You really couldn’t script a more fitting end to the online racing service known as Race2Play, but alas, some things just have a way of working out – and not always for the better. The 2016 Race2Play Baja 500 concluded on Saturday evening after four hours and twenty seven minutes of what ended up being an incredibly intense slugfest between the only two trophy truck entrants, yet rather than functioning as an official goodbye to an entity which has existed on the sim racing landscape for just over a decade, the virtual off-road endurance race spent a combined total of five hours highlighting why website owner Tim McArthur will pull the plug for good in just a few short months. On paper, the event looked fantastic; throwing hardcore sim racers at the Nevada desert for thirty one laps of a brutal sixteen kilometer circuit when they’ve traditionally been accustomed to sleek European sports cars would make for a true wildcard race where not one driver had the upper hand, but in reality, the whole thing ended up being a bit of a mess.
Using a custom built track that virtually no sim racer had ever heard of – thus leveling the playing field – and allowing participants to register and prepare themselves for the event long before the scheduled race date, the Race2Play Baja 500 garnered an enormous level of interest; actually managing to fill the 32-slot grid to maximum capacity. Though we’d reported in the past that overall activity on Race2Play had seen a steep decline over the previous six months, the Baja 500 special event essentially proved that Tim McArthur merely needed to mix things up to retain the interest of sim racers far and wide.
And there were grandiose plans to make the Baja 500 more than just a random curve ball in the schedule of many sim racers who felt they could brave the Nevada wasteland. Talk of a proper live broadcast made the rounds, the promises of several prizes for non-paying members gave outsiders an incentive to check out Race2Play, and as a whole there was a distinct atmosphere surrounding the one-off battle royal; one which hadn’t been seen on the service in quite some time.
Unfortunately, problems crept up long before the first qualifying lap was ever turned.
Driver swaps were advertised as functional, but were not operational on the practice server until about twelve hours before the event was set to kick off, meaning the entrants who had intended to attack the race in shifts with their online buddies rather than a four hour marathon – a large majority of the field – couldn’t practice for an integral portion of the event until the very last minute. The class people would have been most interested in driving – four wheel drive trophy trucks – were restricted to paying members of Race2Play, placing a large majority of the grid into vehicles they basically couldn’t care less for. And given the environment in which the circuit had been built upon, it wasn’t clear what kind of off-track excursions would be allowed; Race2Play traditionally does not condone any sort of liberal track limit interpretations, but those who practiced for the event discovered many areas where you could bypass entire corner combinations with relative ease. In short, people had more questions than answers.
As the date of the event drew nearer, it became clear that the celebration of speed which was originally intended for the running of the virtual Baja 500 would not come to fruition. Talk of a live broadcast evaporated into thin air, and rather than attracting any sort of legitimate interest in the race from outsiders, mainstream sim racing publications simply did not pick up on the story – the festivities had effectively fizzled out.
By the time entrants began appearing on the official race server, the classic shortcomings of Race2Play – at least, in the time I’ve used the service – became readily apparent, and would plague the Baja 500 special event in the same manner that they’ve affected previous races of a much smaller caliber. Despite a full grid of thirty two drivers signing up for the “unofficial yet kind of official goodbye” to a service that has lasted almost a decade, only sixteen drivers were actually present on the server when qualifying began. Many of these drivers piloted their respective vehicles in a manner that indicated they had not practiced for the event at all, which is quite bizarre given the track used – an in-house creation entitled Project BAHA – is eight and a half minutes of sheer pain, far beyond anything the Nordschleife or Targa Florio could ever throw at you, not to mention the estimated four hour event length. You’d think people who willingly signed up for a four hour race would take it somewhat seriously.
Qualifying was an absolute shit-show, with basically everyone except myself and fellow Trophy Truck competitor Alaoui Nassim – who would be sharing driving duties during the race with the equally talented Mateusz Stasiak – failing to register a respectable time. In many cases, the drivers were not solely the ones to blame; as you can tell by the screenshots I’ve inserted into this article, Project BAHA is not the prettiest looking third party rFactor track by any means, and this was reflected in the actual track mesh that the vehicles interact with. At several points during the qualifying session, drivers who were on an otherwise okay-ish lap for their lack of practice would be catapulted into violent flips or rolls by track geometry issues that hadn’t been ironed out since the track was first released to the public in 2011, resulting in situations where certain portions of the track had the power to end a satisfactory lap seemingly at random. It became readily apparent only a few sectors into the thirty minute qualifying session that anyone who attacked the track throughout the event would be at the mercy of rFactor’s inability to deal with such an unfinished track mesh, resulting in an event that would look drastically different than what Race2Play had intended it to be.
