At Sonoma this past weekend, a thinnish, balding guy sat at a table with Justin Wilson, Terry Angstadt, and Dallara's Andrea Toso and awkwardly introduced the IndyCar media to the next generation of "digital Indy."
I say "awkwardly" because Dave Kaemmer, CEO and lead programmer of iRacing.com, is an engineer and, like many (but not all) engineers his first and best skill is not the spoken word. Not to mention that facing a roomful of media is daunting even for practiced veterans.
What Kaemmer does best is program racing simulations. He is so good at this, in fact, that you can excuse the guy for saying, "Uh," a few more times than might otherwise be required.
Sitting in the Infineon Raceway media center, Kaemmer was twenty years removed from his first attempt to create a virtual Indy 500 experience. "Indy 500: The Simulation" - a brief promo roll of which Kaemmer played during the Sonoma press conference to chuckles and outright laughter - looks ridiculous today. Back in 1989, however, it was a staggering, jaw-dropping, incredible feat of PC simulation skill - particularly considering that this was the industry standard up until that point.
"Indy 500: The Simulation" gave gamers on the archaic, stone-aged PCs of the time the chance to not just drive virtual IndyCars, but run a four-lap qualifying session and then tackle the entire 500-mile race distance if they so chose. The number of people who could actually do this when the game was first released was rather small considering that nearly everyone had to drive the car using a keyboard.
Regardless, "Indy 500: The Simulation" sold like hotcakes, eventually allowing Kaemmer to turn his tiny Papyrus Design Group into the industry leader in racing simulation for the next decade and a half. More importantly, however, it put the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar racing into the hands of consumers more directly than anything ever had before. For the first time in history, fans could "drive" at the fabled Brickyard and see the sport from the cockpit instead of a bleacher.
Is it simply coincidence that after "Indy 500: The Simulation" and its successors, "IndyCar Racing" and "IndyCar Racing 2" were released that IndyCar racing experienced one of the biggest booms in its history? Perhaps. But I choose to believe otherwise. I'm in the camp that believes that accurate games and simulations are invaluable tools to drive interest into the sports they simulate. A good hockey or baseball manager game, for instance, can lead a casual fan to discover the intricacies of a collective bargaining agreement, the whys and wherefores of free agency and player contracts, and the joys of salary cap management; and while that may sound boring to some, to others such an experience adds depth and intricacy to sports that may seem on the surface to be superficial and dull.
Considering that racing - particularly oval racing - is often called "superficial and dull" ("They just go around in circles!"), motorsports certainly benefits from racing simulations in that people who drive them almost invariably say afterwards, "Wow... I didn't know it was that difficult!"
Kaemmer's iRacing deal with the IRL is not the first to come down the pike - several Indy racing games have been released in the past few years - but it certainly is the most detailed and realistic. In fact, according to actual race drivers who have participated in the service as testers, developers, and even subscribers, iRacing's laser-scanned cars and tracks and meticulous physics modeling is so accurate that they can actually tweak the way they drive in the simulation and then see positive results in the real world.
But beyond their utility as a training tool for drivers, the virtual IndyCar and Indy Pro Series simulations at iRacing could do what their Kaemmer-built ancestors did back in the late '80s and early '90s - increase public interest in the IRL and Indy. And let's not mince words - this is a series that needs a shot in the arm. The moribund TV ratings haven't gotten much better after the unification and the public's discretionary income is being used less and less to see races in person. Giving people the chance to experience the excitement of Indy directly, first-hand, might help spur flagging interest in open-wheel racing.
At any rate, it's a better idea than hiring Gene Simmons. Just saying.
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