The setting was a bit different, but Eatonton’s Rafe Slate competed in another late model race last Saturday night.
Slate, who drives for his family’s Solid Rock Performance Racing team, competed in an online iRacing event. The iRacing website describes the service as “the world’s premier motorsport racing simulation,” and it features virtualized cars and tracks from across multiple sanctioning bodies, including NASCAR.
With the coronavirus outbreak postponing or cancelling many racing events throughout the country, iRacing has seen a rise in prominence over the past few weeks. Many of NASCAR’s Cup drivers, both active and retired, competed in broadcasted races the last two Sundays.
NASCAR’s most recent iRacing event was this past Sunday, which featured a 100-lap race at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Denny Hamlin passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap to score a victory. The race was carried on national TV via FS1, with FOX Sports broadcasting the event as if it were a real race. Hard ratings numbers were not available as of press time but, throughout the race, the event was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.
One night earlier, Slate climbed into his personal driver’s seat and competed in the comfort of his own home. He drove in the eRattler 250. The actual Rattler 250 was originally scheduled to be held Saturday night at South Alabama Speedway in Kinston, Alabama, but was postponed due to coronavirus concerns.
Slate said he helped rally some of the drivers to enter the virtual contest. They all ran setups designed by Ty Majeski, who is currently a driver in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.
Once all of that was set up, the drivers had their cars loaded into iRacing.
“It’s not too difficult,” Slate said about transferring his real-life car’s feel into the sim. “The setup we ran was built by Ty Majeski and was just a couple of button clicks but it’s just a bunch of numbers and statistics that he set up. He ran laps on the track and dialed the car to feel that way. So, I don’t load my specific setups because iRacing’s a little different and it doesn’t translate one-to-one. You kind of just go by the feel and adjust from there. But with the real adjustments, if you make a shock adjustment in iRacing, it’s gonna do pretty close to the same thing it does in real life.”
Slate led all 50 laps to win a race-in event scheduled to allow for more spots into the feature race. After that, the main show began.
By the end of the eRattler 250’s 250 laps, Slate sat in ninth. He finished just .021 seconds behind Ryan Kuhn, who took home eighth.
Slate is a longtime member of iRacing, but his real-life career often limits his practice in the virtual world. With that in mind, Slate was happy to earn a top 10 finish among several iRacing pros.
“Pretty much everybody in front of me spends probably 20 hours a week on iRacing,” Slate said. “They sit there and they grind on iRacing, so they’re really, really good at it. I felt like I lacked a little bit there just because I didn’t have quite the knowledge of the car and what iRacing would do and the way the track changes and stuff like they did, but I felt like I did pretty good with what I do compared to what they do.”
Despite his high finish, Saturday’s event wasn’t all smooth sailing for Slate.
He was caught in a crash at one point and had to work his way through the field. That, in addition to the rules of the race forcing unique pitting strategies, kept Slate on his toes.
“I got caught up in one wreck with about 75 laps to go,” he said. “I lost a little bit of the feel for the car. I feel like I could’ve finished top five if it wasn’t for that. Pit strategy was really tough to figure out if you were gonna take two tires and getting out of pit road really well. ... We only had two pit stops where we could take tires, so you really had to not use it all up and make sure you still had something left at the end.”
Even though the race was called the eRattler 250, it did not actually occur at a virtual South Alabama Speedway. Slate said he’s been told it costs around $100,000 to have a real track fully scanned and loaded into the sim.
But the race’s organizers found that Lanier Raceplex was already loaded into iRacing and featured nearly the same characteristics as South Alabama Speedway.
Many iRacers use large TV screens or computer monitors when competing. Most of them line up three screens side-by-side to gain a panoramic view. Slate once used a monitor himself but, for Saturday’s race, he utilized an Oculus virtual reality headset.
“A lot of people like three monitors because they get a little bit of peripheral but it’s just, with the Oculus, it fills in all the blanks for me,” Slate said. “Some people hate it, it gives some people motion sickness, some people can’t get used to it. It was really strange for me at first but, once you get your mind where you can create that link between real life, Oculus and that vision, it works really well. You can learn a lot from it – the way you look and the way you move your eyes on the race track.”
A full setup for iRacing can range in cost. Two-year iRacing memberships are currently being offered at a discounted price of $99.50. From there, one must find a monitor (or monitors) or a VR headset, which vary in cost. iRacers need a video game steering wheel and pedals. And, of course, iRacing requires a computer and internet access.
iRacing has been a fixture in the racing world for years, but Slate said he’s noticed an uptick in activity since the coronavirus outbreak unleashed.
About two months ago, Slate said there would be around 3,000 people online at any given time. Since the outbreak forced school/ work closures and sports stoppages throughout the nation, the average number has climbed to about 8,000. On Monday afternoon, Slate said there were 11,200 people active on iRacing.
The costs have sometimes discouraged people from joining iRacing but through increased exposure and with more people staying in their houses, the service is seeing exponential growth.
“Everyone’s at home,” Slate said. “Lots of people are buying it, lots of people are trying it out. It’s exploded.”
The real Rattler 250 is currently set for a postponed date in late April. Whether it actually goes on as scheduled remains to be seen.
The rest of Slate’s hopeful schedule includes his super late model debut at New Smyrna Speedway in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and possibly a race at Flat Rock Speedway in Michigan. All of that is up in the air.
For now, Slate said he will continue practicing and competing on iRacing. Much like the NASCAR ranks, many late model drivers and promoters are trying to establish a series of virtual events to increase their exposure and keep fans engaged in short track racing.
In this seminal moment in sports history, Slate said automobile racing’s ability to continue reaching its fan base could signal an increased interest in the sport at large.
“There’s no football or baseball esports,” he said. “It’s too disconnected because you’re playing it with a controller but, with iRacing, you can get an actual steering wheel and, with the drivers, the same characteristics and stuff that you have in real life translate.”