In the beginning, I was pretty supportive of the idea.
Regardless of whether you believe all this lockdown nonsense was necessary or not, one reality remained unavoidable; for a period of time, every single sports network had giant empty gaps on their television schedules, and had no idea how to fill them. Living in central Alberta, we exhausted the archive of 80’s NHL playoff series within the first week, and our national sports networks quickly devolved into a monotonous pattern of Covid speculation, followed by extensive Top 10 highlight marathons.
This wasn’t even remotely engaging, let alone sustainable.
Most people turn to sports as a temporary getaway from the troubles of the real world. All sports networks did was enforce the grim reality of the situation, driving more and more people to bicker about bizarre lockdown restrictions, grow angry with their government, or dial Covid gathering hotlines to report their neighbors for illegal Halo nights.
The idea of iRacing exhibition events featuring a complete field of NASCAR drivers, therefore offered at least a partial solution to the madness. In some fashion, we’d have sports back. There would be something to watch. It would be clunky, awkward, and contrived, sure, but there was now an event to look forward to each weekend.
For that reason alone, I think a lot of us are thankful for this strange endeavor. A bunch of used to sign on Teamspeak back in the day to watch the Cup race each Sunday. As NASCAR made more and more boneheaded decisions that chased away their core audience, many of us lost interest, and this tradition became a thing of the past. The invitational events marked the first time in five or six years we all got together as a giant group to watch the race.
The problem is, the events quickly became part of a much bigger story for the hardcore sim racing enthusiasts who either actively played iRacing, or were watching its’ progress from the sidelines.
It’s common knowledge within the sim racing hobby that iRacing, from a pure physics standpoint, does not have their shit together.
Once iRacing transitioned to an experimental tire model project in the fall of 2011, several experienced sim racers began complaining that the tires felt too edgy; attempting to maintain a slip angle instead quickly nuked the tires and resulted in unrecoverable slides, drivers having to instead tip-toe around the track well under what you can get away with in a real car. Slang such as iceRacing began to circulate among most third party message boards, and those with amateur racing experience found iRacing unrealistically difficult.
However, all of these pieces of criticism were taken with a grain of salt. The job title of Professional Race Car Driver is a very exclusive group, and any commentary claiming iRacing was somehow unrealistic – or completely inaccurate – was brushed aside as baseless speculation from average Joe’s who don’t know what they’re talking about. This topic of discussion sparked argument after argument in the sim racing community, one which never had any sort of foregone conclusion.
For a complete decade, there was sporadic chatter that the biggest player in the industry might have a reputation built entirely on deceit, lies, and a solid marketing campaign, but actually proving it was a task deemed to be exceptionally difficult. You’d occasionally run into a guy who claimed he’d heard an unnamed NASCAR driver venting about the physics to a few other drivers in the lobby, but the holy grail of a professional driver talking calmly and candidly into a camera about what iRacing got spectacularly wrong, was never going to happen.
And then it did.
You could tell something was amiss, just by the running order.
As I write this article, the eNASCAR Invitational series has just a handful of laps to go at Circuit of the Americas. The top five includes four journeyman drivers: James Davison, Anthony Alfredo, William Byron, Tyler Reddick, and Chris Buescher.
Road racing ace and 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott sits dead last, whereas Daytona Road Course winner Christopher Bell is hanging out in seventeenth. These are the two best road racers on the circuit, with Elliott in particular winning four straight events in a row – a feat unheard of even during the years in which Robby Gordon and Marcose Ambrose were active drivers.
Elliott is the best road course racer the series has seen in almost twenty years. Bell’s prowess in anything with four wheels, needs no introduction.
They are getting their assess kicked by literal nobodies.
This scenario has played out at nearly every event on the Invitational series schedule. The results of each virtual race are almost a direct inversion of real life cup series events, sometimes dominated or won by drivers the general public has never heard of.
In the series’ second race at Texas Motor Speedway, the front four read Timmy Hill, Ryan Preece, Garrett Smithley, and Landon Cassill at the drop of the checkered flag. All four drivers combined for a whopping two top ten finishes when it came to the real deal that season, with Cassill not even making a single cup series start in 2020.
The Bristol dirt race produced equally bizarre results. Byron took home the victory followed by Reddick, Bell, Smithley, and James Davison. Two of those drivers didn’t even start the race on Sunday afternoon, whereas eventual winner Joey Logano came home a disappointing 14th in the virtual tournament.
