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Kickin The Tires

iRacing enjoys successful year to date

Photo by SETH EGGERT for KICKIN' THE TIRES / iRacing

By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer

Halfway into 2020, iRacing is experiencing rapid success and recognition that has come full circle.

New Entitlement Sponsor

Home to NASCAR’s officially sanctioned eSports division, iRacing has attracted sponsors and teams alike. At the end of the 10th eNASCAR season, PEAK Antifreeze shifted their focus. The eNASCAR iRacing Series entitlement sponsor was open briefly.

iRacing Executive Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Myers explained that the motorsports simulation appreciates the relationship they had with PEAK:

“We didn’t have a new sponsor. The takeover for Peak, that relationship was great, and we appreciate their support. They not only signed the original deal, but they signed a renewal. It was great to have a long-term partner there, but their priorities shifted, and we had a vacancy.

“To have a massive brand like Coca-Cola come on board is certainly very exciting. It shows what we’re doing with our eSports with NASCAR is getting bigger. Bigger brands are paying attention and it’s going be fun to see how over the life of this relationship that how we build programs and marketing opportunities for each other.”

Prior to the start of the season, Coca-Cola signed on as the entitlement sponsor. Halfway into the regular season, six drivers have reached victory lane at the top of iRacing’s ladder.

In addition to sponsoring the eNASCAR division, Coca-Cola also sponsors several drivers. Those drivers include Blake Reynolds and Jimmy Mullis, as well as Richmond Raceway eSports. However further initiatives, including learning more about iRacing’s vision for eNASCAR is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Myers admitted that Coca-Cola is still learning about iRacing’s vision:

“There hasn’t been a lot of movement. It’s mostly because we’re educating them on what this is. But the pandemic put a lot of their initiatives on hold. I can understand it, a pandemic is not the greatest time to be spending our advertising dollars on fun things.

“There hasn’t been a lot of new ideas or programs that have been worked on because everyone’s been kind of put on hold to some degree.”

Playing with the Big Boys Now

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill in early March. When the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was postponed, an iRacing event was organized. Spotters Kevin Hamlin and TJ Majors, along with Podium eSports created The Replacements 100 on iRacing.

That event was followed by NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, and the World of Outlaws turning to iRacing to organize their own Pro Invitational Series. This placed the motorsports simulation on network TV for the first time. iRacing had previously been on NBCSN’s NASCAR America last year.

As iRacing moved to the forefront, both FOX and NBC broadcasted the Pro Invitational Series on their networks. Each series presented iRacing, the broadcasters, and the sanctioning bodies their own unique challenges. Neither TV network had their full capability to broadcast the races.

For NBC, iRacing did the bulk of the broadcast themselves with the network providing commercials and commentary. On the other hand, FOX was more hands-on. The networks provided iRacing’s staff a big education. The motorsports simulation already broadcasted, on a smaller scale, to Facebook, Twitch, and YouTube.

Myers admitted that the TV production was the most difficult part of the partnership:

“FOX) were a little bit more involved in the technical aspect of it, producing the show. And they did a wonderful job and really provided a great education for us on television. But that was absolutely the most difficult part was the technical hurdles. Once we got that solved, I think one of the difficulties with what happens, and all these series were in uncharted territory.

“This hadn’t been done before. We were learning as we went along on what were issues, what weren’t issues and how to solve those things. With a number of people, entities, businesses, race teams, and sponsors that were all involved, it got political at times. That’s to be expected when something that’s successful.”

Signs of Success

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and the various Pro Invitational Series, iRacing’s membership jumped. The membership numbers were already steadily climbing prior to the pandemic.

On average, iRacing had seen between 5,000 and 7,500 new memberships each month. Since March, the sim racing service has gained an estimated 60,000 new members.

Myers credited the TV coverage as just one reason for the growth in membership:

“We added 60,000 estimated or so over the period of time. I’ve said multiple times that, you don’t want a pandemic to be a reason why your company is successful. We worked really hard to be in a position to take advantage of the opportunity that was given, and were successful at it because of that hard work. Being on TV absolutely exposes you to a vast number of people than you can traditionally get on your own. I think in fact, growth was absolutely a result of our time on TV.”

The new memberships were not limited to just pro drivers. Race fans, team engineers, and even media members joined the chorus of sim racers.

With little to do as a result of the lockdown, many drivers and crew members created iRacing leagues. The LeafFilter Replacements, Kickin’ the Tires Lower Half Dash, Monday Night Racing, and Thursday Night Blunder were just some of the numerous leagues that sprouted up during the lockdown.

Myers pointed to the limited outside opportunities for another explanation for iRacing’s boom:

“I think clearly right now we’re also in a period where there’s not a lot to do, right? There aren’t opportunities for me to go do any of the fun things that I used to do and same for everyone else. Just the mere fact that we provide a platform and a product that you can enjoy it from your home has without a doubt provided a lot of enjoyment and entertainment to our customers. In a lot of ways sim racing is a social sport done in isolation.”

Feedback

By having more eyes on the sim thanks to the Pro Invitational Series, some offered feedback. The feedback referenced what was good, possible improvements, and the overall sim experience. Two of the more vocal names were NASCAR Cup Series driver Kurt Busch and NASCAR on FOX broadcaster Mike Joy.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver took it upon himself to call Myers and others at iRacing to offer up what he liked and didn’t like in the sim. The first Pro Invitational Series race saw Busch borrow David Gravel’s sim rig.

