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.