The event was hosted by Elite Racing League founder and Speed 51 esports division coordinator Chad Frankenfield, in association with Speed51.com and Sym TV.
The field was stacked with some of IndyCar’s best including reigning champion Josef Newgarden, as well as former Indy 500 winners such as Will Power, Alexander Rossi, and Juan Pablo Montoya. This wasn’t your usual sim race, an event made possible due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has brought nearly all forms of motorsports to a standstill.
The first IndyCar event like this came at World Wide Technology Raceway (Gateway) where several American open-wheel drivers showed up for the short oval race. The success of that race led to the massive field of drivers we saw this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"Okay, that was successful. Now what can we do to continue that? It really came together, I think on Monday," explained Frankenfield. "Stefan really enjoyed what we did and we were thinking what we could do (next). We started to plan this throughout the week … I mean, the idea is to just keep filling people’s eyes with racing. That’s the main goal. During the event yesterday on social media, I didn’t see anybody in the IndyCar world complaining about the coronavirus. Everybody was just talking about the racing. The drivers really were awesome.The social media was awesome and pretty funny at times, seeing the drivers go at it a little bit. And over a virtual race, that shows how competitive they are. It was good."
Oh the drivers loved it. They had a really good time. They definitely liked the competition, they definitely liked feeling that sense of organization."
With all the positive feedback, Frankenfield intends to do more events like this and plans are already in the works for another star-studded race.
Nick DeGroot, Ed Carpenter
The tempo of the race changed with less than 30 laps remaining as fuel was no longer an issue and track position was key. On lap 79/100, Power was able to make that outside work once again on a restart and retake the top spot from Stefan Wilson. I was trying to fight my way back to the front, but I found that task easier said than down as everyone was now giving it all they had.
On Lap 89, I made a move to the inside of James Hinchcliffe for 12th, but he didn’t seem to notice I had my nose down there and came down. We collided, he crashed, and I was forced to pit once more for a new front wing. But now I had far fresher tires than those ahead and ten laps to make something of it. Wilson pitted as well, having been shuffled out in the battle up front.
On the following restart, things got wild. They fanned out four-wide for the race lead with Power, Newgarden, Felix Rosenqvist, and Scott Andrews. That, of course, did not work out. Two cars went spinning and I caught the grass trying to dodge the crash. Kenton Koch got into the back of me as I was trying to regain control and I went around, my race finally ending when Will Davison clipped me during the spin-cycle.
The race itself ended under caution after Andrews spun trying to challenge Power for the lead on the ensuing restart. The race win went to the Team Penske driver, a familiar place for the former Indy 500 champion. Rosenqvist was second and Gabby Chaves third.
Chaves noted that he was surprised by how much mental focus was required and once he took the checkered flag, he just let go of the wheel.
What a race. I’m not kidding the amount of mental focus required to run on a sim at IMS in an indycar is very high for that long. P3 in the end after an amazing long race battle with @12WillPower and @stef_wilson crossed the line in style 🤣 pic.twitter.com/Q6HIvrzJoC— Gabby Chaves (@GabbyChaves) April 4, 2020
“I’ll tell you, it was a lot of fun," Power told the broadcast after the race win. "Fifteen minutes before the race I was eating dinner and Josef Newgarden and James Davison both sent me texts saying 'Hey, you racing?' I said no, I’m probably not. I wasn’t going to because I wanted to rest for tomorrow’s race and then I said I might as well go down and see how it is with the fixed setup. I’m really glad I did, it was a lot of fun.”
Power received several text messages after the race, but none bigger than the one from the Captain himself with Roger Penske congratulating him on the victory. It turns out he was paying attention to the entire race, a fact that blew Frankenfield away.
"It’s almost unreal," he said. "Let’s be honest. I’m a huge racing fan, a diehard IndyCar fan. The fact that I get to communicate with any of these guys about this stuff is kind of an honor to me. These guys are real-life superheroes … It still hasn’t hit me that I got to race against 80% of the Indy 500 field yesterday. But Roger Penske is possibly the biggest icon in American motorsports, and potentially international motorsports as well. The fact that he knew about the event and tuned in is just -- I don’t know if I can even find the words to explain it. It’s pretty remarkable. The fact that he tuned in to our event is pretty incredible. When Will said he got a text from Roger as soon as it was over, that was surreal."
A much-needed distraction
I finished 14th, four laps down. But I was smiling. It was an experience I never thought possible and only made a reality by the allure of sim racing. And this race is not one-of-a-kind with several events just like it popping up every day. Aces from every corner of the globe have moved online to get their racing fix.
In lieu of physical cars on track, sim racing has picked up the torch and raced to the forefront of the motorsports world. In these difficult times, it’s the perfect distraction and a great relief from the reality of our daily lives as we fight to overcome the novel coronavirus pandemic. Even those who normally scoff at the idea of online sim racing as ‘just a video game’ have seen their views changed, or at the very least become more open to the idea. In these abnormal times, it brought back a sense of normalcy -- if only for a moment.
Esports are no replacement for the real thing, but it is a phenomenal compliment to it. Let’s embrace it, as the motorsports world will only benefit if we do.