Dear God, they’ve pulled it off. A year after the original April Fools’ announcement, which most saw as a cruel joke until the staff at iRacing uploaded a collection of genuine teaser trailers indicating that yes, dirt oval racing would indeed be coming to the online racing simulator, iRacing have now released their monumental project out into the wild. Many were skeptical, as preview videos showcased weird steering inputs and drivers struggling to keep the cars under them, but I can now safely say this was mostly a combination of visual errors thanks to netcode, and poor driving by some of the internal testers. iRacing haven’t been known to listen to its members in the past, which also lead to some skepticism if they could pull this off correctly, but for now, you can allow your fears to subside: it’s really good.
Before we get into what the dirt update has to offer, I’d like to start with the new update of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup series car, as there was a lot more than just new content that came with the build update a few days ago. The Generation 6 stock car had a major geometry update along with a significant aerodynamic revision to match up with the 2017 rule packages, and there are also some changes to what we’re now able to do in the garage. As with any radical adjustment, people have already been making several complaints on the forums that these cars are too easy to drive now, yet ironically some of these drivers are more than three tenths off pace, so I’m under the impression a lot of guys haven’t been able to bring the car to 100% both on-track and in the garage area just yet. The car actually requires you to turn the car with the front end now, as before it just slid the nose and almost every fast setup required just setting the nose where it got the most aero and turning the car with the rear end. Following complaints from Tony Stewart, when he tried the car in the Mobil 1 event last year, the car seems to be much more in line with real driver feedback, even if it seems a bit too gripped up in its current state.
This car is going to be a long-term project, but former Penske engineer Steve Reis has been very active in the public forums about working on this car as much as possible to get it in the most realistic state they possibly can. This build is a big move in the right direction, but it will be a multi-step process to get this car where it should be, though overall I’m happy with the initial impressions Steve has made in comparison to other developers tasked with working on the NASCAR cup car. One major part of this update is the removal of some unrealistic setup options that many Peak teams were abusing as early as 2015, such as pre-binding the left front spring with massive swaybar preload, and anywhere from 300-400lb spring to keep the splitter sealed at all time around the track, as well as Max rake on the track bar to promote skew in the rear end. Steve Reis has given us something we haven’t had in a long time, maybe ever on iRacing, and that’s someone who is willing to work with the community and keep us in the loop of what exactly is wrong with the current cars and what they will need to improve, even helping people who have questions about the new dirt setups. It definitely seems like iRacing is starting to head in the right direction in terms of just who they bring on board, and the kind of relationship they’re willing to have with the community moving forward.
We had a few insiders from the beginning with real life experience who were brought into the alpha environment. and were giving us a few nuggets here and there as to how development was going and that iRacing was actually listening and getting major feedback with professional drivers such as Christopher Bell and Rico Abreu, as well as many drivers all the way from World of Outlaws to your average local short tracker. This was a full community coming together to make the best product they could, a drastic departure from iRacing’s close-minded approach to certain pieces of content in the past.
We are still very early in the honeymoon phase, of course, but so far nothing broken has been found on setups. They aren’t completely realistic, nothing ever is, but they are very close currently. You can seen this if you go into any test server. All of the guys with real life dirt experience have been slaughtering people in test rooms with very good lap times that imply iRacing is very close to the driving style of reality in these things. All of the feedback I’ve received from real life drivers on our team, as well as various friends on Facebook, have also backed this up.
Everything form the 410 Sprint Car to the Legends car require some very finesse driving to get the most out of the car; you need to be aggressive, but you really need to balance the angle you have for speed through the corner, and getting to the power to get the fastest laps out of them. What is really amazing is when the track starts wearing in. On a complete clean track, everyone is pretty much hugging the bottom to get the most speed until the top layer gets worn off, then everyone starts moving around up the track as the track dries, and they start looking for moisture in the track. At this point you can run pretty much everywhere and guys start going to the bottom or top looking for the last bit of moisture in the track. Eventually the track starts getting that notorious black groove dirt oval fans are familiar with; it gets really slick, and you need to start running the wall where the cushion has now hopefully built up enough from people running up there, or get right on the wall on the bottom and try to hook whatever little bit of moisture is left there. Really, at this point in the race its just a free for all (as it should be), and in stuff like the 410 you just hold on and hope you don’t die.
Now to the cars themselves, I have been nothing short of amazed. All the cars react very well to your inputs, and for once in iRacing the cars feel like they actually want to turn; you no longer have to fight them to do something as long as your car is setup decently. Every car has very unique characteristics and requires very different driving styles, some guys might be amazing in the Late Model and terrible in the Sprint, or vice versa.
The Camping World series Truck , considering it was built for asphalt, is the worst of the vehicles by far to drive, although thanks to the feedback from Bell and Abreu seems very close to how it looks watching the trucks fight around there the last few years. A buddy in Teamspeak described it as “Yacht Racing,” these tanks do not want to slide whatsoever let alone turn around a tight dirt corner, and the power they put out with the extreme lack of grip means good luck getting anywhere near full throttle on anything but a perfect tacky track.
