Why Pro Driver Behavior Matters in Virtual Racing

Virtual encounters with real-life racers leave a lasting impression—positive or negative.

iRacing

One unique aspect of virtual racing is that you occasionally have the opportunity to rub elbows—or fenders—with real professional drivers. Some iRacingplayers reported having trouble with Red Bull Global Rallycross champion Scott Speed driving too aggressively. Speed has since been suspended from iRacing for multiple incidents of intentionally ramming other drivers after they made contact with his virtual race car.

A few years ago I had a virtual celebrity iRacing encounter with Bryan Herta, owner of Bryan Herta Autosport and a former Championship Auto Racing Teams and Indy Racing League racer himself. This was in a Mazda MX-5 Cup race at Lime Rock Park, which is an entry-level iRacing series. Having driven an actual Miata at the actual Lime Rock Park several times, I often did well at these races. 

Justin Hughes / iRacing

My iRacing Mazda MX-5 Cup.

I was in the lead, but about halfway through Herta's car caught up to me. I drove as well as I could, sticking to the traditional racing line and gathering as much momentum as I could. Herta followed me closely, much closer than other iRacing drivers, yet he didn't so much as touch me once. He took a difficult pass on the short straight between Big Bend and the Left Hander. It was the best-executed pass I've ever been involved with in iRacing. Herta held the inside line, I gave him some extra room on the outside, and he took the lead from me. He proceeded to put some good distance on me and eventually win the race.

I didn't know who Herta was at first, but his name sounded familiar. I had to go back to my copy of Going Faster, the Skip Barber Racing School book, to satisfy my curiosity. And there he was, quoted numerous times throughout the book giving racing advice that I actually put to use on both real and virtual tracks. I was a little star struck, and happy to have raced against him as well as I did.

As you may be able to tell by my description, it wasn't Herta's name that I noticed on the track, but his driving. He was not only a cut above the average driver in this entry-level racing series, but his techniques were well practiced and beautifully executed. He didn't even try to pass me until he knew he could make it stick, and he did. He'd also read my driving enough to know that he could trust me not to wreck him out when he did pass, or he may not have risked the pass where he did.

Clearly, Bryan Herta made an impression on me. It is one of the few iRacing encounters I remember from that long ago, yet I remember it like it was yesterday. Even better, it was a particularly good impression, making Herta a true ambassador for the virtual motorsport. This is the sort of experience all virtual racers should have when they get to race professional drivers online.

I've met Scott Speed in person a few times. He's a nice guy. He's certainly not likely to throw his helmet at you if you accidentally bump into him at the grocery store. He's also very serious about his craft. It's necessary to be successful in as many different racing disciplines as he has. 

On a track, you expect a certain level of driving skill and good behavior from others on the track with you. Despite their excellent efforts, iRacing does not have those same guarantees. Nor does iRacing carry the risk of real injury or death if you spin into a wall at triple-digit speeds. Perhaps Speed expected too much of the keyboard warriors he shared virtual tracks with, and the "red mist" set in when he was wronged. 

I'm not saying Speed's actions were right. On the contrary, it is important for professional drivers to be held to higher standards in virtual racing simulations like iRacing. If the multiple reports against Speed are true—and iRacing can review the logs for itself—then the suspension is justified. I'm sure my own opinion of Bryan Herta, and iRacing in general, would be much different if he'd wrecked me out of the MX-5 Cup race instead of executing a good clean pass on me into Lime Rock's Left Hander.