Despite COVID, local racers stay on track with iRacing
ESCANABA — When COVID-19 brought sports to a grinding halt earlier this year, there was one that was able to continue, just not in the real world.
Both NASCAR and IndyCar, among other professional racing series, utilized the racing simulation service iRacing during the spring months in place of events originally scheduled to take place around the country.
The service has been well known within racing circles for years since its initial release in 2008.
In the 12 years following, it has grown to be the leader in racing simulators. But it was the use of iRacing on live television broadcasts for NASCAR and IndyCar that brought it to a wider audience.
And it’s not just drivers at the national level using iRacing.
Escanaba’s Robby Iverson, a third-generation driver from the iconic racing family, has used iRacing since 2015.
“It gets your blood going,” said Iverson. “It helps with the real racing with winter and stuff. Just staying focused lap after lap and hitting your marks it helps big time there.”
Iverson first became aware of iRacing while playing games on his Playstation 3.
“I used to play a NASCAR game online, and guys were talking about it on there,” he said. “I figured I’d check it out.”
While Iverson normally runs at Norway Speedway — and a few tracks in Wisconsin — he’s had the unique opportunity to race on the same track in both real life and on the simulator.
In 2017, Iverson competed at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, TN, and in preparation for the event, he turned to iRacing.
“I’d do a 100-laps a night for a couple weeks beforehand,” he said.
Though it was time well spent, iRacing couldn’t give Iverson the full Bristol experience.
“You really feel the G-forces in real life. It sits you down in the seat pretty good,” he said. “That’s real hard to replicate.”
Lack of G-forces notwithstanding, iRacing is a great tool for drivers — especially for those looking to gain all the experience they can.
“It really does help, especially with young drivers,” said Iverson. “Anyone that moves up to late models … I tell them that they should get on there.”
One late model driver who has taken to iRacing is Norway’s Cameron Clifford, a four-year veteran of super late models.
“I’ve been on iRacing for last four years on and off — mostly in the offseason,” said Clifford.
Unlike Iverson, Clifford discovered iRacing through NASCAR driver Ty Majeski — also considered to be one of the very best super late model drivers in the nation — who is sponsored by the service.
“iRacing is a great tool to use for any race car driver,” he said. “It’s very similar to the real thing on set-ups, how the car handles and also reacts to the track.”
During extended breaks between races, Clifford uses iRacing to stay sharp when he hops back into his real machine.
Personally, I have been on iRacing for about three years. As someone who covers the sport, it gave me a new appreciation for what the drivers do.
iRacing’s primary competition can be found in official sessions hosted by the service. However, users can also host private sessions or, if they choose, start a league.
The coolest thing in my time on iRacing was the founding of the 906 SIM League by former Upper Peninsula International Raceway President Chuck Carmin.
The league gave me a chance to race against both Iverson, Clifford and several other local drivers who I’ve had the pleasure of talking or writing about in my years covering local racing.
Among the drivers who competed in the 906 SIM League was Scott Bolster of Marquette.
Bolster has competed in real life at both Sands Speedway and Norway Speedway.
His iRacing experience dates back to 2012 when he stumbled upon the program on accident.
Now, in addition to racing in the sim and real life, he runs two different leagues on iRacing. Leagues help cultivate better racing and fewer incidents, usually among a group of friends. However, they can grow to be far larger than just a group of friends, as Bolster’s have, and include drivers from all over the country and world.
As far as equipment for iRacing goes, Bolster’s is on the upper side of the spectrum.
“I have a higher-end direct drive wheel, and I run it with real-world force feedback,” said Bolster. “It is as close to realistic as you can possibly feel in your hands.”
Just as if he was in a real race, Bolster often can work up a sweat from the effort he exerts during an iRacing session, but not every setup needs to be like Bolster’s.
“You don’t have to get as far deep into it as a lot of people do,” he said. “A lot of the controller manufacturers have entry-level setups anywhere between the 250-300 dollar mark, and you can get pretty much everything you need to get started.
“This is a hobby as much as it is entertainment,” he continued. “Just like any hobby, people are always upgrading their equipment. So you may not have to go out and find something brand new. You can find used stuff.”
Even some NASCAR drivers, like Timmy Hill, use modest equipment with stellar results. Hill won one of the NASCAR iRacing rounds during the shutdown.
“Some of the pros use cheap equipment, entry-level stuff,” Bolster said. “You can go as extravagant as you want, or at least what your pocketbook allows.”
The biggest thing about iRacing, according to Bolster, is how it compares mentally to the real thing.
“One of the things that are directly transferrable is the mental aspect of racing, the mental approach, the mental pressures,” he said. “It is absolutely equal, one-to-one, that skill set between sim racing and real racing.”
After trying out Bolster’s rig, veteran racer Darryl Wirkula commented the experience could shave off about a decade of the real-life learning curve.
You never know who you will run into on iRacing, either.
I, for instance, have raced against — and beat — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Whether it be drivers using it for practice or hobbyists seeking entertainment, iRacing is certainly finding a foothold in the racing industry.