iRacing Is Definitely Changing The Dirt Track Game

Growing up, I loved playing video games that involved racing. My first taste of digital gaming as a young child, started with Pole Position on the Atari 2600. From there, I felt like I hit the big leagues when I got my first Nintendo for Christmas, and along with it, the game Al Unser Jr. Racing. It wasn’t long before I conned my parents into buying me Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge.

While my friends preferred the action of shoot-‘em-up titles, I just wanted to play racing games. Maybe I was like a young Ricky Bobby, because I just wanted to go fast – terrible analogy I know, but hey, you get the idea.

I played these games for countless hours each week, and while I loved anything racing, I dreamed of one day finding a dirt-track game on the market. Apart from maybe Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road – which featured the ever-popular stadium trucks racing on dirt – there just wasn’t any dirt options.

However, in 2000 – during my sophomore year of college – Ratbag Games finally made my dream come true. The company released the computer game Dirt Track Racing. It featured Street Stocks and my beloved Dirt Late Models.

If not for the release of this game, I would’ve very likely made better grades that year of college. I spent countless hours with my trusty steering wheel and pedals playing that awesome game. It opened the door for the release of a succession of titles, including my all-time favorite World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars 2002, which I still occasionally play today.

While more titles continued to be released, many lacked realism and were very “arcade” in their gameplay. Over the next decade, dirt track racing in the video game market again faded into the background. There were a few custom-coded computer downloads released by private parties, but nothing that gained much traction.

In 2016, the proverbial game changed again, though. World-renowned, computer sim creators iRacing finally entered the dirt-track racing world. Founded in 2004, the company had long been regarded as the preeminent force in bringing big-time sim racing to computers around the world.

Most well-known for recreating legendary tracks and series from the pavement and rallycross world, iRacing was something that dirt enthusiasts had long hoped would come to our corner of the motorsports market. Unfounded rumors of iRacing expanding into the dirt-track world had circled for multiple years, but I don’t think anybody really believed it would ever actually happen.

On April 1, 2016, a press release was issued announcing iRacing’s venture into dirt-track racing. Despite the official-ness of the announcement, many naysayers wrote it off as nothing more than an April Fool’s Joke. However, this was no joke. It was indeed the real thing.

“We are starting a new chapter in our long history and expanding into a new branch of motorsport – dirt,” said iRacing.com’s Executive Vice President and Executive Producer Steve Myers. “With the evolution of our new surface model, the next natural step was to develop a dirt surface model and dirt race cars. Speaking for everyone at iRacing, I’m really excited about this project, and I’m very optimistic that we’ll be launching it this year.”

Since that fateful date, iRacing has taken the dirt-track world by storm. From the comfort of their computer chairs, gearheads can now race Sprint Cars, Late Models, Modifieds, Midgets, and more at legendary tracks from across North America.

Knoxville Raceway, Eldora Speedway, Williams Grove Speedway, Volusia Speedway Park, and The Dirt Track at Charlotte are just some of the famed ovals where you can test your skills.

While I once loved spending every waking hour playing video games, I just don’t have much free time anymore. As a result, until just a few weeks ago, my only exposure to iRacing were the screenshots and preview videos that I saw on social media. It looked cool, but I don’t know if I really appreciated just how cool it truly was. That all changed in an instant with an announcing request from a popular league.

As iRacing has caught fire in the dirt-track world, multiple online leagues have been created. Pretty much anytime of the day you can find an online race featuring your division of choice.

One such league – Team VLR – contacted me a month or so ago about possibly announcing a couple of their online endeavors. Howard Weaver – who does promotions for the league – reached out to me and said that they had their biggest ever race scheduled, and they wanted to add a real-world announcer into the fold.

I’ll be 110-percent honest. I wasn’t sure what to think when the proposition came my way. Over the past decade, I’ve announced hundreds of racing events across North America. I’ve also worked as on-air personality for events on CBS Sports and MAV TV. It’s something I’m very lucky to get to do on a regular basis.

However, never in a million years did I ever dream that I might one day announce a video game. At first, I was definitely reluctant. Then, I ultimately thought to myself, “Hey, what the hell. You love trying new and different stuff, so give it a shot.”

Weaver told me in advance, “You’re going to be blown away by this, because the realism is through the roof, and we have some really, really good drivers that take part in these races.” I’m not going to say that I doubted him, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit apprehensive to buy into the concept. As it would turn out, he would be spot on.

So with me booked to announce the 11th annual X.Celerated Spring Fling on April 5, I requested to announce a warm-up event the week prior to get a feel for things. I didn’t want to look like a total idiot at the big event.

During my warm-up event, I quickly found my groove, but even more quickly I realized how freaking cool the dirt racing expansion of iRacing truly is.

The graphics are through the roof. The behavior of the cars is shockingly real. The track’s appearances and characteristics are mind-bogglingly accurate. And last, but definitely not least, the competition level is spectacular. These drivers not only know how to drive, but they also know how to set up their cars.

I had a blast, and couldn’t wait for the following week’s big show to arrive. My anticipation would be very-well rewarded.

With roughly $4,000 in prize money on the line and nearly 100 racers entered, the 11th annual X.Celerated Spring Fling came to life on April 5. Not only were there virtual racers entered, but there were also some real-world ringers like Ricky Thornton Jr. and Mike McKinney in action.

These guys contested a complete show of qualifying heat races, consolation events, preliminary features, and ultimately, the 100-lap, $1,000-to-win finale.

While I worked hand-in-hand on the play-by-play with virtual-racing announcing veteran Randy Chenowth, literally thousands of people from around the world watched along on Facebook Live and YouTube.

And let’s talk viewing numbers. During the course of the broadcast, there were times when over 2,000 people were viewing at once. One week later, the replay has received over 27,000 views. Never in a million years would I have dreamed there would be such a following. Most real-world tracks would kill to have these kind of numbers for their special events.

When the checkered flag dropped, it was New Hampshire resident, Tyler Hudson, who emerged victorious over the star-studded field.

I took away several things from that night. Most notably is that iRacing is the real deal. It gives anyone and everyone the chance to experience what it’s like to race different types of racecars at famous dirt tracks. Sure, nothing can fully replace actually being in the driver’s seat, but this is pretty damn close.

Next, I learned that these top-tier competitors in iRacing are true wheelmen. They tirelessly practice their driving skills, they do hours-and-hours of testing, and they are there to win. It’s quite an entertaining show to watch.

Last but not least, I learned that dirt-track racing is evolving. Whether you are a racer or a fan, you can now get a racing fix online, anytime you want. I think these events will start to receive more media attention, as well as more support from sponsors. It’s only a matter of time.

As a professional broadcaster, I find it especially intriguing because I can make money announcing races from the comfort of my home. There’s no rainouts. There’s no overhead. There’s no long drives home. Throw it all together, and iRacing’s dirt-track expansion is definitely changing the game.

About the author

Ben Shelton

Ben got his start at historic Riverside International Speedway. His accomplished motorsports media career includes journalist, race announcer, and on-air personality.
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