My First Month in iRacing: The Good, the Bad, and the Miatas

               Thanks to iRacing’s holiday discount, I was able to finally justify joining their service, which I’ve wanted to do for years. I’ve always loved racing games – the original NASCAR Heat games, NASCAR Thunder, Forza, Gran Turismo, you name it – so the thought of getting involved in such a realistic game with such an active community had always been really enticing.

               When I saw how steep of a discount they’d placed on their memberships I didn’t hesitate. I had just gotten a new gaming laptop that could handle it, and I was ready to go. All I needed was a steering wheel… Well, an extra $350 later and I had my hands on a very nice Logitech G923 wheel & pedal set. That was a good deal more than I wanted to spend, but I was NOT going to skimp and buy a junk wheel. I wanted the full experience, and so far, that wheel has been fantastic.

               So, I set everything up and jumped in! The first thing I tried to do was take a NASCAR Truck out at Charlotte – a track I’ve run hundreds upon hundreds of times in other games. I figured because I knew the place so well I could handle it, no problem. I went out on the track, got up to speed, dove into Turn Three…and immediately crashed. I mean almost instantly the back end just completely stepped out. I’d run, quite literally, thousands of laps at this track in other games, and suddenly I had no clue how to run it! The next handful of tries had similar results, though with a lot of off throttle time I was finally able to turn a couple laps before crashing violently. I was out of my depth, so I decided to swap out the truck for something more my speed – a Miata! That’s when I finally started to figure it out.

               I ran a number of practice sessions in the Miata, and took to it quicker than I thought I would. The Miatas are incredibly agreeable to drive, and short of just running straight off the track you truly have to go out of your way to wreck or spin one. It was a sharp contrast to the truck, I really felt comfortable. Again though, these were all just practice sessions.

               I was terrified to jump into a race session for two reasons. One was obvious – what if I was terrible? What if I completely blew the first corner and took out the whole field? What if I made absolutely no mistakes, but still finished dead last? I’d spent a good bit of money on this venture, what if I stunk, and stopped playing out of frustration after a week? I’m a notorious rage-quitter, so that wouldn’t be unheard of. But almost worse was this: what if I was really good? Like outrageously, incredibly, class of the field good. What if I, a 27-year old grad student, who had childhood dreams of being a racecar driver but never got to give racing a shot, found that I had completely missed my calling? Both were daunting thoughts – but I figured neither would be true, and finally pressed on.

               After about a week of practice, I jumped into a rookie MX-5 Cup race and tried my luck. I had watched people stream iRacing in the past, so I knew the basics – short practice, qualifying, then the race. I also knew the basics of iRacing’s safety rating system, an automated way to track on track incidents, and assess a “score” to each driver for how clean of a racer they are.

               My whole goal in my first race was to just run clean, and finish mid-pack. For the first half of the race, I did just that. I qualified 8th in a field of 19, and was running about 10th with three to go…when I completely biffed it for no reason. Slid off the track, overcorrected, and into the wall I went. I still finished the race, but only managed to come home 15th a lap down, with 6 incidents. Still, I kept it clean for the most part, and didn’t take anyone else out. My next race was similar – started 5th, got taken out about halfway through, and finished 15th. Thankfully undeterred, I finally managed to put a clean run together in my third race, and came home 4th! It was fun introduction to the game, and I felt confident enough to keep trying.

Last lap pass for a top-5

               My next couple weeks were a mixed bag. I tried my hand at street stocks at Charlotte, where I rage quit for the only time that I’ve had the game. I put together a great qualifying run and started 3rd. The race starts, I’m full of confidence, I get to turn three…and completely lose it, by myself, in front of the entire field. Almost nobody outside of the top-5 got through it. Nobody to blame but myself, and I quit instantly, even though I knew I shouldn’t have – I just felt absolutely horrible. Thankfully, I DID get redemption later that day with a clean 4th place run there – a desperately needed morale boost that actually started a string of six-straight top-5’s, including my first podium in Miatas. I was finally figuring it out! But then the doldrums hit…

Getting taken out by a lapped car on the final lap. He was immediately disconnected for reaching the incident limit following this….

               Following that podium, I was only able to score a top-5 in six my next 26 races, and none of those were even podiums. Granted I was trying my hand at a lot of new cars and tracks, but still – I’d just seemingly lost it. It’s not even like I was running that badly (or at least it didn’t feel like it), it just seemed to be one of two things every race: either everyone else was just leagues better than me, or some clown would take me out for no reason. I had become a very clean, consistent driver by this point. Certainly not the fastest, but I pretty much never wrecked on my own. The only time I was wrecking was when someone took me out, but it seemed to happen all the time!

               Taking bad finish after bad finish started to wear on me – I was losing confidence and interest in lockstep every time I turned the game on. I had the idea to write this article for a while, but didn’t want to write it while I had such a negative mindset towards the game… but then, the Rookie Legends Series went to Oxford Plains Speedway.