Although, some of the more impactful changes may have come from Joy’s feedback. During the first Pro Invitational, the broadcaster found it difficult to tell whose car they were riding in the cockpit with. iRacing came up with a novel solution at Joy’s suggestion, they added the car number and last name to the dashboard in the cockpit.

Myers explained how they used Joy’s idea to improve the experience:

“Even Mike Joy, in one of our first broadcasts, had found it difficult to understand when we were in the broadcast and we were in-car, whose car we were in. Putting the name plate on those dashboards was an idea generated from feedback that Mike Joy had. Things like that where we were very behind the scenes trying to make everyone’s jobs easier if we could.”

The name plate continues to be a major point of reference for fans of eNASCAR competition. Broadcasts of official series like the Coca-Cola Series and eNASCAR iRacing Road to Pro, or leagues such as Sim 500 and others can now point the audience to the name plate.

Breaking the Curse

The first time that iRacing sponsored a vehicle in NASCAR competition was Todd Bodine in the 2006 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season opener. Since then, the sim has sponsored 12 drivers, adorning Travis Pastrana’s 2012 No. 99 ARCA Menards East entry the most.

iRacing is  more often associated with Ty Majeski compared to other drivers. He has the best iRating (skill rating) on the service. The company has partnered with Majeski in numerous Late Model events. Until Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2020, iRacing had never reached victory lane in the top echelon of NASCAR.

Myers previously explained that iRacing only sponsors vehicles in specific circumstances. That includes drivers in need, a driver came up through the sim, or it’s a good story. At Charlotte, there were two iRacing adorned trucks, Majeski’s and Chase Elliott, who took part in the bounty on Kyle Busch.

Myers stated that the sponsorship deals were in place prior to the shutdown for the pandemic:

“All of those sponsorship deals, Anthony Alfredo, the bounty truck Elliott, were signed before the pandemic happened. It just so happened that we have the opportunity to have those, those races happening right after we’ve just done all of these races on TV. Just to be part of the relaunch of real-world race day and being able to be that part of it with our sponsorship is pretty cool.”

Elliott dominated much of the race. In the NASCAR Truck Series return to competition, he took iRacing to victory lane for the first time in the top-three series of NASCAR.

For Myers, having Elliott break iRacing’s sponsorship curse with the upcoming release of his father’s 1987 Ford Thunderbird and the siren blaring was unforgettable:

“Then we finally break the iRacing curse and one of these vehicles makes it to the winner circle in the top-three series was really cool, especially, with Chase Elliott. Particularly the fact that next week we’re releasing his dad’s 1987 car, the speed record-holding car, on iRacing.

“Probably the coolest thing about it didn’t even register for me until they started talking about the siren at the poolhall. I went online and then in fact the pool hall did do the siren for Chase’s iRacing truck win, and they have a video. Just being able to hear the siren for the iRacing truck is something I’ll never forget. But just to think that siren ran for iRacing one night. I’ll never forget that.”

Moving Forward

While some of iRacing’s short-term future plans have been delayed, other long-term plans have taken center stage. The possible completion of the Long Beach street course (currently available as a Tech Track), addition of the Truck Series Ford F-150, and other updates are taking place.

One of those updates is the first advent of tire limits. Five of iRacing’s series  now have a limited number of tire sets. That includes NASCAR Legends, Fixed Setup NASCAR Trucks, NASCAR Tour Modifieds, Super Late Models, and street stocks  Tire set limits is just the first step in a long-term vision.

Similar to how iRacing developed dirt track racing, tire set limits are just a small part of a big picture. Dynamic tracks and weather helped iRacing develop a constantly-changing dirt track surface.

As the first step in a long-term picture, tire set limits will allow iRacing to one day develop the ability to have wet and intermediate tires. It will also allow multiple tire compounds, similar to what the real-life Formula 1 and NTT IndyCar Series use on road courses.

Myers detailed how tire limits have been in development for some time and where that could lead the sim:

“It’s been something we’ve wanted to do a lot for a long time. With everything else, at iRacing, we take a long-term view as a development project and what are the things that we need to do to accomplish multiple things. Tire limit is a product of knowing that we’re going to have to develop the ability to have rain tires when we get to wet weather and intermediate tires.

“We had to do the work and start to figure out how to manage sets of tires. That being the case, now’s a good time to do projects like tire sets because we’re going to have to go in that direction. We’re starting to do work on how you select the tires, how that UI needs to be done, and how those things being in the background of tracking what’s been used and when. All that work has to happen.

“It’s like the dynamic track project was the first step in the dirt racing. We couldn’t do the dynamic track surface with dirt like we wanted to if we hadn’t done the project and put a tire and heat and rubber into the asphalt tracks with that project. This is kind of like the same thing. It’s one piece of a much longer term, bigger vision for what we’re doing with tires.”

How to Join

iRacing is a subscription-based sim that offers several different lengths of subscription. The simulation a multitude of series and tracks to compete in.

The most recent update introduced three oval and three road course cars. Oval racing saw the Ford F-150, 1987 Ford Thunderbird, and 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo added to the sim. Road course racing received the BMW M4 GT4, Indy Pro 2000 PM-18, and USF 2000 cars.

It also introduced a re-scanned Kentucky Speedway and an updated Road America. Several cars also received a new, more realistic, damage and tire model. iRacing updated caution lengths and penalties in its’ strive for realism.

To check out the sim yourself, click here.

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