I can’t help myself. iRacing’s got its hooks into me. Honestly, more than a few times while writing this story, I caught myself drifting over to iRacing’s online store to ogle the expansive collection of dirt racers, NASCARs, and monocoque machines on offer. Never mind that I’m nowhere close to taming the beginner’s car I have now—a Skip Barber Formula 2000. Even more embarrassing: I’ve driven this 1,250-pound, 135-mph demon around a track before in real life. In my defense, that was three years ago, and I had two IndyCar drivers and a coterie of Barber school instructors coaching me. And yet: I struggled with the car’s well-deep seating position. I fumbled with the clutch. (It was my first time operating a manual transmission.) I couldn’t anticipate turns, because I couldn’t commit the circuit to memory. And for all my squinting, I still couldn’t see the racing line, the straightest and quickest pathway through the track.
iRacing not only brought all those handicaps surging back to the fore, it presented new issues with my pedals (which too often slide across the floor when I hit the brakes) and my steering wheel (which I’ve hopelessly secured to my desk’s sliding keyboard tray). In the virtual world, though, I can be the bad carpenter who curses his tools. I can also consider bigger, better tools: the Aston Martin GTE, a Formula One machine. I’d be a fool not to when none of these virtual cars retails for more than $12. Roughly the same amount of money buys simulator access to racetracks like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (home of the Indy 500) and the Nürburgring (possibly the world’s deadliest race course). On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine my incremental splurging adding up quickly. On the other, iRacing, for all its “freemium” pricing tactics and tempting hardware upgrades that can easily soar into five figures, is still fundamentally cheaper than physically going racing. (A track day entry can cost around $200, but even then you might still have to bring your own car and, in some cases, a racing license.)
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What’s more, iRacing is eerily close to the genuine article. It’s faithful to the rules of the racetrack and to the laws of physics. It uses laser scanning to reproduce racetracks, and trades on relationships with manufacturers and pro-racing teams in replicating vehicle dynamics, iRacing’s executive vice president, Steve Myers, tells me. A shocking degree of these subtleties can be felt through the force-feedback steering wheel, which damn near snapped off my hands at the elbow during that crash in Virginia.
Given that commitment to realism, it’s no wonder that the iRacing community is so robust, with more than 74,000 active account holders, many of them bona fide veterans, according to Myers. The illustrious list of ringers runs the gamut from the Formula One legend Rubens Barrichello to NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., and they don’t play with kid gloves. Earlier this year, the NASCAR bad boy Tony Stewart had Reddit buzzing after he cussed out two bickering competitors during an iRace. The moment was yet more evidence of how close the average motorsports aficionado can get to his or her racing heroes through the simulator. But those stars can’t simply run amok: Scott Speed, a former NASCAR and Formula One racer who consults with iRacing program designers and engineers, saw his digital license temporarily revoked after video surfaced of him purposefully attempting to crash into other players mid-race. “This is not real life,” he protested to The Drive, “it’s a game.”