What Is iRacing?

For over a decade, iRacing has been one of the most enduring driving simulation games on the market. All thanks to its hardcore realistic physics, frequent updates, partnerships with real-life motorsports groups, and relatively low barrier of entry for new players. The first version of iRacing was released way back in 2008. Since then, it's served as virtual entertainment for thousands of concurrent players, and as a handy practice tool for career racers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and IndyCar's Scott McLaughlin (via AutoSport).

The game has made big strides into the world of eSports, with racing series like NASCAR and the Skip Barber Racing School operating officially-sanctioned tournaments inside the virtual space. It's through these that the fastest sim racers can vy for bona fide cash and sponsorship deals. Some prominent iRacing players have even had the chance to step up into a real driver's seat, such as NASCAR's William Byron (via USA Today). The online competitive nature of the game also means that pro drivers will often end up racing bumper-to-bumper with dedicated hobbyists.

The beginnings of iRacing

iRacing officially released in August of 2008, but its origins actually start several years prior, being built off the code from NASCAR Racing 2003, which also maintains a cult following of its own. The 2003 game was the last of a licensed series created by a developer called Papyrus under Sierra Entertainment (via GameSpot). The company, along with lead designer and semi-pro racer Dave Kaemmer, was responsible for many NASCAR and IndyCar sims through the 90s and 2000s. However, their run came to an end when parent company Universal significantly downsized Sierra in 2004.

At the same time, Electronic Arts bought the license to the NASCAR Racing series, but Kaemmer was able to retain the rights to the simulation engine that his team had created. As the iRacing site tells, he then reached out to Roush Fenway co-owner John Henry as a new financier, reconstructed a development team, and got to work on what would soon be known as iRacing. After a few years of programming, the sim went live. A 2008 Car and Driver review praised iRacing's realistic physics model, and real-world tracks scanned with meticulous accuracy. It's those traits that have kept the game going for nearly 14 years, along with countless updates added along the way.

iRacing's content model

Perhaps the first thing that stands out about iRacing is its unique payment structure. Most racing sims on the market will retail around the $60 mark, with the option to purchase new downloadable content as support for the game continues. As their site details, iRacing offers an online subscription plan more akin to an MMO like World of Warcraft. The regular price is $13 a month, but discounts can be had for new customers and those who bundle several months at a time. However, this plan only gets you access to "base" content, which currently includes sixteen cars and 22 racecourses. The game offers up a combo of classic stock car oval racers, modern grand touring, and IndyCar. Many of the tracks include alternate and reverse configurations.

If you want more than that, you'll have to pay for downloadable content on top of the subscription cost. According to their site, cars can be bought individually for $11.95, while new tracks are either $11.95 or $14.95, with discounts and bundle deals available. The current iRacing roster includes over 100 vehicles, and a similar number of courses, so the 'complete' game is a considerable investment. If you want to just dip your toes into the sim racing experience, though, it can be done pretty cheaply.

Base content

Stock Cars:

  • UMP Modified Dirt Track Car

  • Dirt Legends '34 Ford Coupe

  • Chevy Camaro Dirt Street Stock

  • 2013 NASCAR Truck Series Chevy Silverado

  • Road Legends '34 Ford Coupe

  • JR Motorsports Street Stock


  • Dallara DW12 IndyCar

Spec Cars:

  • Kia Optima Spec Racer

  • 2016 Mazda MX-5 Cup

  • 2012 Cadillac CTS-V

  • VW Jetta TDi Cup

  • Radical SR8

  • SCCA Spec Ford

  • Pontiac Solstice Club Sport

  • Formula Vee Racer

Off Road:

  • Lucas Oil Off-Road Pro 2 Truck

  • VW Beetle Rallycross

Oval Tracks:

  • Charlotte Motor Speedway (2008)

  • Charlotte Motor Speedway (2018)

  • Limaland Motorsports Park

  • Lanier National Speedway (Asphalt)

  • Lanier National Speedway (Dirt)

  • USA International Speedway (Asphalt)

  • USA International Speedway (Dirt)

  • Southern National Motorsports Park

  • Thompson Speedway

  • South Boston Speedway

  • Phoenix Raceway

  • Concord Speedway

  • Oxford Plains

  • Langley Speedway

  • Centripetal Circuit Skidpad

Road Circuits:

  • Tsukuba Circuit

  • Lime Rock Park (2008)

  • Lime Rock Park (2019)

  • Daytona International Speedway

  • Oran Park

  • Oulton Park

  • Laguna Seca

  • Okayama Circuit

  • Summit Point

Where to play iRacing

iRacing has always been exclusive to the Windows operating system, with no Playstation or Xbox versions available. However, the company's recent acquisition of Monster Games could point to a console-based port or spinoff in the future (via Jalopnik). In the meantime, the sim's advanced age means that it can run successfully on a wide range of modern PCs.