If this series were held ten, even twenty years ago, it would be understandable that the running order would be all over the fucking place. When computer games were still kind of a fad, I didn’t expect Geoff Bodine to be good at NASCAR Thunder for the same reasons I didn’t expect Michael Vick to be good at Madden NFL 2004 – it’s not their job, and they probably shouldn’t be wasting time on games.
But things are a little different in 2021.
With each passing week, we are beat over the head with articles discussing the importance of professional grade racing simulators in each team’s preparation process. They are not unfamiliar with this technology; they actively use it. Drivers on the grid are also getting younger and younger; most have now grown up playing computer games – especially racing simulators – in their spare time. Even some of the older guys on the tour, such as Martin Truex Jr, have extensive experience with these games. Veterans like Truex were once no different than you and I – avid sim racers well versed in painting cars, downloading mods, configuring wheels, and understanding how to drive in a manner that got the most out of each physics model.
And yet their skills are somehow not translating at all, the results of each race a collective ass-kicking handed out by underfunded, journeymen drivers.
Even more bizarre, members of motorsports media outlets assigned with covering these events have not bothered to ask why this is happening and seem completely oblivious to a rather big story unfolding.
When Aussie James Davison – who according to Wikipedia has never even seen a dirt track in his career – comes out of nowhere and kicks the shit out of dirt phenom Christopher Bell in a heat race at Bristol, nobody is interested in asking what the fuck just happened here and collectively act like this is just a normal thing that happens.
If these games are as accurate as both NASCAR and iRacing both pretend they are, this should be as big of a story as the time Carl Edwards beat Michael Schumacher at the Race of Champions, and we should be talking about James Davison as a hidden gem that will eventually end up at a big team like Penske or JGR in the coming years.
Or, there should be some sort of investigation into why this is happening on a weekly basis.
Neither avenue was pursued.
Yet as a sim racing enthusiast, this is precisely the question I’m wanting answered, because after an entire decade spent listening to how accurate these sims are from increasingly overzealous marketing campaigns and a variety of social media influencers, the results are implying the exact opposite.
As does the on-track product.
The Pro Invitational Series has had quite the impeccable track record, for all the wrong reasons. Each time an iRacing event is held prior to an event at the real track, the virtual counterpart often looks the complete opposite of what you see on Sunday.
Take, for example, Homestead-Miami Speedway. This is a track known for multi-groove racing, with drivers running pretty much anywhere between the wall and the apron. Current Gen 6 Cup cars also produce a mammoth amount of dirty air, meaning the act of running directly behind a guy is just not an option. Only a few laps into a run you’ll basically see the top twenty cars completely spread out in a really impressive display that closely resembles dirt late model racing, as drivers fight to stay out of turbulence and extract any sort of momentum from the banking that they can.
The iRacing counterpart was the exact opposite. Drivers ran in a uniform line near the bottom of the race track, seemingly unaffected by dirty air, for the complete duration of the race.
This also presented itself at Homestead’s sister circuit, Texas Motor Speedway a week later. Dirty air, a key proponent of why Gen 6 NASCAR racing has been brutal since it’s inception in 2013, seemingly didn’t exist in the hobby’s most hardcore racing simulator.
Fast forward to the April 2021 event at Bristol. The virtual counterpart run on Wednesday evening saw drivers dragging their right rear quarter panels along the outside wall, flat-out for almost the entire lap. When Sunday afternoon finally came around, cars were hooked to the bottom of the track, unable to go more than half throttle at any point on the track. Teams not usually seen at the front of the pack – such as the newly formed Trackhouse racing with Daniel Suarez at the wheel – were a serious threat to win the race just by driving a smooth and consistent line.
The leading simulator in the industry did not replicate even the slightest bit of what was seen on Sunday, instead generating something that looked more akin to sprint car racing – cars 2,000 pounds lighter, generating triple the downforce, and producing significantly more horsepower.
Lastly, we get to Talladega. The iRacing invitational was a snoozer, as James Davison led 98% of the race, the cars following behind him seemingly unable to pass him or make use of any groove except the bottom. That was, until Brad Keselowski outright cheated by ducking under the yellow line and forced his way into the lead – a rule that for whatever reason iRacing decided to ignore despite this being a bannable offense for the plebians.
By comparison, the Geico 500 just a few days later featured 35 lead changes.
All of this occurs while Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon cannot stop praising iRacing in the booth for it’s authenticity and it’s accuracy; any dead time in the broadcast is filled with marketing babble that directly contradicts what I’m watching on-screen.
