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Grand Prix: The line between video games and racing isn’t blurring. It’s disappearing.

Thanks to drivers like IndyCar’s Sage Karam, pavement and pixels have become a two-way street.
Sage Karam (middle) stands near a Coanda Simsport teammate during competition at the 2019 SimRacing Expo in Germany.
Sage Karam (middle) stands near a Coanda Simsport teammate during competition at the 2019 SimRacing Expo in Germany. [ Courtesy of Coanda Simsport ]
Published Mar. 5, 2020
Updated Mar. 7, 2020

The last four-plus years haven’t been easy for Sage Karam.

Since spending most of 2015 with IndyCar power Chip Ganassi Racing, the Pennsylvania native has been trying to turn one-off rides into multi-race deals. When he comes to town for next week’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it will be just his sixth IndyCar start since 2016.

As challenging as the road has been, Karam has counted on one thing to make the grind a little easier: digital racing.

“It gives me something to wake up and look forward to doing,” Karam said.

Even more than that, it gives him a way to stay connected to the sport he loves, either by logging extra laps on simulators or by gaming for an esports racing team, Coanda Simsport.

Related: How the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg became one of IndyCar’s crown jewels

Karam is far from the first competitor to dive into digital racing. For years, drivers across series have been supplementing their practice through simulators, which don’t require the extra travel, equipment and staff of real-world testing.

But the two-way street between esports and motorsports is widening, thanks to racers like the 25-year-old Karam.

NASCAR has an officially sanctioned iRacing series with a six-figure prize pool to reach new fans and potential competitors. Fans can challenge IndyCar drivers in another game, Forza. Big-name race teams consider esports part of their portfolio.

And drivers like Karam are showing that the line between pixels and pavement isn’t just blurring.

It’s disappearing.

IndyCar driver Sage Karam (24) leads Spencer Pigot (21), Scott Dixon (9) and Conor Daly (25) into Turn 1 during last year's Indianapolis 500.
IndyCar driver Sage Karam (24) leads Spencer Pigot (21), Scott Dixon (9) and Conor Daly (25) into Turn 1 during last year's Indianapolis 500. [ MICHAEL ALLIO | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

**

Scroll through the drivers list of NASCAR power team Joe Gibbs Racing, and you’ll see familiar names like three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Busch.

Go all the way to the bottom, and you’ll find a pair of names you probably won’t know: Graham Bowlin and Malik Ray, both members of the team’s esports offshoot, Gibbs Gaming.

“We’re treating them just like we would any other driver,” said Bryan Cook, the team’s chief digital officer.

They have to. It’s part of their business.

Joe Gibbs Racing got into NASCAR’s iRacing series with a nudge from longtime sponsor Interstate Batteries, which saw esports as a way to target younger potential customers. Interstate is all over the digital cars, the same way it would be on one of the team’s physical Toyotas. Crew members texted sponsors to celebrate their first eNASCAR win last year, just as they’d call partners from victory lane after any other NASCAR win.

“We take it seriously from a business and competition standpoint,” Cook said.

Nov 4,2014, Las Vegas NV. iRacing gaming gives the full effect of racing NASCAR  on display during the first day of the 2014 SEAM show in Las Vegas.
Nov 4,2014, Las Vegas NV. iRacing gaming gives the full effect of racing NASCAR on display during the first day of the 2014 SEAM show in Las Vegas. [ GENE BLEVINS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

The rest of the garage does, too; the other 19 teams in the series include well-known NASCAR organizations (Stewart-Haas, Wood Brothers) and drivers (Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson). The 20-race season has a multi-year partnership with Coca-Cola, and six of its events will air on NBCSN.

For NASCAR, esports is a way to expose itself to new fans because video games have different audiences than traditional sports. The series’ race director, Jusan Hamilton, sees another obvious advantage.

Motorsports can be hard to break into because of the high costs of travel/equipment and a lack of access to local grassroots tracks, especially in urban areas. iRacing eliminates both problems; a steering wheel and pedals starts around $99, and it’s accessible anywhere with internet access and a computer.

“It’s a way to potentially identify new talent,” Hamilton said.

It already has.

• • •

Racing was never a big part of Glenn McGee’s childhood in Vero Beach. Video games were: Super Mario, Mario Kart, Halo, Gran Turismo.

Around 2010, the Town ‘N’ Country resident tried iRacing. As he improved, McGee started to see a future in it.

“I realized there was a way to do this in real life,” McGee said.

The opportunity materialized in 2015 when he beat thousands of other entrants to win the iRacing World Championship. That earned him an invitation from Mazda to compete against professional drivers in a shootout, where he’d drive the physical version of the car he’d been racing digitally.

Granted, he had never actually driven the real car before, or raced anything competitively. He didn’t have a helmet, nor did he know how to put on safety gear.

