We have a plague on. Sporting events are being canceled or postponed, likely including the Olympics.
Some leagues have chosen to play games without spectators and test athletes. Some have simply abandoned the rest of the season.
But only one sport, to my knowledge, has elected to run events…in virtual reality.
That sport is NASCAR.
What is iRacing?
Let’s start with what iRacing isn’t: It’s not a video game. It’s called one, but it’s a level above your typical video game, although with the right gear and a decent internet connection you can start playing it right away. Right now, it’s only available for Windows PCs. And you do need a controller (steering wheel). The software is a pretty reasonable subscription, especially right now (they’re offering 50% off while everyone’s in quarantine, so the normal cost is $110 a year).
And it’s a full featured, physics-accurate racing simulator that operates as an MMORPG, and has official leagues. The tracks are accurate copies of real tracks. The cars are accurate copies of real cars.
It’s so accurate that race drivers use it to train when it’s not possible to get out on the real track.
So, What did NASCAR do?
NASCAR partnered with iRacing (eNASCAR already exists and a number of the drivers do play) to simulate the Charlotte race exactly, except that the cars were identical (making everything on the driver).
Then they televised the virtual race just the same as they would the real thing, with the same commentators. Some of the drivers showed off their rigs (at least one had a full feedback cockpit that I have to assume was bought by his team for training).
The VR had some artifacts (why don’t trees work in VR?) but the cars didn’t look much less fake than the real ones (if you’ve watched NASCAR you’ll understand what I mean when I say they look die cast). The racing was exciting and there were more crashes; people are more aggressive when they can’t get hurt.
It was a fair substitute for the real thing.
But could it replace the real thing?
Is Virtual Racing the Future?
You could make a very real case for forgetting about racing real cars and shifting everything into VR. No more fatal crashes (even spectators have been killed before). No fuel being used.
But we would lose something. One of the drivers said that there’s no substitute for the “feel” of a real car, and that the skills are slightly different. We would also lose the skills of the pit crews and designers, the people who keep those cars humming.
The fuel question will no doubt be answered as racing series switch to electric cars (the writing is very much on the wall there). But I don’t think virtual racing will replace the real thing. Except maybe on space colonies!
However, what I would love to see is an annual eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational (the name of the temporary virtual league) as a tradition to show off the technology and have some real fun with it. Maybe they can drive tracks that aren’t in the United States. Maybe they can reconstruct Indianapolis from when it was wood. Drive Talladega without speed restrictions.
Virtual reality is not a good replacement for real racing, although it makes a reasonable substitute in these difficult times.
But it can complement it. And it potentially allows everyone to race; even people with disabilities, young kids.
And Dale Earnhart, Jr., who came out of retirement to race.