Photo: Chris R. Owens/ASP, Inc.

Staying Out of Trouble Is Key for INDYCAR iRacing Challenge Drivers at Michigan

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Michigan International Speedway has created some buzz in the world of motorsports as stacked 31-car field will compete in Saturday’s Chevrolet 275, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

However, it’s far from the biggest angle as there’s one topic on the minds of not just the two-time Daytona 500 champion, but also NTT IndyCar Series regulars Conor Daly and Sage Karam, and that’s staying out of trouble.

It can be interpreted under two different scenarios. Those being experience navigating the intense oval that’ll see tight packs and no room for error, and the challenge of drivers staying composed so they don’t lose valuable assets.

First off, getting around the virtual two-mile circuit may be new to most of the grid as six drivers (Dale Jr., Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Tony Kanaan) have actually raced the real-life circuit with Dale Jr. winning in both June 2008 and 2012 races in the NASCAR Cup Series, and Kanaan also winning twice in 1999 and 2007, the last INDYCAR visit to date.

Aside from the six drivers, it’s going to be a whole new world for most of the 25 other drivers as they’ve either ran at Auto Club Speedway (last run in 2015), such as Sebastien Bourdais and Will Power, or never raced at either two-mile ovals before like virtual Barber Motorsports Park winner Scott McLaughlin and 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi.

The drivers spent Thursday afternoon trying to get the handle of a current Indy car running in tight packs. One of the clear takeaways is not causing trouble, such as massive crashes that’s been the biggest fear of racing real-life ovals over the past decade.

Something Dale Jr. picked up right away aside from understanding how drafting is similar to his world as stock cars tend to go two and three-wide throughout a race at Daytona and Talladega. Meanwhile, Indy car competition on an oval like Michigan and Fontana tends to stay three-wide a lot more.

“I just hope that I can stay out of trouble, and that’s going to be the main thing early,” said Dale Jr. There’s two kind of trains of thought there, that you can go real hard and try to keep yourself toward the front if you can because there’ll hopefully not be a lot of trouble up there, or if you’re not able to do that, you’ve got to hope that you don’t get caught up in anything going on in the middle or back of the back which is definitely probably going to have some action.

“That’s what iRacing is all about, just trying to know when to stay out of trouble and then when to push. The tires are going to fall off a little bit. The car gets real, real tight in some circumstances that’s real challenging for everybody in the pack, and just knowing how to keep yourself out of trouble is the main thing.”

Karam, who was an INDYCAR rookie when the series last ran at Fontana in 2015, said that the grid will approach this race a lot better come race day as they’ll have another practice race later today.

“I think once it comes race time, I think it’ll be a bit better. I think the guys will then know that the race is on the line and stuff like that. It’s just kind of the same thing that’s happened the last couple events,” said Karam. “I think when we’re doing these practice runs and stuff, we just kind of go out there, have a little bit more fun, and then when the race comes we turn it down 5 percent or whatever we need to to get through it all. But no, it’ll be cool.”

As for Daly, who will run the oval races for Carlin except the 104th Indianapolis 500 in August where he’ll run a third Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, he was rather impressed how the drivers handled themselves during Thursday’s session.

“It’s been a lot of fun, honestly. Like the racing there, the track being so wide, so many different lanes you can use, and just yesterday the practice race, honestly I was really impressed with all of us,” said Daly.

“I thought it was going to be a lot more chaotic than it was, and the racing is crazy. Like it’s very close. There was a lot of overtaking, but there was also — it thinned out a little bit at times. Pitting for tires was super important. And you know, I don’t know, I thought it was a lot of fun.”

The other topic involving trouble avoidance pertains a driver having reputable image. It’s become  vital after the wake from eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series driver Bubba Wallace rage quitting after multiple incidents in last Sunday’s Food City Showdown at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.

Wallace’s primary sponsor Blu-Emu cut ties with the polarizing driver, creating such an uproar that stirring the pot under any circumstances in sim racing isn’t condoned.

Both Daly and Karam are aware that while streaming on Twitch and competing on iRacing allow them to show their true selves, there’s still that vibe of impressing the viewers and sponsors which could lead to opportunities once the real-life INDYCAR season commences.

