Bears

'It's fast-tracked iRacing': With sports shut down, Kyle Long explains sim racing

'It's fast-tracked iRacing': With sports shut down, Kyle Long explains sim racing

For years, the casual sports fan has heard about eSports, but while video games continue to grow in popularity, the virtual gaming world has never really threatened the mainstream sports world.

That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down sports altogether.

Last month, with no NASCAR race to show on television, FOX and iRacing partnered together to broadcast a live virtual race with real NASCAR drivers. And with sports fans all hunkered down at home starving for any kind of activity, the event quickly went viral on social media, with this year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin winning the virtual Homestead race inside his own house with his daughter cheering him on.

With the success of that first race, FOX did it again last Sunday, racing virtually at Texas Motor Speedway, which would have been hosting that weekend’s real NASCAR race. This coming Sunday, they’ll do it again at Bristol. NBC Sports has also joined the party, announcing it will broadcast an IndyCar iRace Saturday at 1:30 p.m. CT on NBCSN.

But let’s shift into reverse. What is iRacing? And what the heck is that contraption Hamlin has sitting in his living room?

Of all people, recently retired Chicago Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long has the answers. He’s been iRacing since 2016 and is now a part owner of an actual iRacing team.

Yes, this is all very real.

“I got started right after I blew my ankle out against Tampa Bay,” Long told NBC Sports Chicago this week. “That was the first real serious injury I had in my life and I struggled mentally. I didn't know what to do.”

That’s when a friend recommended iRacing.

“I had no use of my right foot for like a year almost. I had a computer, so I downloaded and I subscribed to the iRacing service,” Long said. “I bought a few of the basic cars and basic tracks that are popular. I think it was Daytona, Talladega and Charlotte.”

You might be thinking that this is just some video game played on Xbox or Playstation, but it is very different. iRacing is a subscription-based racing simulator you use on the computer. And it’s about as real as it could possibly get. The Massachusetts-based company is backed by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (who also is a co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing) and uses laser scanning technology to replicate every detail of every professional racetrack.

“They have this machine that essentially is like if R2-D2 and C-3PO had a baby -- but like a really fat baby -- and they roll it around the track, and it has lasers all over it like Mission Impossible style,” Long explained.

The technology works. If you have the right equipment at home, you can feel every bump in every track. Of course, the better your equipment, the more realistic the driving experience becomes.

“I was using a controller at first,” Long said. “So that's how cool iRacing is. You can go anywhere from a controller to a full-blown cockpit as you have seen on the internet. And I have somewhere in-between. I've got a really nice setup, but it's not as nice as say, Denny Hamlin's, which is (a) $150,000 rig. Mine's expensive, but nowhere near that.”

You definitely don’t need to spend more money on a rig than you would on a real car – Long said a nice Logitech wheel/pedal setup will set you back $150 – but there’s a reason why NASCAR drivers are spending so much money on their in-home simulators. The racing is so realistic, the professionals actually use iRacing to practice.

“If a guy lives in Charlotte and they have a race in Phoenix next week and they need to train and they want to get their car set up, they can do everything on the car,” Long said. “I'm not a mechanic, but you can set up the car how you'd like, as well as experience the track for free in the comfort of your own home without spending money on tires, fuel, flights, insurance, risking getting hurt, etc.”

The simulators are set up to give drivers hard forced-feedback on the steering wheel and pedals. Long has three monitors that wrap around his “GT-like” racing seat.

“It's incredible. When you're sitting in there and you're racing, you sometimes forget that you're in your living room and your dog is sitting right behind you,” he said.

But he’s also right that you don’t need an expensive setup to be successful. NASCAR driver Timmy Hill won Sunday’s Pro Invitational Series race at Texas with a simple wheel/pedal setup and one monitor in front of him.

“It's not like you have to break the bank to have success,” Long said. “You really just have to take it seriously and respect racing.”

Now that Long is done playing football, he’s showing racing even more respect. As iRacing tries to take advantage of the added attention it is getting with the sports world shut down, Long was one of many celebrity racers invited to join The Replacements iRacing Series, which now runs bi-weekly through June 30. The series includes Dale Earnhardt Jr. and longtime NASCAR crew chief Chad Knaus.

“I remember I was in there drafting with Bubba Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 60 and it was just crazy for me. Such an experience,” Long said after last week’s race.

The next Replacements race takes place Tuesday night and can be streamed at Twitch.tv/iRacing. But while Long has made it on a big stage in the iRacing community, he still views it as a hobby and not a second career.

“If you're asking me if I'm going to be a pro racer, absolutely not in the iRacing community. Absolutely not,” Long said. “The talent level of these guys is crazy. I'd say I'm middle of the road or a little bit above average. I can be fast at times, but there are guys who are just incredible. So no, but I enjoy being part of the iRacing series and kind of pushing this brand forward.”

