It’s 1 o’clock on a weekday afternoon, and I’m sitting in a race car, idling in the pits at Virginia International Raceway. Typically, this 3.27-mile, 17-turn circuit serves as a proving ground for some of the world’s best drivers. But today, it’s my personal patch, and I’m about as far away from becoming Lewis Hamilton as the Formula One god’s native England is from this southern outcropping of the Commonwealth.
The day’s weather—sunny and just shy of 80 degrees—couldn’t be more perfect for a hot-lapping session, and after a few revs of the engine I drop it into first gear, peel out of my stall, and hurtle down the pit lane off-ramp, trying all the while to be mindful of the 45-mph speed limit. As soon as the nose of my car crosses the main road, I floor it down a mini straight into the first turn as if I know what I’m doing. But I don’t. I’ve never driven here, or even watched a vastly more qualified pilot do as much on TV. So it figures that as soon as I jerk the steering wheel to take on the long right-hander ahead (a.k.a. “The Horseshoe”), my rear wheels let out a banshee squeal as they lose touch with the tarmac and send me spiraling many revolutions off course onto the surrounding grass in a haze of dust and smoke.
Rightly, I should be catching my breath, checking my underwear, and keeping an eye out for the safety car after a scare like that. And perhaps I would be if I were actually inside the car I just crashed. But I’m not. I’m at home, safe and sound, playing iRacing—the gearhead’s answer to Fortnite and the preferred training tool of a not-insignificant number of the drivers gunning for IndyCar, NASCAR, and Formula One championships this fall. More simulator than video game, iRacing gives anyone the chance to drive a pretend race car and take on comers from all over. Getting started takes little more than a newish Windows-based computer*, a compatible steering wheel and pedal set (which set me back $200), a high-speed-internet connection, and a credit card. iRacing is free to download, but to start driving you’ll need a membership—and those generally start around $13 a month.
It was only a matter of time before I signed on. Growing up, I was the kid who could not be separated from his Tomy Turnin’ Turbo Dashboard, who set aside a sizable chunk of his modest weekly allowance to feed an addiction to OutRun—the Sega Genesis arcade game that’s kind of like a big boy’s Turbo Dashboard. It had a steering wheel and shifter, but it also had pedals for the gas and brake. And unlike the games of Speed Racer make-believe I played from the driver’s seat of many a parked car, mashing those pedals produced a corollary response. It was glorious.
No one was in a bigger hurry to get his driver’s license than I was. And when that moment finally came, the sense of accomplishment that followed dwarfed anything I’d felt crossing the stage at my high-school commencement. I can still remember the first time my dad warily tossed me the keys to his Volvo wagon and released me into traffic alone. I drove that rig through the streets of Chicago like I stole it.
After a while, however, you get tired of paying speeding tickets. (Or, rather, your mom gets tired … ) You concede that you’re not the next Willy T. Ribbs. You mellow. You develop a deeper appreciation for walking, especially after having lived in the pedestrian-friendly confines of New York City. You buy a Prius. You come to see driving as a hassle, and racing as something better left to highly skilled professionals. And the more you visit with those pros during your seasonal patrols of the auto-racing beat, frankly, the less you feel the need for speed. Watching them do their thing on the weekends is enough of a thrill.
Or it was until I picked up iRacing. To be perfectly blunt, it’s becoming a bit of an obsession. I’ve barely done more than two aggregate hours of computer-based racing, and already I’ve shifted my steering-wheel and pedal setup over from my home-office desktop to my slightly more powerful home-theater PC. I’m Google-tracking the prices for RAM upgrades. I’m seriously thinking about dumping my well-worn desk chair for a snazzy new racing-style bucket seat. And every last one of these childlike urges draws a contemptuous shake of the head from my better half.
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.)
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.”
Actually, iRacing’s more like the nexus between motorsports fantasy and reality. The pros use it to practice and for reconnaissance, a valued resource given the limits on access to prerace testing and to NASA-grade dynamic simulators. And the experience only figures to get more immersive as virtual-reality technologies become ubiquitous at home. “If you go on Twitter and do a search of iRacing,” Myers tells me, “especially on road-course weekends in NASCAR, you’re gonna see dozens of drivers using our product to practice on tracks that they might not know well or they want to get better at.”
Meanwhile, the iRacers are giving the pros a run for their money. Barrichello and Earnhardt—respectively, two of the best road-course and oval-track racers ever—don’t even rank among the top 20 in their disciplines in the iRacing ratings, which are modeled after the Elo system. Further up those rankings is William Byron. A self-professed racing addict by age 6, Byron began his driving career on the iRacing platform and quickly emerged as one of the most accomplished racers in the history of the sim, winning one out of every three races he entered over the course of the next nine years. It was enough to compel his father, a Charlotte-based financier with no family ties to motorsports, to look into offline-racing options for his boy. To say that Byron’s knack translated would be an understatement. Last year, as a 19-year-old rookie, he won NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, the triple-A level of stock-car racing. This year, he’s driving Jeff Gordon’s old Cup car.
Byron and Ty Majeski, iRacing’s top-rated oval racer and a development driver for the powerhouse Roush Fenway Racing team, have become the poster boys for a generation of online racers with crossover ambitions. “iRacing has definitely been great for the sport,” says Jack Irving, the senior executive who oversees Toyota’s driver-development farm system, which identifies and grows young talent. “If you love racing, then you want to race all the time. And the only way to do that is home simulation. So iRacing, to me, it’s not necessarily the next frontier. I think it’s already here.”
The distance between fantasy and reality will only get shorter as iRacing works with motorsports’ terrestrial stakeholders to create opportunities for gamers to drive proper race cars. Within that is an e-sports element that’s presented as seriously as the real thing; the production values for these streaming broadcasts—with their play-by-play announcers, “onboard” interviews, and slick graphic overlays—are as impressive as anything you’ll find on ESPN or Fox Sports. Myers says iRacing streaming broadcasts for this year have already crested 1 million impressions in just the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing world championships, an event that pits iRacing’s 40 best stock-car racers in a mad dash for $17,000 in cash and prizes. It’s likely only a matter of time before tens of thousands of people are scrutinizing these broadcasts from the grandstands of actual racetracks as the gamers trade paint pixels, in much the same way that World of Warcraft packs its completists into stadiums and arenas.
After my virtual reckless-driving accident in Virginia, I retreated to a local coffee shop to watch an endurance iRace in Le Mans, France, and fooled a few curious patrons into believing there was an actual race taking place. It speaks to the simulator’s drawing power. Worth noting: Casual race fans aren’t the only ones watching. Industry decision makers like Irving tune in to scout fresh talent. It’s all the motivation I need to get back behind the virtual wheel and try again. And if I fail to get any closer to Lewis Hamilton in the process? That’s fine. I’ll settle for at least being able to say that I had fun, that I turned a corner.
*This article originally misstated that iRacing is available on Xbox.