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Pro drivers are competing with gamers after F1 and NASCAR canceled races

Virtual replacement races are drawing stars — and tons of eyeballs

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

For many, the cancellation of major sporting events was the moment that made the coronavirus pandemic feel real for the first time. But while fans of baseball, basketball, soccer are left wondering when they’ll see players back in action, racing fans don’t have to wait — because many of their favorite drivers are already competing in online sim racing competitions that were spun up in the days since the first real world races were canceled.

The first few of these substitute sim races, held last weekend, were successful in ways that surprised even the organizers. Now, many of the people who put them on have spent the intervening week trying to figure out how to use that momentum to fill the gap left by real world racing, as fans around the world hole up at home in a collective attempt to slow the spread of a global virus.

It likely won’t be that difficult, though. The success of these first few replacement races was a testament to how far sim racing has come during the rise of esports (and the era of Twitch), but it also sheds light on a truth that a lot of motorsports fans have become familiar with: that a new age of competitive, virtual motorsports is already upon us.

A screencap of The Replacements 100.
A screencap of The Replacements 100.
Image: Podium eSports / iRacing

Despite a lot of hemming and hawing from the world’s top racing series, Formula One, NASCAR, and IndyCar ultimately decided just over a week ago to cancel their Sunday races and suspend their seasons in the face of a growing pandemic. For F1 and IndyCar, that meant dumping their respective season openers, the Australian Grand Prix and the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. For NASCAR, that meant abandoning the annual race at Atlanta Motor Speedway — typically the most-watched race of the season outside of the Daytona 500.

But within minutes of those races being canceled, people like TJ Majors started making phone calls and sending text messages.

Majors is the “spotter” for the #22 NASCAR team, meaning every Sunday during the season, he’s standing on the roof of the grandstands letting the driver know (via radio) what cars are around him, when it’s safe to change lanes, things like that. It’s no surprise, then, that he helped spin up a virtual replacement for the canceled Atlanta race. After all, it’s literally his job to be looking out for other people.

“When I got home Friday there was just a really weird feeling,” Majors explained in an email to The Verge. “I was hanging out with my daughters, and when we got confirmation of everything being shut down for two weeks, I started thinking of all the people in the NASCAR industry that would probably be free to do something Sunday.”

As he made lunch for his daughters, Majors said he thought maybe he and some of his colleagues could join in on an already-scheduled race being put on by iRacing, a very popular sim racing game that also facilitates a panoply of online racing leagues. But before long, Majors started getting texts from his NASCAR colleagues about starting their own race instead at the in-game version of Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Where do i sign?’”

Majors liked the idea, so he called up iRacing’s executive vice president to get the green light. He started contacting NASCAR personalities, too, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who retired last year after suffering multiple concussions), rising star driver William Byron, and Chad Knaus, who was the crew chief for each of Jimmie Johnson’s seven championships.

Majors also called James Pike of Podium eSports, which puts on broadcast-quality productions of sim races. “I got the call from TJ on Friday afternoon, and he told us about the idea that they had put together,” Pike said in a phone call with The Verge. “He asked if we were interested in broadcasting the race, and I said, ‘are you kidding me? Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and all of those other drivers are going to be running in our race? Where do i sign?’”

Faced with a sudden rush of interest, Majors said he and fellow spotter Kevin Hamlin quickly realized — like anything in NASCAR — they needed some good branding.

“One of the funniest moments was [Hamlin] calling me asking for a name of the race,” Majors said. He kept thinking about the movie The Replacements, so he suggested that, with a small tweak: “The Replacements 100,” a nod to the number of laps they would run.

As they started to promote The Replacements 100 on social media, Majors, Hamlin, Pike, and others fielded dozens of calls, texts, and direct messages from people all across NASCAR who wanted in.