But Long admits “there is some rich soil in the roots of iRacing” and that those in the community have “projected that this thing is going to blow up eventually.” That’s why Long has jumped in as a part owner in iRacing’s premiere professional series, which is sponsored by Coca-Cola.

The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing series runs every other Tuesday night at 8 p.m. CT and Long is part owner of Mode Motorsports, which has two cars in the series. One of them is a "Kyle Long Ford Mustang" with No. 75 painted on the side – the same number he wore for the Chicago Bears. Every detail is taken seriously, including the car paints, which are designed by the same people who design the paints on actual NASCAR and Formula 1 cars.

The races themselves are fascinating. Many of the drivers have cameras pointed at them and wear headsets that allow them to talk to their “spotters” who are viewing the race from different camera angles and can help their drivers get through traffic. And yet, it’s pretty obvious they’re at home.

“We get to see facial expressions of these 17 to 30-year-old dudes who are the best sim racers in the world, but they're in their bedroom,” Long said. “There’s one guy that’s got a lizard cage behind him or something.”

Hey, in these uncertain times, iRacing serves as an outstanding self-isolation tool all while remaining part of an online social community.

“(These are) unfortunate circumstances that iRacing and the simulation world are enjoying so much success right now with sports coming to a screeching halt, but it's just fast-tracked iRacing,” Long said. “I think there's tremendous value in it and teams are starting to see that. You're going to start to see real big sponsors.”

In the meantime, Long’s hobby is an entertaining distraction, both for drivers and newfound viewers.

“It's a welcomed escape from a crappy sort of time,” he said. “I'm looking out the window, it's April 1, it's a beautiful sunny day. It's a little brisk here, but I know I can't go out and go to town and have a good time … because there's bad stuff going around. So we welcome these things.”

And the eSport is welcoming new drivers too.

“If you're really all about racing, but you don't have the time or the weather or you got a bunch of kids and you don't want to get in a car going 150 miles per hour, you can go race in iRacing, which is what I've done.”

Considering most of our real cars are gathering dust in our garages right now, it’s not a bad idea.

Matt Nagy: Mitch Trubisky, Nick Foles both doing well in Bears virtual meetings

Matt Nagy: Mitch Trubisky, Nick Foles both doing well in Bears virtual meetings

Give the man some credit: Matt Nagy's consistently terrific at saying a lot without saying anything at all. 

Nagy joined Mike Tirico on NBC Sports' Lunch Talk Live series on Wednesday afternoon and gave something resembling an update on the Bears' ongoing QB battle: 

Well what it does is that I think any time you’re dealing with competitions, with any of these players – we actually have several competitions going on with our offense and defense – and certainly at the quarterback position, every rep you get you want it to be valuable. So we’re losing reps right now in the OTAs. We’ll have to get them back in training camp. We’ll be creative into how we do that as a staff. But we’ll make it work, and Mitch and Nick have been great in the classroom and obviously the competition hasn’t started yet over the internet, but they’re excited and we’re looking forward to it. 

Take that for what you will. Any real update on QB1 probably (definitely) won't come until training camp gets under way, whenever that is. For now, we're left with reading tea leaves from short Zoom calls. Sports! You can watch the entire interview, which features more platitudes along with some cooking analysis from the Bears' coach, below:

Kevin White given fair shot with Bears in 2018 but didn’t take advantage

Kevin White given fair shot with Bears in 2018 but didn’t take advantage

Kevin White didn’t sound like a wide receiver.

As he spoke to reporters at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University shortly after getting drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2015, it quickly became apparent that White was a somewhat quiet, reserved, humble kid. He didn’t sound like the flashy wideout that was going to be yelling at his quarterback if he didn’t get the ball.

“I don’t really spend a lot of money,” he said. “I buy my earrings at Claire’s.”

RELATED: Kevin White Admits He 'Checked Out' At Times In Bears Tenure

That first impression was confirmed the next day when I spoke to White at my cubicle at Halas Hall. 

“Sometimes I can be (flashy), but I’m not really into the whole money thing and showing off too much,” White said.

A week later, White easily stood out as the best player on the field at rookie minicamp. But a month later, White was already dealing with a small stress fracture in his leg that would end up costing him his entire rookie season. It was the first of three straight fluke injuries in three years for a player with almost no injury history prior to entering the NFL. 

That’s why it wasn’t surprising to hear White – now completely out of the league – tell NBC Sports Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz in a lengthy interview that he feels cheated by football. It’s completely understandable.

“People can say bust or whatever the case may be, and it is attached to my name by default,” White said. “So I think for me, okay, you can say Kevin White’s a bust because it didn’t work out. Absolutely. 

