For those who have been around the block a few times in the world of sim racing, iRacing has yet again attempted to place one of their prominent online personalities in the seat of a real world race car to try and somehow prove that their pricey software is the most realistic on the market, only to awkwardly shift gears and dance around what actually happened on the race track once the event commenced. It’s always a bit embarrassing to watch it play out, and if iRacing keep plugging away at these publicity stunts without realizing the damage it’s doing to sim racing, there’s going to be the wrong stigma associated with sim racing as a whole in legitimate paddock areas both amateur and professional.
It all started with Greger Huttu’s journey into the unknown. iRacing once believed they could throw the greatest sim racer of our time, otherwise known as the World’s Fastest Alien, into a Star Mazda entry for a few practice laps at Road Atlanta without even possessing a valid drivers license, and use his performance as proof that long hours on their simulation can indeed prepare you for the real thing. The on-track results really didn’t play into their favor. What was originally intended to be used as hard evidence that the iRacing motorsport simulation can absolutely prepare you for real world auto racing, instead indicated there was still work to be done on the simulation side of things, with Huttu clocking a lap time a few seconds off pace – a time basically any average person from your local indoor karting facility could achieve – and promptly pulling into the pits to throw up.
Continuing down the same path, iRacing attempted to produce a different result with the exact same experiment by placing three-time NASCAR iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series champion Ray Alfalla in the seat of a Spec Miata entry at Homestead-Miami Speedway, who rather than naturally adapting to the situation thanks to his time on iRacing instead spent most of the event getting accustomed to the Miata’s gearbox behavior – indicating iRacing’s transmission model was in no way realistic and hadn’t prepared him for much of anything, which sort of went against the whole goal of the publicity stunt.
In both scenarios, iRacing took the time to generate hype through YouTube videos and lengthy articles about a sim racer “getting a shot at the real thing” while using iRacing as a legitimate training tool prior to the event, only to display that the simulation was completely and utterly useless, because these hardcore sim racers with a long list of virtual accomplishments couldn’t even produce results on-par with a kid who inherited a small fortune after the passing of a relative, and blew most of it on a race car.
Unfortunately, we’re here to add Pablo Lopez to this list, and I want to start by saying this is one of the few guys on iRacing who actually deserves to have his fifteen minutes of fame in the spotlight; he’s a goofy Spanish lad who takes to being in front of a camera quite well, and has an instantly likeable personality on top of being one hell of a virtual driver. This is the exact kind of person I want representing sim racing to the outside world; not some kid dropping $20,000 USD of cash that wasn’t his on a fake race car cockpit and matching custom fire suit.
Through finishing well in an officially sponsored Mazda MX5 series on iRacing, and producing a compelling biographical video that could be marketed to potential sponsors, Lopez won the right to compete in Mazda’s 2016 Road to 24 event at NOLA Motorsports Park, which is more or less an invite-only time trial competition in the race-spec Miata typically reserved for some of the most talented SCCA drivers in the country all vying for a shot at a $100,000 Mazda Racing scholarship. The goal of this competition was quite simple: beat the shit out of everybody else on the property, and Mazda themselves will throw some serious dough at you to become a semi-professional race car driver under the Team Mazda banner.
It’s a pretty neat gig. And it would have been sweet if Lopez went out and held his own against the field of competitors. But he didn’t, because treating iRacing as a teaching tool to prepare you for the real thing, isn’t a very wise idea – the underlying physics just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Through no fault of his own, Lopez obviously wasn’t very quick compared to the other drivers – most of which were seasoned SCCA racers with many years of experience to draw upon. And that’s to be expected in a competition such as this one; Lopez is essentially the equivalent of a walk-on student athlete just trying to hold his own against starters for the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Oregon Ducks. However, over the course of the ten minute event summary on YouTube, it eventually comes out from both other drivers and Lopez himself that he was essentially the slowest car on the property, couldn’t quite figure out the proper downshifting technique, almost wrecked the car on one occasion, and was just sort of there to be “that guy” who won a contest. Nothing against Pablo, as I said earlier this is exactly who I want representing sim racing to the auto racing community – he’s just the right mix of everything – but unfortunately he is now in the same boat as Huttu was at Road Atlanta, and Alfalla was at Homestead.
And this doesn’t really help iRacing’s underlying cause in the slightest. Hey man, if you’re going to go out on a limb and say you’re the most accurate racing simulator on the market, it’s cool, and I respect the balls it took to say that. Good for you for having faith in your product, you can collect your participant badge next Friday. But on three separate occasions, you’ve now tried to stuff accomplished sim racing personalities – some of the best online racers ever – into a legitimate race car, and it’s never translated into any sort of success. Your drivers are either throwing up, spinning out, or struggling with something basic like shifting gears. An accurate simulator should teach them how to do that. Y’all have some explaining to do as to why some of your best drivers appear to not be learning a damn thing from the software they’re supposedly training on.
Like Pablo, I found myself in an entry level race car throughout the summer of 2016, and had absolutely no performance driving credentials to draw upon whatsoever – racing simulators were the only thing on my resume even remotely qualifying as “experience.” Using software powered by the aging isiMotor engine as my primary means of education, and an ancient oval racing game that sometimes retails for $200 on eBay to perfect my pedal input rhythm, I found myself in the points lead by mid-season, only lost the championship due to a blown engine in the final race, and still brought home Rookie of the Year honors against several other drivers who were basically shoe-ins for the award. I’ve been able to write several articles detailing how I trained for my own racing endeavors using many different simulators on the market, and as a whole I personally didn’t find the transition from video games to some kind of amateur car to be all that difficult. If anything, I went out and proved that this once-unfathomable scenario of going from video games to the real thing is in fact a viable option.
For iRacers, on the other hand, this is suddenly asking too much. Despite laser scanned tracks, vehicle data straight from Mazda themselves, an experimental tire model built from years of research into how rubber behaves, modern force feedback effects designed to work with wheels that aren’t even affordable for most consumers, and a highly competitive environment where you’re asked to get every last tenth out of your virtual car just to hold a candle to your opponents, when an iRacer gets a shot at driving something in real life, they just can’t get the job done. And I’m at the point where I’m no longer pointing the finger at the driver or making excuses for their results – things like “well, Ray’s an asshole and Greger didn’t even have a drivers license” – because in this instance, I actually liked Pablo and wanted him to do well. He’s someone that’s marketable, someone I want to see paraded around the likes of VirtualR and RaceDepartment as the guy to represent us – all of us – to the outside world.
But he practiced on iRacing, and it obviously didn’t teach him anything of value.
iRacing need to stop with these marketing gimmicks until they’ve improved the simulation side of their software enough where it actually translates to satisfactory on-track results, otherwise it just looks incredibly fucking stupid. It’s not doing anybody any favors to hype up a story about a sim racer getting a chance to drive a real car thanks to iRacing, only for them to pull out of the garage area and basically poke around at the back of the pack with the same consistency and pace as someone who’s never even heard of iRacing. To the team in Massachusetts: these little vignettes don’t magically prove your game is realistic in the slightest, it just means someone understands the basic concept of pointing the steering wheel in the direction you want to go, and they’re trying not to hurt themselves.