As a driver who once lost a sponsor a day before the race, Daly knows that the emotions can run high. Through the madness, entertaining the fans can’t be lost, especially during the COVID-19 health crisis that’s caused races around the world either getting canceled or postponed.

“It’s not like we’re getting on the internet and going into like crazy mode,” said Daly. “Yes, we’re getting emotional and we’re shouting at people sometimes, but only Will Power is the only one really insulting people, so I don’t really know what else is going on. We’re just all kind of having a great time.

“But it’s just one of those things where, yes, is it a business? Absolutely.

“Like we’re still — we are still wearing our sponsors, we’re still — we can’t necessarily go out there and go super crazy. But yeah, you are going to get more emotional drivers or let’s say emotionally reactive drivers on the internet when you don’t — like certainly Alex Rossi and Colton Herta in my discord, you can’t see their faces. They don’t know they’re on camera or being recorded or whatever, so it’s harder to kind of police yourself in that sense.”

Despite being impressed how the drivers conducted themselves Thursday, Daly admits that he wants to have fun that when things get serious, he’ll get upset with drivers like Herta without having an explanation as to why it led to their fallout.

“I think in the end, if you don’t understand that, again, this is — we are trying to entertain people,
like this isn’t something that — I don’t think anyone is going to get a job in a real race car after the iRacing INDYCAR Challenge, and I don’t think for sure anyone is going to lose their job because of what they do on the iRacing INDYCAR Challenge.

“I’m guilty — like I said literally yesterday in the practice race, I’m trying to have a great time, I’m having fun. I got so angry that I got wrecked on the last lap. I was curious. I left the discord, I haven’t talked to Colton in 24 hours, I’ve been so mad at him, and honestly, I don’t know why. Like I shouldn’t be angry. But it was fun because you’re racing for the lead and we are competitors. We want to win this stuff.

“You’ve got to just compartmentalize a few different emotions when the camera is rolling, and then yeah, hopefully come out the other side still with your job and all your sponsors.”

For Karam, who’s been using iRacing since its beta days in 2007, he’s had old and new sponsorships reach out to him since winning the inaugural series event at virtual Watkins Glen two weeks ago.

That being said, he only sees seat time and improvement on a driver’s craft as the biggest takeaway. Not getting an instant big break on a top-level INDYCAR ride overnight like NASCAR has seen with William Byron and Denny Hamlin.

“I don’t agree with the fact that I think it can help you get in a ride because it can only help you running well and running up front,” said Karam. “I’ve already gotten calls from sponsors that have been past sponsors of mine, new sponsors that are wanting to get on board with this and are already talking to the team about what’s after this and how do we get on the real car and stuff because they’ve seen how exciting this is.”

While Karam sees things differently, he does agree with Daly that running in the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge won’t hurt a driver’s career to where they’ll lose their real-life ride, but embraces that the world of motorsports have grown to accept it as part of its culture.

“It’s just for a fun thing. But it’s been really cool to see how the racing world has embraced
it, and like I said, it’s really cool to see how it’s growing,” Karam added. “That’s why I’m so into it because I’m not a full time race car driver right now, I’m part time in the real thing, so it keeps me busy, and it’s something fun to — it’s something fun, but I also take it serious just because now it is starting to become — you can kind of make a living off of it now. I’m trying to get to that level, and it’s been a challenge, but it’s been fun.”

Part of the fun for Dale Jr. is just “fan boying” because he’ll get to compete with racing’s most daring personalities, something he finds real value.

“They’re even more diverse than what we have in NASCAR because they’re from all over the world,” said Dale Jr. “I think that that’s the real value in the series is the drivers and their personalities and who they are, and so I’m fan boying myself just being out there hearing them talk, hearing them interact with each other, getting to know them better.

“I’ve got a few friends in the series but certainly want to know the other guys and get to know the rest of them really well, so this is such a great opportunity for me to do that, and I think the fans are really going to appreciate getting the opportunity to see them on the racetrack, on the virtual racetrack throughout this break, to get to know them even more.”

Live coverage of Round 3 of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge begins at 2:30 pm EST on NBCSN.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.