What was once sim racing’s biggest long-standing April Fool’s joke has now officially made the transition from reality into relative obscurity. North American and Australian dirt oval racing fans rejoiced back in 2016 when they learned it would be none other than iRacing tasked with taking a shot at replicating Dirt Late Models and Sprint Cars – taking a very popular discipline of local auto racing into the hyper-competitive environment of the online motorsports platform – but now that this content has been out for a little over a month, the honeymoon phase has concluded, and some are going as far as calling it a waste of resources. Though we praised iRacing’s muddy adventure when it first launched, with the cars being objectively the most realistic and believable vehicles available for purchase on the service after years of confusing tire model updates, we questioned the staying power it would have among the userbase considering dirt oval racing is seen as relatively low on the global auto racing totem pole.
A recent thread on iRacing’s official SubReddit has proven our primary concerns were right on the money, if not profoundly accurate. Reports of over 7,000 active users signed into the iRacing servers for the launch of dirt oval racing have now been replaced by woefully pathetic car counts that struggle to eclipse 20 total participants for the most well-attended events. This is a pretty big deal, as iRacing’s format relies on an abundance of entrants for each race so the service can split people into multiple groups based on their skill level. With so few drivers to split, and a maximum car count of just twelve vehicles for each race, it’s leading to situations where races are total shitfests because the talent pool is so diverse; barely competent drivers are forced to drive against highly skilled veterans.
And it’s not a fun experience for those involved.
Though the two users above each offer their own explanation as to why there’s been such a sharp decline in popularity for the dirt content, I don’t feel either are accurate, so I’ll put my own spin on things.
Dirt oval racing is actually extremely difficult; the cars by nature are configured to be fundamentally broken from a setup standpoint, and the driving style required is essentially flat-out drifting. The sim community by and large simply do not understand car setups enough to get the most out of their virtual sprint car or late model – quite hilarious given these games are intended for a hardcore audience who should in theory be all over that shit – and most sim races do not possess the car control necessary to run thirty five straight clean laps while dead sideways among an equally crazy pack of cars. I’m under the impression many iRacers bought the dirt content out of curiosity, realized they had nowhere near the talent level to drive the damn things, and gave up on it after only a few days.
You would think that the dirt content would bring a whole host of new users to the iRacing service, especially with talk of how accurate these cars are compared to the rest of the vehicles on iRacing, but there’s a fundamental flaw with this hypothesis.
As it stands, dirt oval racing is a very niche motorsport in both North America as well as Australia; World of Outlaws events haven’t been nationally televised since Spike TV was known as TNN back in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, and currently the only way to watch these races live is through a relatively obscure website that locks footage behind several pay walls. I’m not saying DirtVision is shit, I’m just saying that the average auto racing fan has no idea it exists in the first place. So the potential audience is significantly smaller than it was ten or fifteen years ago.
By comparison, the Ratbag World of Outlaws game for the PlayStation 2 sold half a million copies because everyone with a basic cable television package could watch sprint car racing on a Friday night with a familiar set of announcers such as Steve Evans and Ralph Sheheen introducing outsiders to the sport, while little kids or teenagers could point at a PS2 game in Wal-Mart and instantly have an entirely new type of car racing to dive head first into because it wasn’t much of an investment. This doesn’t happen anymore; iRacing requires an elaborate steering wheel setup, beefy computer, and a serious mentality just to get some base level of enjoyment from the title. Neither your average short track audience member, nor their offspring want to get screamed at by some elitist iRacing cuntwagon for ruining his safety rating.
Those who do brave those elements discover they can’t make a lap to save their lives because the cars are so difficult to drive, and the cycle repeats.
So you have a situation where after the honeymoon phase has ended, there’s twenty people signing up for dirt events. And on the outset it looks like a waste of resources, but I’m actually here to defend iRacing and tell you why it was worth the year of development time.
In learning how dirt oval racing works, how track surfaces evolve, and how dirt tire compounds behave, what iRacing learned on dirt will slowly apply to the tarmac vehicles. I gave the brand new Porsche a shakedown at Dustin’s house when we were shooting photos with the race car, and while I’m not going to say it’s this night & day difference that’ll make me come crying back to iRacing, it’s certainly something that indicated a few eureka moments were had behind the scenes. If iRacing continue in this direction, along with allowing Steve Reis to really dig through the software and undo some of the past mistakes from previous staff members, the dirt content will be seen in hindsight as a necessary evil to get the simulation back on track.