CAMERON MEYER of Pierce demonstrates his version of a race simulator. 

How would it feel to race side-by-side with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin?

During iRacing, that very well could happen, said Cameron Meyer, a dirt track racer from Pierce who began participating in the online sport several years ago and has continued his involvement on a more limited basis because of family obligations and the time required in running a business.

iRacing has become a featured sport recently, with televised races showing prominent NASCAR drivers competing from their own homes — sometimes wearing sweatsuits and slippers — while spectators watch in large numbers without going to the track.

iRacing began as a video game and then — with the help of Earnhardt — evolved into a sophisticated form of virtual racing, using technology to scan racetracks throughout the world to provide a more detailed, realistic experience that participants prefer to describe as “simulated racing.”

“I think the service went live back in the early 2000s when people could start subscribing,” Meyer said. “Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a beta-tester for iRacing back then. Junior and a bunch of his buddies all went out and got computers, and there would be eight to 10 of them all racing at his house. But it wasn’t as refined as it is today where, literally, you feel every bump on the track.”

However, Meyer explained that the virtual race experience — which is provided by various camera angles — is more than just simulated driving on the track itself. It also includes the surroundings, such as bleachers and scoreboards, and even the big screen called ‘Big Hoss’ on the back stretch at the racetrack in Texas showing replays during the race.

“When I raced heavily, I’d try to mimic the fast guys’ lines on a particular track, just like you would in real racing,” Meyer said. “I’d watch the overhead view and see how they turned into the corner; you can’t see where they’re on and off the throttle, but you can listen for it and watch their steering angles to find the groove.

“That’s what Hamlin, who won (the Homestead-Miami Speedway) race, said he did and was comparing notes with his actual crew chief after practice sessions to prepare for the race.”

Changing the car’s setup is a limited aspect of iRacing, which Meyer said he prefers, “because success is not setup dependent but driver dependent,” allowing racers to adjust only the front and rear brakes and decide whether to change two or four tires during race pit stops.

“The iRacing cars do have a fuel gauge in them, which gives you a rough idea of how much fuel is in the car and how many laps you can go,” Meyer said. “But it still depends on how hard you are on the throttle, whether you’re trying to save fuel, just like somebody in a real NASCAR race would.”

Tires are another factor.

“The tires really wear out at some tracks depending on the track surface, like Homestead, which is so gritty,” he said. “You actually have to decide how hard you want to drive the car dependent on the track, because it’s especially hard on the right front, which means you’ll lose speed or even blow a tire.”

Meyer, who drives an IMCA SportMod competitively on dirt tracks throughout the Midwest, said the primary difference between the two comes from “the feel” the driver is able to obtain during the race.

“In my modified, I race by the seat of my pants — I can feel what the car is doing,” Meyer said. “But in iRacing, you feel everything, every bump in the track, with the steering wheel. It’s noticeable when some NASCAR drivers struggle with that part of iRacing, because what separates them from others in their sport is what they feel in the driver’s seat.”

iRacing has become especially popular in the past few months with the NASCAR season, as well as other forms of racing, on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Drivers who used to be content to wait for the limited availability of special simulators or do their practicing on tracks are now turning toward opportunities that can be conducted at home.

“The manufacturers — Chevy, Ford and Toyota — have simulators that racing teams can get on, but each team is only allowed so much time on those,” Meyer said. “With iRacing, the advantage would be the equivalent of a simulator for guys who’ve never raced at some of these tracks to learn visual points, braking points. But now, it has also become something to do for entertainment — but to still be able to stay sharp as a racecar driver.”

There are numerous iRacing leagues, Meyer said, including a professional level and also lower “license” levels indicated as A, B, C and D — for anyone who has achieved the respective license through practice laps or competition.

“iRacing has its own pro league, with 40 drivers competing every week,” Meyer said. “Last year’s champion, Zack Novack — then 17 years old — won $40,000 with his first iRacing title.”

NASCAR driver William Byron actually got his start in racing through iRacing.

“After seeing it and deciding it was something he wanted to be involved in, he talked his dad into buying a Bandolero car to drive in iRacing, got noticed by how well he did and is now driving the No. 24 car (once Jeff Gordon’s car) in the Cup series,” he said. “It was a quick rise to fame for that kid, all because of iRacing.”

To be involved in iRacing involves a monthly subscription, along with the purchase of each car (typically $10) and each track ($15) — which are a one-time expense and can be used without limit. Various types of racing are available and include tracks like Daytona, Talladega and even famous tracks from the past, such as North Wilkseboro Speedway in North Carolina.

The primary cost of being involved in iRacing lies in the choice of technology to be used, which might range from a desk, chair and a laptop — along with the steering wheel, headset and foot pedals that connect to the computer setup — to a larger computer system or monitor and an actual seat that represents the setup of a certain type of racing feel, such as an Indy car.

“It’s bigger than everybody thinks it is, but somebody can get into iRacing for under $1,000,” Meyer said. “Numerous races are going on at any time of day, any day of the week, anywhere in the world. You simply sign up for the race you want to participate in, do some practice laps, run some qualifying laps to determine your starting position in the lineup, and then you race.”

“It’s escapism, like somebody who might play a video game like ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Fortnite,’ ” he said. “For a guy who wants to go racing for real but can’t afford the expense of buying a car, maintaining it and racing it, this is your next best option.”

The appeal of iRacing is obvious — a way to experience the sensations and thrill of racing, whatever, whenever, wherever you choose. You can race with or against people from all over the world who may become “friends,” all from the safety and convenience of your own home.

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