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?"
Real-life racing is self-regulating, because drivers are acutely aware that crashing is expensive and dangerous. But in the virtual world, there's an insidious temptation to overdrive the cars because, if things go catastrophically wrong, you can always hit the reset button. Also, since sims don't provide any seat-of-the-pants feedback, they're tricky to drive on the limit, and racing online in close proximity to other cars makes matters exponentially more perilous. Put all these factors together, and you've got a prescription for crashfests.
Enter the iRacing sporting code, forty-five pages governing every conceivable aspect of the races run under its sanction. "We knew we needed something that worked when you have no fear of physical or checkbook damage," says Scott McKee, vice president of marketing and himself an SCCA club racer. "A lot of people come in with video game backgrounds. This is much more serious than what they're used to. The sporting code is the key to understanding how the sim and the races work."
Among other innovations, iRacing has developed two mathematic barometers to evaluate how good-or bad-a driver is. The iRating, which is designed to predict the probability that one racer will beat another, is similar to the Elo rating in chess-a number that fluctuates up or down, depending on performance. The Safety Rating is based on the number of incidents in qualifying and races.
All customers start as rookies in a Solstice or a Legends car. As they accumulate points-by beating other drivers and not committing too many infractions-they climb the ladder to more exotic cars and tracks. Unlocking each upgrade costs additional money, which irks consumers who are used to paying a one-time fee for a game. Then again, if you're looking for realism, this isn't the first time a driver has had to pay for a ride.
Virtual racing can be as emotional as its real-world counterpart. And as Internet flame wars demonstrate all too well, the anonymity of the Web can spawn truly ugly online confrontations. Not on iRacing. "We have an especially low tolerance for behaving badly," McKee says. "Nobody wants to be part of a community where people can regularly be rude and get away with it. We have a formal protest system with race stewards who review replays, and we insist that people use their real names instead of hiding behind avatars."
Real names, real racers. A few months ago, on a Wednesday afternoon, I sat next to then-Daytona Prototype champion Alex Gurney as he logged laps on iRacing. He'd been using the sim to prep for an upcoming DP race. Now, he was entering his first wheel-to-wheel online event-a pickup race for rookies in a Solstice at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Purely by coincidence, one of the other racers happened to be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.Gurney got schooled during the race-understandable considering his lack of seat time in the Solstice. Still, he wasn't happy about losing. Long after I left him, he continued to pound out laps on the sim. When I returned to my office several hours later, I found a message on my answering machine: "This is Alex. I got a 49.2. So I managed to beat Junior's time, and I'm really excited about it."
iRacing's membership roll includes numerous real-world pros besides Gurney and Earnhardt-Jacques Villeneuve, A. J. Allmendinger, Justin Wilson, Martin Truex, Jr., Paul Edwards, Spencer Pumpelly, Ron Capps, and others. Granted, Junior is a legendarily obsessive sim racer from way back. (In August, a few hours after running his Sprint Cup Impala SS at Michigan, he did a sixty-lap iRacing Silver Crown race at Martinsville.) But professional drivers wouldn't be fooling around with iRacing if they thought it was just a toy.
In contrast with the vibrant and glamorous world it models, iRacing is headquartered in an antiseptic industrial park in the Route 128 technology corridor outside Boston. At first glance, the place looks like standard high-tech fare, with the executives working out of offices with big windows to the outside world and the underlings navigating a warren of semi-open cubicles. But just about every desk, from the CFO's down to the lowliest QA tester's, has a steering wheel clamped to it and pedals underneath.
Everybody who works at iRacing is passionate about motorsports. Many of them have real-world racing experience. The most prominent logbook belongs to former F1 driver Divina Galica, who is director of business development. But Kaemmer has numerous wins to his credit in Skip Barber formula cars. Grant Reeve, a lead programmer, is a regional autocross champion. Vehicle dynamics engineer Ian Berwick's résumé includes stints in numerous professional road-racing series. In short, iRacing is the kind of software house where terms such as "trail-braking" and "oversteer" are as much a part of the lingua franca as "C++."
The office culture follows the example of Kaemmer himself, which is to say personally low-key but professionally intense. A trim forty-five, with thinning hair and a ready smile, he has the slender build of a competitive cyclist. When I visited, he was dressed in a lived-in black polo shirt, faded jeans, and high-mileage Piloti shoes. He looked so, well, normal that it was hard to reconcile him with the legendary programmer who was the recent subject of a thread on RaceSimCentral-the major online source for information on racing games-titled simply, "Dave Kaemmer is God!!!"
