Pa­ge­naud wins vir­tual race

Sim­u­lated event took place at Michi­gan

Times Standard (Eureka) - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

IndyCar’s vir­tual re­turn to Michi­gan In­ter­na­tional Speed­way mim­icked the U.S. 500 at the start, when the cur­rent open­wheel rac­ing stars mis­man­aged the green flag and trig­gered a spec­tac­u­lar crash.

The ac­ci­dent in the open­ing sec­onds of the Chevro­let 275 iRac­ing event gave Satur­day’s lat­est event a throw­back feel. When CART frac­tured and IndyCar was born, the CART teams boy­cotted the In­di­anapo­lis 500 and in­stead raced at Michi­gan. The al­ter­na­tive 1996 race opened with a huge wreck that only punc­tu­ated the ab­sur­dity of the split in Amer­i­can open-wheel rac­ing.

So when mul­ti­ple cars crashed be­fore even reach­ing the vir­tual start/fin­ish line, IndyCar was briefly scram­bling for the re­set but­ton.

“Stay with us, guys! Stay with us!” driver Conor Daly pleaded on his stream­ing ser­vice as iRac­ing of­fi­cials sorted out the mess.

“It’s go­ing to be great. Once the McLaren cars have crashed,” promised Daly.

The vir­tual cleanup took time as driv­ers lob­bied race con­trol

to de­lay the green so they could fin­ish their tow and re­join the field. An of­fi­cial fi­nally told them to be quiet.

“The show is more im­por­tant than where you guys fin­ish in the race. I’m sorry, we will de­brief af­ter the race,” the driv­ers were told by an iRac­ing of­fi­cial, who added no more cau­tions would be called.

And so they tried again with the third round of this vir­tual rac­ing se­ries cre­ated to give IndyCar content dur­ing the sports shut­down from the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. IndyCar’s sea­son was sus­pended 48 hours be­fore its sched­uled opener.

Michi­gan marked the first oval track on IndyCar’s vir­tual sched­ule and reign­ing In­di­anapo­lis 500 win­ner Si­mon Pa­ge­naud won the race. IndyCar has not ac­tu­ally raced at Michi­gan since 2007, and only five of the driv­ers in the vir­tual re­turn had ever raced the track be­fore.

“This is the most stress­ful I’ve ever felt in a race car,” Pa­ge­naud said with­out a hint of sar­casm.

He com­peted wear­ing his ac­tual fire­suit and his wife handed him a bot­tle of con­grat­u­la­tory cham­pagne as the French­man took the vir­tual check­ered flag.

The race fea­tured a guest ap­pear­ance from avid iRacer and new NASCAR Hall of Fame nom­i­nee Dale Earn­hardt Jr., who lob­bied for an in­vite and re­ceived one from IndyCar to join the field. As he slid in to his sim­u­la­tor for the race, broad­cast live on NBC Sports, his gam­ing skills and ex­pe­ri­ence at Michi­gan showed.

Earn­hardt fin­ished a sur­pris­ing third, be­hind the Team Penske duo of Pa­ge­naud and Scott McLaugh­lin, win­ner of last week’s iRac­ing event at vir­tual Bar­ber Mo­tor­sports Park in Alabama.

“I was try­ing at the end to hold off Dale Jr. — I never thought I’d say that,” said

McLaugh­lin, the Aus­tralian V8 Su­per­Cars cham­pion com­pet­ing from a sim­u­la­tor in Bris­bane at day­break lo­cal time.

Earn­hardt saved fuel and used pa­tience to score a podium fin­ish.

“I had fun rac­ing all those guys, a lot of them were pretty ticked off how the strat­egy worked out af­ter that crash,” Earn­hardt said. “The fastest cars prob­a­bly didn’t win to­day, and the best SIM rac­ers prob­a­bly didn’t win to­day.”

Earn­hardt said he’d com­pete in an IndyCar iRace again, es­pe­cially if its an oval, and he lob­bied for both Day­tona and In­di­anapo­lis.

NASCAR seven-time

cham­pion Jim­mie John­son did not play for the first week. John­son en­tered the first two IndyCar events as he plans for fu­ture real IndyCar rac­ing, but he’s said he won’t race ovals in an Indy car in real life — a sen­ti­ment that ap­par­ently car­ried over to his sim­u­lated car.

The field had a whop­ping 31 en­trants, the most yet in this se­ries, as An­dretti Au­tosport got its full driver lineup into the race. Marco An­dretti and Ryan Hun­terReay made their IndyCar iRac­ing de­buts Satur­day, along with James Dav­i­son and Max Chilton, who stopped rac­ing ovals in real life in the mid­dle of last sea­son.

Robert Wick­ens was in the field for the sec­ond straight week af­ter ini­tial is­sues in get­ting him a sim­u­la­tor and steer­ing wheel he could con­trol with his hands. Wick­ens in­jured his spinal cord in a 2018 crash and needed a spe­cial wheel to be able to par­tic­i­pate. Max Papis’ com­pany sent him one that he was able to con­nect to use at Michi­gan for a 26th-place fin­ish.

Sage Karam won IndyCar’s first iRac­ing event and led the most laps at Michi­gan but pit­ted from the lead for fuel with 14 laps re­main­ing. Will Power in­her­ited the lead but also had to stop, and Pagean­uad pounced into the lead.

TERRY RENNA — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS, FILE

Acura Team Penske driver Si­mon Pa­ge­naud, left, signs au­to­graphs be­fore the Rolex 24-hour auto race at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way on Jan. 25in Day­tona Beach, Fla.

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