Red Sox Owner’s Simulation Startup, iRacing.com, Waves the Green Flag

In Boston and Seattle, the professional sports teams aren’t just for entertainment—they’re managed by some of the biggest movers and shakers in the two regions’ high-tech economies. In the Seattle area, the Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers are part of Vulcan Inc., owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The Kraft Group, owner of the New England Patriots, has built one of the NFL’s most advanced websites and has spun off a startup, Matchmine, that’s doing pathbreaking work in the area of online content and shopping recommendations. Many of the Banner 17, the group of financiers that owns the Boston Celtics, are partners at Boston-area venture capital and private equity firms. Over at the Red Sox, pitcher Curt Schilling is the founder of 38 Studios, which is building a massively multiplayer online (MMO) adventure game set to debut in 2011.

And now you can add one more connection between the sports and high-tech worlds. Yesterday marked the public debut of iRacing.com, an Internet-based auto racing simulation system created by John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox and co-owner of Roush (no relation to me) Fenway Racing, and Dave Kaemmer, co-founder of Papyrus Design Group, which developed several of the best known PC racing games, including NASCAR Racing: 2003 Season and Grand Prix Legends. (In 1995 Papyrus became part of Sierra Entertainment, which was long headquartered in Bellevue, WA.)

The Bedford, MA, company has been working on its simulation—which combines PC-based software with a subscription-based Internet service that allows participants to race against each other—since 2004. The company has a staff of 42, half in Bedford and half (primarily digital artists and software engineers) working remotely, according to Scott McKee, iRacing’s vice president of marketing. If you’re familiar with the way most big commercial videogames are developed these days, you’ll realize that 42 is a tiny number; major console and PC games like 2K Boston’s Bioshock or Electronic Arts’ Spore (which comes out September 7) involve hundreds of developers and artists and have Hollywood-scale production and marketing budgets.

Mazda -- iRacingBut iRacing goes out of its way to explain that its simulation system is not a game, and isn’t being produced or marketed like one. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘game’ is a four-letter word to us, but we don’t think of ourselves as a game company,” says McKee. “What we offer is really the world’s most sophisticated commercially available racing simulation, conceived and designed with a very discriminating customer in mind—professional racers. We want to create a software package that will help them learn new tracks, hone their skills, or knock off the rust if they’ve been out of the car for a while. It’s really a driver development tool.”

McKee says he used iRacing to learn his way around Virginia International Raceway—one of two dozen tracks currently available in the simulation—before going there to participate in an amateur race. “I’d never driven the track before,” McKee says. “I spent about half an hour a day for three weeks driving the sim in a comparable car, and when I got there I was immediately up to speed.” So to speak.

Of course, you don’t have to be a real-world racer to use iRacing.com. On Tuesday, after a month of beta testing and two months in invitation-only mode, the company opened its simulations to anyone 13 or over who has a credit card, a Windows PC (sorry, Mac users), a broadband Internet connection, and a wheel-and-pedal set. (These PC accessories are available from joystick and mouse manufacturers such as Logitech and Microsoft.) Subscriptions cost … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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