BY TAYLOR GOINS
CHICAGO — As you look back on NASCAR’s first trip to the Chicago Street Course, remember how the course was born in the virtual world.
The Chicago Street Course was designed through a partnership between iRacing and NASCAR. This was the first time the sanctioning body designed a Cup Series track from scratch using a simulation partner.
To do this, iRacing laser-scanned the actual streets of Chicago in 2020. Then, they tested different configurations with NASCAR before releasing it in 2021.
iRacing’s relationship with NASCAR was crucial in making the event a reality. This endeavor is a testament to NASCAR’s faith in iRacing as a legitimate tool in bridging the gap between simulation and the real world.
While you may know NASCAR and iRacing made the Chicago Street Course a reality, this isn’t their first foray together.
NASCAR was crucial for iRacing’s growth from a niche racing platform to what has become a world-class platform.
In its infancy, Dave Kaemmer and John Henry launched iRacing in September 2004. Kaemmer and Henry worked together at Papyrus Design Group and created titles such as the now-cult-favorite NASCAR Racing: 2003 Season.
They wanted to create an authentic simulation experience while straying away from the “arcade” vibe many racing games promoted. That meant serving a smaller, yet more fervently loyal, fanbase.
To grow this small base, iRacing and NASCAR first formally joined forces in 2009 with a groundbreaking partnership agreement. The main component was iRacing would host officially-sanctioned online NASCAR racing series.
The announcement touted, “The NASCAR-sanctioned series will offer fans the opportunity to compete under the same organizational umbrella as the stars they watch compete each weekend, and sometimes to compete head-to-head with them in the virtual world.”
This vision turned into reality on February 9, 2010 at virtual Daytona. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the first race of the series, now known as the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.
One aim for NASCAR and iRacing was to give fans and hardcore gamers a way to reach a top eSport series. Another goal was to grow NASCAR and iRacing among casual fans. They wanted to grow fans who might not have the time or talent needed to reach the top.
iRacing and NASCAR gave fans of all abilities the chance to enjoy NASCAR-sanctioned online racing and an authentic simulation experience. This unique accessibility was touted in a 2010 release on iRacing.com:
“While entry for the NASCAR iRacing Drivers World Championship is limited to the top 50 drivers, iRacing will also host five NASCAR amateur series open to all NASCAR fans through membership in the iRacing.com online service…The opportunity for NASCAR fans to have extremely affordable but highly meaningful racing careers of their own will become a reality with the launch of these NASCAR-sanctioned amateur online racing series organized and hosted by iRacing.com…Featuring four 12-week seasons each calendar year, these series feature modifieds, late models, NASCAR [Craftsman] Series trucks, NASCAR [Xfinity] and NASCAR Cup Series cars.”
iRacing has seen tremendous growth in its partnership with NASCAR since then, but the core tenants remain. By participating in one of the 11 NASCAR-sanctioned amateur series, anyone with a subscription can gain points and advance through the ladder. They can reach the Coca-Cola Series or just enjoy a more casual yet immersive experience without the “grind.”
Few knew it then but this marked the beginning of revolutionary growth. A decade afterward, iRacing saw gains but the biggest boost came in 2020 when the world shut down.
iRacing came to the rescue by teaming with NASCAR to create the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series. This series broadcast nationally in place of in-person races with a full field of NASCAR drivers racing on Cup Series tracks.
Hall of Famers, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, joined the fun. Even Keelan Harvick, Kevin Harvick’s son, made his virtual debut as well.
The series was a smash hit and it gave race fans a needed piece of normalcy. This put iRacing in its biggest national spotlight yet.
iRacing and NASCAR capitalized on this as races continued in 2021 even after in-person racing resumed. Furthermore, the positive buzz grew when the two parties reached an official sponsorship deal that year.
Most importantly, iRacing has put meaning behind that title. NASCAR worked closely with them in track design and reconfiguration projects.