“But you can’t say Kevin White can’t play this game or Kevin White can’t get open or Kevin White’s dropping passes. You couldn’t say any of that. Not at practice, not in the little bit of games that I did play. 

“You could say injuries, you know, held me back but you can’t say I was out there and just pissed it all (away) — you can’t say that. So that’s how I deal with it.”

Having covered all four years White spent with the Bears, I would agree that he didn’t piss it all away. None of the injuries were a result of poor training or work habits. He battled through three grueling rehabs. Work ethic didn’t seem to be a problem and if it ever became one, you could certainly understand why he would question why it was worth all the work. In his conversation on the Under Center podcast, White expressed frustration that other players who partied and smoked marijuana didn’t get hurt. You never heard anything about White being a distraction off the field. He just had some awful luck.

So we can agree on all that, but I don’t agree with his own assessment of his play – especially in 2018. I would argue White was given plenty of opportunities to prove himself that year and didn’t take advantage of them.

White described himself as playing the best football of his career that summer. I have notes from OTAs that year that suggest otherwise, although in fairness, reporters only get to view one practice a week during OTAs. During training camp, when the pads went on, I remember a few splash plays, but I also remember White struggling to get open. On Aug. 10, 2018, I wrote in my “10 Bears Things” column:

I’m less focused on whether or not White can stay healthy and more focused on whether or not he can actually play wide receiver at the NFL level. We’re now three weeks and two preseason games into training camp and I’m still waiting for some kind of answer.

That was written after White dropped an easy third down completion from Mitch Trubisky in a preseason game against the Bengals. In his interview with Stankevitz, White said he was trying to duck away from a hit on the scapula he broke in 2017, causing the drop. That may have been the case, but it was an enormous missed opportunity in a preseason game when plays like that carry a lot of weight. Also noticeable in that preseason game? Rookie Anthony Miller was pulled before halftime to make sure he didn’t get hurt. Taylor Gabriel didn’t even play. Those are glaring depth chart clues and it was apparent White was, at best, the No. 4 option at wide receiver. Worse, he was clearly behind Gabriel at the “X’ spot, which was the only position White played. He didn’t have a lot of versatility in new coach Matt Nagy’s offense.

White described his spot on the depth chart as “business,” repeating that word to Stankevitz seven times. Of course, the most obvious objection to that claim is that if the depth chart was being determined by “business,” White should have had the upper hand because he was general manager Ryan Pace’s first draft pick and he was failing to live up to expectations. It would have looked better if White was playing. 

Instead, it was obvious that Gabriel was quicker in-and-out of his breaks. He simply got open more. And his hands were better. 

Contrary to what White said, drops and mental errors were an issue in 2018. White would occasionally have a great practice and shine, but he failed to stack good days together. Confidence – or lack thereof – was always a talking point with the coaches throughout his career. In 2017, White wasn’t pleased when wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said they watched some his old West Virginia tape to help boost his confidence.

“It’s just a matter of him mentally, right now, seeing it happen and stacking them play by play in each practice,” Nagy said in 2018.

By White’s own admission, he eventually checked out. Things appeared to come to a head in Weeks 8 and 9 when Allen Robinson was out with an injury. Against the Jets in Week 8, White played a then season-high 29 snaps. He caught just one pass for six yards on three targets. On one particular route down the left sideline, White failed to get open and he wasn’t able to make a play on the ball as Trubisky’s pass landed a foot or two out of bounds. But White also caught a big third down pass for a 20-yard gain right before halftime. With a roughing the passer penalty tacked on, the Bears would have been in position to score. But as things tended to go during White’s career, the completion was called back because Kyle Long took linebacker Darron Lee to ground after the whistle. Long was reacting to something that happened earlier in the game, but Nagy was incensed. Not only did the penalty wipe out a play that could have set up a score in the two-minute drill, it also wiped out a confidence-booster for White. 

The next week, White was inactive in Buffalo, which was peculiar because Robinson was still out. After the game, Nagy confirmed White was a healthy scratch, saying discipline was not a factor.

“Kevin and our coaching staff and myself, we’ve had some talks and (it’s) just the direction we decided to go for this game,” Nagy said. “Nothing by any means is permanent.”

But White didn’t play again until Week 17 when the Bears already had the NFC North wrapped up. Now we know why.

“Nagy talked to me,” White said. “And it was kind of like, Nagy, man, I’m done with y’all. It’s whatever. Y’all got it.”

White isn’t the first or last player to feel slighted by a lack of playing time. But the evidence suggests 2018 had very little to do with “business” and everything to do with performance. 

The entire Kevin White saga is unfortunate. No player should have such poor injury luck – including a rare broken scapula. It’s commendable that White has kept such a positive outlook and that came through as he opened up to Stankevitz.

But the reality is that Kevin White was given a fair shot in 2018 and didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.