More and more often I am told that the future of watching races is by computer.
I put that notion to the test Tuesday evening, and took it a step further by watching a virtual race.
And not just any virtual race. This was iRacing.com's fourth annual Pro Race of Champions, featuring more than 20 real-life, bona fide professional race car drivers, competing in a 50-lap Super Late Model contest at iRacing's digital re-creation of Iowa Speedway.
iRacing boasts more than 55,000 members, among them luminaries including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power. The big names didn't turn out for the Pro Race of Champions this year, but there was still a pretty stout field of participants from all over the world, from all disciplines of circuit racing. NHRA star Ron Capps represented the straight-line set.
The webcast started promptly at 9 p.m. ET, complete with multiple camera angles (including in-car) and commentators. Defending champion Philipp Eng, a 24-year-old Austrian who raced formula cars prior to winning the German Porsche Carrera Cup title this year, took immediately to oval racing and claimed pole position.
However, Eng made a bad start, washing up to the wall in Turn 1, allowing NASCAR Sprint Cup regular Timmy Hill to seize a lead he would never relinquish. Hill won easily by nearly 14 seconds after a late-race crash involving former PROC champion Shane Van Gisbergen and ARCA stock car racer Frank Kimmel II delayed most of his challengers.
Former Grand-Am sports car champion Alex Gurney finished second to Hill, followed by K&N Pro Series competitor Michael Self and Australian V-8 Supercar front-runner Van Gisbergen.
"Eng was last year's winner so I knew he was going to be tough to beat," Hill remarked. "But he got into the wall and that kind of ended his race before it even got started.
"After that, I just had to set sail and take care of the tires," he added. "This new package with these Super Modifieds really burns off the tires, with a lot of torque to the rear wheels. I knew if I took care of the tires and kept those guys behind me, I could have a pretty good race.
"Those guys raced side by side and let me get out to a pretty good lead and it was like cruise control."
There's a reason that so many pro drivers participate in and enjoy iRacing: It's the closest thing to real racing out there. Every track is laser scanned so all bumps, surface changes and reference points are there, just like they are in real life.
There's also a wide variety of cars to choose from, ranging from modern stock and Indy cars and Legends, along with vintage Formula One cars from Williams F1. There's even Mario Andretti's F1 champion Lotus 79, a popular choice.
"I use this service to prepare for my races and I know a lot of other guys are on here, too," Hill said. "But it's a lot of fun. It's the fourth year I've done it but the first time I won. Last year I had a great battle with Scott Speed but we ended up crashing behind a lapped car.
"It's good to get all that frustration behind us and get this win."
While Tuesday night's activity raised more than $4,000 for charity, more than anything else, it was about having fun. Hill donated his winning share of $3,500 to the Lions Club.
Racing fans get antsy during the offseason, and so do their heroes. And while they're not all present together in one place, the Pro Race of Champions still fosters camaraderie among drivers and an air of competition among their usual forms of racing.
"We're all racers; we want to win whether we're racing bicycles down a street or race cars in the Daytona 500," said Kimmel. "I saw some names I don't really know and thought, 'We're oval racers. We need to beat these guys, because it's our bread and butter.'
"It's always ultracompetitive, whether it's in iRacing or in real life."
Racers primarily use iRacing as a learning tool. But just like you and me, they also think it's fun to race cars in the virtual world.
The crashes certainly hurt less.
"It's fun to mix it up with those guys and you get to do it without the danger factor," said Gurney. "You still get a lot of the same buzz as being in an actual car. It's very realistic. You really have to scrape the barrel to get every last bit of lap time."
From my perspective, there are plenty of similarities between watching an iRace and a real, on-track event.
More often than not, racing journalists track the race they are covering from the media center, watching on television while monitoring timing and scoring on a computer.
iRacing's online coverage, while charmingly low-tech in some ways, did a good job of mimicking the way television covers real races, with multiple announcers offering analysis and plenty of postrace interviews.
As a first-time viewer, I was unable to quickly associate cars with their drivers, and it was sometimes confusing when the images switched from the leaders to a huge wreck unfolding in the pack.
The best part was the lack of a subsequent full-course caution for what would have been a lengthy cleanup in real life. Tuesday night's caution-free 50-lapper at Iowa lasted about 20 minutes.
So if this is the future, it's not all that bad. I enjoyed following the race online, laughing out loud when Porsche sports car star Patrick Long delivered the best line of the night.
"I think Bruno Junqueira hit everything but an apex out there!" Long joked, before adding:
"I hope we do this more often in the offseason, because it takes a little bit of the offseason burn away."