Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Must Be My Lucky Day: Welcome to the World of iRacing
"You ready?" Kevin Bobbitt, director of marketing at iRacing, asks me as we prepare for the start of our race.
"Of course I am," I say, as the red lights come on.
Sitting further to my left are David Phillips, the editor of iRacing's own news site inRacingNews.com, and Steve Potter, iRacing's director of communications, and we are about to run eight laps at Lime Rock Park in four virtual Star Mazdas. We are sitting in identical purpose-built simulators, each outfitted with a massive Sony flatscreen monitor, realistic racing seat, and Logitech's best in virtual racing wheels and pedals.
Forget that Lou Gehrig guy. I consider MYself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Of course, John Henry, owner of iRacing, would probably say much worse than that about any Yankee player. The owner of the Boston Red Sox, Mr. Henry brought iRacing to life in the fall of 2004 out of the ashes of Papyrus, the former publisher of the NASCAR Racing series and Grand Prix Legends.
Mr. Henry used to run the Red Sox Racing League through a LAN in his basement once a week. Upon discovering that Papyrus was based in Cambridge, and that owner Vivendi was looking to shut it down, he looked into purchasing the company with David Kaemmer, its founder and former lead programmer, who was at the time working as a consultant for the brand. Thus, iRacing was born, and eventually launched just a few short years ago.
All this I learned from Mr. Potter, whose own racing pedigree is nothing to scoff at. It's abundantly clear just walking into his office that he's as pure-minded a racer as anybody in the office - and looking at the models, the lithographs, the awards in everybody else's offices, that's saying something.
Mr. Potter has been, among other things, a motorsports photographer, racing writer for the New York Times, and ran all of Mercedes-Benz's sports marketing programs in the late 1990s, as the engine was powering cars owned by Roger Penske, Bruce McCaw, and Mo Nunn. As a race driver, he competed in IMSA and SCCA events, driving alongside the legendary sports car racer Jim Downing.
To me, this all added up to one thing: one of the most satisfying conversations about the sport that I've ever had.
We mostly discussed IndyCar - everything from its long comeback trail, Milka Duno (who was just as bad in Grand-Am as she was in IndyCar), and different manufacturer philosophies (Honda thrives on competition, while Chevrolet generally only likes token opposition), to the history of the sport and the luck associated with success.
Luck was a prominent theme in our conversations. Mr. Potter got his job with the Times through a stroke of great luck - he just so happened to run into a former Times racing writer while grabbing lunch at a Formula 1 US Grand Prix a couple of decades ago, who recommended him for the vacated position.
His first story there dealt with a 15-year-old karting phenomenon at the Bertil Roos Racing School, a young man who most of us know as 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans winner and 1996 Indianapolis 500 runner-up Davy Jones. The editor loved the piece, and so began a career.
I was pretty lucky to be noticed by Mr. Potter as well. I submit the occasional NASCAR piece as a featured writer for Bleacher Report, partially because it generates some solid exposure for me. IndyCar remains my passion, especially as I become more and more dissatisfied with the management on the stock car side of things, but it's a good way for me to get my name out to a few more people.
Originally, my editor had asked me to do a piece on the sport's top 25 wives and girlfriends, but after I deemed the subject matter hard to approach in good taste, he asked me to produce a slideshow on the top 15 NASCAR video games of all time. You should be able to guess easily who I ranked first, and why Mr. Potter invited me down to their offices for a visit.
Of course, Mr. Potter isn't the only heavy hitter in the office. Enter Mr. Phillips, whose office is full of pictures of IndyCars of yore, from the Quaker State Porsche to Will Power's Panoz DP01 from the Champ Car World Series finale at Long Beach in 2008.
From the moment I came into the office, most of the people I met asked me what school I went to, how far along I was, and what I was studying. As I said to everybody, I mentioned to Mr. Phillips that I had been a journalism major at Boston University, but I had switched to advertising.
"Ah yes, I've done my time as a journalist," said Mr. Phillips, in what may have been the understatement of the day.
Mr. Phillips' work has appeared in just about every reputable racing publication from RACER to Autoweek to SpeedTV.com. His specialty? IndyCar racing, of course. He's done just about everything with his career that I want to do with mine, and he just so happens to work in an office building that's an hour from my house.
