Nearly ten years ago, in these pages, I pontificated that online racing-that is, virtual racing, over the Internet, against other human beings-was about to become The Next Big Thing in motorsports. As predictions go, this one rates up there with howlers such as "Personal computers? Who needs 'em?" and "That Jobs kid won't ever amount to anything."
Turns out my forecast was based on some flawed assumptions. In 1999, personal computer racing games were a mere ten years old, and the software wasn't clever enough, the hardware wasn't robust enough, and the gaming community wasn't mature enough to support a paradigm shift. More to the point, there was no organization with the clout, credibility, and vision to transform an obscure computer game cult into a legitimate mainstream sport.
What online racing needed was a major league sanctioning body. In 2008, it finally got one-iRacing.com Motorsports Simulations, a software developer that's not only created the most authentic consumer-level racing simulation ever released but has also fashioned a framework to foster and police the growth of a full spectrum of virtual racing series. "We'd like to be the NASCAR of online racing," says president and chief financial officer Tony Gardner. "And the FIA," adds CEO/software wizard Dave Kaemmer.
In August, after four years and $20 million in development, iRacing dropped the green flag on its online racing program. By September, 7000 subscribers had signed up for the fee-based service, which starts at $13 a month. At the moment, the sim features eight cars, ranging from a showroom-stock Pontiac Solstice to a late-model stock car to a Formula Mazda, racing on twenty-five ovals and road courses. Additional cars (e.g., a 1979 Lotus 79 F1 car) and tracks (Road Atlanta, Mosport, etc.) are being developed.
iRacing hopes to carve out a piece of the lucrative pie known as Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming. More than 16 million North Americans pay a monthly subscription fee to play MMOGs. But iRacing couldn't just adopt the template of World of Warcraft, the wildly successful role-playing game that's emerged as the big kahuna in this space.
"Racing is socially complicated, because it's nothing like playing Dungeons & Dragons," Kaemmer explains. "Unlike role-playing, which is pretty much every man for himself, racing is a cooperative venture. It's a form of competition, but you can't have everybody knocking everybody else off the track. So the question becomes, how do you encourage people to behave in a way that's competitive yet cooperative?"