sketchy when they actually start racing, because they’re so close to that inside wall when they get to the apex of the corner,” said Myers. “Any kind of failure or incident that goes into that braking zone, there’s going to be some impacts with that inside wall.

“Yeah, Ben got us the data, and we immediately got it plotted out because, from our perspective, it was just figuring out where they were going to put the curbs. Since they have that data precisely mapped to give us those measurements, we were able to turn it around very quickly.”

Myers knows drivers have already been using iRacing to practice. They might not be talking about it given the cat and mouse games in NASCAR and no driver wanting to give away what they’re doing, but there have been plenty of laps logged.

Kevin Harvick has openly admitted he’ll be wearing out iRacing this week. Harvick planned on using iRacing on Monday and Tuesday, then the Ford simulator on Wednesday before getting back on iRacing “Thursday, Friday, Saturday just to make sure that it’s fresh in your mind, so you know where to shift and things like that. Then it’s just trial and error after that.

Kevin Harvick is very possibly pounding out virtual laps through here as you read this. Image by iRacing

“I’ve watched enough races there that I know the racetrack in my mind, but I don’t know where our cars need to be and what gear I need to be in. I’ll learn that (this) week, and we’ll be ready and hopefully have a good day.”

iRacing and NASCAR will hold a Happy Hour event on Wednesday night. One driver from each series, along with their crew chief and engineer, will give fans a glimpse of going to a track in their first hour of practice and how they’d approach learning the course and developing a setup.

Collaboration – adding the chicane and showing off the track before race weekend – is a continuation of an already strong partnership between the two sides. iRacing and NASCAR are in their 11th season of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, and as Myers pointed out, they’ve worked together much longer; back to when the company was known as Papyrus Racing Games in the 1990s.

Myers isn’t sure there is a longer relationship in the sporting world between a “game developer” (he used air quotations here), and a sporting league. Maybe Madden and the NFL, but it is unique to have a long-term relationship with a company like NASCAR.

Granted, it took time for some within NASCAR to understand what iRacing was and what they could do. But over the last 16 to 18 months, Myers said there had been a dramatic improvement in the two sides working together, and credited some of that to how NASCAR and the world have shifted to using team technology, gaming, and simulation to connect with fans or create new ones.

The momentum and attention carried iRacing into this season. Then when the pandemic hit, iRacing was able to prove themselves well to NASCAR when in about 10 days, they went from getting a call from Fox about doing virtual racing to being live on network television.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who could have done that,” said Myers. “I think that was just putting a bow on what we’ve accomplished over 16 years with (NASCAR) and letting everyone else in the company understand what we could do, and I think it’s just going to get better from there.

“This road course project is the tip of the iceberg for the things we’re going to be able to do for NASCAR. We’re moving into this era in technology that we can now do things for a fraction of the cost that NASCAR would traditionally need to do in the real world. For this project alone, if done right, we could literally have done all the work for them and handed them the plans to do it. That’s just going to get stronger as the relationship goes on.”

Although real racing is back, iRacing remains relevant, with the Daytona chicane being one example. Still, Myers knew it would be unrealistic to continue growing the momentum and attention it did during the pandemic. During NASCAR’s shutdown, with people at home and watching virtual racing, iRacing added 65,000 new customers. In January, iRacing had 110,000 customers.

“Even now, we’re still generating new member sign-ups about three times as much as we did before the pandemic,” said Myers. “We were doing well. We had a massive spike when the pandemic hit, but even though it’s dropped down a little bit, it’s still three times what it was before the pandemic. From that perspective we’re thrilled, because nobody can bank on the idea that you’re going to be on network TV every Sunday for eight weeks in a row. That’s kind of unheard of in this space.

“Everything we do as a company we view as ‘new member sign-ups,’ so our whole product is based on people signing up and coming in and racing, and by doing that, hopefully, we’re increasing the population of racers as we go. Ideally, our perfect case scenario is you go and have a great time, and you’re having a lot of fun doing it, and you get five of your friends to do it with you. Our best sales force is our members, who go out and recruit to enjoy this thing with them.”

With Daytona road course week upon us, iRacing members will enjoy getting to run the updated course. Speaking from experience, Myers said it’s going to be hard both in the virtual and real world. NASCAR stock cars are heavy machines that don’t have the same braking power as a sports car, and he’s going to be interested to see if the tires and brakes hold up with two significant braking zones.

And Myers is also going to be interested in seeing how those on iRacing handle the course (he’s expecting a lot of protests) as well as the best stock car drivers in NASCAR this weekend.

“These guys who are really not traditionally known to be road course racers trying to get these things slowed down for those slow corners, and it’s going to be the same struggle for our members as well,” said Myers. “And keep in mind, you’ve got fewer senses in the simulated world than the real world – you don’t have that feeling in your butt of the momentum, where the car’s moving and how it’s slowing down or accelerating. So, you’re using your ears and eyes and hands to make up for those sensations that you’re missing, and so it’s harder.

“I think people are going to have a very great appreciation leading up into the real-world race of how difficult it’s going to be for these guys. Especially jumping into these cars with no practice and taking the green flag and going into Turn 1 for the first time understanding the capabilities of their brakes. It’s going to be interesting, and I think our members are going to have a really great appreciation for what’s going to happen because they have the opportunity to do it in the sim.”

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