I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard that a group by the name of Virtual2Reality would be taking a top-level iRacer from down east, and throwing him sight unseen into a sportsman sprint car for Alberta’s biggest sprint car event. After numerous attempts at similar endeavors had resulted in situations where race cars were destroyed and the entire outing covered up, or publications had been forced to greatly emphasize the little victories while a sim racer struggles to be more than a rolling safety hazard, on paper, throwing seventeen year old Quebec native Alex Bergeron into a literal dream scenario was a disaster waiting to happen. Yet thanks to careful planning and proper preparation on the part of Joel Hamilton and the entire V2R group, Bergeron’s debut on the real life dirt oval circuit has finally given the sim racing community something to celebrate after years of PR stunt disasters. The kid exceeded expectations, and actually looked competent among his competitors, even if the results don’t necessarily show it.
Dubbing themselves as a group that supposedly “provides online racers the opportunity to earn seat time in a real car”, Virtual2Reality unveiled in late July of this year that they were indeed going to pick up the slack of iRacing’s marketing department, and place a totally green sim racer into a full-blown event upon acquiring a sportsman sprint car to see if the virtual skills learned on simulators such as iRacing would actually translate into real world driving prowess. As the weeks went by, it was eventually revealed that double iRacing pro driver Alex Bergeron – so not just any pleb, but someone that was in the top 0.2% of drivers on the service and competed in both major iRacing championships – had been selected as the recipient of this opportunity, and he’d be competing at Edmonton’s own Castrol Raceway, which is right in my own backyard. For better or worse, I’d be able to watch this as it all went down.
Now obviously, this story sounds pretty far-fetched on the outset, as taking a random guy from the internet and throwing his ass in a proper race car is an enormous liability to not just himself and the competitors directly around him, but the community as well – it’ll only encourage the manchildren among us to abandon all common sense in dedicating their life to iRacing in the hopes that “NASCAR scouts” discover them in mommy’s basement – yet in the guys at V2R doing exactly that, we get the privilege of seeing what happens when someone indeed does explore this path, whether it be something to celebrate, or yet another marketing stunt to quickly forget about.
And already out of the box, there was an extra level of preparation beyond “I’m good at iRacing”, meaning the V2R guys at least sort of had their shit together when it came to training the kid, or at the very least surrounding him with the correct people. Bergeron did not appear to land this ride on skills or iRating alone, as in doing some quick detective work by crawling through Facebook, it seems as if he’s related in some aspect to Alain Bergeron, a sprint car driver from Alex’s hometown in Quebec, while also regularly attending events at Autodrome Granby. So while I’m not one hundred percent certain on this, my educated guess is that Alex is the son or a relative of a sprint car driver, meaning he had the best possible coaches in the world to help make the transition from iRacing to reality, and was not a true random delivering pizza’s a month earlier. So before the manchildren start quitting their jobs in pursuit of using iRacing to land their big break in the world of sprint cars, it’s probably smart to consider maybe there were external factors at play that led to this opportunity in the first place.
This, of course may turn out to be bullshit and maybe it’s just a coincidence, but regardless, V2R actually did extensive homework on the kid beforehand to ensure there weren’t any skeletons in the closet or $15,000 ARCA show cars on his front lawn, and that he’d be the absolute perfect candidate to get this program off the ground.
Castrol Raceway had this promo deal where they were giving out free tickets for the two-day event in conjunction with V2R, but I ended up just sort of showing up at the track on the Wednesday prior for his first test session. I have to stress this aspect; they absolutely did not just throw him in the car and let him figure things out for himself. From the grandstands, there was a pretty substantial debrief period with the entire team that took the better part of an hour, and I counted no less than ten or twelve people as part of the primary crew who’d tagged along to help out. This was a serious effort to prepare a rookie driver for the big day, and while I wasn’t privy to what was discussed, we can only speculate how much of that was “iRacing teaches you X, but in reality you have to do Y behind the wheel.” So I can’t really comment and say what iRacing’s dirt content gets right, versus what it gets wrong.
