Future Tense

The Anger Over a Virtual IndyCar Crash Exposed the Fragile Facade of Competition

A virtual car spins and flips over another car on a racetrack.
Santino Ferrucci, driver of No. 18, spins Oliver Askew, driver of No. 7, at the finish during the IndyCar iRacing Challenge First Responder 175 at the virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 2, in Indianapolis. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The suspension of practically all sports during the coronavirus pandemic has led to a lack of sports feuds. No one’s getting plunked in the ass with a baseball, or shoving an opponent on a basketball court, or being racist in soccer. On May 2, an online simulation racing league aimed to fill the beefless void when the shortened, virtual version of the Indy 500 went from a serious race to something resembling the final lap in a round of Mario Kart.

The IndyCar First Responder 175, the conclusion of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge series, was treated as a legitimate event by the organizers. NBCSN had a commentating booth for the broadcast of the 70-lap race, and there was even a pregame national anthem played out of some misguided patriotic duty. The competition used a virtual version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, via the online video game iRacing. Some of the 33 drivers had elaborate gaming setups, with spotters and crews. IndyCar driver Simon Pagenaud wore a firesuit as he streamed his efforts. It was intended to be as true to life as possible, until that pretense was lost at the end of the race.

The first tiff happened in the 63rd lap, with a threewide battle involving (from left to right) Lando Norris, Graham Rahal, and Pagenaud. Norris cleanly took the inside, and Rahal bumped Pagenaud into the wall, causing him to crash out of the top three. The other two drivers tried to blame Norris, whose maneuver was clean. For his part, last week Norris blamed the crash on a laggy internet connection, saying he wasn’t trying to nudge anyone.

After the wreck, when Pagenaud came out of the pit, he said something along the lines of “We take Lando out—let’s do it.” Three laps later, he dramatically slowed down in front of Norris, causing both cars to crash. Pagenaud’s excuse was that he was trying to pull in for a pit stop but also slow Norris down. Video of the incident makes that hard to believe. An exasperated Norris repeated Pagenaud’s explanation in a post-race interview, though he clearly didn’t buy it.

As Vice’s Rob Zacny laid out in his thorough article on the fiasco, there’s a little backstory to this part of the beef. Norris, an enthusiastic participant in sim racing, is a Formula One driver. The weekend before this race, he had dusted a field of IndyCar drivers on a track used by both classes. There might have been resentment about an outsider showing up the field, and Pagenaud, a 35-year-old who had won two events earlier in the series, took that incidental contact as an opportunity to lose his cool, even though Norris wasn’t at fault.

The spat between Pagenaud and Norris was small potatoes compared with what Santino Ferrucci did to Oliver Askew in the final stretch. With Askew in the lead, right before the finish line, Ferrucci gave up on fighting for the victory and instead bumped into Askew’s rear tire, sending both drivers’ cars spinning. Scott McLaughlin ended up with the win.

“I just didn’t expect the cars to go sideways,” Ferrucci said after the race. “That’s my bad, and I’m sorry for doing that to Oliver because that was definitely his race there.” Once again, the video told a different story.

On his own stream, Ferrucci was smiling from ear to ear at the chaos he had caused. “That was so worth it,” he said, adding that he did it “for the fans.” When other drivers on the audio channel complained, Ferrucci told them not to take it so seriously. In his post-race interview, he tried to seem contrite.

“All said, at the end of the day, it’s a video game, and I think we all had a ton of fun,” the 21-year-old said. “Coming to the line, man, it’s not anything you’d ever do in real life.”

There is one driver who would try something like that in real life: Santino Ferrucci. In July 2018, he was banned for four Formula Two races and fined after he intentionally bumped into the back of his own teammate, Arjun Maini; got caught in his car wearing only one glove as he used his other hand for his phone; and skipped a hearing about the incident. In an unrelated stunt that same month, Ferrucci and his father lobbied to have “Make America Great Again” affixed to his car, even though he was subject to global auto racing regulations that ban any political symbols or messages on vehicles. Eventually his team, Trident Racing, fired him. In August 2019, Ferrucci said he had no regrets.

It’s convenient to lump together the behavior of Pagenaud and Ferrucci in the recent virtual race, as both their choices would have had serious or possibly fatal consequences had they happened in real life. But the two incidents are not exactly the same. Pagenaud wanted revenge on a competitor who had supposedly wronged him earlier in the race. As he set out to specifically target Norris, Pagenaud was still making his decisions within the reality of the race. His excuse for wrecking Norris wasn’t at all convincing, but the move came from a desire derived from the competition. The event still held value to him.

Ferrucci—who has a history of being an unlikable troll—chose to ruin the reality for the other drivers, the crews, and everyone watching. Everyone accepts iRacing is a video game. Pickup basketball isn’t the NBA, but the participants still perceive it as a competition, even if they’re pros. The iRacing series had no implications for actual IndyCar results, but the draw for fans was to see their favorite drivers compete in something, anything, with a pandemic keeping everyone at home. No one was under the assumption that this was real life, but they were willing to accept that a victory held value.

Given the circumstances and medium, that line between reality and kabuki is so thin—thinner than what keeps fans of pro wrestling invested. Be it basketball, video games, or snail racing, an audience is drawn to stakes. If a contestant quits trying to achieve the predetermined goal and then punts the basketball—or, more cruelly, the snail—it breaks the illusion to everyone else. This competition they cared about no longer matters. It becomes a silly game.

Had a TV network gathered all these pro drivers for a Mario Kart tournament, no one would have cared if any of the virtual vehicles had rammed into one another. That would have been within the spirit of the competition. The event that was held was reliant on the notion that this was as close as we could get right now to real racing. Ferrucci found himself in the event’s most pivotal moment and chose to break the illusion for anyone who had devoted their time to caring about it, from the fans who contributed a couple of hours of attention to the drivers who spent much more in preparation. In the end, that shouldn’t be surprising. His actions leading up to that moment, including during times when the stakes were higher, never suggested that he had much regard for anyone else.

Thanks to Hang Up and Listen listener Kenny, who wrote in to Slate about this story. Listen to an episode of the show below, or subscribe to it on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.