The finish line for NASCAR’s first street race runs through November 2020, as a street-legal van equipped with a laser scanner makes its way through the streets of downtown Chicago at night.
NASCAR executive Ben Kennedy had been plotting the idea, but putting it on a course in the middle of a major American city presented several challenges: Which route would be safe and fun? Are the roads themselves up to the test? “It’s a daunting project,” said Tim Clark, NASCAR’s chief digital officer.
That’s where racing simulator iRacing comes in. Evolving from the company that produced video games such as NASCAR Racing 2003, iRacing was released in 2003. In 2010, it launched professional virtual racing using life-like graphics and physics engines. Over time, the platform worked with NASCAR to test changes to its tracks and cars and became more involved in real-world sports designs. NASCAR drivers have used iRacing as a training tool.
When NASCAR was shut down amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the sport turned to fantasy events, pitting top players like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon against each other.
“That partnership really came into its own in 2020,” Clarke said. “It forced us to look at iRacing a little differently… and brought a lot of conversations that were in the background to the forefront.”
On Sunday night, the police closed the streets of Chicago so that two racing officers could drive (at very low speed) and take the exact parameters of the road and its surroundings – sidewalks, trees, light poles, statues, buildings and other elements that make the effect simulation real. Not long ago, this process would have taken days, but with advances in scanning hardware, iRacing only needs a couple of hours.
“The most surprising thing to us was how bumpy the floor was,” said iRacing EVP Steve Myers. “To the point where we had scan data… the first thing I did was call. [Kennedy] And ‘They have a paving budget, don’t they?’ Tell them.
From there, iRacing executive Greg Hill took over, navigating the newly created virtual environment and plotting potential courses. Leaders are placed in a unique position where drivers compete against each other at a key moment. Kennedy responded, including reversing traffic.
“It’s hard for me to see how this course can be developed without putting it in Irising,” Clark said.
The course technically debuted in the 2021 eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. James Davison led flag to flag while others struggled with the tight course and unforgiving corners.
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As players and pros ran thousands and thousands of laps on the circuit before this weekend, putting up with countless stress tests, organizers made subtle adjustments to the course.
“Can another sport use its fans to help change the sport?” Myers asked. “These dispatch drivers are proud to be sitting there and racing in front of NASCAR executives … so you can imagine these guys put their heart and soul into this.”
On Sunday, cars tear up on Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive. They pass through Grant Park and approach Soldier Field. As NASCAR embraces more spectacle races, the leaders blaze new ground, but all the while following an old path.
“We will be running a street race for the first time in NASCAR’s 75-year history,” Clark said, “and it will be possible thanks to our partnership in the simulation in the dark of night.