As a viewer I feel like my intelligence is being insulted – regardless of what track the iRacing Pro Invitational Series visits, iRacing seem to get things spectacularly wrong, and I’m told not to trust my lying eyes by a pair of gentlemen who are otherwise extremely respected.
As a sim racer, I’m watching the biggest company in the industry outright lie about the quality of their product, week after week, so hell-bent on pursuing and maintaining partnerships with all major auto racing series that they’ve seemingly forgotten to make sure the game holds up it’s end of the bargain and actually matches their promo material.
There are numerous talented motorsports journalists who have probably watched a few of these iRacing invitational races out of curiosity, and asked questions like “why are they single file along the bottom? Isn’t dirty air a thing?”
For whatever reason, they never thought to pursue this story.
I would think the industry leader in racing simulators being totally and completely inaccurate at every single track would be sort of a big deal, wouldn’t you?
I guess not.
But if neither of these observations can convince you there’s a slight problem that needs to be addressed here, as these events are systematically deconstructing iRacing’s stature as the leader in racing sim technology, maybe it’s time we simply ask the drivers themselves.
All Pro Invitational broadcasts and NASCAR RaceHub pre-race segments are full of little quips from drivers here and there that indicate something is seriously amiss with iRacing – all generally revolving around the concept that the cars are several times harder to drive than the real car, with the tires in particular being completely unforgiving.
Jeff Gordon is NASCAR’s all-time road course winner with nine victories; a handful of those coming against road racing ace Robby Gordon, so these victories weren’t exactly handed to him. If that’s not enough of a resume, Gordon is third on NASCAR’s all-time wins list with 93, and won four championships in arguably the sport’s most competitive, popular era. Jeff couldn’t complete a lap at Circuit of the Americas and simply gave up.
Clint Bowyer was the 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion. During the first ever Pro Invitational race at Homestead, he mentioned the cars felt unnaturally difficult to recover if any sort of slip angle was induced, and from that point forward began approaching the events as FS1’s comic relief.
You may think this is exclusively a boomer issue – old guys simply not being able to adapt to newfangled technology like modern racing simulators – but this is hardly the case.
Christopher Bell, currently ninth in Cup Series points and locked into the 2021 playoffs, admitted he was dreading the virtual race at Circuit of the Americas, as the cars would instantly spin out when any sort of slip angle was applied. Bell was at one point an iRacing tester, helping to develop the game’s dirt oval racing content a few years ago. He can’t stand this shit.
Chase Elliott admitted he hardly even played the game, before carefully using the word different to describe the cars.
Road racing aces cannot drive this game. Cup series champions cannot drive this game. Nationwide Series champions cannot drive this game. iRacing’s own testers cannot drive this game. They all readily admit to it in broadcasts.
This would be like if we had footage of Michael Jordan going on ESPN and saying he won’t eat McDonalds unless he absolutely has to, because the McJordan gives him diarrhea.
We have this. It happens every weekend these events are held, without fail.
Not a single motorsports journalist, not a single sim racing influencer, digs any further or thinks “uhh, there might be a story here.”
It’s a story because these events are making iRacing look like more and more of a joke with each passing week, after almost a decade spent propping themselves up as number one in the business. The mask is now off completely and we’re now seeing what many critical sim racers have been arguing about in forums for years – the product needs a lot of work, and for whatever reason, isn’t getting it.
iRacing invitational races have bizarre results, where no-name drivers routinely kick the shit out of household names. The on-track product doesn’t even remotely resemble what you see on Sunday, regardless of the track selected. And drivers routinely trash the game as being wholly unrealistic, a topic the sim racing industry has intensely debated for almost a decade and now finally have confirmation from those who are most qualified to speak on the subject.
When this kind of situation happens in pro sports – a league not living up to the hype, or a first round draft pick having a disaster of a season – the media completely tears them apart. The first year of the XFL all the way back in 2001 aggressively promoted itself as a tougher brand of football that hoped to convert a portion of the NFL’s audience into diehards, but when Las Vegas Outlaws quarterback Ryan Clement won the opening game by going 13 of 28, outlets immediately had a field day with trashing the league as sloppy, low-grade football until it’s inevitable demise a few months later.
When this kind of situation happens with more mainstream video games – let’s take Madden NFL 21, for example – the game receives an absolute pounding on MetaCritic, and articles are written on Forbes about the disastrous state of the franchise. When you show up on Forbes, as NASCAR has only a few short years ago, you know you fucked up.
A similar situation is brewing that appears to intertwine two very distinct industries that rely heavily on each other for relevance, and not one journalist or influencer bats an eyelash.
It’s really, really werid.