For a while there, the future of NASCAR gaming looked grim. Earlier this year, EA Sports made the announcement that they would not be releasing a traditional console NASCAR game in 2009. EA Sports' president Peter Moore even went so far as to openly speculate about the future of organized racing games coming out of the company. And while it can be argued that EA's NASCAR games have lounged in varying degrees of mediocrity for years, the thought of a major American sport without an accompanying annual game release felt like a sign not just of a waning economy but the beginnings of NASCAR's slide in popularity as the country's most popular form of motorsport.
Enter iRacing, the subscription-based PC racing simulation co-founded by Dave Kaemmer who just happens to be responsible for one of my all-time favorite PC racing games, Grand Prix Legends. iRacing has been around for nearly a year now in public release and, yesterday, the company announced a partnership with NASCAR to create an online racing series set to begin in early 2010. While that still means that NASCAR fans will be bereft of console oval racing for 2009, the promise of driving on iRacing's meticulously laser-scanned recreations of real-life should keep racing fans--at least those with a powerful PC--looking ahead to next year when the series launches.
While the formal partnership between NASCAR and iRacing began in earnest last summer, according to Kaemmer, the two groups have had a connection for many years. "On a personal level, the acquaintance with the folks at NASCAR goes back to the Papyrus days." Papyrus, of course, is the game development studio responsible for the critically acclaimed NASCAR Racing series as well as the legendary Grand Prix Legends. In fact, the NASCAR Racing series was one of the early pioneers of online PC racing games; a seed of sorts from which iRacing's online feature set has grown.
"NASCAR has been interested in sanctioned on-line competition as a form of motorsport for a long time, as have we," said Kaemmer. "The technology in most peoples' homes is now to the point where it is possible, and NASCAR was impressed with what we had produced at iRacing."
While stock cars and oval tracks have been in iRacing for a while, the NASCAR online series will let stock car fans to race wheel-to-wheel against one another in officially sanctioned online events on nearly every track found on the Sprint Cup schedule. Since its opening in August 2008, iRacing has seen more than 12,000 people sign up for the service and the company counts a handful of real NASCAR drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, and Marcos Ambrose as members. According to Kaemmer, you might even run into a pro or two during your next race session. "They aren't 'guest stars'--they are your competition," he said. "And because everyone races under his or her real name, if it says you are racing against Dale Earnhardt Jr., you are racing against him in real time."
Among its current roster of road and kart courses, iRacing currently includes 25 oval racing circuits, including superspeedways like Talladega and short tracks like Bristol. The developers are currently working on rounding out the Sprint Cup Series track list, said Kaemmer. "We currently have built or are in the process of building all of the International Speedway Corp (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI) tracks. Pocono, Indy and Dover are the only three independent tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit. We're in the process of building Pocono and we're in discussions with the other two."
Creating those courses involves a painstaking process of laser scanning that Kaemmer says requires the developers to only process only about a half-mile of track per day. As a result, it can take months to build a completed track. The result, Kaemmer says, are "millimeter-accurate virtual tracks", and it's that feature--along with realistic car handling and physics--that the game hangs its racing helmet on.
Ironically, it seems that iRacing's challenging realism might pose a problem for casual NASCAR fans looking to take a spin. With no new NASCAR videogame on the horizon in 2009, fans' only near-term option (beyond dipping in the back catalog) will be iRacing, a game whose reputation of demanding accuracy might turn off the casual drivers. How do Kaemmer & company plan on addressing the needs of the laid-back racers as well as the hardcore crowd? In a word: licenses.
"We assume that everyone who joins iRacing is a novice racer, at least in the virtual world, so the game is designed to be welcoming to new players while remaining committed to serious racing," said Kaemmer. "Our realism means that if you're in it for big crashes and fooling around, this probably isn't the game for you. And that's OK.
"While any member can drive any car in the iRacing garage, including the cars for NASCAR's top three divisions--NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Series--on any track in our inventory, you can only compete in officially-sanctioned multi-car events if you hold the appropriate license. All of our members begin on the oval-racing side of the service as rookies in a Legends Car and then, as their skills improve, they move up through the Late Model, etc. As they become more proficient in races and demonstrate their ability to drive safely with others, they will gain higher grade licenses, enabling them to race in faster and more demanding cars."
When asked if EA's decision not to release a NASCAR game this year affected (or accelerated) the relationship between NASCAR and iRacing, Kaemmer is adamant: "Not at all. We've always been oriented to the PC, and addressing an audience that is looking for fun--but serious fun. We're looking for members who find it fun to learn new skills and who are willing to make a longer-term commitment to the activity. It's more like taking up skiing or tennis, rather than going through the traditional console game lifecycle of a few weeks."
Of course, just like that skiing or tennis hobby, playing iRacing will cost you. Unlike most racing games, iRacing is based on a subscription model, which grants the user basic access to the game and a handful of cars and tracks. Members pay extra for access to additional cars and the lion's share of the extra tracks in the game but, as Kaemmer explains, access to the NASCAR online series won't cost anything extra: "We won't raise prices. There will be no additional fees to participate in any of the NASCAR-sanctioned series on iRacing beyond the regular membership charges. It's just another level of competition available to our members."
And unlike tennis or skiing, you can't injure yourself playing iRacing.
[UPDATE] I contacted NASCAR officials for a comment on the iRacing partnership and here's what Blake Davidson, NASCAR Managing Director, Licensed Products, had to say:
"We have known Dave Kaemmer, the co-founder of iRacing for nearly 15 years, dating back to when he was at Papyrus and created one of the first NASCAR-sim games for the PC. Our late former chairman, Bill France Jr., had the original vision more than 10 years ago to develop a NASCAR-sanctioned online series that people from all over the world could experience from their own homes. We made an initial attempt in 1998, but the technology was not advanced enough to provide for a positive user experience. We have been in contact with iRacing for the last several years and followed their progress closely. We are very excited that the their technology, coupled with the expansion of broadband connectivity has now given us the opportunity to form this partnership."
I also asked Blake about how EA Sports' decision not to release a console NASCAR game this year affected the iRacing partnership. His response:
"EA did release NASCAR Kart Racing on the Wii earlier this year, at title that we continue to be very excited about. However with regard to the other console platforms, we view what iRacing does as being very different from the console gaming offerings. Therefore, EA NASCAR's products played did not play a role in our decision to partner with iRacing."
What do you think of iRacing's partnership with NASCAR? Do you think NASCAR games have a future on consoles? Let me know what you think in the comments below…