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It’s anyone’s race as IndyCar competitors prepare for iRacing event

Santino Ferrucci is very much looking forward to getting back out on the track, even if it's coming in the form of a virtual iRacing Challenge. Leigh Diffey catches up with the IndyCar driver as they preview Saturday.

There will be 25 drivers and maybe no favorite in this Saturday’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the first race in the virtual INDYCAR iRacing Challenge.

The six-race series will begin Saturday and run through May 2 as IndyCar’s real-world competition remains sidelined by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

While many of the drivers entered in this weekend’s race are IndyCar regulars, the event will be like no other and easily could feature a surprise winner.

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing in IndyCar’s iRacing opener

In a real-world race weekend, the team a driver competes for and their car setup would play a huge role in their odds of winning. But this weekend, iRacing will give all of this weekend’s competitors the same car setups (the eNASCAR races also have featured fixed setups; the IMSA online race at Sebring last Saturday had an open setup).

Likewise, in a real race, past experience would play a major role in predicting a driver’s performance. The same can be said for iRacing. But not all of IndyCar’s regulars are iRacing regulars.

Alexander Rossi is IndyCar’s most recent real-life race winner at the Glen, having won the series’ most recent visit to the track in 2017 in dominant fashion.

The seven-time IndyCar winner is obviously no stranger to open-wheel racing, but he essentially is a newbie to sim racing.

While Rossi said he is happy to be part of the unique event, he is unsure how it will turn out.

“I think everyone is a little bit unknown of how it’s going to be just with the varying levels of experience and kind of skill sets,” Rossi said. “Nonetheless, it’s going to be great to put on a show and give people something to get excited about IndyCar.”

IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan, also entered in this weekend’s race, has been racing professionally for nearly three decades. But the 2004 IndyCar champion did not get his iRacing start until he was loaned a simulation rig by George Steinbrenner IV earlier in the week.

“We basically went to George’s house, Alex had the code, [and] we took the two sims he had,” Kanaan said. “That was basically a week ago.

“I’m nowhere near as competitive as I thought I was going to be, but I’ve been getting a lot of help from Rossi. He’s obviously got a better handle of it than I do. Hopefully, we’ll have some fun.”

Rossi and Kanaan may not be iRacing regulars, but plenty of other IndyCar drivers are. Team Penske’s Will Power is one of them.

On road courses alone, the Australian has made 1,145 starts in the game, winning 156 times (13.6 percent). Power also has finished in the top five in 46.5 percent of the road course events he’s entered.

Power’s teammate Simon Pagenaud has not competed as much virtually (36, road-course events), but the Frenchman has shown to be a skilled sim racer. Pagenaud has won nine wins in those 36 starts with five poles and 16 top-five finishes.

“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously we are all home confined. It’s nice to find an avenue to have some fun, also show our sponsors on the racetrack, even though it’s virtual.”

Perhaps no driver enters Saturday’s race with more experience than Sage Karam. The 25-year-old is an unofficial iRacing expert with 143 wins in 532 road course starts alone. While Karam is incredibly knowledgeable about the simulation itself, even he is unsure of what will happen in Saturday’s race.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” Karam said. “We’re going in there practicing, we’re practicing quite hard, hoping that everybody can keep it together. I think it’s definitely a challenge. I think we thought it was going to be a bit easier maybe than what it’s turned out. We changed the setup I think like seven or eight times now. Hopefully, we can get it worked out.

“I think the whole series is going to be cool, to be able to do some ovals and road courses. It’s for the fans, give them something they can watch. We’re really the only sport that can do something like this.”

The American Red Cross Grand Prix will begin at 4:00 p.m. ET Saturday and will be live-streamed on a variety of platforms including, IndyCar’s YouTube and Facebook as well as iRacing’s Twitch.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter