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IndyCar drivers admit to thinking before speaking in virtual racing

IndyCar iRacing Challenge - Chevrolet 275

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In this COVID-19 pandemic world of virtual racing, more drivers have had negative impacts on their careers than they would have probably experienced in real-world racing.

NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace was dropped by sponsor Blu-Emu for “rage quitting” during a virtual race at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago. Kyle Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after an ugly racial slur in an off-hand comment was easily heard on broadcast streams of another iRacing contest last Sunday night.

So far, NTT IndyCar Series drivers have avoided controversy in the first three races of the six-race IndyCar iRacing Series.

The fourth race of the series is the Firestone 175 at virtual Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. NASCAR’s Kyle Busch will be included in that contest. It also marks the return of three-time Indianapolis 500 winning driver and longtime NTT IndyCar Series star Helio Castroneves.

The race is scheduled for Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time and will be televised on NBCSN.

Driver comments make the races interesting to the viewers. It’s one thing that sets auto racing apart from other sports leagues. The participants can be heard in the middle of the competition.

IndyCar Content Day

Driver Scott Dixon -- Getty Images

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Scott Dixon drives for Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar. His NASCAR teammate was Larson before he lost his ride earlier in the week for his unfortunate comment. Larson remains suspended by NASCAR.

Team owner Ganassi has notified his drivers to watch what they way in the virtual racing world.

“I did get a text from him that said, ‘Just lay low.’” Dixon said Friday.

Dixon is hoping that over time, Larson can recover from this incident and return to big-time racing. Larson has the support of the World of Outlaws, that says he can compete in that series once he completes a racial sensitivity training program within the next 30 days.

“Every situation is extremely different,” Dixon said. “I’ve known Kyle (for a long time). He used to come to the month of May and watch us practice probably 10 plus years ago. He’s been a fantastic teammate all through the stuff that we did with Target back in the earlier days.

“It’s a bad situation for everybody involved. I think because of the current situation that we’re in, it’s going to be different from anything else we’ve seen before, too. Obviously, I think for the team and for Kyle, even to see some of the comments from Joey Logano, Bubba Wallace, you can see different sides from everybody’s view of it.

“Personally, he’s a really nice guy. It was in a situation that I didn’t see it firsthand or anything like that, but I hope for his sake that it can work itself out.”

Castroneves is one of the more colorful personalities in racing. But he also knows people are listening and drivers need to be careful what they say in the heat of competition.

“We are drivers, we get frustrated, we want to be competitive,” Castroneves said. “Sometimes you got to remember that a lot more people are watching, they can hear everything, your thoughts basically.

“Normally you’re thinking something in the helmet, but nobody can hear it. In this position, in this situation right now we all are followed.

“It’s a tough situation. You got to remember that you represent still a company, a team, mechanics, a lot of guys, sponsors around you. Unfortunately, sometimes your mind is thinking something, but people are listening.”

And people are watching. The ratings for the first three races have been impressive considering all live professional sports with the exception of horse racing have been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

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Sim racing has been around for a while, but many sports fans are discovering it for the first time. IndyCar Series owner Roger Penske is impressed with the metrics and fan engagement in sim racing. Penske believes there is a place for it once real-world racing resumes.

“Without a doubt, there’s been some positives from this sim racing,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden said. “I think what they’re proposing in reality as we go back to the real world is quite exciting. I think we’re all pretty excited and confident that Roger is leading that charge. He is probably the best person positioned to get something like that done.”

Newgarden also sees virtual racing as a tremendous opportunity to try out new things before applying it to the real world.

“Actually, a lot of it’s not going to translate to reality,” Newgarden said. “The preparation and work that we do going into a real IndyCar season or a real IndyCar race, that’s all going to have to stay the same and is going to be something different.

“One of the positives is it is a good testbed for running through strategy. If you’re able to have your engineer or strategists on the microphone or the headset with you, it provides a good opportunity to run through those scenarios. I think that is very applicable to the real world.

“At the moment I’m just enjoying it for what it is. It’s very fun and competitive. It’s frustrating but it’s fun and competitive to be a part of. If anything, I’m just excited to get back to reality because I know what we put into that environment and what it takes. I enjoy that a lot more.

“We’ll enjoy this for the meantime, but the reality is going to be better.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500