April 29th, 2016 by Nick Neben
On April Fools Day we were all shocked at the news of #DIRTCONFIRMED. Was it real? Was iRacing just playing with our emotions? So we waited and speculated and hoped for an answer. Finally three days later we had the answer, dirt was on its way, and the excitement exploded in the sim-racing community.
So what is so exciting about going in circles on dirt? It’s a track that is constantly evolving in big swings from the start of the race to the end of it that adds a new element to racing. It’s watching a driver pound the right rear off a cushion to sling shot past the leader out of a corner. It’s sliding sideways to go as fast as you can through the corners on a tacky track. It’s the throttle control riding the bottom on a dry slick surface. It’s the multiple grooves that form where the drivers are racing. It’s watching the cushion slowly move up next to a wall, to where only the brave drivers dare to put it on the edge. It’s all of these things and more . . . and it’s hugely popular throughout the USA and Canada, as well as Australia, New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere.
So if dirt racing has all of these things, will iRacing be able to give us this same experience in the sim? That is the question we have yet to have answered. Thankfully, iRacing president Tony Gardner has been generous enough to field my questions at this early stage in development to provide all of us some insight on what we can expect when the rubber meets the dirt.
Q: With the current dynamic tracks heat and rubber are the two key factors that determine the grip available. Will moisture be part of this calculation when it comes to the tackiness of dirt? Will “loose” dirt move up the track like marbles? Can a cushion form as this groove moves?
A: The dirt, dirt physics and graphics are in the research and development phase but I will answer your question based on what we are trying to accomplish and the work done to date. The answer is yes, moisture is part of the formula for dirt and it will dynamically change as you progress in the race. The moisture in the dirt is also dynamically impacted by the weather at the track.
Also, yes, physics-wise the dirt will move around the track and grooves or ruts should form. In fact, if you get down to the deadpan layer technically rubber could even start to build up. A cushion could or will form if that is what the racing dictates. There will be a soft, loose layer of dirt on top and beneath that, the hard dead-pan layer as I mentioned. Each track could be different in terms of the loose layer’s depth and composition, the hard layer, etc. Graphically or visually we are also are trying to match the physics with the dirt moving and building up.
Q: Will moisture be part of the dynamic weather of the track’s starting state? For example, one race could start with a wetter (tackier) track (with less chance of “rubbering” up), the next race could start with a dryer track (a dry slick track that takes rubber easier)?
A: Yes. The weather will impact the moisture content just as it does the asphalt track surface currently. Yes, we could start every race with a different dirt state so each race could be different; but just the weather alone — if that is different– will change things in regard to racing..
The state of the dirt could change because of multiple factors such as moisture, or we could have track conditions be “slightly-used,” “used” or “all torn-up” with ruts as sometimes happens in the real world with heat races going off one after another, for example.
Frankly, that is one of several questions we are currently giving a lot of thought. The good news is we have that advantage over the real world: We don’t have to start a race in a torn-up state. We can start with the track in perfect condition for racing every time . . . or not. I’m sure in hosted or league racing for example, the league admin will have that choice. We have not discussed that in any detail for our official series. I just know that, in talking to the engineer, it will be possible. I tend to think we will start every dirt race in a clean state for official racing.
“We don’t have to start a race in a torn-up state. We can start with the track in perfect condition for racing every time . . . or not.” – Tony Gardner
Q: Will surface changes, such as cushions, and ruts, be a three dimensional graphic, or just a two dimensional grip change?
A: It is 2D for now with (we hope) the illusion of 3D with moving and blending textures, but that is all in development. What we are doing has never been done before and we are pretty excited about it. A next step if we go there as an engineering project is to provide the artists support for 3D for the dirt graphics. That is not in the initial phase plans however.
Q: Will any of these developments help make grass, dirt, and sand more realistic for the paved courses?
A: Yes. For example, now in iRacing dirt and grass, etc. kick-up from the tires. Because of this project not only will the dirt, grass kick up from the tires, it will stay on the asphalt surface. In theory, cars driving through it could cook-up some dust etc.
Q: One of the things you see most at the track is walls and cars getting mud/dirt on them; the walls usually have to be scraped clean if the track is wet midway through the night and cars gain weight as the race goes on. Is this something that will be looked at to see how it affects the racing and scenery?
A: Yes, the plan is the cars will pick-up dirt, and for the weight to impact the physics of the cars as the race moves on.
Q: Another key element of dirt racing is that mud/dirt goes into the cockpit and onto the driver’s visor. Will we have a tear off button to remove if they get dirty during the race, like we do with the pavement stock car windshields?
A: Yes, we plan on having tear-offs in some form to remove the dirt.
Q: Currently iRacing’s format is a single race for a server, recently qualifying was introduced into the system. Is there any chance that iRacing would work a way to do heat/qualifying races to expand the event to be more than just one single race for an event? Let’s say there are 20 cars in the event, can the system be built to have 10 cars do a heat race while the other 10 drivers watch, and then do a second heat race with the other 10 drivers, and then line the “feature” race up by the finishing order of those heats?
