See a 17-Year-Old Online NASCAR Champ Get His First Real Drive

·Editor at Large

Michael Conti had a busy 2014. In 16 NASCAR-sanctioned races, from Daytona to Las Vegas, the 17-year-old Conti won three times and led twice as many laps as his nearest competitor. Whether on an oval track or road course, Conti often finished several seconds ahead of a packed field.

And he did it all from his bedroom in suburban New Jersey, after work bagging groceries.

In 2014, Conti won the NASCAR world title in the highly competitive arena of online racing, becoming the youngest person in its history to do so. iRacing is known as the pinnacle of the sport; not a game like Sony’s GranTurismo and Microsoft’s Forza, but a pure racing simulator, with thousands of drivers from around the world running on tracks and cars as detailed as possible.

Despite his passion for online racing, Conti has never driven anything faster than his dad’s 2003 Chevy Impala. Due to the high cost of ownership, Conti doesn’t own a car and hasn’t driven one in more than four months — or at least he hadn’t, until Yahoo Autos took him to Las Vegas Motor Speedway and put him behind the wheel of a real NASCAR for the first time.

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Like his racing, Conti’s fame is mostly virtual and largely unnoticed by his classmates at Passaic Valley High School in Woodland Park, N.J: “One day I want people to know me as a real NASCAR driver,” he says, just like his hero, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Conti has raced against Jr. online; Earnhardt, like many pro racers in NASCAR and other series, has an iRacing account and competes regularly to stay sharp and refresh his memory of various tracks. “I beat him a couple of times,” Conti says about racing the two-time Daytona 500 champion: “He beat me. So, it was like a 50/50 split.”

Looking around his bedroom of his mother’s apartment, it’s an all-Chevy affair, with a gold bowtie gracing the hood of every diecast model car on display. The walls are festooned in NASCAR memorabilia – like pictures of Dale Jr. in victory lane, a Budweiser jacket from his childhood and a giant Goodyear blimp hanging from the ceiling above his hand-made computer desk, next to which is his prized iRacing championship-winning trophy.
 
Next, he shows me his racing setup, which even by online standards looks dead simple. Home racing-game controls can run into the thousands of dollars, but Conti uses a $250 Logitech G27 steering wheel and pedals, and his homebuilt PC looks powerful but nothing out of the ordinary. Conti sits in his racing chair, engulfed by three computer screens synced to offer a more realistic, wrap-around view from behind the wheel.

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He’s running a few laps on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track he’ll be driving in one of the stock cars from the Richard Petty Driving Experience. The engine noise rattles the walls in his mom’s apartment to the point where we worry about aggravating the neighbors: “These speakers are new,” he shouts. “My old ones broke the other day after, like, 12 years.”

For $49.50 a year, iRacing’s users get to practice their skills in conditions that are as close to reality as possible, mimicking everything from Formula 1 to club-spec Volkswagen diesels. Some 70 tracks have been laser-scanned to within millimeters for accuracy, so that even minor bumps are precisely replicated. Many professional racers use iRacing for practice, as I did in the IndyCar series.

For Conti, iRacing is all he knows. He spends 16 hours a week competing against people from all over the world at the sim’s highest level. He’s earned sponsors who put graphics on his Chevy in iRacing’s NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series, thanks to the live broadcasts of all his races. Conti’s iRacing team consists of an engineer and crew chief, as well as a spotter; just like real stock cars, drafting and handling setup often determines who wins. During the races, these team members communicate over a headset, deciding strategy calls and race tactics. When he wins, he has media interviews as well as debriefs with his team. “As we always say, the game is a simulation,” he says, “but the racing within the game is real.”

With NASCAR sanctioning the series, Conti can legitimately call himself a NASCAR champion. Winning in 2014 netted the youngster $10,000 from iRacing, and after a personal sponsor forked out a further $5,000, the net haul for the 17-year-old was impressive.

Conti’s love for racing stems from his father. Also a NASCAR and Chevy fanatic, Michael Conti Sr. has spent his life working on cars, and back in his youth, used to drag race a 1969 Chevelle around New Jersey. When his son was just five years old, Conti Sr. bought him the NASCAR 03 video game and taught him about wedge and cross weight, and how these aspects affect the setup of a racecar.

As for Gina Conti, Michael’s mother, she tried to keep her son’s interests diversified: “If it weren’t for my mom, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten into to any other types of sports,” he recalls. “I’ve taken up tennis over the years, but nothing has ever given me the satisfaction that racing has – probably because I’m not very good at any other sports.” Now, mom admits to simply letting her son pursue his passion for racing.

“It’s what he’s born to do,” she tells me.

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Yet outside his bedroom, Conti has driven a grand total of two productions cars – the aforementioned Impala and a Saturn Vue – and had a few hours in a go-kart when he was 11, none of which topped 85 mph.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” he admits before the test in Las Vegas. “Going from a reset button to a concrete wall is scary.”

More than any other sport, racing runs on money. To race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, two steps below the top level Sprint Cup series, drivers need to raise $3 million. To run the Xfinity Series (formerly Nationwide) a winning driver must cough up $5 million, either personally or through sponsors. And these costs usually come after years of expensive time in various lower-tier series, like Legends or ARCA; budgets even in go-karts for a 10-year-old can reach $300,000 a year.