Sixteen vehicles took the green flag among a sea of inflatable Tecate beer advertisements and cardboard cutout spectators, but that number was drastically reduced within the first few laps of the event. At the risk of sounding like a complete and total asshole, most drivers realized they’d bitten off much more they could chew by entering a 500 kilometer off-road race, while others became the victims of a poorly designed rFactor add-on track that threw them every which way without warning. The first hour was not an elaborate journey into the unknown with a pack of sim racers who had all braved the immense challenge ahead of them, but a slew of early retirements marked by incessant shitposting in the game’s chat box. The poor quality of the circuit, mixed with rFactor’s general inability to handle off-road racing, a lack of effort to practice on the competitors’ part, the absence of clarity on track limit rules, and the complete removal of any buzz surrounding the event which would have made it worth sticking around for the afternoon of racing, saw over half of the field retire before the sun went behind the horizon.
Again, on paper, it had a chance to be this really cool one-off online festival which was a massive departure from what sim racers normally drive in competitive settings. In reality, it was more or less six guys all running in their own zip codes.
And then, just as all hope appeared to have been lost, the 2016 Race2Play Baja 500 became what was probably the most captivating race in the history of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of close races that take place on iRacing every single year, where two or even three competitors are banging doors across the finish line, but to have that scenario present itself in an environment such as this one… There is no equivalent. You aren’t topping this.
The pair of Nassim and Stasiak, taking turns piloting the lime green #420 Toyota Tundra, really began to hit their stride as the pale blue sky was replaced by nightfall. Ninety minutes into the four hour marathon, on a track infinitely more difficult than the Nurburgring Nordschleife due to the insane hostility a desert wasteland presents, we were banging doors for the overall race lead. An eight minute and seventeen second lap of Project BAHA takes you through at least four distinct zones, from a dry lake bed with several routes, to a treacherous canyon pass where it’s actually possible to fall off the cliff entirely, and here we were separated by less than a tenth of a second. Nobody had the option of spectating this race with proper color commentary on a legitimate YouTube channel, and most of the sixteen entrants had already left the room to do something else with their Saturday, but as for the two leaders, we were putting on one hell of a show.
And it remained this way for far longer than you could ever possibly convey with mere screenshots. A close race like this on Project BAHA, or any long-winded endurance racing circuit, simply doesn’t happen. A statistical anomaly, if you will. To be driving for this long on this challenging of a track, and still be putting on a battle akin to the closeness you see in American Stock Car racing, is now how these races are supposed to play out.
Pit stops began at lap fifteen of the thirty one scheduled, just before the two hour mark of the event. By this time, we were indeed down to four vehicles, just twelve percent of the original number of entrants who had indicated they would for sure be competing in Race2Play’s Baja 500. I brought my Ford in first, followed by Nassim, who would be handing over driving duties to his partner Stasiak for the final half of the race. Though Nassim had wrestled away the lead from myself prior to the halfway piss break, pitting first allowed me to make up the distance separating us thanks to the new set of tires on my truck, and we began lap sixteen only a few seconds apart – Stasiak exiting the pits mere moments after I sped by the garage area.
The Baja 500 was supposed to be a race where once you produce a sizeable gap on your opponent in the early stages, you can nurse it from there, and rely primarily on the mistakes of your competitor to dictate the final standings. That wasn’t going to happen. At the exact halfway point, we were having to crunch numbers on the fly and manage dangerously small gaps as if we’d been driving in a Formula One online league.
And then Stasiak – who had been phenomenal in early morning practice sessions – began to slip up, both the public chat box and live timing display indicating PRC.net was on pace to win the Baja 500. While the second half of the endurance race began with an incredible midnight duel on fresh tires, Stasiak had fallen almost a minute behind due to several errors that were in no doubt due to the track being an inadequate piece of third party work. Just as I began to become complacent with my lead, I too proceeded to be bitten by a lackluster track mesh that sent my truck every which way but straight, and the mammoth lead I once enjoyed had been chopped in half, several times over.
