Opinion: It\u2019s Been Real, iRacing, But It\u2019s Time For The Real Thing

The six rounds of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge is officially over and with it, the hope of returning to actual racing is potentially just around the corner.

In reality, this was never supposed to happen.

We were supposed to kick off the season in March in St. Petersburg, run through Barber Motorsports Park, the iconic streets of Long Beach and Circuit of The Americas. I mean, hell, it’s May, which means everyone should have been eagerly awaiting the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.

Obviously, COVID-19 had other plans and everyone around the world has had to adjust accordingly.

And that’s exactly what happened as IndyCar, NBC Sports and iRacing came together to deliver some semblance of normalcy during a time when we needed it most.

The unique combination of tracks included current circuits on the IndyCar calendar, but included some form the past with virtual trips to Watkins Glen International and the oval at Twin Ring Motegi. It also brought some of the most unique crossovers with the likes of Formula 1’s Lando Norris, along with NASCAR superstars Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even former F1 and NASCAR driver-turned-rally standout Scott Speed joined in the fun.

However, it was reigning two-time Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin stealing the show with two victories, including the wild finale on Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Drivers allowed us into their homes with Twitch streams, which highlighted the experience with comedic relief and epic trash talk that makes everyone wish — to a certain degree — drivers could do the same in a real race with in-car audio.

This was never meant to be a permanent platform as a replacement for the real thing, but it did help lessen the pain of waiting. These drivers put in countless hours during the week, to fulfill their competitive beating hearts with something to beat their rivals, but also, to give you the best show possible.

There were some nice stories along the way, including Sage Karam winning the first race at Watkins Glen, and even the fuel mileage run to glory that saw Earnhardt Jr. score a podium in his one-off IndyCar iRacing debut at Michigan International Speedway.

But, perhaps Saturday’s race at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought everything full circle. A 33-car field entered our homes with pace, chaos and fury on their minds and reminded us all that while iRacing is a nice simulation tool, it’s still just a game.

Per usual with each one of the six races, Will Power was quick, but was thrown ill-timed luck in the latter stages. With less than 20 laps to go, it was Graham Rahal battling Simon Pagenaud and Norris in a three-wide battle for the lead, but the trio came together with Norris somehow able to continue on and, moments later, led a Mclaren 1-2-3.

Here is the rundown of the next few … events:

Pagenaud slowed and found Norris in what appeared to be a bit of payback, which took him out of contention for victory. On the final lap, Marcus Ericsson pushed by Patricio O’Ward in Turn 3, but the two tangled as O’Ward attempted to fight back the spot. This put series rookie Oliver Askew in the lead with Santino Ferrucci making a last-gasp run in a drag race to the finish line. However, Ferrucci clipped the right rear of Askew and the two hit the outside wall, which opened the door for McLaughlin to take the win, followed by Conor Daly, with Ferrucci sliding to the third and final spot on the podium.

Obviously, this product could bruise egos among drivers and their respective fan bases, which could be the next instalment for sensitivity training on Twitter. In reality, the victims of the aforementioned crashes are likely annoyed because their competitive spirit drives them to want to win. Always.

The consensus throughout in post-race conversations, though, is the understanding there is always another chance because it’s no more than a video game meant for the purity of entertainment.

And that it did.

There is no doubting that iRacing isn’t for everyone, but it’s something for someone. This was another opportunity to stay relevant in a world without sports and hopefully, maybe even get the attention of a kid of two along the way that suddenly has fallen in love with Indy car racing because of it.

If by some chance it did get the attention of a younger audience, one that is eager to now see the real thing on track, then I’d say everyone involved did their jobs and helped grow the sport for the better.

It’s been a unique journey to this point and am thankful we had something to hold on to, but now, I, for one, am ready for the real thing.

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