Once you've signed up for a subscription, you'll have to download iRacing's dedicated game launcher, which gives some of its age away. When the launcher is active, it works in conjunction with your computer's installed web browser. It's inside the browser where settings can be changed, content can be purchased, and online lobbies can be joined. When selecting a track, the player has the option to either race human opponents, or take practice laps on their own. AI drivers have also recently been added to the game, but haven't yet been implemented to all vehicles and courses.

Hardware requirements and compatibility

The iRacing site lists out system requirements. The current build of the sim is optimized for Windows 8.1 and 10 64-bit operating systems. At a minimum, it demands a four-core CPU, and 16 Gigabytes of Ram, but more is always better. The developer also recommends a dedicated graphics card with at least two Gigabytes of vRAM. However, we've been able to run the sim reliably at lower resolutions using on-board graphics. A stable internet connection is also a must for launching and playing this game.

As their site shows, iRacing features compatibility with Xbox and Playstation gamepads, as well as USB pads, but you'll want a dedicated racing wheel controller to really get the full experience. The sim is optimized for popular wheel options from Logitech, Thrustmaster, and Fanatec, with new compatibility as new peripherals are released. With a wheel, semi-automatic and full manual shifters can be used, along with a clutch pedal. iRacing can also be displayed through VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Pimax 5k, but doing so will require high-end graphical hardware. The game also supports ultra-widescreen monitors, and multi-screen setups, to give racers a more realistic field of view.

Graphical settings

Over its life, iRacing has received many graphical enhancements to bring it more in line with the modern gaming competition, but enabling them will naturally put more strain on PC components. In the options menu, players can adjust things like native resolution, field of view, full screen modes, and wheel calibration, but it's the more advanced settings that let the graphics really pop. Features like cars, pit objects, crowds, and the sky can be set from 'Low Detail' to 'High Detail' (via OverTake).

Clicking many of these into high will actually cause the game engine to render more scenery objects on screen, so leaving them in low is a good way to get the game running on lower-end machines. Other graphic-intensive effects include high res car textures, motion blur, heat haze particles, sharpening, and HDR lighting. A slider at the top menu can also allow the game to automatically adjust settings based on prioritizing either quality or framerate. Framerate can also be locked at a specific number, or unlimited. Two additional sliders down below can be used to limit the amount of vRAM and total RAM that iRacing has access to, but that will also limit performance.

Assists and driver classes

While iRacing is one of the more hardcore driving sims, it does include some assists, such as an automatic transmission, auto windshield wipers, driving line indicator, ABS, and traction control. A speed limiter can also be set to prevent speed penalties while pitting. While shifting manually, the game can be set to simulate either a sequential or stick shift gearbox. Clutch assist options are also available to rev-match downshifts, or to stop the car from stalling at low speeds. Be aware that iRacing only allows these assists to be used in 'rookie' class online events, or in private sessions.

iRacing groups players into one of six classes: Rookie, D, C, B, A, and Pro. Each successive rank will have access to more events, and is determined by a score called safety rating. As a driver completes clean laps and races, their safety rating will increase, and they'll eventually be allowed to advance to the next class. If they're constantly running off track or bumping into other players, however, their safety will decrease, and they'll be barred from higher competition.

Event types

In iRacing, there are three main event types, known as practice, time trial, and race. Users can take part in any of these event types. Practice sessions are unranked laps taken with other players on the track, similarly to a real-life track day. In these sessions, drivers can get a feel for the course and car, while recording their lap times. Incidents like vehicle contact, spinouts, or cutting corners will not negatively impact safety rating during practice.

Time trials are run by yourself, attempting several fast and clean laps to secure a high spot on the track's leaderboard. These trials can be used to bolster safety rating and advance classes. On the flipside, mistakes made in this mode can also decrease your rating, as they would in any other race. The biggest draw to iRacing is its large circuit, where drivers battle it out with either online competitors, or bot opponents.

Racing basics

Racing events are run at set times, usually at the top of every hour. After selecting an event, drivers are sorted into lobbies with open slots, where they wait until the race begins. While waiting, you have the option to join an in-lobby practice session, or to perform 'qualifying'. Qualifying is a short time trial that gives a driver exactly two laps to post their fastest times. This determines pole position, with the fastest drivers put up front at the starting line. If qualifying is skipped, you'll be put somewhere near the back of the pack.

iRacing supports up to 60 cars in one field, while races range from about 20 minutes, to over an hour. Each player starts out in their qualifying position, and attempts to advance up the pack while driving clean. Finishing these matches without crashing is the best way to increase safety rating. Individual races are created as part of grand prix-style series, with points tallied up at the end of a calendar season. Apart from public lobbies, players can also create private, custom events to invite their friends.

