I got to race (and wreck) with IndyCar's best at virtual IMS
Friday night, I took part in a 100-lap event at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but this was not your usual sim race.
The event was hosted by Elite Racing League founder and Speed 51 esports division coordinator Chad Frankenfield, in association with Speed51.com and Sym TV.
The field was stacked with some of IndyCar’s best including reigning champion Josef Newgarden, as well as former Indy 500 winners such as Will Power, Alexander Rossi, and Juan Pablo Montoya. This wasn’t your usual sim race, an event made possible due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has brought nearly all forms of motorsports to a standstill.
I spoke with the man behind the event about how it all came together and how he got so many IndyCar stars to compete for nothing more than bragging rights.
"It was basically me and Stefan (Wilson) with some help from Colton (Herta) and James (Davison)," he told Motorsport.com. "Me and Stefan did all the setting it up and figuring out what we wanted to do. James obviously was a help as well and Colton more or less helped us get the drivers together. It was definitely a team effort."
He later added, "Really it started the moment Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Cup race got cancelled. As soon as they announced it got cancelled, me and Bob (Dillner) and the staff at Speed 51 were like okay, what can we do to really kind of put on a good show and get everybody’s minds off the chaos?"
Photo by: Uncredited
The first IndyCar event like this came at World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway) where several American open-wheel drivers showed up for the short oval race. The success of that race led to the massive field of drivers we saw this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Okay, that was successful. Now what can we do to continue that? It really came together, I think on Monday," explained Frankenfield. "Stefan really enjoyed what we did and we were thinking what we could do (next). We started to plan this throughout the week … I mean, the idea is to just keep filling people’s eyes with racing. That’s the main goal. During the event yesterday on social media, I didn’t see anybody in the IndyCar world complaining about the coronavirus. Everybody was just talking about the racing. The drivers really were awesome.The social media was awesome and pretty funny at times, seeing the drivers go at it a little bit. And over a virtual race, that shows how competitive they are. It was good."
The drivers approved, needing to satisfy their competitive spirit and fill the void left by the suspension of the racing season. "Oh the drivers loved it. They had a really good time. They definitely liked the competition, they definitely liked feeling that sense of organization."
With all the positive feedback, Frankenfield intends to do more events like this and plans are already in the works for another star-studded race.
Going up against the best
Ultimately, there were seven open spots on the grid, decided by a 30-lap shootout in which 25 sim racers competed for the opportunity to go up against these titans of American open-wheel racing. I finished second in that race and advanced into the main event.
Now iRacing’s Indy Fixed races are nothing foreign to me. I have competed in the official series for several years now and am very familiar with the cars. Even still, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated when all those names started showing up in the one-hour practice session prior to the race. This was something else entirely.
I qualified ninth and just wanted to keep my nose clean in the early laps. Some of these real-life stars were new to the sim racing world and although similar to what they’re used to on the IndyCar circuit, there’s still a learning curve as not everything translates from the real track to the virtual one.
The early laps were plagued by cautions and I kept myself up in the top-ten, avoiding much of the drama. The mic chatter, fit for its own episode of ‘radioactive,’ made the yellows fly by however. From Power complaining about ‘wankers’ to James Davison getting aggravated with Graham Rahal for not maintaining pace car speed (turns out he had a relief driver during the yellow in Brittany Force as he made a run for the bathroom) ... it was wildly amusing to hear all the banter.
But these drivers were serious too. There were flash points and moments of tension including a flare-up between Conor Daly and Pato O’Ward that carried over to Twitter after the race.
Soon enough, I felt comfortable as I realized this was just another Indy Fixed race. Yes, that’s Rossi leaning on your right rear as you go three-wide with him and Herta down the backstretch, but you got this. At least that’s what I told myself in those harrowing moments.
With every lap that passed, my confidence grew. I tried to keep my head low and focus only on my race, wanting to be there at the end and get the Motorsport.com Factory Backed machine some good air time (and possibly a win). On one particular restart, Power got around me for fifth-place and started making the high side roll, forcing his way to the outside and charging up to second before the next caution put a pause to the action. This was something I remembered for later, and ultimately led to my race’s downfall.