The Legend Cars are surprisingly fun for such a small under-powered car. You are pretty much full throttle around every currently available track, but it really forces you to perfect your steering as you try to keep your momentum up as much as possible at all times. They also make for some amazing brawling as the field is relatively close and the dynamic tracks provide many lines as it wears in.
The Street Stock is very much like the Truck, in that you feel like you are driving an oil tanker, but with much less power it ends up being way easier to drive off the corner; making it a much better rookie car as it forces you to be smooth and learn throttle control but not to an extreme that you can’t drive it around the track. This car also requires a ton of brake just to slow the car down for corners and get it angled properly on corner entry, so you can get on throttle and drive it off the corner.
Now we get to the purpose-built beasts, the Late Models and Winged Sprint Cars. The late model gives you a very good starting point in the Limited variant, which looks to be modeled after a crate engine car with no spoiler. These things are very forgiving and much easier for the asphalt driver transitioning to learn what these are about, they have very little power so you can pretty much floor it throughout a whole race, but without that rear spoiler it can still get hairy at times if you aren’t completely dialed into the track. As you step up in power through the Pro and eventually Super Late variants, the power gradually increases; in the super you are definitely not in a full throttle and hang on mode if you want to be fast. You have to manage throttle as this thing can spin the rear tires at any time, and setup becomes very important as you look for the right combination of sliding to turn, but being able to get bite and throttle up off the corner. This car is my favorite by far even though I hated it at first on the default setup.
The Winged Sprint is just a beast, the 410 especially; this car actually feels like the fire breathing monster its described as in reality. Anything other than a perfect tacky track requires some insane amount of wheeling just to keep it wide open, the car wants to be thrown in sideways to get the air on the big ass wing on top, and then you just try to balance it throughout the corner as you try to minimize the amount of angle you need to hold your line but still maintain as much speed as you can, especially in the 305 which is a major momentum car. The 360 seemed to provide the best racing so far, as it allows most people to stay somewhat competitive and close enough to throw a lot of moves on each other without just trying to hold on and not die, while also being fast enough that people make mistakes and you get passing opportunities.
Anything but a perfect track, all these cars become insane to drive, with massively distinct characteristics from one another. I haven’t spent ten hours straight on any racing simulator for a very long time, but this certainly brought iRacing back to life for me, as all I was doing over the last two years was signing on for Peak Anti-Freeze Series testing, or the odd race here and there when I was in the mood. The dirt content is such leaps and bounds ahead of everything else on the service, it was very hard to pull myself away from running just one more lap – which hasn’t happened in a long, long time.
Hopefully, iRacing will be able to bring the rest of the cars on the service up to this level of quality, as dirt oval racing is just a portion of what the simulator offers, and the reason my participation on the service has been spotty is that this profound attention to detail showcased in the brand new dirt content does not always carry over to other cars. It also remains to be seen how long the popularity of the dirt oval content will last, as previous iRacing releases, such as the Lotus 49, were marketed to the moon and back thanks to the legacy of Grand Prix Legends, only for it to currently be one of the least popular cars on iRacing in the long run. Not that I think this will be the case with dirt as the reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
I’d also like to make a point about what iRacing has done with the NASCAR iRacing Peak series broadcasts as of late. I watched my first complete race this year after what was an amazing event at Auto Club Speedway on Tuesday, as I usually am in server during the race and don’t get to partake in the end user broadcast experience.
In my opinion, the quality of the broadcast has gone up drastically this year; the camera angles they have come up with, as well as the amazing broadcast team consisting of Evan Posocco, Andy Kessler, Cam Walsh, and Tim Terry, along with what is probably the most skilled and cleanest set of Peak series drivers we’ve had yet, all combined to create a very professional looking and enjoyable viewing experience. I feel this is what we need to actually push sim racing further. While the first two rounds of the season experienced some difficulties on the officiating and event management end, the broadcast itself is top-notch; it’s something you can sit down with a bag of chips and watch on a Tuesday evening.
In conclusion, its seems iRacing has finally started listening to what us, the racers on the service, actually want. They got a ton of real drivers involved in the alpha testing process – everyone from full-on pro drivers to average local track guys – and the results speak for themselves. This was an entire community coming together to strive for the absolute best in sim racing, and it’s to the point where many rFactor dirt racers I’ve kept in touch with over the years are now abandoning their dedicated dirt oval installs for an iRacing membership.
The rFactor dirt community now has a new home, the current crop of active iRacers have an abundance of brand new, extremely high quality content to immerse themselves in, and the way the project came together showcased the full potential of what iRacing has been striving to be as a piece of premium software for almost a decade, but never quite managed to get right until now. It’s very, very good, and I hope the passion in which the dirt content was created with translates to the other pieces of content on the service.