A: We have a tournament feature in our hosted area that works in a similar way to heat races. However, I don’t see that included as a feature of official racing “soon.” It would be a separate and very large engineering project.
Q: It appears that dirt will be split into road and oval and have its own iR and SR ratings, will everyone start at the normal level as we did back when the service started in 2008, or will calculations be made based on the driver’s paved rating?
A: Adding the new license types is a large project, especially on the web engineering side, but that is the current plan. Yes, everyone would start at the same level and the history of other licenses would not factor into the dirt licenses. It should be fun to have this many people (60,000+) all start together at the same level with a new form of racing within our centralized structure.
Q: One concern raised by Steve Myers (iRacing executive vice president and executive producer) was that entry to the track from the outside made it unsafe for practice and races if someone was leaving a pit road outside of the track. This eliminates many tracks on the paved and dirt side, and also requires iRacing to break from their traditional “make it as real as possible” stance. Has any thought been put into a solution for this where the pits may be outside, but for practice you are staged in the infield when you click “join track.” During the race the entrance to the track could just be closed unless the race was under caution. Is that possible to do to allow tracks such as The Chili Bowl in Tulsa?
A: I don’t think most find starting from the outside fun, at least in real racing, and I have talked to many real-world racers about that. They don’t enjoy entering high speed traffic from the outside, especially when they’re not up to speed. I think it’s the same for us; it will be difficult enough without adding that into the equation. We will not have people pitting in different places based on the session type: The pits will be the pits. If a real-world track starts from the outside and we want to build it, our current thinking would be to either figure out a way to place pit row on the inside or simply pass on building that particular track.
“Most things are possible – all it takes is enough time and money!” – Tony Gardner
Q: Speaking of yellows, dirt racing does not count yellows to the race distance, and they do not finish under yellow, will iRacing be working on this, and will that also provide a GWC format for the NASCAR Series if it is?
A: We have some plans to adjust our automated race control for both oval dirt and dirt road/rally racing. I don’t want to get into specifics now beyond that. We also will be looking at how the contact and control incidents points work for dirt racing and likely make some adjustments from that perspective as well.
Q: Most series also revert back to the standings for the last lap, rather than the point when the yellow waived. Is this a possibility to add as an option for hosted rules, and for a series to select which format is used?
A: Most things are possible – all it takes is enough time and money! However, as I mention previously, I don’t want to get that specific yet about race control issues for dirt racing. Generally speaking, the large domain of automated race control is very complicated to engineer and we will do the best we can. We do have some things already planned and other things may evolve in that regard. For that matter, generally speaking, I don’t think we have to copy every little thing in race control that happens in the real world to make this fun. Don’t forget: We are our own sanctioning body.
Q: I mentioned the Chili Bowl in Tulsa. Obviously that is one of the biggest races of the year in dirt, but it also takes place on a very small track. How driven is iRacing to put a midget and this track in the service? Do you see a week-long event to recreate the qualifying nights and main events for The Chili Bowl?
A: I’m sure we will be adding more dirt cars to iRacing. We are motivated to do many things including adding more dirt cars. We understand to dirt racers they are all different forms of racing. Right now we are starting with Clint Bowyer’s Super Late Model for Oval and the Ford Fiesta on the road side.
Q: A lot of the dirt cars have massive amounts of weight transfer in their suspension. Visually, the late model changes a ton if you are using a setup that pulls the left front off the ground. Is this something that will be easy to reproduce in the sim, and through net code when viewing the other drivers around you?
A: You’re asking if the car will visually change due to the suspension changing due to the weight of the dirt? Wow, these are some detailed questions! In theory there would be visual changes, but we don’t have the car in alpha yet so we will see what happens. Honestly, I have never asked that question internally.
Q: The Late Model also has a few configurations that leagues may want to use, such as topless, and the ultimate crazy, sideboards. Is this something that iRacing would be able to give us in one single car like what was done with the RUF? Would a limited late model (smaller engine) also be available as a lower series while we only have one new car coming for dirt?
A: I would have to gather several people in a meeting to give you an answer. Questions like that come down to the exact detail differences from car to car, along with a lot of research, to provide the answer. The various versions of the RUF were based mainly on the different physics, engine HP from model to model, rather than different external car bodies. In any case, we have not discussed different configurations specific to the Dirt Late Model. At the very least it would only delay the development of the car, even if that was the plan. Our plan right now for the first cars is to build the exact car we scanned at Clint Bowyer’s shop and do the same thing with the Ford Fiesta Global Rallycross car we scanned.
Q: With the amount of different rules and types of dirt cars, such as 305, 360, and 410 sprints, winged or wingless would iRacing try and offer multiple types of configurations for one car for hosted and testing for real drivers?
A: As with the various configurations of the Late Model, it’s nothing we have discussed at this point.