There have been exceptions — which in the past 15 years can be counted on one hand — but generally no amount of driving talent can overcome a lack of cash. Sponsors prefer known drivers and teams at higher levels (even less successful ones) to young, unproven talent at lower rungs. A youngster’s only hope is to find a unicorn-like angel investor or, more commonly, rely upon a wealthy family connection.

Conti, who works at a grocery store earning minimum wage to help his family pay the bills, doesn’t have such a connection. What he does have is his computer, and a subscription to iRacing.

Unlike other sports video games, the realistic dynamics in racing simulators mean that if you have a knack for driving a virtual racecar, there’s a decent chance you could be just as capable in reality. There’s a precedent for making the jump from bedroom racing to a cockpit; Nissan has successfully taken players from its GranTurismo Academy into European road racing, and one, 2011 winner Jann Mardenborough, is set to compete in the top class this June at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

But there’s still a mystery in the intangibles; that lack of a reset button, and the “what ifs.” Your brain and body work much differently in your apartment than they do at 150 mph, with the heat and thunder of a 600-hp V-8 burning through a helmet. No gamer has ever made the leap from sim champ to pro stock car racing in the United States, and this test will show whether Conti could be the first.

Conti and his mother arrive in Las Vegas thinking about what the test means. “I’m going to have to prove to myself that I can push the car to its limits, like I do on iRacing,” he says. “If I’m scared of the speed, then my dream is basically over.”

While he admits to being nervous, you wouldn’t know it from the outside. Conti’s humble, but self-assured even for a 17-year-old, and confident in his ability. Walking to the racecar at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, his biggest fear is simply not stalling. Like most of his generation, Conti has never driven a vehicle with a manual transmission; he will have to learn how to change gears using a stick and clutch on a 600-hp stock car.

You can’t help but notice the smile as he climbs through the car’s window and belts in. The race suit he borrowed from the driving school is worn and faded, but his open face helmet and black glasses make him look like a young Cole Trickle.

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He has an instructor in the passenger seat to help guide him through the 1.5-mile high-banked speedway. Las Vegas is known as one of the fastest, most daunting ovals in the country, and I’ve seen the circuit’s dark side first hand; during the IndyCar race in 2011, I was involved in a horrific 15-car accident that cost my friend Dan Wheldon his life.

Gina Conti, standing in pit lane watching her son preparing to drive a NASCAR, can’t stop shaking. It’s like she is in the car with him, but rather than shaking in fear, it’s in pure excitement: “This is his moment,” she tells me. “He’s waited so long for this chance.”

As the engine fires to life, Conti engages first gear. He releases the clutch, narrowly avoiding stalling. Cruising down the pit lane, he jumps on the radio: “Ah man,” he cries. “This is awesome!”

Conti’s first pass down the front straight proves he’s not intimidated by the speed. He later tells me that everything felt reminiscent of the game, like he knew exactly what to expect: “It was like that sim racer inside me came out and said, “All right, let’s play Las Vegas today.”

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Conti rolls off the gas, brings the car down to the apex before squeezing the throttle back down to the floor. There’s no hesitation, no apparent discomfort or concern. Hitting speeds of around 150 mph, the Richard Petty crew chief on hand tells me that his speed looks impressive.

After his run is complete, Conti pulls off his helmet, almost dancing. “It was amazing,” he smiles. “It’s crazy how much your head is thrown to the right. It took a little bit to get used to.”

He stops for a moment while his mom gives him a hug. Gina Conti was in tears while her son was up to speed; Michael Conti winces in a brief bit of teenage-level embarrassment, but hugs back.

“Because of iRacing,” he says, “I knew how hard I could drive into a turn. I knew it would stick. Simulations give you confidence. They don’t give you the G-forces, they don’t give you the seat of the pants feeling, but they give you that confidence to know what the car should do.”

As a racer, it’s clear to me that Conti is hooked on the adrenaline rush of driving at triple-digit speeds with inches of room for error. “I want to experience entering turn one during qualifying at 209 mph in a proper Cup car,” he says, “as crazy as that sounds.”

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For me, seeing him adapt to the race car so quickly is quite something. I grew up like he did with that same burning desire to race, but I was fortunate to have financing in the early years to get started (my parents even sold their home to help fund my dream). Without that, I wouldn’t have made it.

Now I wonder whether I’m witnessing a potential new route to the top, one that won’t force all but the wealthiest of families to scale bankruptcy. If someone like Conti can prove to the NASCAR community that tools like iRacing are as effective at training drivers as real-world racing, every kid with a PC may have the opportunity to succeed – whether they come from a family of means or not; one day, we may live in a world where Rick Hendrick selects his development drivers based on their iRacing resume.

“It takes one person to open up a door, “ Conti says. “And I feel like if I can open up that door, that door is going to be wide open for everybody behind me.”

Conti’s next step is to test a proper Legends race car towards the end of April, with the hope that it may lead to a full-time ride. But does he really have the skills to become a future NASCAR champion? While there’s no doubt he handled himself considerably better than his years and driving experience suggest, with such a short amount of time behind the wheel, it’s impossible to tell. And unless a team owner or sponsor takes a leap of faith and buys into the vision, the issue of funding will remain a giant obstacle to climb. Conti will not give up.

“Naysayers may claim it can’t be done,” he says. “But I’m here to prove them wrong. Today has given me confidence to pursue this and make my dream a reality.”

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