On August 26th 2008, iRacing opened its doors to what many suspected would be the last simracing product they would ever want. The involvement of simracing folk hero David Kaemmer, as well as the financial support of John Henry, promised a product that could redefine the genre; and that’s just what it did.
With a farm of online servers and an unprecedented online race scheduling system, along with complex matchmaking and licence qualification, the service brought something to simracing that has yet to truly be bettered. As iRacing enter their fifth year of service they are still top dog, with a huge userbase and over a thousand races per week being carried out. As we enter 2013 we enter a new age for simracing as a number of “next generation” products enter the fray, can iRacing stay on top?
I sat down with iRacing President Tony Gardner to talk about past, present and future for the service.
Jon Denton: iRacing is now into its fifth year of service, how are things going?
Tony Gardner: Things are going well. The business has gone in the right direction every year and we are excited about what we have in store for our customers in the future.
Jon Denton: Has the service grown as quickly as you would expect? How close to the expectations set in August 2008 is the service with regards to user numbers and financial projections?
Tony Gardner: Anytime you start something like this you have several scenarios in mind. We knew it would be a long-term endeavour in any case. We thought and frankly hoped that the most likely thing that would happen is that we would steadily grow and that is what has happened both in terms of revenue and new members. Of course you have a dream that it is just going to be a massive hit overnight, but I think that was more a dream considering the size of the sim market.
Jon Denton: Over the years iRacing has been established by many as the “king”, and the sim that all the competition has to beat. How closely do you keep an eye on the competition, and how much does what they are doing sculpt your future plans?
Tony Gardner: We keep a close eye on the competition. We’re glad they are out there and I hope they keep trying to make the best products they can. The more sim racers and sim hobbyists we can create as a market the better. I also think that many of the other products take such a different approach that it’s hard to directly compare and, again, I think the variety helps the overall market.
Jon Denton: It’s true; none of the competition has taken the same direction as iRacing to focus on the online racing service and sanctioning body. Given the strength and power in numbers that iRacing has in the community right now, I would personally say it is best for any competition to take a separate route.
The community can be fickle, with many opting to love or hate one product or another. Only a few simracers seem to feel it possible to enjoy multiple products. One need only look to the iRacing forums to see that some are very vocal in what they want from their simracing, and thus make a lot of noise trying to convince iRacing of their point of view. How much does the vocal element of the community sculpt the future plans of the service, with regards to prioritising certain features?
Tony Gardner: The community plays a big role in future plans. We try hard to listen to the silent majority as well as the vocal minority, although we can’t always do what the community wants and when they want it. I wish we could.
From a technology perspective, if we are going to do things the right way, sometimes A and B need to be done before feature X, Y and Z. It can be difficult to communicate that to the market. Additionally, although this is a pretty small market, it is very diverse. It takes a long time to please all facets of the market. In other cases, sometimes things are just very complicated; they require a lot of work and simply take a long-time because you just can’t throw any engineer at the project to make it go faster. It takes a very special skill-set — and a long-time to develop that skill-set.
Jon Denton: Where do you see the overall direction of iRacing going in the next five years? Do you think there will be any change in the way we go virtual racing on the horizon?
Tony Gardner: Five years is a long time. Part of our direction will always be based on the technology of the future. How fast it accelerates and what barriers and limitations are removed will be part of our development decisions and could change our priorities. It is definitely possible that we will explore other platforms for iRacing in addition to the PC in the future, but that is not currently in our plans. The shorter term horizon will simply be working hard on existing models and continuing to add new features and racing opportunities on the PC platform.
Jon Denton: How will iRacing keep players interested in racing in their sim over the next five, or even ten years?
Tony Gardner: Just like our customers, we have many ideas and most of them line-up with our customers’ requests. However, I don’t think there’s a single magic button because everyone is looking forward to something different. I think at the end of the day our goal is to keep making iRacing better and better and to keep offering new elements of the service along with different and new types of racing.
I also think making the racing itself more dynamic and adding more elements to the racing will be a focus in the near and longer term, to insure that so no two races are ever the same. I see races becoming even more exciting and the in-race strategy becoming more important. Being a smarter racer and being able to adapt in the future might well become more important than they are today. Practice always help in any sport or any skill-based activity, but laying down hundreds of practice laps or working on a killer car setup might not help as much in the future as it does today.