The service will occasionally run special extra-long events that replicate endurance races like the 24 Hours of Daytona, complete with team driver swaps mid-event (via CarThrottle). Other players can even take the roles of track spotters and crew chiefs.

Driving techniques

On the track, brake zones, corner apexes, and oval grooves are the most important things to be aware of. Advanced driving techniques like rev-matching and trail braking can also be used to shave precious seconds off your laps. All race courses have been laser-scanned by the iRacing team to pick up on the almost microscopic details of the road's surface (via Jalopnik). This method allows for each track to 'feel' as close as possible to its real-life counterpart, simulating every groove and bump along the way.

Giving a testimonial for iRacing.com, Dale Earhardt Jr. said of the sim, "Every inch of every track is modeled perfectly. I've used iRacing to learn new courses such as Virginia International Raceway, or to keep the rust off at tracks such as Infineon Raceway. For the hardcore sim racer, this is your dream simulation. For the real-world racer, this is your 'at-home' test vehicle."

During longer races, drivers have to pay attention to fuel and tire consumption, running pit stops to replenish resources. A dynamic day and night clock affects lighting conditions as the race goes on, while changing temperatures influence the way tires and tarmac react with one another. Mechanical damage is fully simulated, and repairs can be conducted in the pits. As the vehicle's body picks up dings and scrapes, deformed aerodynamics can cause slower lap times. If a collision is severe enough, vital components can even break off of the vehicle, and force retirement from an event.

Car and player customization

Like many other games, iRacing allows players to express themselves using custom paint schemes on their cars, as well as the look of their avatar's racing suit and helmet. The sim offers many presets for paint colors, livery patterns, driver numbers, and sponsor stickers that can easily be selected in the customization panel. For those who want complete freedom of expression, iRacing also allows players to import Photoshop templates with their custom designs.

This Photoshop compatibility makes it easy for players to download pre-made liveries, or share them with each other. A third-party website, called Trading Paints, has been established as a centralized host where iRacing players can show off their designs. Through this site, drivers can look for new paint jobs, download them right to their car, and follow their favorite design artists.

One such artist, Harris Lue, has had plenty of experience designing for both iRacing, and real-life NASCAR teams. Lue tells SlashGear that he's had an interest in art all his life, and iRacing has been a great tool to advance his career. "With the highly accurate models, easy to use [Photoshop] templates, and the clean interface created by Trading Paints, it's a great way to test out new ideas and concepts and your screenshots can even be used to show a real-world client how their car might look on track! It also allows for a nice break from reality where designers like me can play around and have fun."

eSports and cultural impact

Paying homage to its roots at Papyrus, iRacing gained the official use of NASCAR designs and branding in 2010, and this partnership has continued to the present day. In 2021, iRacing was even granted the honorary title of being "official simulation partner of NASCAR," to be used as a driver training tool. iRacing has also partnered with plenty of other real-life racing series along the way, including IndyCar, World of Outlaws, IMSA, and Australia's V8 Supercars.

NASCAR has been running officially sanctioned events inside the driving simulator for a long time, but the spotlight was really shone on these virtual races in 2020, when the mounting Covid pandemic forced large scale sports to be canceled on short notice. To prevent the season from being disrupted, many NASCAR and Indy events were moved to iRacing, with pro drivers logging in from their homes (via Washington Post and Racer). Most eSports events are broadcast on Twitch, but these simulated races made it onto mainstream TV, putting more eyes on the game than ever. Interest was renewed in iRacing, and the company reported over 160,000 active subscribers that year (via CNET). Soon after, legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. further cemented the relationship between the two brands by becoming an executive partner in iRacing's continued development.

iRacing in 2022

While in-person racing has more or less returned to the status quo, pro-level iRacing tournaments continue. For instance, the eNASCAR Coca Cola series pits 40 of the top oval drivers against each other for a chance at $300,000 in total prize money. To enter, players with an A class license need to advance through several qualifying series, so the competition is fierce. These sanctioned events are often broadcast with commentators across Twitch, Youtube, and Facebook, and drivers are allowed to display paid sponsors on their cars just like many other motorsports. The Skip Barber Formula series is offering an even higher purse with $500,000 total prizes (via Racer).

iRacing's story in many ways is a contradiction. Its simulation engine is nearly 20 years old, yet consistently updated to keep up with the competition. While other games get sequels, or just get forgotten, iRacing maintains its reputation and popularity. The subscription model and low hardware requirements mean that just about anyone can pick up the title, but only dedicated racers will stick with it and advance up the ranks. It's rare for a game to have this much longevity, but we wouldn't be shocked if iRacing's team is charting out another decade of service.