Create a Friends game, send invites to the people you want to join you. Once they are all in there is an option in the menu to join public game - that will take your group with you and search for other groups or individuals.
You can see the list of names of other players when waiting for them all to join up for a race, or after a race in the results screen. During races you seem to only be able to see the names of racers immediately around you.
There are usually drives between the events, I guess partly to help you learn your way around the city, crash through billboards, set faster times through speed cameras and complete the various milestones for each car. How much waiting around there is between races really depends on who is in your online group - sometimes they all work together and get to the meetup point quickly, other times you get groups where all people want to do is smash into each other at the location of the last race. The game will eventually force the race to start, but only once most of the people have got to the start point.
The decision to hide what you need to do until after the event has started is a bit odd.
My biggest issue with playing online is the lag - a little bit is to be expected but this seems excessive. Traditional races (A to B, or laps) let the person that crosses the finish line first win - but the game doesn't let everyone start at the same time, and not just by fractions of a second. I usually sit on the start line for ages before being allowed to start, wondering if others are racing yet or not. On a race of the airfield / airplane graveyard, I crossed the finish line less than a second after the was won by someone else that I couldn't see. On the results screen I finished 14 seconds faster than him.
P.S. Where is this game's most active forum?IPerfectIDarkGameFAQ has slightly more activity, though split with one forum per platform. You could try needforspeed.com or the EA forums, but I only checked them briefly a month or so ago and it tended to be mostly people being vocal about problems they were having with the game.
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