How iRacing Saved INDYCAR, and Their One Mistake

By the time my plane touched down in St. Petersburg on March 12, 2020, nearly every major sporting organization had pushed or canceled their season. INDYCAR had yet to announce any changes to the Firestone Grand Prix being held that weekend. It was hopeless optimism that pushed us through the evening, those of us who had gathered in Florida for the season opener spent that night outside celebrating the start of the season. The next day became a blizzard of emails and let downs. It started with the series barring fans from entry. It continued with only a handful of media, those with ‘real’ outlets being allowed into the track. Finally, the event was scrapped. We were all left with days until return flights and no racing. Then the next morning a few of us woke up to catch the first televised iRacing event. An event held, if my memory holds up, in lieu of a Formula 1 race. It wasn’t the same as real racing, but you had drivers with talent, and drivers who seemed to struggle with getting the car in the right direction. A great distraction. Just a week or so later, INDYCAR announced they’d be holding a series of six iRacing events while everyone waited for real racing to resume.

These six events saved INDYCAR from a disastrous season. These six races kept the drivers engaged, kept the fans entertained, and even bled into the in-car action later on in the year. The six races, spreading from the end of March to the beginning of May kept the drivers engaged both through the racing and their social media channels. It’s the silence of the off-season that is sometimes hard to get out of, and by keeping the spirit of competition alive, Drivers kept engaging with fans. Teams learned to set up dedicated facebook videos of their drivers, and some of the more savvy drivers used the Twitch platform to live stream their races. Not mincing words here, but it was extremely stressful when the global pandemic first hit the U.S.. Watching a race, or practice, through a driver’s Twitch and hearing the jovial comments absolutely helped to distract.

Fans still were engaged and entertained through these races. The series allowed fans to vote on one of the tracks, pulling many fans who would have ignored these races in. It’s no surprise Watkins Glen, a favorite of all long-time Indy fans, won the fan favorite. The races, even though virtual, also managed to pack some pageantry. One race included Jim Cornelison singing the National Anthem.  The NBC Broadcast team called each race (which must have been a first). A few of us even would be on a Zoom call and watch the races together, sharing our reactions with each other, as close as we could get to being in person. It was a fun way to be with people, enjoying what we loved, while still being socially distant.

One caveat though, while good intentions would require some type of rules and procedure to dictate the various races, the Series went too far. There was no champion, and INDYCAR was to make a donation to a partner charity at the end. Sure, you couldn’t just have drivers in their virtual cars turning this into the most overpaid game of Mario Kart…but the series failed to set the tone. Were these races a way to bring levity while everyone waited for real-racing? Was this a way to show off the sim racing skills of the drivers? Did they just want to increase the exposure of INDYCAR? It seems unclear. Many drivers had to borrow sim racing rigs during this time, so it certainly wasn’t to showcase sim racing skills. There were drivers from other series who participated, bringing in fans from other series, so it may have increased the exposure of INDYCAR. My opinion is this was initially constructed to provide fun during COVID. Then, as with many things, organizations tend to get in the way of things. Allowing the drivers to just race and enjoy themselves would have gone a lot farther than what the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge ever did. However, despite this drawback it did provide some moments of fun during COVID.

To truly gauge the exposure of INDYCAR, know that my mom voluntarily watched an iRacing event. She has never been a fan of video games, and she’s a tacit INDYCAR fan – mostly because of my Dad and I. However she was intrigued enough by Dad and I watching the races that she joined us for the last race. She was most taken with how the cars would not follow the laws of gravity and would just flip end over end halfway down the straightaway. That’s how you get non fans to watch, no drivers were hurt, but you could hear driver comments and got a great taste of their personality. There was talk of resuming iRacing during the off season, but we’ll see.