Q: iRacing’s partnership with NASCAR has been a huge part of making the top tier paved series more authentic. Will iRacing pursue the same type of partnership with World Of Outlaws, USAC, IMCA, and other sanctioning series? Do you envision a Dirt World Championship in the future?
A: Anything is possible. Our main goal right now is to work on the feature and a new form of racing. In a case like this, we find it is better to have those type of licensing and business discussions once something is tangible.
Q: Spotters and virtual mirrors are used in all of our current series, obviously we don’t have the same awareness in sim as we would in real life, will these still be available with these cars?
A: Sure, we can have that. I would think we are going to include features like that for these cars to make the driving safer since, as you point out, in the virtual world the awareness of the surrounding is not as good typically as is in the real world for most people.
“Developing the dirt model has already helped us improve the overall surface model. I know it is helping some overall art and graphical techniques as well.” – Tony Gardner
Q: Do you think working on dirt oval and rallycross will help improve areas in their paved counterparts? If so what, can working on this project bring to the series we currently have?
A: As far as overall development, yes, it will help some other things. As I mentioned earlier, developing the dirt model has already helped us improve the overall surface model. I know it is helping some overall art and graphical techniques as well. In the future, it could probably help with “alternate” surfaces on our existing asphalt circuits when you go off track but, at least for the near future, that likely will not be the case. I think the other big thing is that dirt racing will attract additional customers to iRacing and the resulting revenue will help fund the overall development. Additionally, those new members will also compete in our “regular” pavement road and oval series – which is a good thing. I think simply building the size of the overall community has many advantages.
Q: Since the announcement about dirt racing how would you compare the hype among fans and pro drivers? Do you feel there has been more outreach by professionals to give their input?
A: They excitement has been great. More pro drivers reached out to us in the first week to express their excitement than I can ever remember, and that includes both sides of the pond.
Q: How has the outreach been from tracks since the members started giving contact info. At this point how many tacks are getting close to being signed?
A: The reaction has been excellent. There’s no shortage of tracks, that’s for sure! There is no way we can build all of them; we can’t build everyone’s favorite local track regardless if it’s asphalt or dirt. Like any other aspect of racing, be it oval tracks and cars or road courses and cars, our goal is to build a great inventory over time in order to offer people a good variety. We also will probably add some Dirt Oval/Rally Road circuits to some existing iRacing asphalt tracks. That way we can start with a good inventory and, as another benefit, members who already own the asphalt versions of those tracks will get some free “dirt” tracks.
Q: The biggest question: iRacing’s video on dirt sim racing said 2016. Is this a possibility? How soon do you plan on scanning Eldora?
A: Eldora is being scanned this week! I know the video said it’s possible we’ll roll out dirt racing this year, but we shall see. That is certainly the goal and it is possible, but I don’t like to predict release dates, especially for something like this.
Q: During the scanning process, how is the surface going to be translated to something that can work in sim? Will the scanning be done after a race, or while the track is torn up? How do you plan to keep the high fidelity of the surface?
A: Some of this is new, so it’s both a research and a development project. New techniques are being developed in the way we handle the surface scans and production of the surface. What we are doing for several of the dirt track laser scans (including next week at Williams Grove Speedway) is scanning the track surface in its “perfect” pre-race state, and then scanning a second time after a race or races.
Q: How long has iRacing been working on this project? Has it been easier or harder than expected than paved tracks?
A: We have been working on this for several months, but I guess the real answer is “it depends on what you mean by ‘working on it.’” First off, we really have just a small group of people focused on the project, although they are getting lots of support from the larger team.
One of the big factors necessary to creating fair, multi-player dirt racing was our new surface model. And that includes all the new net and server code to go along with the new surface model in regard to transmitting multi-player surface track state. That was 18+ months of work before we could even begin thinking seriously about dirt. But without that essential foundation, multi-player dirt racing would not be possible. Other things like some of the new graphic projects we have done or are already doing are also helping make dirt racing graphically possible.
Of course, part of the consideration in doing those projects was that we knew they would open up exciting new possibilities, like adding dirt. That is why you can’t always judge one particular development item in isolation. There are usually multiple reasons for taking-on any new project, and that especially includes its potential long term impact on other areas. So in that sense, if you include those necessary ‘pre-projects’ for dirt, we have been working on dirt not for several months but for well over two or three years.
Last part of question . . . it probably is not really productive to compare the development of dirt racing to the development of asphalt racing; or, to put it better, it’s impossible to answer the question. Creating and developing paved tracks was a huge volume of work; our full team was involved in the project for years. But we weren’t “just” building tracks: We were building a sim and building all the proprietary tools to build the tracks . . . and figuring-out the laser scanning and production process . . . not to mention the cars, physics models and tires . . . and all the other stuff needed to build the entire centralized service, competition and racing structure. Now that is all done, so in that regard, dirt is a lot easier – at least we hope so!!!
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