Jon Denton: Looking at the details of the service itself, it pends around a few key structures that, with greater or lesser complexity, allow the player to decide when, where and what to race, and who they will race with. Safety Rating, or SR, determines the licence level that can be attained by a player, and is built up by competing in races or qualifying sessions without hitting anything with your virtual car. This SR builds per session, and when it peaks you move up to the next licence point. This goes from Rookie, to D, C, B, and A licences, with a PRO licence being open to the most committed.
In the early days of iRacing, the licence levels and SR were much bemoaned as “grind”, as promotions were covered once a season (3 month period). In more recent years I would say it has become easier to move up the licence levels. Was this the right choice? Or does it perhaps limit the time players spend in “lower categories” to the detriment of their ability?
Tony Gardner: Yes I think we have found the right balance. I’m glad we made the change. I think it is more fun now and you still get a big sense of accomplishment climbing the ladder versus it being perceived as a grind by some. In a perfect world from a pure racing perspective, sure, we would want everyone to have to grind their way up and be super skilled and super safe on track to make it to the A license level. However, that is not realistic and we would have a ghost town if that was our attitude and model. Not everyone has the time and skill to do that, but they still want to progress to new racing opportunities. Others are interested in a certain series and already have the skill to drive successfully but not the time and patience to grind their way up the ladder. On the other hand, we do feel it is important to get plenty of seat time, get comfortable with the sim and prove you can drive cleanly so, again, I like the way we have it.
That does not mean that we are not always looking at ways to improve, in fact we have tweaked our competition ladder dozens of time already.
Jon Denton: Today’s structure is much more pleasing, with a much wider variety of cars per licence level, and a much quicker progression, it’s a far cry from the days many of us spent pedalling a Pontiac Solstice around Lime Rock for months on end.
Do you feel that the current structure of licences and car allocations is something that needs to be developed? And if so, should it be harder, or easier, to reach a Class A licence in either class (oval or road)?
Tony Gardner: Every iRacing member has an opinion about this, but from a hard versus easy perspective I think we have it about right with our current general license ladder for both the oval and road side. We have talked about other ladders however. For example, we could have a pro-type ladder in which it is very hard to move up — if that is what you are looking for. Conversely, we could have an open system with no license ladder at all, just open racing. We also could have more ladders or even licenses by series. You simply earn a license for a given series. At some point, however, you can add so much complexity, that it backfires for the average sim racer.
At the end of the day, most people simply want to enjoy a closely-matched race field along with a challenging and clean race and series. That is really what all these systems were put in place to try and do and I think we have been extremely successful in that regard.
Jon Denton: A player’s iRating is what is used to determine matchmaking between players, with highly subscribed races being placed into “splits” based on relative iRating. It is based, loosely, on the players finishing position in events, with players gaining or loosing iRating based on their finishing position relative to the strength of the field (That being the collective iRating of the other competitors).
iRating presents an odd dichotomy to racers. A driver that is clean, finishes races and doesn’t crash will increase their iRating and will often end up bracketed with drivers that are faster than them. This is because their continued ability to obtain results will see their iRating always increase, even if their speed does not. Thus, when they have an iRating of 1600 they may run with drivers of their speed, but when that iRating reaches 2000, they may be bundled into splits where a top five is their best achievable position, given that they are racing with drivers of a certain raw ability.
Paradoxically, a driver that is very fast, perhaps even of almost “alien” speed, but who crashes a lot and impacts their iRating due to lower finishing positions causing a negative iRating, can end up placed in race splits with drivers much slower than them. Thus, the cleaner driver wins much more rarely than the maniac. Should a driver’s pace to be taken into account in some way, alongside their relative “safety” in the matchmaking process?