The first testing stint, the kid was obviously scared shitless, and his lap times & throttle input reflected that. I cannot blame him one bit; in our late model it was definitely an enlightening experience to jam the throttle to the floor at twenty four years old and be pinned to the back of the seat, seemingly falling into the steering wheel under braking, so I can only imagine how it must have felt to do the same on dirt at seventeen. Any sort of race prepared Chevrolet engine is sensory overload on throttle application, so that’s to be expected. However, after pulling in for a chat and then heading out for a second & third stint, V2R’s crazy science project actually warranted some pretty stellar results. Alex genuinely didn’t look too bad out there, and when they threw another sportsman car out on the track, Alex was no better or worse than the driver he was sharing the racing surface with. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – the only hiccup in testing being a cloud of smoke pouring off the engine during the third stint, with Alex promptly shutting down the car and the team pushing it off the circuit shortly thereafter.
Despite the coverage from local outlet Global News about the ordeal, and the one thousand free tickets Castrol Raceway had up on their website, audience turnout was average at best, the Friday night bill split between about ten dirt late models of varying talent levels, and upwards of twenty sportsman sprint cars – not a bad way for Alex to begin his career. It was a modest sized event, with drivers that wouldn’t outright try to kill him.
He wasn’t particularly fast in qualifying – I think he posted a time somewhere in the middle of the pack, 13th of 24 cars and half a second behind the leader – and Castrol’s rules, as with a lot of tracks, place rookies at the back of the field for every heat, transfer race, and feature, meaning there was only so much the kid could do with what had been presented to him. So while a lot of sim racers will go out and shit on him for less than stellar results, as you can easily find them on myLaps, it’s the intangibles the people who were in attendance could spot that at least in my opinion, made this a successful venture for V2R.
My buddy and I watched Alex drive in person, and he honestly did okay.
I think what I respected the most about Alex’s time in the car, was that he was actually much more aggressive and strategic than the rest of his opponents, some of which had been driving for several years, and this is undoubtedly thanks to the try-hards of iRacing over-preparing him for much more reserved drivers out in the real world. The kid immediately took to jumping restarts and anticipating the leader’s acceleration point as you’d do in any top split iRacing event, in some heats launching past two or three cars at the drop of the green, which was pretty awesome to witness in person because you knew where he learned that from.
The kid also wasn’t a safety hazard to himself or others by any means, never once tangling with another car or making boneheaded moves that put a bunch of people in jeopardy. Take away the promotional posts on Facebook, the iRacing decals, as well as the local news coverage, and you flat-out wouldn’t know this dude was in his first sanctioned auto race ever by means of a marketing gimmick. This is coming from a guy who is essentially doing the same thing as Alex, and sponsored by a rival video game company; Alex looked to both myself and my buddy, the two of us technically sanctioned multi-time NASCAR event winners, to be much more composed and aware of how to navigate through the pack than a lot of his competitors. We ended up cheering for the kid because he was an exciting mid-pack driver.
Unfortunately, I do have to be the bearer of bad news and say that Alex’s rather stout Friday performance ended prematurely when he knocked the car off the inside wall and severely damaged the left front during the B-Main, falling back from fourth place to sixth and out of the last transfer spot into the A-Main, but this isn’t something that should be held against the kid. The fact that a talented sim racer held his own against a bunch of sportsman sprint car veterans for a few heats is impressive in its own right compared to the lackluster performances we’ve seen from other big names in the sim racing community, and Castrol Raceway officials agreed as much by removing Alex’s rookie status for the Saturday show, which granted him an authentic starting position in all sessions, rather than placed at the back like a pleb.
Sadly, I’m unable to find results from the Saturday sessions on myLaps, so this informal Facebook recap – omitting the damaged left front on Friday, as well as his Saturday performance, which I’d like to see – will have to suffice for now.
While I don’t openly advocate for teams to start plucking kids and man-children from simulators en mass due to the absurdly large can of worms it can open up when the realities of auto racing hit, Alex Bergeron’s weekend at Castrol Raceway is proof that if teams do extensive homework and background checks on a highly talented sim racer, as well as surround him with the right talent that can take his simulator knowledge and help him understand how it applies it to the real thing, the end result will indeed turn heads and provide definitive proof that high-fidelity, modern racing simulators can absolutely prepare someone for stepping into local auto racing and holding their own against multi-year veterans of the scene. Bergeron may not have won any heats, set any fastest laps, or come home with a clean car at the end of the night, but he certainly impressed a lot of folk who were otherwise skeptical of the endeavor, and held up his end of the bargain by being a pretty solid ambassador for sim racing as a whole.
He also didn’t junk the field or send someone upside-down, either. So there’s that.