Kaemmer is the most influential figure in sim racing. At twenty-four, after cofounding the Papyrus Design Group, he landed a dream assignment to create an Indy 500 game for Electronic Arts. Although he wasn't a racing fan at the time, he figured he could do better than Pole Position, the crude Atari arcade game into which millions of would-be racers had dumped gazillions of quarters. "Flight Simulator was one of my favorite programs at the time," he recalls, "and I already knew something about 3D graphics. So I read Tune to Win and all the other Carroll Smith books to learn about how race cars worked."
Indianapolis 500: The Simulation, published by EA in 1989, was the first serious PC racing sim, and it established the template for every game that followed. With a small cadre of programmers at Papyrus, Kaemmer designed NASCAR and IndyCar titles that helped define the hard-core racing sim as an alternative to more popular, but less realistic, arcade-style hits such as Gran Turismo and Need for Speed. In 1998 came Kaemmer's wildly ambitious Grand Prix Legends, which simulated F1 racing circa 1967 and still has a rabid cult following.
In 2004, Papyrus folded after a rival company secured the exclusive rights to NASCAR. But by then, Kaemmer was already certain that online gaming was the next frontier. He found a kindred spirit-and financial angel-in the form of John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox and co-owner of Roush Fenway Racing. Henry had discovered racing through Kaemmer's sims, and he competed in an online racing league. He and Kaemmer formed iRacing and hired the core team that had been at Papyrus.
The physics engine-the software that determines how cars handle -is the essence of any racing sim. Although Kaemmer began with his old Papyrus code, he was determined to ratchet up authenticity to unprecedented levels. "We have to convince the real-world racers that virtual racing is not just a game," he says. "The sim racers, on the other hand, want some validation that this is what racing is really like."
The iRacing cars are so hard to handle and require so much practice to master that they'll scare off casual gamers accustomed to simpler pleasures. But Kaemmer figured he could count on the support of serious simmers, and he was gambling that his new product would appeal to three thus-far-untapped audiences: pros who could use it for training and coaching; real-world racers who'd never taken sims seriously; and crewmen and course workers who are so close to, yet so far away from, getting any seat time of their own.
iRacing has already made a convert out of Jim Daniels, a championship-winning driver/builder who cofounded the Spec Miata class. "I've got in-car videotapes from some of my [real-world] Legends races, and they match the sim exactly," he says. "When you race online, it's really a race. The intensity is the same, and my heart is pounding when I'm warming up the tires. I think this is going to get to the level of go-karting."
At the moment, iRacing consists of forty-two employees, a chief steward, and a small server farm near Boston. But the size of the operation easily could be scaled up as membership warrants. "We'd like to have over 100,000 customers," Gardner says. To which Kaemmer adds: "We'd like to have over a million!"
Heads up, NASCAR. There's a new kid in town.
A Love/Hate Relationship
Things I love about iRacing:
No wrenching on race cars. No interminable tows. No exorbitant entry fees. No racetrack food. No broiling/freezing paddocks.
To enter a race, all I do is click my mouse, and I'm whisked to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Another click and I'm in a Pontiac Solstice, waiting with seven other identical showroom-stock cars for the lights to turn green.
This is real racing. Yes, the cars are digital constructs of 1s and 0s, but they're being "driven" by real human beings with real hearts, real balls, and, in some cases, the brains of a gerbil.
The racetracks are dead-nuts perfect. The graphics team used a $100,000 laser scanner to take 360-degree images every 300 feet of track. All that's missing is smoke rising from trackside barbecues.
This is the most authentic sim I've ever sampled. Get on the throttle too early and the front washes out. Trail-brake too aggressively and the rear end starts rotating. I swear I can "feel" the car drifting around corners.
Things I hate about iRacing:
Even if you're an experienced real-world racer, the learning curve is frustratingly steep. Driving cars on the limit is a serious challenge, and doing it in traffic is exponentially harder.
I'm not sure if it's the physics engine or the tire model, but the sim rewards a wildly oversteering style of driving that isn't practiced-or practical-in the real world.
The sim requires substantial computing muscle. Check the FAQ for computer requirements, but suffice it to say that my four-year-old system couldn't run the software.
Expect to spend about $200 a year in fees. You also need to invest in a quality steering wheel and pedals. The sturdy Logitech G25, which sells for roughly $250, is a great choice.
Data can be delayed or lost as it's transmitted over the Internet. iRacing's Net code predicts where the cars ought to be when so-called latency becomes an issue. But cars occasionally wink out or "warp" instantaneously from one place to another.