INDIANAPOLIS — Here’s yet another story about iRacing. Wait, don’t run away! Hang with me for a minute or two.
Sure, you’re sick to death of all the attention virtual racing has garnered in recent months and as a die-hard traditional race fan the thought of a video game taking attention away from real racing makes you tremble with aggravation.
I get all that. To tell you the truth, I’ve thought those same things myself.
But after a few months of consideration, the concept of a growing opportunity has started to penetrate this thick skull of mine.
The numbers are too strong to ignore; iRacing surpassed 175,000 active members in May. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic — and the subsequent stay-at-home orders in various states — have contributed to the growth of iRacing, but it’s worth noting that their active membership was at 115,000 even before the virus appeared.
At any given moment between 8,000 and 15,000 people are racing online. That’s 24/7/365. Picture the equivalent of an overflow grandstand at a typical short track, racing online at this very moment.
Esports is not a small deal anymore.
Certainly, some of those 175,000 members are already race fans. But my intuition tells me that a significant number are not.
So how do we turn some of those iRacing members into race fans? How do we invite them to join us at our local track? How do we get that 20-something iRacing member to understand that it’s not farfetched to consider getting an entry-level race car and having a go at the real thing?
Like all sports, racing people often carry the mistaken notion that everybody knows about what we do. Non-believers, we assume, never buy a ticket or watch on TV because they aren’t interested.
But that’s not exactly right, and every so often we’re reminded of that.
A few weeks ago, some of my MAVTV colleagues were taping a cooking show at a banquet facility. As they worked, a couple of guys from a service firm arrived to wash the facility’s windows. A 20-something young man, curious about the cameras, wandered over to check it out.
“MAVTV!” he said when they told him what was up. “Hey, I watch racing on MAVTV.”
So you’re a race fan, they asked him.
“Well, I’ve never actually been to a race,” he explained. “But a friend of mine told me about dirt late models and I watched a couple of their races on TV. It was cool.”
The kid explained that his buddy was taking him to the track to see a race in person later this summer, and he was excited.
“I didn’t know there was racing like that,” he said.
For every marketing, media and public relations person in our sport — myself included — this kid is yet another wake-up call. Despite all we’ve done to promote and publicize auto racing in America, it is abundantly clear we are not reaching everyone.
Back to those iRacing players. Instead of looking down our nose at people racing in a video game format, why don’t we make a concerted and specific effort to invite them to take a look at the real thing?
I don’t know much about video games, but I have a hunch that if you’re intrigued enough to spend all evening wrestling a steering wheel and racing with your friends, real race cars might hold at least some degree of fascination.
Obviously, we couldn’t reach everybody. But with 175,000 members (that’s across a wide array of racing types, it should be noted) that is a big pool of potential race fans and competitors.
At the very least we should give it a try.
Wouldn’t it be cool for a race track to rent some simulators and have an iRacing challenge on Saturday morning. The winner gets a trophy and the $10 entry fee covers two pit passes — not just a ticket, get them up close to the cars — for that night’s racing program. Take them around and introduce them to people and invite them back next week.
For more than 20 years, auto racing has searched for a way to reach younger people. We’ve lamented our aging demographic and voiced legitimate concerns about our future. We’ve wrung our hands at the complex challenge of reaching a young populace who didn’t grow up working on cars and doesn’t even want a driver’s license.
Yet, there they are, holding a plastic steering wheel and staring at the screen. Maybe some of those kids could be infused with the spirit such as that young window washer, excited about his first upcoming visit to the race track.
At the very least, it’s worth a try.