In an interview with Pike before the race, Hamlin guessed around 50 percent or more of people who work in and around NASCAR already use iRacing and have home setups — including a steering wheel, pedals, and often custom-built PCs — ready to go. So he and Majors tried to fill up a field that reflected this big tent, letting in fellow NASCAR crew members, as well as some public relations and social media specialists. But a couple more drivers squeaked through, including Parker Kligerman, who has run in all of NASCAR’s top three series, and now races in the official eNASCAR series put on by iRacing.

“When everything went down with all the real races getting canceled, my phone immediately started blowing up with people being like, ‘let’s run a race!’ So I yeah, I wasn’t surprised to see it all come together as quickly,” Kligerman explained. “It was cool to see everyone rally behind it.”

The race went off without much of a hitch. There were a few more wrecks than you’d find in the eNASCAR series. And yes, at one point (and while fighting for the lead, no less), Pike said Kligerman’s computer tried to force a Windows update, sending him straight into the wall. But the combination of iRacing’s realism and Podium eSports’ professional quality broadcast was an excellent simulacrum — a “replacement” race in nearly every sense of the world.

The result was a really good crowd for a sim race, according to iRacing. The main race stream on Twitch peaked at 23,000 concurrent viewers, and brought in over 70,000 unique viewers over the two-hour broadcast. Highlights of the race were even hosted on “Pretty impressive with almost no notice or advertising,” Kevin Bobbit, iRacing’s marketing director, said in an email.

“If some kid beats LeBron James on NBA 2K, that doesn’t mean that kid is going to get on a basketball court and out-shoot him.”

One reason for the popularity, Kligerman said, is the similarity of the skillsets. “It’s the only esport that connects in such a parallel with the real world,” he explained. “The reason you see so many real-world drivers doing this all the time is it’s not only fun, but it literally in many ways can feel like I’m doing something that could be helping me as a real driver.”

That’s obviously not the case with other sports. “If some kid beats LeBron James on NBA 2K, that doesn’t mean that kid is going to get on a basketball court and out-shoot him,” Kligerman said. “But the funny part about this stuff is if someone gets on there and it outraces me, or outraces William Byron? If they were to get the chance to get in a real car, it might translate really well.”

And a lot of that simply comes from the technology at play, Pike said.

“Anybody worth their weight in salt is running with a wheel and pedals, just like you would in real life. The only thing that’s really removed are all the G-forces, but a lot of the same sorts of skills are much more directly applicable in sim racing compared to shooting a jumper on a controller versus shooting a jumper in real life,” he said.

Even Majors, who watches over a driver going 200 miles an hour every weekend, agrees to an extent. “Real racing requires an enormous amount of skill and bravery,” he said. “Sim racing is still incredibly difficult.”

The start of The Race’s All-Star Esports Battle.
The start of The Race’s All-Star Esports Battle.
Image: Torque Esports

Across the virtual pond, and a few hours before the green flag waved on the virtual NASCAR race at Atlanta, two other replacement races drew the likes of F1 stars Max Verstappen and Lando Norris, IndyCar drivers Simon Pagenaud and Felix Rosenqvist, and a bevy of popular professional sim racers and YouTube personalities. (While IndyCar is a US sport, the skill involved in driving its open-wheel cars often translates better to other open-wheel series like F1, even in the sim world.)

And much like how The Replacements 100 was born, these sim races were thrown together in a flurry of calls and messages during the aftermath of the decision to cancel real world races.

The first to be announced was The Race’s All-Star Esports Battle — a competition in racing sim rFactor 2 that was being promoted by a relatively new motorsports news site, The Race, and its parent company, Torque Esports. But while The Race may not be familiar to most, one of the organizers was a man who, over a decade, has built some of the cornerstones of sim racing: Darren Cox.

Cox started Nissan’s “GT Academy” back in 2008, which pitted the best video game racers in the world against each other in the popular PlayStation racing sim Gran Turismo, with the ultimate winner getting the chance to become a real-world driver. While it seemed like a lark at the time, GT Academy (and a spiritual, multi-platform successor created by Cox called “World’s Fastest Gamer”) ultimately did help prove there’s a link between the skills that make a good sim racing driver and the ones required to pilot the real thing.

