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Local men have been ahead of iRacing curve

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 23, 2020 at 6:00 PM

JOHNSON CITY — The reality is virtual action is making a huge impact on the sport of auto racing.

With NASCAR, IndyCar and other sanctioning bodies using the simulated races to provide television content, iRacing has put esports at the forefront of live action.

Local men James Barker, Brandon Hyde and Mark McCrary have been ahead of the curve.

Barker, 67 from Elizabethton, has been iRacing for eight years and has a race room with three simulators. He loves the diversity of iRacing from NASCAR Cup cars, Trucks, World of Outlaws sprint and late models, Australian Supercar, IMSA Prototype, touring cars and even Formula One.

He has competed in several different formats on the iRacing portal with his favorite the Global Mazda MX-5 Cup. It features a fixed set up where adjustments to the virtual car aren’t allowed. In his races, Barker is sometimes the only American participant. With the communication available through iRacing, he has made friends all over the world.

“I’ve met people from Asia, Europe, South America,” he said. “Americans are the minorities in the races. A lot of races I enter, I will be the only American driver.”

The iRacing computer matches drivers with similar skill levels through a license system and gives them options where to compete. The races range in time and distances. They may be as short as 10 laps or last as long as two hours.

Barker has noticed a dramatic increase in iRacing since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the extra attention that has been brought about. Participation has more than tripled since the end of last season.

To show the extent of the format’s popularity, iRacing’s website listed over 62,000 participants in the Global Mazda MX-5 Cup last week.

For Barker, it’s allowed him to experience his favorite sport in a whole new way.

“I have enjoyed most forms of racing since my childhood,” he said. “iRacing has allowed me to compete in a safe and relatively inexpensive hobby.”

Barker has hosted racing parties at his house where as many as 40 drivers can enter a race that the host designs. They even held a fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House at the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center — where people paid to drive — and it culminated in the fastest four drivers in a 10-lap race.

The other local drivers have been very accomplished in the virtual racing world.

Hyde, 51, finished in the top 20 out of 20,000 racers in his division on two different occasions. His real racing experience includes motocross, racing go-karts at the GoPro Motorplex track near Charlotte and competing in SCCA autocross events in the parking lots between Bristol Motor Speedway and Bristol Dragway.

With iRacing, Hyde gets a different experience and even had Indianapolis 500 veteran Oriol Servia participate in one of his practice sessions on Monday.

“I’ve always loved racing since I was a kid and feel like I missed my calling when I was younger,” he said. “iRacing lets me live that dream. I always thought I had a little driving (ability), but you see the results and where you stack up. I was pleasantly surprised, but you also see how good the top-five guys are.”

McCrary, a former Kingsport Speedway Pure 4 division champion on the actual 3/8-mile concrete oval, has been fast enough on the iRacing simulator to race with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Barker has his own on-track experience, taking his Lotus to road courses like Road Atlanta, Barber Motorsports Park, Carolina Motorsports Park and Virginia International Raceway. The simulator helps him get a feel for the actual track.

“I probably drove 100 laps on the rig before I went to VIR,” he said. “Back then, it wasn’t as accurate as it is now. But it still gave you an idea. It reduces the learning curve.

“I’ve read where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has taken set ups from iRacers and passed it on to his engineers. Drivers can use that to experiment with set ups because you can make a click of the mouse a lot quicker than you can turn a wrench.”

Some of the basics taught in driving schools, such as the proper way to attack a corner, can also be practiced through iRacing.

“What I love about racing is figuring out the track. It’s like a puzzle to me,” Hyde said. “You’re trying to figure out the best way to take a corner, how to drive a car and the balance of it. Everything has to come together to make the perfect lap.”

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