McLaughlin Wins at Barber as iRacing Challenge Hits the Big Screen

Scott McLaughlin wins virtual Barber IndyCar race on iRacing

“I should’ve been upside down, in the stands, buying a hot dog with a guy named Steve.”

Similar to Sage Karam’s code-brown line from last Saturday’s launch of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge but with a twist only Conor Daly can provide, this remark Daly shared with viewers of his Twitch stream during the virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama summed up the second INDYCAR-sanctioned iRacing event in as many weeks.

A tense moment through Turns 9 and 10 that Daly labeled the save of his “entire life” and prompted him to bring up virtual iRacing fan and hot dog connoisseur Steve was a close call, but it didn’t majorly interrupt his run from 26th to 23rd and didn’t lead to contact with other cars, making it an instance of luck some of his competitors would’ve appreciated during the scrappy 45-lap contest that lasted half as long as a regular (read: real-life) NTT IndyCar Series visit to Barber Motorsports Park.

The No. 28 DHL Honda of Kyle Kirkwood was into the wall before it even crossed the start/finish line the first time as the race began. Graham Rahal spun through Turn 7 and ended up in Turn 8 with a damaged front wing. Zach Veach nearly took out two competitors when he spun through Turn 14. Competing for his first time since his Pocono Raceway crash in 2018, Robert Wickens tolerated a bent front wing as he passed 21 cars to secure an eighth-place finish.

Most impactful to the outcome of the race was contact between frontrunners and sim racing experts Karam and Felix Rosenqvist. The latter pilot, racing virtually for Chip Ganassi Racing, was able to regroup and finish sixth, but Karam’s situation only worsened: After heavy contact with Tony Kanaan’s car and a flip into the fence, the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing driver disconnected from the race. It was virtual disaster for the driver that’s led 67 of the 90 laps completed during the first two INDYCAR iRacing Challenge events.

With several hundred iRacing victories among them, Scott Speed, Scott McLaughlin and Will Power surfaced as the main victory contenders based on superior pit strategies and pace. Both McLaughlin and Power got by a fuel-saving Speed with six laps to go, initiating a duel between a Team Penske IndyCar newcomer and the veteran driver whose real race seat is rumored to potentially be changing hands to McLaughlin as soon as next year.

Power forced the race leader into a lock-up through the final turns on the last lap but settled for second, finishing just under half a second behind McLaughlin who won an IndyCar race before ever racing a real Indy car. If that fact isn’t enough to explain the uniqueness of the feat, the two-time Virgin Australia Supercars champion was up at 2 a.m. in Australia to practice and qualify for the race before finalizing the win around 5:40 a.m. local time.

After the Penske duo, Speed, Alex Palou and Simon Pagenaud reached the top five. Rosenqvist in sixth was the last driver to cross the line within 15 seconds of McLaughlin and was followed in the top 10 by Colton Herta, Wickens, Josef Newgarden and Santino Ferrucci.

Robert Wickens races INDYCAR iRacing Challenge at Barber
Even with aero damage and a wild near-spin after contact with Pato O’Ward, Robert Wickens starred in his return to racing. | Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

This second INDYCAR iRacing Challenge event featured significant changes over the Watkins Glen race that opened the six-race series a week ago. Newcomer Scott Dixon started and finished 16th, leaving Wickens as the only driver new to iRacing that landed in the top 10. His return to competition was remarkable as he used his custom-built sim rig with a hand brake to surge from last on the starting grid after a mistake in qualifying to a comfortable position in the top 10.

But instead of the new drivers, it was a new competition element plus the event’s move from streaming only on YouTube and Twitch to NBCSN that became the most interesting takeaways from Barber’s turn for a virtual visit from IndyCar.

A competition caution period to bunch the field back up after 15 laps — it’s the stuff of nightmares for IndyCar fans, but it was (virtual) reality in the series’ second iRacing race. While it didn’t impact the control of the race Karam had at the time and he was able to rebuild an identical lead when green-flag racing returned, it was frustrating to witness something so artificial affect a race officially involving a series that regards its authenticity as a key selling point.

Even on iRacing, it was out of place, whether or not multiple real IndyCar drivers are struggling during their first sim racing experiences and could benefit from such a disruption of otherwise mostly genuine racing.

Two chances for each car to be reset after a crash — and no real full-course cautions as a result — as well as the use of a default car setup throughout the field already subtracted enough important realistic factors from the series’ foray into esports. It’s early on and the propensity to change things week to week is on one hand encouraging, but IndyCar’s core fanbase is likely wishing to have simulated the three laps of racing that were sacrificed instead of three caution revolutions to tighten things back up only one-third in.

The usual commentating crew of Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy brought some familiarity again, this time on NBCSN after INDYCAR moved to upgrade the viewing experience of its virtual series having surely noticed the success of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series on FOX Sports.

Outside of the streaming-only environment and on the big screen, the telecast was at times jarring. Diffey, Bell and Tracy are professionals honing a variation of their regular craft — much like the drivers — and regardless it’s not their fault in the slightest, but the benefits of proper television microphones and the trio being in the same room while calling a race are clearer than ever.

Like messier-than-average racing, extraordinary wrecks, competition elements that ruin even virtual racing and multiple Twitch streams to monitor in addition to the main telecast, perhaps hearing the commentators react to an incident multiple seconds after viewers saw it, all at once and with overmodulation overload, is the new normal.

For about another two months at least, that’s indeed what it is.

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