LEMASTERS: The Rise Of Sim Racing

Ron Lemasters Jr.

CONCORD, N.C. — The next world-beating driver used to be found at a local dirt track or pavement bullring, making his bones by winning feature after feature until someone noticed.

As the years passed, that began to change. You’d find them at the go-kart track or in a U.S. Legend Car or Bandolero … and they’d be too young to drink beer, vote or even go to the mall with friends unescorted.

Now, you just might find the next world-beating race car driver in his or her basement, strapped to a contraption that looks somewhat like I imagine Jack Hewitt’s garage might look like if he was tearing apart a sprint car or midget and putting it back together.

There’s a TV monitor instead of a rock screen, there’s no engine noise (because there’s no engine) and it’s all driven by electronics and servos, hooked to the internet.

Yep, sim racing is the coming thing, and naturally, race teams are looking at all comers when it comes to finding talent.
NASCAR and 704 Games have launched an esports league aimed at finding talent for their feeder systems. Many a purist is weeping, wailing and gnashing teeth at that, but it’s the smart thing to do for NASCAR and any other racing league that wants to connect with a spectrum of the population that could, in most cases, care less if they have a car or not.

You have all read me (I hope!) lamenting the fact that the car culture is slowly dying. Those of us who lusted after the latest speed parts, Cragars and so on are just like those old cowboys who could not conceive of a world where horses weren’t the vehicle of choice.

We were replaced by the tuner set, which went for flash and the most annoying exhaust note they could find in lieu of horsepower and good old-fashioned exhaust bellow. It didn’t matter if you were rocking a 396 with the latest Holley carbs and killer headers; you could have an old Honda with the right exhaust doohickey and you’d be the toast of the “Fast and Furious” gaggle that followed.

Nope. We’re fast approaching the day when the racers of tomorrow will be weeded out in esports tournaments and advance down the road that used to be paved with years of actual on-track success on real race tracks with real — sometimes tragic — circumstances attached.

This is the logical evolution of the continued refinement of the sport and given the environment in which we now live, it makes a lot of sense. Not only are they looking for talent, they’re looking for a way to engage with a younger crowd.

The sad fact is, and has been for quite a few years, that the fan base that made auto racing among the most popular sports in the world is graying. Should you mention A.J. Foyt or Richard Petty, the number of people who know that they are two of the most famous drivers on the planet gets smaller every year. Of course, both men are in their 80s, so that’s to be expected.

The whole esports rage ties in technology with it as well, and that could be a boon to racing as big as new blood in the cockpit is going to be. Companies in the sim world are doing a pretty good business these days. A full-on sim rig can cost what a good short-track car did not that many years ago, and when you adjust for inflation, it’s a pretty good deal. Replacing a mother board is by far cheaper than an engine deal with a reputable builder, so there’s that …

The differences between racing in the sim world and the real world are not as insurmountable as they once were, since the sport itself is, by and large, safer than it’s ever been. That’s a relative statement, but you get the gist. If you can do it in the sim, chances are you can do it on the track, but the most intriguing thing will be not hitting the reset button when you get caught up in the furball on the frontstretch at Fontana … alliteration aside.

Pay attention the next time you see an esports program on your television. You might be looking at a whole new way of doing things in the racing world.