“It really was that great old-fashioned line, ‘build it and they will come.’”

“It was the launch pad for a lot of things that people are doing today,” Cox, who now helps manage Mercedes-Benz’s F1 esports team, said in a phone call last week.

Cox says he started hearing “rumblings” that the Australian Grand Prix would be canceled about a day before F1 made the announcement, and immediately thought “You know what? We’ve got to do something for the fans. We’ve got to try and have some racing on Sunday.”

He worked with The Race and Torque announce the event, and said drivers — including Verstappen, Pagenaud, Rosenqvist, and even ex-F1 and IndyCar star Juan Pablo Montoya — started reaching out to ask how to be involved.

“I said, look, you know, let’s do it, I’ll fund it. We didn’t have any drivers confirmed. We didn’t know if anyone would come. And it really was that great old-fashioned line, ‘build it and they will come,’” Cox said. “And they did, you know. And I can be on the record now to say no one got paid for being at that race. No one asked for money. No one asked for any branding. No one asked for specific terms. No one asked for a favor.”

Unlike The Replacements 100, Cox and The Race didn’t try to create a virtual substitute for the canceled Australian Grand Prix. Instead, they said the track and the car that everyone would compete in would be a surprise. They also filled out the field with sim racers and YouTube personalities to keep things light. The result? Hundreds of thousands of views, numbers that Cox called “insane,” though given the circumstances, he said were not totally surprising.

“The fans are starved of racing. No one wants to watch the news. We all want to be distracted, and this is just a lighthearted way of getting through what is a difficult time for everyone,” Cox said.

Mid-race action during the Not the AUS GP.
Mid-race action during the Not the AUS GP.
Image: Veloce Esports / F1 2019

The other big sim race of the day was billed as a direct replacement to the canceled F1 Australian Grand Prix. Dubbed the “Not the AUS GP,” it was put on by Veloce Esports, a company that fields teams across a number of different esports disciplines.

Jamie MacLaurin, one of Veloce’s founders, said in a phone call late last weekend that as soon as the Australian Grand Prix was canceled, “we sat down as a team and thought, ‘can we pull this off?’”

“We thought, ‘can we pull this off?’”

“It was tricky not to get too positive about something given the current circumstances,” MacLaurin said. “But our philosophy was we wanted to give fans something they were going to miss. And esports can be done from the comfort of your own home.”

MacLaurin and Veloce experienced a similar domino effect to the one that Majors and Hamlin did in organizing their race. “We’ve got a good network in the real racing world,” MacLaurin said. “Once we got a couple drivers on board, they messaged their mates. At the end, we had to start turning people away because so many people were desperate to be involved.”

MacLaurin said Veloce purposely tried to put together a field that wasn’t hyper competitive, much like the organizers of The Replacements 100. “There’s a time a and a place for competitive racing, but with the nature of the coronavirus we wanted something a little more lighthearted, which is why we involved some YouTubers who... may not have been the best drivers,” MacLaurin said with a laugh.

When Sunday rolled around, F1 driver Lando Norris headlined the field of sim racing drivers and YouTubers as they competed in an abbreviated virtual version of the Australian Grand Prix using the game F1 2019. The sim race generated a remarkable amount of attention, with Norris’ Twitch stream alone pulling in 70,000 concurrent viewers for much of the broadcast. MacLaurin said there was a total of around 175,000 people watching the race at one point, when combining Norris’ numbers with the main broadcast and other competitors’ streams.

“Lando’s famous to an F1 fan ... but to a lot of people on Twitch he’s just a funny guy who plays PUBG.”

“We’d all hoped we’d get to this number, but to be realistic, I never thought it could happen,” MacLaurin said.