The Pro Invitational Series saw NASCAR race at a virtual recreation of North Wilkesboro Speedway. NASCAR legend and iRacing Executive Director Dale Earnhardt Jr. spearheaded this project.
This virtual race at North Wilkesboro gave momentum to restoring the track, mostly dormant since its final Cup Series race in 1996. Then, with plenty of help, NASCAR finally returned to the venue for the All Star Race this May.
iRacing also helped create and test the new configuration for Atlanta Motor Speedway before it was implemented. They’re also currently working on a short-track reconfiguration for Auto Club Speedway in California.
With the Chicago Street Course being the first track iRacing helped create from scratch, it’s clear NASCAR finds value in testing design ideas in a simulated environment before transferring them to the real world. One can safely assume there will be new projects in the future to develop in the same way.
iRacing has also gained respect among racers as training for real-world racing. Recently, iRacers who have started on the sim and then transitioned to real-life have had success.
Most notably, William Byron. The current Hendrick Motorsports star, who leads the Cup Series with three wins this season, began his career on iRacing before racing in-person.
Other notable iRacers-turned-NASCAR national series racers are Kaden Honeycutt and Parker Retzlaff.
Honeycutt and Retzlaff both competed in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Now, they’re turning heads in the Xfinity and Truck Series.
When comparing iRacing to the actual manufacturer simulators that teams use, Alex Bowman was complimentary.
“I think iRacing does a really good job, sometimes it feels more real than the team simulators. The team sims are more geared to setups and getting the car spot on. They’re kind of going for two different things,” Bowman said.
Cup and Xfinity driver Ryan Ellis was too but noted there are limits.
“iRacing is a great tool for teams and drivers to acclimate themselves – especially if they’ve never been to a track before. I’ve found that it can really help me feel comfortable getting used to tracks with braking points, turn in points, and visual sightlines. When stacked up against real racing, I don’t think anything can ever compare to real racing with how immersive it is. The heat, the feel of the seat, the true consequences of racing are all things that you cannot simulate – at least yet,” Ellis said.
ARCA Menards Series driver Brayton Laster is also an iRacer and offered his perspective.
“iRacing is definitely a unique tool that I feel like a lot of drivers use today compared to the previous generation, just simply because the technology wasn’t available. It’s a top of the line simulator and I feel like is one reason I’ve been able to transition from dirt and figure 8 race to the more NASCAR-style tracks and racing. While it won’t be spot on every time, I feel like it’s a huge tool and assists when it comes to filling that void of experience whenever I go to a new track or a new car. I might use it to help learn visual queues, braking points, driving styles, etc,” Laster said.
Cup and Xfinity driver Landon Cassill said he used iRacing to help NASCAR prepare its Garage 56 entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“Since I had never been to Le Mans, or really knew much about the circuit, I used my own simulator and iRacing to prep for this test at virtual Le Mans in the same manner that I would prep for a real life race. I did test with the current Cup car at the time. The goal was to compare the NextGen speeds to the GTE speeds. So, I spent time in the GTE cars on iRacing to get the feel for their capabilities and lap times. There was about 8-10 hours in the sim for prep,” Cassill said.
The general consensus is that while no simulation can ever match the “seat of your pants” feel and danger of real-world racing, iRacing comes close. It mimics the feel of how cars drive and matching the inputs/skills required in real life.
While this can be useful in training drivers, it also lets fans get closer to their favorite sport than ever before.
To its credit, NASCAR recognized that value and has been leveraging the relationship ever since 2010.
While looking back on NASCAR’s debut on the streets of Chicago, remember how the idea came from pixels to pavement. Think of how NASCAR and iRacing’s relationship evolved to set the stage for that to take place too.
If you want to get in the action yourself, fire up iRacing.com and head to the virtual Chicago Street Course. It’s not the same as being behind the wheel of a 3,200 pound stock car. However, it’s closer to the real thing than you may think.