Tony Gardner: To be clear, iRating is what we use to match drivers in race fields. Simply put, it is a running calculation over time based on where you place in races and the strength of the field of those races. Right now we use license level and safety rating to qualify the driver for a series. It seems you are suggesting that we blend the safety rating and the iRating for match-making rather than just iRating. We actually have done that for our Pro Series in the past. Additionally, we have repeatedly analyzed the effect of weighting the iRating and safety rating in all sorts of ways and the truth is it does not change the fields by more than single digit percentage. What is that telling us? Fast drivers, drive clean, especially over time.
Jon Denton: I wasn’t really suggesting this. The fast driver that crashes may affect their SR, but ultimately restoring SR is not difficult. They will, however, lose iRating for races where they finish near the back (a DNF is still classified). Their results can then look like “win, win, last, last, last, win” as they are split with slower drivers, their wins get them less iRating to move up, and their continued inability to not fall off the road keeps them in the lower split level and not racing with drivers of their speed. This may be wise, because they are not statistically “safe”, but it also means that their stats are imbued with a high win ratio due to always being against competition that is beneath them on pace. I was not suggesting that SR be merged into matchmaking, though that is an intriguing prospect, but rather that a driver’s laptime pace be part of the process.
Tony Gardner: The example you provide above of a racer driving like a maniac and winning races is rare and it’s a statistical anomaly. Over time, statistically, iRating correlates closely with clean driving and safety rating. This might not be the best example to make my point, but if you look at the best racers on iRacing, statistically they are very clean drivers. Greger Huttu has a perfect safety rating of 4.99 at a Pro level and over an 8,000 iRating. Ray Alfalla also has over an 8,000 iRating and a very high safety rating.
Maybe blending the two would have a helpful psychological effect to keep people driving cleanly, but it would also complicate the understanding and the purpose of the two ratings. However, it is worth continuing to think about.
Jon Denton: Part of simracing, and all racing, is that there are going to incidents, and then fall out. iRacing have put themselves into the position of race stewards by providing a protest system for enraged racers. In a post-race red mist, any angered driver can submit their protest and usually hope for the offender to be hung, drawn and quartered. The reality is somewhat different, of course, and many remember the “it’s just a game” mantra after a short while. Nim Cross, chief steward at iRacing, suffice to say, is a busy man.
Protests must be something that consumes a lot of time to iRacing staff. Do you feel that the protest system is working for players, on the whole? Should there be harsher punishments for “brain fade” incidents that may not be deliberate? Are harsher punishments really possible when the players being punished are paying customers?
Tony Gardner: Yes I think the Protest process is helpful and another essential piece of the system. It is difficult to automate everything, so we go the extra mile to add a human element to it in order to try and coach mistakes and weed out bad behaviour or chronically unsafe drivers.
No, we shouldn’t be harsher for one-off mistakes. We all make them. That is not the point of the protest system. We are not playing judge of a single race on iRacing and trying to assign punishment for a single mistake. We are looking for people who make habitual mistakes and habitually fail to treat people with respect. If discussing an iRacer’s chronic issues does not work, we then try to correct bad their behaviour through some types of suspension. If we find we’re simply dealing with a bad apple, we don’t want them in the service and we take that action.
No, it is not hard at all to “punish” the bad behaviour of a paying customer because, from a business perspective, that one person might be ruining the experience of 200 people during the course of day or week. We can’t force 40,000 people to get along and play councillor if they don’t. Thank goodness almost everyone does get along and they enjoy the fun and fellowship. If they don’t, we remind them there are other choices if they don’t want to practice good sportsmanship. Maybe they belong in a private league on iRacing that is set up to be the Wild West, or maybe some other type of race game is for them.
Jon Denton: In real-world motorsport most drivers are paying a lot of money to race, considerably more so than in iRacing. How would you say the attitude of the simracer in iRacing ties up with the feeling of the real-world club racer? And can it really compare, given the disparity of the virtual and real environments?
Tony Gardner: I think the attitude can and does compare. To many, certainly sim-racing is a serious hobby and a very serious form of racing competition. If you want to be really good at sim-racing it requires skill, practice and dedication, just like in the real world. The real world racers I talk to get their heart pumping for an iRacing race just like they do in the real world.
Jon Denton: How much consideration do you put into ongoing considerations concerning the service and the potential for restructuring “gameplay” elements (SR, iRating, etc) to keep the service “fresh?”
