Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked a tough weekend to make his open-wheel debut.
Saturday's IndyCar iRacing Challenge event will feature its largest field yet, with 31 drivers taking the green flag at virtual Michigan International Speedway.
Earnhardt is no stranger to iRacing. He has been an avid gamer and consultant to the company from its earliest stages. But when it comes competing against the top talent in IndyCar, it will be a whole new ballgame.
“I've been on iRacing for a couple decades, but I haven't put much time on the INDYCAR, and obviously have no real-world experience,” said Earnhardt, who participated in practice sessions to get up to speed for the Chevrolet 275. “So there's a lot of learning and trying to understand why the car reacts the way it does and what creates those issues, because some of them are realistic and some of them maybe because of the sim or the tire model of the sim.
“Just trying to understand how to stay out of trouble. Keep yourself out of trouble was what yesterday's practice was about, and I'm looking forward to today, practicing some more with these guys…That's what iRacing is all about, just trying to know when to stay out of trouble and then when to push. The tires are going to fall off a little bit. The car gets real, real tight in some circumstances. That's real challenging for everybody in the pack, and just knowing how to keep yourself out of trouble is the main thing.”
After more than two decades in NASCAR’s top touring divisions, the third-generation stock car driver finally attended his first Indianapolis 500 last May. While many drivers travel in different motorsports circles, his role as an NBC Sports analyst for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing offered Earnhardt a behind-the-scenes perspective on the IndyCar stars.
“I had such a great time when I went to the Indy 500 last year, and I have so much respect for the guys that are in the field and the guys that we'll be practicing with and racing with this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “It's kind of fun for me to get to know their personalities a little bit and how they interact with each other was really fun yesterday during practice.
“I was just kind of sitting there listening to everybody go back and forth with each other, and it's kind of funny. I kind of understand that camaraderie and the back and forth that they have is really similar to what we have in the Cup Series, and they're all racers.”
The international flair appeals to Earnhardt as well. The 31 racers in Saturday’s event represent 10 different countries and eight states. Connecticut’s Sage Karam won the first IndyCar iRace at Watkins Glen, while V8 Supercars champ Scott McLaughlin was victorious last weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
“Well, I think these guys have such great personalities, and they're even more diverse than what we have in NASCAR because they're from all over the world,” Earnhardt said. “I think that that's the real value in the series is the drivers and their personalities and who they are, and so I'm "fan-boying" myself just being out there hearing them talk, hearing them interact with each other, getting to know them better.
"I've got a few friends in the series, but certainly want to know the other guys and get to know the rest of them really well, so this is such a great opportunity for me to do that, and I think the fans are really going to appreciate getting the opportunity to see them on the racetrack, on the virtual racetrack throughout this break, to get to know them even more.”
Although Earnhardt enters the race as an IndyCar rookie, three series regulars—Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan will make their iRacing debut this weekend at MIS. Earnhardt believes patience will be the key to keeping the No. 3 Nationwide/JR Motorsports Chevy on the track.
"There's two kind of trains of thought there, that you can go real hard and try to keep yourself toward the front if you can because there'll hopefully not be a lot of trouble up there, or if you're not able to do that, you've got to hope that you don't get caught up in anything going on in the middle or back of the back which is definitely probably going to have some action.
"I definitely don't want to be the one to start any crashes. I'm the new guy. It definitely is—I’m a fish out of water, and just being able to shift gears and have gear selection while you're drafting and trying to understand how to produce opportunities using that is really foreign to me, so I'm learning on the fly. All these guys have been really helpful, the ones I've reached out to have been very supportive, and it's a good group.”