               I ran a few practice laps at the track, and it just came naturally to me. I was incredibly comfortable, and could push the car as hard as I wanted – so I jumped into a session. I qualified second, and ran a great first few laps keeping pace with the leader. On about lap 10 I almost lost it completely by myself by hopping a curb, but made a great save to hold onto it, and caught back up with the leader. I made the pass for the lead with 21 to go, and absolutely set sail on the field. Save for a couple of lapped cars that wanted to try blocking me, I was able to cruise without any drama to my first career win! I went to the front stretch, did a burnout, took some screenshots, and all of the frustration of the few weeks prior had been washed away.

Victory burnouts following my first career win at Oxford Plains Speedway!

               Since that win, things have gone back to being something of a mixed bag – six top-5’s in my last 12 races. I’ve not managed to pick up another win, but that one completely refreshed my mindset on the game, and I’ve been having an absolute blast with it.

               All told, I think both of the two fears I mentioned earlier have been absolved. I am not completely horrible at iRacing. I can hold my own, run clean races, and occasionally contend for good finishes. But one thing has been made abundantly clear – I did NOT miss my calling of being a professional racecar driver. Just about every race seems to be populated with people who are just…better than me. Run faster lines, put down more consistent laps, can push harder than me, you name it. I am getting better all the time though, so who knows, maybe I’ll be able to give them a run for their money soon enough – but I don’t think I’m in the market for a real life Legends car of my own.

               At the end of the day, I’ve come to this realization: while I’m certainly not terrible, I am painfully average at iRacing. Thankfully though, as a huge motorsports fan, that is more than good enough for me to find immense joy in this game, and I’m incredibly glad I decided to sign up.

My stats to date are as follows:

Starts: 24
Top 5: 11
Avg finish: 8
Safety Rating: 3.50 (C-Class)

Starts: 23
Top 5: 9
Avg finish: 8
Safety Rating: 3.13 (D-Class)

Starts: 2
Top 5: 2
Avg finish: 5
Safety Rating: 2.69 (Rookie Class)

I’ve not run any yet – I tried practicing for one, and it was an abject failure.

I’ve put together a few pieces of advice to new iRacers, from a fellow new iRacer:

Get a solid wheel/pedal set, and brace the pedals against something: When I first started, I didn’t have my desk up against a wall. Even though the pedals claimed that they would not slide around on carpet…that is not true under heavy braking. My pedals moved around all over the place and made driving very difficult. I moved my desk up against a wall, pressed the pedals up against it, and all the problems were fixed. Either do the same, or find some way to prevent them from sliding.

Get a comfortable chair that doesn’t slide around: I tried using an office chair at first, and it was a disaster. Every time I got hard on the brakes I would slide backwards! I eventually went to Goodwill and got a nice, comfortable, wheel-less chair for $5 which has treated me great.

– Read the sporting code: Don’t just skip it, look through the big points – the code of conduct, how safety rating and iRating are calculated, and so on.

Don’t jump right into races on a track you’ve never run: On top of setting yourself up for a bad run, it’s wildly disrespectful to your competitors to jump right onto a track you know nothing about. Even though it’s “just a video game” iRacing is for serious sim racers who value competition. Getting cleaned out in Turn One by somebody who doesn’t know the track is upsetting.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: See point #2 for why. No reason to set yourself up for failure.

Don’t be embarrassed to have the racing line on: If I didn’t run with it on at road courses my safety rating would be a disaster. You really need to know the track before you turn it off. The feature is in the game for a reason – use it, until you absolutely don’t have to.

Focus on running clean before you focus on running well: It is important to learn how to race around people without cleaning them out, or getting cleaned out yourself. Sometimes you just need to back out of a battle and focus on hitting your marks and not hurting your safety rating. Public practice sessions can be a big help with getting better at this.

Finish the races, even if you wreck: You never know what could happen. If you wreck and lose a lap on pit road, that’s of course going to put you towards the back, but somebody ahead of you could always wreck to, and you can get some of those spots back. Equally important though is that safety rating is calculated on a per-turn basis – so if you leave the race early after a wreck, the penalty to your safety rating is going to be magnified.

NEVER intentionally wreck someone, even if they wrecked you: On top of just being bad form, iRacing has a protest system. If you wreck somebody on purpose, and they record it, they could protest the race, send in the clip, and you could be handed a suspension – so just be advised…but also keep that nugget of information in mind if you ever get intentionally wrecked yourself!

HAVE FUN: Even if you’re not the best, try to focus on the good, not the bad. At the end of the day, you’re playing what is effectively the most realistic racing simulator you can get. Enjoy it!

Published by Walker Skeeter

Walker is a 4th year climatology PhD candidate at the University of Delaware. Despite being a climate scientist, Walker has been a NASCAR fan for over 20 years! His favorite drivers are Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, and Alex Bowman in cup, and AJ Allmendinger, Tommy Joe Martins, and Ryan Vargas in Xfinity. Outside of racing, he enjoys talking about (and studying) the weather, watching Baltimore sports, and playing video games.

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