Tony Gardner: As discussed, we talk about it all the time and constantly make tweaks. A lot of thought went into the gameplay elements and goes into it still, not to mention lot of development work. I think at some point we may try a variation of what we have but, with all our other priorities right now, ripping apart the competition system is not a high priority because it works well.
Jon Denton: Increased numbers of players are moving to “fixed” setup series, as opposed to those with open setups. Do you think this is a reflection on the player base’s lack of desire to learn about setups? Or do you think more can be done to help struggling players, setup-wise?
Tony Gardner: I think it is what it is. Some people like working with setups and some don’t for all sorts of different reasons, whether it’s lack of interest in that aspect, lack of background, lack of knowledge, lack of time or simply because they like to know everyone is on the same footing in regard to setups. I think it is all good. I personally like the fixed setup racing because with the time I have available I enjoy driving versus working on setups.
We do our best to help educate people about setups by making videos, suggesting third party material and books, and providing guides, plus we just added pop-up help in the garage area. There is still more we can do and, as time goes on, we will. Probably the best resource is other members; many of our members are terrific about helping other members out with car setups.
Jon Denton: Some would say that the core simulation itself is the area of iRacing that needs the most attention, primarily due to the ongoing work with Dave Kaemmer’s new tyre model (NTM). The NTM has been around for a while now, and yet problems still persist with temperature build up that demand a very particular driving style. At present the tyre gives up the most grip at lower temperatures, thus, anyone pushing the tyre too hard mid-corner can suffer a “collapse” in the tyre via a sudden loss of grip at either end of the car. Drivers must balance the tyre within certain slip parameters to keep the temperature as low as possible over a lap.
It’s been mentioned that this is being worked on, do you have any detail on what changes can be expected and how long players can expect to wait for a more usable tyre?
Tony Gardner: The tyre model keeps progressing but yes, we are still working on it full time. There are still a couple issues that we are working hard to improve and will make a big difference once resolved but I think we have had some nice break-through recently that members will soon see. In addition, our research and work on tires helps lead to other improvements for other models in the sim. For example, an improvement to the steering model which is coming out in the next build resulted from us having more accurate tires which make a nice difference in the driving.
Really, the tire model is down to a couple issues which again I think we have a handle on and then we’ll be able to do more work refining the tire compounds which is the main reason for some of the tire heat and wear issues. I don’t think we are that far off from having the remaining requests and issues resolved.
Jon Denton: In reference to the previous question concerning fixed setup series, do you think there is a correlation between the above NTM problems, which have an impact on the realism of car setups, and the lack of desire for players to work on their own setups?
Tony Gardner: I’m sure that could be the case for some people but generally speaking, no, I don’t think so. I think people liked fixed setups for the reason I mention above. They like spending the free time they have for this pursuit driving and racing not working on the cars.
Jon Denton: The “Lotus 49 saga” is on-going, what’s gone wrong with the implementation of this car? And how much input from Classic Team Lotus have you had in working things out?
Tony Gardner: I assume the saga you are talking about is that we regrettably announced the release of car and then later announced it is delayed with an unknown release date.
Jon Denton: Yes, if you’d be so kind as to accept my use of artistic hyperbole!
Tony Gardner: A lot of factors lead to the delay but at the end of the day we underestimated how long it would take. There is not an abundance of data available on this car from Classic Team Lotus or anyone else compared to modern cars. It is a light car with lots of horsepower along with what I would call non-advanced driving systems, so you really want to make sure you have everything dialled-in correctly because the car is already hard enough to drive.
It should not be that much longer before we release the car, hopefully. Right now there are just some things we don’t like about it, therefore we are not going to release the Lotus 49 until we get everything straightened-out. Rest assured we are working hard on it.
Also we think the Lotus will be much better on a new version of our tires which we are getting close to nailing down as discussed. We think it will be worth the wait to get it how we want it.
In the meantime we have the McLaren MP4-12C coming out on December 18th which the improved steering model and it might be the funnest road car we have ever done. Of course, we’ll see what the customers think, but that is the feeling by many internally.
Jon Denton: How much does the move to an optional x64 build extend the possibilities of what can be done with the simulation? Does this present a problem with this build slowly moving away from the 32 bit build in terms of features as well as vehicle dynamics simulation?