With 35 laps to go, I was battling with Ed Carpenter for the sixth position and decided to employ that same outside move I saw Power pull off. I did it, but Ed (who in fairness was making his IndyCar esports debut and we were on older tires), pushed up and we came together, crashing out of Turn 4.
He apologized, and thankfully we both had a single quick repair that allowed us to get back into the race, albeit at the back of the remaining 20-car field (after crabbing my way down the pit lane).
Nick DeGroot, Ed Carpenter
Photo by: Uncredited
The tempo of the race changed with less than 30 laps remaining as fuel was no longer an issue and track position was key. On lap 79/100, Power was able to make that outside work once again on a restart and retake the top spot from Stefan Wilson. I was trying to fight my way back to the front, but I found that task easier said than down as everyone was now giving it all they had.
On Lap 89, I made a move to the inside of James Hinchcliffe for 12th, but he didn’t seem to notice I had my nose down there and came down. We collided, he crashed, and I was forced to pit once more for a new front wing. But now I had far fresher tires than those ahead and ten laps to make something of it. Wilson pitted as well, having been shuffled out in the battle up front.
On the following restart, things got wild. They fanned out four-wide for the race lead with Power, Newgarden, Felix Rosenqvist, and Scott Andrews. That, of course, did not work out. Two cars went spinning and I caught the grass trying to dodge the crash. Kenton Koch got into the back of me as I was trying to regain control and I went around, my race finally ending when Will Davison clipped me during the spin-cycle.
The race itself ended under caution after Andrews spun trying to challenge Power for the lead on the ensuing restart. The race win went to the Team Penske driver, a familiar place for the former Indy 500 champion. Rosenqvist was second and Gabby Chaves third.
Chaves noted that he was surprised by how much mental focus was required and once he took the checkered flag, he just let go of the wheel.
“I’ll tell you, it was a lot of fun," Power told the broadcast after the race win. "Fifteen minutes before the race I was eating dinner and Josef Newgarden and James Davison both sent me texts saying 'Hey, you racing?' I said no, I’m probably not. I wasn’t going to because I wanted to rest for tomorrow’s race and then I said I might as well go down and see how it is with the fixed setup. I’m really glad I did, it was a lot of fun.”
Power received several text messages after the race, but none bigger than the one from the Captain himself with Roger Penske congratulating him on the victory. It turns out he was paying attention to the entire race, a fact that blew Frankenfield away.
"It’s almost unreal," he said. "Let’s be honest. I’m a huge racing fan, a diehard IndyCar fan. The fact that I get to communicate with any of these guys about this stuff is kind of an honor to me. These guys are real-life superheroes … It still hasn’t hit me that I got to race against 80% of the Indy 500 field yesterday. But Roger Penske is possibly the biggest icon in American motorsports, and potentially international motorsports as well. The fact that he knew about the event and tuned in is just -- I don’t know if I can even find the words to explain it. It’s pretty remarkable. The fact that he tuned in to our event is pretty incredible. When Will said he got a text from Roger as soon as it was over, that was surreal."
A much-needed distraction
I finished 14th, four laps down. But I was smiling. It was an experience I never thought possible and only made a reality by the allure of sim racing. And this race is not one-of-a-kind with several events just like it popping up every day. Aces from every corner of the globe have moved online to get their racing fix.
In lieu of physical cars on track, sim racing has picked up the torch and raced to the forefront of the motorsports world. In these difficult times, it’s the perfect distraction and a great relief from the reality of our daily lives as we fight to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic. Even those who normally scoff at the idea of online sim racing as ‘just a video game’ have seen their views changed, or at the very least become more open to the idea. In these abnormal times, it brought back a sense of normalcy -- if only for a moment.
Esports are no replacement for the real thing, but it is a phenomenal compliment to it. Let’s embrace it, as the motorsports world will only benefit if we do.
Photo by: Uncredited
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