McGee won anyway and earned a $100,000 racing scholarship.

“I was given a gateway into real life,” McGee said.

And he drove right through it, becoming the first person to go from professional gamer to professional racer. McGee spent last season in the MX5 Cup, a Mazda developmental series that serves as a warm-up act at some IndyCar events.

William Byron’s NASCAR path also started digitally. He began iRacing at age 13 to try to convince his parents to let him try the sport in real life. One hundred and four wins later, Byron’s parents had seen enough.

Alex Bowman, left, congratulates Daytona 500 pole winner William Byron, right, after their qualifying runs at Daytona International Speedway last year.
Alex Bowman, left, congratulates Daytona 500 pole winner William Byron, right, after their qualifying runs at Daytona International Speedway last year. [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]

By age 20, Byron was making his Cup debut. A year later, he was on the pole at the Daytona 500.

Where would Byron be without iRacing?

“I’d probably be sitting behind a desk at a school somewhere,” Byron said last year.

But with it? He’s sitting behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet for heavyweight Hendrick Motorsports.

Related: Grand Prix of St. Petersburg monitoring coronavirus outbreak

This kind of digital-to-real-world jump is unique to racing. Just because you dominate Madden tournaments doesn’t mean you can throw a 50-yard spiral. Destroying your friends in NBA2K won’t help you dunk.

But a fast reaction time on a digital track usually translates into a fast reaction time on a physical track. If you adjust quickly to set-up changes on a simulator, you’ll probably do the same with a real-world car.

Video games ease that transition with their realism. iRacing scans every detail so the bumps and braking points at the digital Daytona International Speedway are identical to the real one. Forza uses two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden to test its steering, acceleration and braking.

IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden celebrates with his team in the victory circle after winning last year's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden celebrates with his team in the victory circle after winning last year's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“If one of it feels off or doesn’t feel accurate, I’ll say this is why it doesn’t feel accurate — this is what the real car does,” said Newgarden, the reigning Grand Prix winner. “They’ll try to mimic that as best they can in the game.”

So how well does it work?

McGee said 90-95 percent of his racing is the same, whether it’s online or in person. Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson used iRacing last month for his first IndyCar laps as he considers a race or two in that series after his final full-time NASCAR season.

Byron believes iRacing is so accurate that he used it as a tune-up for last year’s Daytona 500 … and ended up in the same field as another Cup driver, Parker Kligerman.

“It helps,” Byron said. “Does Michael Jordan go and play basketball without practicing?”

• • •

IndyCar driver Sage Karam uses this simulator set-up at his home in Nazareth, Pa., to compete in competitive esports and to stay sharp for traditional racing.
IndyCar driver Sage Karam uses this simulator set-up at his home in Nazareth, Pa., to compete in competitive esports and to stay sharp for traditional racing. [ Courtesy of Sage Karam ]

Without a full-time IndyCar ride in 2018, Karam channeled all his energy into esports. He practiced for hours every day, pushing 1,000 laps to qualify for one event that would send him to Porsche’s headquarters in Germany.

“That’s how bad I wanted to get there,” Karam said.

It worked. His performance there helped him get noticed by Coanda Simsport, a successful sim racing team that sent him back to Germany last year to compete in the SimRacing Expo.

Karam has increased his involvement in esports as the payouts have risen. The Porsche event advertised a prize pool worth 30,000 euros. The season-long purse for NASCAR’s iRacing series tripled this year to $300,000. It’s enough money that some competitors can do it professionally as their only job.

“I haven’t made that jump yet,” Karam said, “because I’m still chasing my dream of real-life professional racing.”

He’ll resume that chase next week in St. Petersburg. It’s a big opportunity; a strong showing could turn a three-race deal with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing into something more.

So Karam isn’t taking the chance lightly. He’s working out. He’s testing. He’s hanging around the shop. And he spent a day in Charlotte last month, preparing for his first Grand Prix since 2015 the only way he knows how.

On a simulator.

IndyCar driver Sage Karam uses this simulator set-up at his home in Nazareth, Pa. to compete in competitive esports and to stay sharp for traditional racing. (Courtesy: Sage Karam)
IndyCar driver Sage Karam uses this simulator set-up at his home in Nazareth, Pa. to compete in competitive esports and to stay sharp for traditional racing. (Courtesy: Sage Karam) [ Courtesy of Sage Karam ]

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

When: Gates open next Friday and Saturday at 7:45 a.m., Sunday at 8:15 a.m. Each day wraps up around 5:30 p.m.

Where: The track is at 1st Street S. and 5th Avenue S.

Tickets: Grandstand tickets range in price from $155 to $70, and general admission tickets range from $70 to $25 (advance tickets are cheaper; weekend and single-day packages are available). Get tickets here.

More info: Visit gpstpete.com