Talk about a stroke of luck.
Of course, my luck runs out once the green lights flash at Lime Rock.
I've played iRacing once at this point - 15 to 20 minutes prior to this event, in the same car at Loudon - and the only reason I managed to finish third out of the four of us was because I knew the track well enough and somebody wrecked a little harder than I did. But I barely know the layout of Lime Rock, posted a qualifying lap that even Milka might have laughed at, and am still getting used to paddle shifting without blowing my engine.
I manage to get a great start (well, relatively great for a first-timer), but as I had been through the entire qualifying session, spin the car in turn one. It's not long until I blow the engine and get towed back to the pits, resetting a country mile behind the field.
And so it went. I don't think I completed a single clean lap all race. The climax came when, after taking the checkered flag, I drove the car straight-on into a wall in sixth gear to a thunderous sound. "We hear that a lot!" somebody joked.
The Star Mazdas had given us all a little bit of trouble at Loudon, as they got pretty loose in turns one and two, but my disappointing run at Lime Rock was 100% the result of driver inexperience. Of course, with my new complimentary membership (apparently this article I wrote went over exceptionally well), I'll be working on that pretty often.
If you haven't seen iRacing, or experienced it, you're missing out. There's a reason why the pros - IndyCar fans would recognize the Wilson brothers Justin and Stefan, Takuma Sato, and Conor Daly among the testimonials on their website - often use the simulator to prepare for tracks they haven't competed on yet, or just stay fresh when they're not in the car.
Mr. Potter proudly told me not a single one of the game's many professional supporters, which range from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR to Ron Capps in the NHRA, has ever been paid to back the game in the United States. The only driver who's ever been paid to shell for the company, ex-V8 Supercars champ and current NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose, had a deal with the company in Australia that led to a Cup sponsorship at Pocono this year, but even that "wasn't for much more than it cost to paint the car."
It's easy to see why the pros would give them so much publicity on the cheap. Every visual detail, from the braking markers at the end of the straightaway at Lime Rock to the logos painted on the wall at Loudon, is painstakingly recreated in the game. Everything feels as realistic as any other racing simulator, too, from the bumps on the tracks to the amount of control an iRacer has over his car. It's as close to real testing as it gets for a driver without accumulating a massive tire bill.
That's part of the reason why Greger Huttu, arguably the best iRacer in the world, was given a Star Mazda test with the folks at Andersen Racing. In that car, he put up respectable lap times, especially for somebody who had never actually been in a real race car.
I'm not sure that's just luck.
Unfortunately, Mr. Kaemmer wasn't in the office - a few people had asked me to ask or tell him a few things - but a meeting with the lead programmer was about the only thing missing from my three-hour tour. I left the offices with plenty of new connections, a few opportunities for the near future, and best of all, a rejuvenated interest in racing simulators or video games that I haven't quite felt since the release of Forza Motorsport 3 for the Xbox 360 - and even that never quite did the trick.
But after meeting the folks behind the game, it's easy to see why their subscriber base of 21,000 is growing by the day. These people are just as passionate of race fans as you or I, and they understand the sport from the perspectives of both fan and insider. That's what enables them to provide such a popular and successful product... although, of course, some programming expertise certainly helps on that end.
iRacing is looking to add even more content in the future, but it all depends on the growth rate of that subscriber base. We all agreed that vintage cars, from front-engine Indy roadsters to single-seater Can-Am sports cars, would make great additions to the game, but that all comes down to demand. Without giving any concrete information up: Mr. Potter mentioned a popular and significant European track that they'd like to add with a few thousand more customers, and at lunch a group of about a dozen or so of us talked about how cool it would be to someday see what would essentially be an iRacing version of IROC, only featuring professional drivers. But the realization of both of those ideas are in the distant future.
In the meantime, business as usual continues in the offices, as the greatest team in motorsports simulation continues to improve their product. Maybe, if I'm really lucky, I'll get to go back someday.
Until then, I'll keep trying to master that first corner at Lime Rock. One of these times I'll get it down.