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How video games are reshaping NASCAR

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A new NASCAR season got underway this weekend with a race at the LA Coliseum. And while the focus is on the track, a surprising development not far from Pit Row is starting to get some attention - video game racing. Jerad Walker with The Broadside, a podcast from WUNC in North Carolina, brings us this story.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Now just five laps to go from Martinsville.

JERAD WALKER, BYLINE: It's the second-to-last NASCAR race of the regular season in 2022. A driver named Ross Chastain is in 10th place, and he's desperate to finish higher so he can make the cut for the playoffs.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Ross Chastain trying to get by the nine.

WALKER: So on the final turn of the final lap, he does something shocking.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And the fight for the points right at the line. The 1 of Chastain past Hamlin.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: It was a video game move off into turn three.

WALKER: Instead of hitting the brakes like everybody else in the turn, Chastain slams his car into the side of the wall at full speed and blows past five other drivers at the finish line. The car is destroyed, smoke everywhere, and he advances to the playoffs.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Take a look at what he did.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: I have never seen anything like that before in my life.

WALKER: This is the wall ride.

RAY SMITH: So the wall ride, you know, in video game land, you put your car right up against the wall and just gas it.

WALKER: Ray Smith is NASCAR's director of gaming and esports. He says the wall ride is a strategy drivers have used for decades in video games.

SMITH: I never thought it could be done in real life, and then Ross Chastain pulled off one of the most iconic moves in motorsports.

WALKER: Iconic, incredibly dangerous and now officially banned in the sport - it was clear to Smith and everyone else watching that day that the virtual world had crossed over to the real world in dramatic fashion.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: It almost doesn't look real.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: It doesn't.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Look at this. Look, you're - it looks like a video game. That doesn't look real. He was going so fast.

WALKER: But behind the scenes, racing games and simulators have been reshaping the sport for a while now.

RAJAH CARUTH: I'm Rajah Caruth, driver of the 24 Wendell Scott Foundation Silverado in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for GMS racing.

WALKER: Twenty-one-year-old Rajah Caruth has a very untraditional background for a NASCAR driver. He's one of only a handful of Black men on Pit Row. Most of his peers are white, and a lot of them come from racing families. They have these long lineages, many with roots in the South. In contrast, Caruth was raised in Washington, D.C., and no one else in his family has ever raced cars.

CARUTH: So I grew up being a fan, watching races on TV, on YouTube, playing NASCAR video games. And I didn't start racing online till I was 15 and then got my first real-life start when I was 17 - so really late compared to everybody else I race against.

WALKER: Most of his competitors began organized racing with go-karts when they were 6 or 7 years old. Caruth closed that gap with the help of a hyperrealistic racing simulator game called iRacing.

CARUTH: I saw iRacing at first was like the - just of the next video game. Like, it looked really cool, and, like, I could just drive NASCAR on it.

WALKER: But then something big happened. When Caruth was a sophomore in high school, a fellow iRacing gamer, William Byron, signed a NASCAR Cup Series contract to race real stock cars.

CARUTH: And really, that was a moment that I realized, like, well, this is my chance, and I've always wanted to race. And I knew, like, this is what I want my career to be and my life's work, so that was my one shot.

WALKER: He trained obsessively on the game and became a dominant driver online. From there, he was identified by a NASCAR developmental program and got a chance to race real cars in some lower-level competitions. He's now part of a small but growing group of drivers who started their careers virtually.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: ...For Rajah Caruth. If he goes quicker on lap two, that'll move him up to sixth position - 23.136 seconds.

STEVE MYERS: There isn't really a sport that I can think of that more closely represents the real action to the virtual one.

WALKER: Steve Myers is an executive at iRacing. He says motorsports are truly unique in their ability to bridge those two worlds.

MYERS: You're using the same hand inputs. You're using the same foot movements. All of the same mechanical functions that you have to race in the real world, you're doing in the sim as well.

WALKER: Myers says developers have spent decades improving the graphics and the code in these games. They've gotten to a point where it's pretty close to the real-world physics of a race. And to heighten the realism, gamers are investing in rigs that include physical things like steering wheels, pedals and gear shifts. He's seen some that cost $100,000.

MYERS: But the vast majority of our customers buy just a regular retail steering wheel and pedal set that you can get at Best Buy or Amazon or anywhere, and you just plug it into your PC. And those are anywhere from $200 to $300, typically, and you're literally racing within 30 minutes.

WALKER: And while $300 isn't cheap, it's pretty economical for race car driving. It can cost thousands of dollars a year to run a real car at the lowest level of the sport, and you're eventually going to get into a wreck.

MYERS: You know, you wreck a race car, and you bend a frame. You're not putting that car back on a track again. So again, you're talking about 10 or $15,000, at the most basic level, to be able to get a car back on that track again. And that's just not realistic for 99% of the people in the world.

WALKER: These games are beginning to break down those huge barriers to entry for drivers says Ray Smith, NASCAR's director of gaming and esports.

SMITH: We're going to be able to grow a whole new generation of talent.

WALKER: One that's more diverse, he says, and more skilled.

SMITH: Because they're going to be on the video game from four years old on, graduating into a simulator.

WALKER: As unlikely as all of this may seem, drivers like Rajah Caruth have proven that gaming is a viable road to the racetrack.

CARUTH: I try, and I work harder than anybody else I race against. And I have to bust my butt to get to their level because I haven't been doing it a quarter as long as them. So with that being said, I feel like if you put in the time and you apply yourself to learning the craft and learning the sport as well, then you can be as good as anybody.

WALKER: As long as you are not afraid of climbing into a real race car and hurtling down a track at 200 miles an hour.

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WALKER: For NPR News, I'm Jerad Walker in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jerad Walker