But Stasiak made one mistake too many, and Nassim publicly called for a late-race driver swap with less than one hour remaining in the race – an extremely risky move, as pulling into the pits and switching out drivers would require the substitute driver to haul ass just to make up the time lost in the pits, and proceed to push even harder to catch the race leader. Nassim answered the call, clicking off a blazing eight minute and twelve second journey of Project BAHA, which stood as the official track record.
Three hours and thirty minutes in, we’ve got ourselves a mighty compelling race.
The oval-shaped moon, the ultimate sign of a poorly adapted sky box, was finally put out of its misery, replaced by Mr. Sunshine once again – illuminating the visually abhorrent landscape and allowing us to push without fear of over driving our headlights. Nassim, in the ultimate Game Seven Moment, caught up to my rear bumper and took over the lead with three laps to go after yet another instance of the unfinished track geometry not playing nice with rFactor’s physics engine, causing me to stop dead in my tracks while Nassim snuck by in the canyon pass.
Nassim, at this point, had the race won. Their team had ran better in qualifying, set the track record three hours into a lengthy endurance race, and had really dialed in the canyon pass sector – a treacherous single file journey along a rock face that I hadn’t been able to perfect despite the last four hours spent lapping the circuit.
But on the final lap, Nassim fucked up sector one, and the ten second gap was reduced to five. He was no longer a green dot on the horizon, but a low-level LOD model of a Toyota Tundra. I could make out the white portions of his livery. And Nassim blew the braking point to mark the beginning of sector two as per the timing system. The five second gap became two and a half. I couldn’t reach out and touch Nassim just yet, but I could see his brake lights. And to my surprise he didn’t kill me in the canyon pass, because we were both nursing tires that rFactor’s UI said were in the red. We had no grip, therefore neither of us could put down the power, and were effectively driving Trophy Trucks with the maneuverability of a school bus.
We made it to sector three with both of our vehicles still intact despite their inability to progress in a straight line, which basically meant the traditional rally stage layout of the third sector would be a genuine pain in the ass, but judging by my careful efforts to monitor the gap at all points during the race, I seemed to be a bit faster. If I was going to win the race, it was here.
Sector three features a pseudo-booby trap segment akin to the real Mexican desert races held by the SCORE sanctioning body each year. Basically, the Mexican citizens who line the roads of each and every Baja endurance event will occasionally construct hastily built jumps to fuck with professional race teams who have meticulously planned out each kilometer of the legendary endurance race, and Project BAHA replicates this with a massive dip before an equally gigantic hill climb segment. The alternate route around the booby trap features a three-story rock face sitting right in the middle of where a run-off area would traditionally be, meaning if you do try to avoid the dip, getting it wrong is something you don’t particularly want to do.
With less than three kilometers remaining in the event, after four and a half hours of driving, Nassim got it wrong.
The mistake allowed me to hold the throttle wide open and pass Nassim on the outside just prior to him getting back up to speed. Had this event been broadcasted as originally intended, this was the moment all three color commentators would have been shouting expletives at the computer monitor.
Nassim tried his best, but the tires on both of our vehicles had all but evaporated, rendering his truck unable to get more than a car length away from my rear bumper in an effort to launch a counter attack.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous finish that was the product of two hardcore sim racers giving it their all for upwards of four hours behind the wheel, was instead overshadowed by the bigger picture. Thirty two people signed up for the Baja 500, sixteen of those individuals took the green flag on race day, and only four were running at the end of the event. The numbers alone justify the closure of Race2Play once we say goodbye to the 2016 calendar year, regardless of how phenomenal the race itself ended up being between the two leaders. While you can’t place the blame solely on Race2Play for sim racers’ lack of commitment to a major event, the endeavor ended up being too little, too late – a summary of the negative aspects which have caused Tim McArthur to pull the plug.
Statistically, there are a whole lot of people who have an account with Race2Play. And many do indeed sign up for races. However, not everyone turns up to the event when it’s time to haul ass, and of those who do show up, only a fraction end up finishing. Whether that’s due to the quality of the content featured, or the inability for sim racers to commit to something that isn’t 20 lap sprint races in the Chevrolet Silverado on iRacing, that’s really up to you to decide. However, no matter how good of a race myself, Stasiak, and Nassim put on, everything that prevented Race2Play from succeeding within the sim racing community in the long run was exhibited in a single event, and it’s not hard to understand why these guys aren’t going to be around in 2017.