Jimmie Johnson’s time in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was off to a rough start.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and 83-time race winner is considered among the greatest stock car drivers of all time — and rightfully so. Naturally, when racing paused amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson put himself up to the challenge of competing against his peers virtually in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, despite zero prior sim racing experience.
However, as Johnson quickly learned, getting up to speed in iRacing requires a bit of a different skill set than what made him one of NASCAR’s all-time greats.
Johnson’s iRacing debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway was, in a word, memorable. Not in the gutsy-drive-to-win-a-seventh-championship sense, but, well … let’s just say it provided some meme fodder.
— nascarcasm (@nascarcasm) March 22, 2020
I hope everyone enjoyed that today. I clearly have a ton to learn. 😂
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 22, 2020
It was clear after his Pro Invitational Series debut that Seven-Time needed some remedial lessons in virtual racing. That’s when one G.O.A.T. connected with another.
Ray Alfalla, four-time eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion, knows how to get the job done when it comes to sim racing. He’s racked up 24 victories — the most of anybody, and by a lot — in the Coca-Cola Series, NASCAR and iRacing’s elite level of professional gaming. He’s unquestionably the most successful driver in series history — the Jimmie Johnson of iRacing, if you will. If there were an iRacing Hall of Fame, he’d be a unanimous first-ballot lock.
Alfalla also is a coach for Virtual Racing School, a platform where sim racing pros provide tools and training for racers looking for more speed. And, when you think about it, who’s more qualified to teach than someone so immersed — not to mention successful — in iRacing? The raised-on-sim-racing 30-year-old cut his teeth racing online in pre-iRacing titles and even scored a championship in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s invitation-only DMP Racing League as a teenager.
It was Dale Jr. who helped Alfalla make the connection with his newest student, Jimmie Johnson.
“Props to Junior for getting this going,” Alfalla said of pairing up with Johnson. “After seeing Jimmie struggle at Homestead, I went to Dale and asked him to put me in contact. Dale did, and Jimmie was immediately receptive to help.”
The duo’s first week was less focused on racing and more centered around navigating iRacing’s technical requirements — the computery part of it all. Walking before running.
“The biggest challenge was probably operating Windows,” Alfalla laughed. “Getting him used to all the little details, from downloading third-party software, to learning how to navigate iRacing. All these things take time, and he had to do it within a few days.”
When Johnson eventually did hit the track with Alfalla, however, it was quickly evident that some of those natural racing skills transferred to the virtual world.
“His race craft was immediately there,” Alfalla said of his first on-track race session with Johnson. “He made several bold moves and left everyone quite impressed — but not surprised. He’s Jimmie freakin’ Johnson, after all.”
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 26, 2020
Still, there are adjustments — particularly around comfort and feeling — a driver needs to make in the transition from real-world racing to sim racing. Even a skilled champion like Jimmie Johnson isn’t immune to the learning curve.
“Getting him used to not having a seat-of-the-pants feel was the biggest challenge,” Alfalla said. “Most real-world drivers are used to feeling the car with their entire body, and finding the grip limit that way. On iRacing, it’s mostly visual, with some feedback on the wheel and some auditory cues.”
After some initial lessons, Alfalla continued to support Johnson by working alongside real-world No. 48 crew chief Cliff Daniels on Pro Invitational Series race day.
Getting ready for today's #ProInvitationalSeries @TXMotorSpeedway! We've been working hard to get @JimmieJohnson ready, thanks to @TeamSlipAngle and @realVRS. We'll be on the pit box today with @DanielsCliff.
Tune in at 1 ET on FOX! pic.twitter.com/4ZillOnWJM
— Ray Alfalla (@rayalfalla) March 29, 2020
The improvement Johnson showed with just a week under Alfalla’s tutelage was impressive. In a week’s time, Seven-Time went from clueless to competent, putting up some not-half-bad efforts in the Pro Invitational events at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, as well as an IndyCar crossover event.
Such a cool experience, they were amazing. I had no idea how deep the layers go in the world of sim racing. https://t.co/m80je7gtOx
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) March 28, 2020
— Ray Alfalla (@rayalfalla) April 6, 2020
The iRacing champ might have even learned a thing or two himself from Seven-Time.
“I learned quite a bit about Jimmie’s driving style, with input from his crew chief Cliff Daniels,” Alfalla said. “I had questions about how the real cars drove, and how they compared to what we have on iRacing; needless to say, Jimmie and Cliff had insightful answers.”
Now, as the NASCAR Cup Series prepares to return to action May 17 at Darlington Raceway, Alfalla turns his focus back from coaching Jimmie Johnson to his own eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season, where he currently sits tied for 14th in points after six races in 2020.
Like Johnson, Alfalla has struggled to reach Victory Lane recently; his last win came in the 2018 championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway — Alfalla’s home track, where he watched Johnson hoist all seven of his NASCAR Cup Series championship trophies.
“We’ve had very successful careers and get called G.O.A.T.,” Alfalla said of his similarities with Johnson. “With that being said, both of us have had a couple rough years and we’re looking to get back on top.”
Regardless, Alfalla’s goal to win a fifth Coca-Cola Series title and the champion’s $100,000 prize remains steadfast — once he reaches the top eight in points to become eligible for playoffs in October first, of course.
“Once you make that coveted top eight, anything can happen in those final four races. OK, fine — the goal is the championship.”
Catch the next round of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series from Charlotte Motor Speedway Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET at eNASCAR.com/live.