Tony Gardner: No I don’t think there are any problems using 32 bit and we still obviously support 32 bit computing. However we felt it necessary in the long run for iRacing to upgrade to 64 bit and felt now is the time to do it. I’m glad we finished that project. It was a lot of work. Among many other things, it will allow us to develop a much richer product, graphically and otherwise and also allow us to fully utilize today’s computing technology.
Jon Denton: Are there any plans to enhance the vehicle simulation aspect of the sim, with more focus on mechanical wear, vehicle systems modelling, start-up routines, or maybe cars that can stall?
Tony Gardner: Yes, we’re always working on systems but as far as mechanical wear, stalling and features like that, there are definitely plans on how we add more degradation of cars as a race, excuse the pun, “wears” on. Although I don’t think it would be good to have things just break or fail randomly like they do in the real world, but that is my opinion.
We would rather start with some of the more impactful elements, elements developed using real physics and math like brake wear and (obviously) tire wear, which we have now but are looking to improve. We could include things like clutch or other mechanical wear as we add endurance racing, driver swaps and team racing in the future because at the point it is more relevant. Like I said, we definitely want to add more realism and strategy to the racing by having other dynamics impacting the race, and mechanical wear certainly is one of those elements.
Jon Denton: Time for the obligatory street course question, the same one as asked last December in AutoSimSport:- When will we finally see Long Beach in the sim?
Tony Gardner: Same answer as before: We would definitely like to finish it someday. We just scanned our last two NASCAR cup tracks, Kansas and California, and we’re getting some great international road tracks done; the latest in the works are Montreal and Interlagos. Maybe now that we have a very robust list of completed tracks for both road and oval, it might be worth starting to think about taking-on a huge street course project like Long Beach. Don’t expect it any time soon however.
Jon Denton: Aside from what we have already mentioned, what do you think iRacing can do to “freshen up” the racing for the long term players? Are there plans to introduce more variance to the racing environments, making each race unique?
Tony Gardner: Yes definitely. The plan is to add other elements to the racing such as new sounds, surfaces, dynamic skies, environmental factors, new graphical elements, mechanical and physical wear, etc. Also will be slowly revamping the entire website look, feel and usability, that has already started. All this is going to take time, however.
Also we’re working on team racing/driver swaps now and hopefully will continue to add other forms of motorsports racing as time goes on.
Jon Denton: With some competitors soon to release sims with shiny graphics and exciting new features, can iRacing stay on top with a game engine that is getting into its sixth year of development?
Tony Gardner: I really don’t look at iRacing as a game engine, but being in our sixth year of development makes it easier not harder to keep up! We are ahead of the game. We just moved to 64 bit and have all sorts of other projects going on to bring our “engines” to most current technology. Graphics and sound for example. That is what we have been doing all along: improving and updating our code base, models, graphics and systems. Because we do a significant software update every 3 months it just is not as dramatic as a company who might release something every 5 years but certainly lot of improvements coming in the future.
Jon Denton: Do you see a chance to expand the sim-racing marketplace in the future, or will serious simulation always be regarded as more of a niche hobby?
Tony Gardner: I’ve always felt sim-racing can be different things to different people; in fact it has to be or the market will not be big enough. That said, I do see the serious sim-racing market growing as simulations become better and better and more and more people become aware of this type of racing and fun which is accessible to just about anyone all over the world.
Jon Denton: What are your hopes and dreams for iRacing, and sim-racing as a hobby in the next ten years?
Tony Gardner: Well I hope 10 years from now iRacing and sim-racing will still be going strong and much bigger than today. I think it will. I think sim-racing in general and iRacing in particular, just make a lot of sense as a form of racing for the average racing enthusiast. I think more and more race gamers & amateur racers will get exposed to sim-racing and iRacing as we continue to advance.
Jon Denton: Finally, anything else you would like to add?
Tony Gardner: Thanks for your publication and covering us. You do a great job covering sim racing! We look forward to the keep making iRacing a great choice for sim racers in the years to come.
Jon Denton: Thanks Tony, great talking to you.