One reason Veloce’s event drew so much interest is that many of the people involved have built up their own followings on Twitch and YouTube that go beyond competitive sim racing, according to Hazel Southwell, a motorsports journalist and co-founder of Inside Electric, a news site dedicated to covering electric racing series Formula E.

The Veloce race “in theory had less big names attached to it if you come from the perspective of ‘real life’ motorsport than The Race’s,” Southwell said. But the race ultimately drew big numbers because drivers like Norris were running their own streams as well. “Lando’s famous to an F1 fan as an F1 driver — but to a lot of people on Twitch he’s just a funny guy who plays PUBG and has a screamy laugh and they think it’s cute enough to subscribe to.”

Richard Petty
Richard Petty during the 1979 Daytona 500, which was a watershed moment for NASCAR thanks to a freak snowstorm.
Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

In February 1979, a surprise, record-breaking snowstorm buried much of the United States’ East Coast under one to two feet of snow, causing millions of people to hunker in their homes for the weekend. The timing of the storm was crucial for NASCAR, Pike said, because not only was the Daytona 500 happening, but it was the first time any race of that length was broadcast live from start to finish on television.

As a result, he said, “a lot of people tuned into that race — and it just so happens that that race itself was one of the best races of all time.”

With half a lap to go, NASCAR legends Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were battling for the lead. Yarborough tried a daring pass for the win, the left side of his car chewing into the infield grass. Allison moved to block. The two cars tangled and wound up smashing into the wall. Another NASCAR legend (arguably the NASCAR legend) snuck by to win his sixth Daytona 500: Richard Petty.

“That race single-handedly began the expansion of NASCAR from a predominantly Southeastern sport into a national sport,” Pike said. “And we recognized immediately coming into [last weekend] that this was sort of our ‘79 Daytona 500 moment.”

Looking at the success of the three races last weekend, and what’s happened in the days since, it seems Pike might well be right. Not only did hundreds of thousands of people tune in to watch three very different last-minute sim races, but each group of organizers — and a few others — have now held or announced new races with deeper rosters of household names and a far bigger marketing push.

“You just install the game, git gud and give it a ruddy good try.”

The Replacements is now going to be an eight-race series that will run every other week on Thursday nights. The Race and Torque Esports held a second race on Saturday. Veloce is hosting a “Not the BAH GP” race in place of the canceled Bahrain F1 race on Sunday. Existing sim racing series are also seeing a bump. The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing series that Kligerman competes in drew nearly 300,000 viewers for a regularly-scheduled race on Tuesday night.

The sidelined series are themselves are jumping into the mix, too. F1 announced a “virtual grand prix” series to take the place of the canceled races. IndyCar is putting on a special series of races in iRacing. And NASCAR is teaming up with Fox Sports and iRacing to host a pro invitational sim race that will be broadcast on television as well as online.

For some, it’s validation that was a long time coming. “Sim racing was a bit of a weirdo outlier from other esports for a long time,” Southwell said. “Not a lot of money, not a lot of enthusiasm, but things like the official F1 games adding the capacity to set up online leagues have made it much more easily accessible as a form of competition. Like with something like Dota, you just install the game, git gud and give it a ruddy good try.”

The mix of sim racing and streaming on display last week also has inherent momentum. The big name drivers draw in fans who may be new to sim racing. The YouTube personalities and Twitch streamers bring along their own in real time, and even make videos about the events before and after. And people like Norris do both.

Growth is known to kill a good thing, though. And so others, like Cox, are a touch wary.

“Now’s the time to work together.”

“We’ve spent the last week working out how we can help each other, how to avoid clashes, which drivers are going to drive, and which championships are going to share them out,” he said. “Now’s not to the time to have rivalries. Now’s the time to work together, because that’s the way that the sim racing community was built up.”

When asked if that sounded a bit noble, Cox replied: “Now’s the time to be noble. If you can’t be noble right now, we’re never going to be noble. It’s a horrible situation out there.”