How do NASCAR drivers stay off the racetrack? Hours and hours of video games

“With training comes mastery.” That’s what you tell yourself when you throw snails across an old tire, with NFL dreams, or shoot pucks at the garage door and fantasize about raising the Lord Stanley Cup.

How can you be perfect, though, if what you need to practice is bending a 3,300-pound car to your liking? After all, there is no easy (or legal) way to climb a NASCAR Cup Series car and race with your friends around the neighborhood.

Well, it wasn’t there. But with the rise of simulation racing, this is changing — and fast.

As anyone who’s played with the latest PlayStation or Xbox can attest, video games are more realistic, more realistic, and more immersive than ever before. Today’s game consoles are so advanced that popular titles like Forza and Gran Turismo can accurately replicate the real car racing experience on real racetracks.

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If these console perks open the doors to sim racing for casual gamers, then PC-only offerings like iRacing and rFactor 2 go one step further.

“I found out about iRacing with a simple Google search,” Anthony Alfredo, entry driver for our 23rd Xfinity esports series, told ESPN. “I ended up getting one of the wheel and pedal sets from Logitech to play on my desk, and simply put, for a few hundred dollars, I was racing a sim.”

iRacing is the biggest name in the expanding world of sim racing. It is said to have 225,000 active subscribers, including drivers from nearly every major racing series in the world: NASCAR, Formula One, IndyCar and many others. Longtime McLaren driver Lando Norris was found loitering in iRacing lobbies, and 2021 champion Max Verstappen as well as 2005 and 2006 champion Fernando Alonso has been spotted racing as well.

Raja Karuth is another person who has a lot of experience with sim. The 20-year-old will compete in the ARCA Menards Series with Rev Racing in 2022, compete in the Camping World Truck Series events with Spire Motorsports and the Xfinity Series Limited schedule with Alpha Prime Racing.

He got here through iRacing.

“NASCAR is where I’ve wanted to race, and I’ve just wanted to race in real life since I was a little kid, so the only way to do that, I think, is through online racing,” Carruth told ESPN. “It was never really about racing online for that, that was never my goal in getting started in iRacing, but I knew it was a gateway to start racing.”

It is more than just a portal. iRacing is so realistic that the company has worked with NASCAR to develop new circuits like the quarter-mile track used at the LA Coliseum in February and the Chicago Road Course that will begin next July. Sim Racing has become an invaluable development tool – for drivers, teams and the sport as a whole.

The trend in motorsports around the world in the past two decades has been a steady decline in time-tested and practice sessions. This keeps costs low – in theory, at least – and ensures fans are treated to more on-track action with something at stake, whether that’s adding heat races or more elaborate qualifying sessions.

“I’m a NASCAR Cup Series driver, one of 40 in the world, and since I only ran half of the season in 2020 at Xfinity, I still haven’t been to a lot of those tracks,” Alfredo said. “I’m thinking of one of them, Sonoma, it’s a track on the road, and I took the green flag and I’ve never seen the place before. And that’s where the simulation has been the most useful I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen it play such a big role in my career.”

During our conversation, Caruth opened Virtual Racing School, an online tool that catalogs all of your iRacing moves and offers detailed telemetry (he says he often compares with real-world teammates for additional insights) and driver training, and begins to list how much time he’s spent In different different cars driving several different tracks in recent days.

“I drove an hour and a half last day at Watkins Glen … because we’re going there in two weeks,” Carruth said, “and I’ve spent an hour and a half in the last two days in Michigan, because that’s my next race at ARCA.”

Alfredo said that most NASCAR drivers will, on average, do about 10 hours of work in the simulator each week. Some, especially in large teams equipped with custom sim platforms developed by automakers such as Ford, Chevrolet, or Toyota, will spend more time behind the wheel of a virtual drive.

What NASCAR’s biggest teams can deliver is multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment, the result of years of research and development paid for by some of the world’s largest auto manufacturers. And while there is no doubt about the indescribable accuracy and versatility of these emulators, what they offer is in essence the same sensations that you will find in devices that cost tens of thousands of dollars in the homes of various and entry-level drivers. Wheel and pedal kits $300 are available at any electronics retailer.

And this is a streak, from video games to prime time, that you won’t find anywhere else in sports.

“I think I’m just coming from sim racing and becoming a real world driver, it’s great to say I made my first PC at the age of 12 and this was the first PC I started sim racing on. And from racing on my PC I went to compete in Daytona 500, just a few years later,” Alfredo said. “That’s pretty crazy, because you don’t hear about anyone playing Madden and then becoming the quarterback for the Super Bowl.”

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