In the Spotlight: Ira Fehlberg

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The rapid expansion of the sim racing scene has seen the proliferation of online racing events, leagues and championships, many of which attract large numbers of competitors.

While there are a lot of sim racing series for competitors to choose from, the most successful categories all have common attributes, including a streamlined entry process, a professionally-produced live stream broadcast, live race control to enforce driving standards, a strong social media presence and frequent communication with competitors.

The requirement to perform these tasks in a timely manner has seen the need for more sim racing category managers, something we discussed with Simon Feigl in a previous Sim Racing Oz feature.

One category manager who is rapidly expanding his portfolio is Ira Fehlberg, who now runs three categories under the OZICAR umbrella. Having started with the Australian Turbo Touring Car Series (for TCR cars), OZICAR also now runs a Formula Skip Barber (junior open-wheel) series along with a Friday evening Supercars series.

Lachlan Mansell spoke in depth with Ira about his rise to prominence in the sim racing community.

 

Lachlan Mansell: What prompted you to become involved in sim racing category management?

Ira Fehlberg: I’ve got a lot of experience in real-life events, which is what has brought me to this point. I’ve run fishing tournaments, mountain bike events and speedway events and over the years I’ve established a formula – basically, you have to believe in what you’re doing and drag everyone along with you.

The sim racing industry is still in its infancy; the general public doesn’t really know much about it. That’s one of the things that motivated me to become involved, wanting to open people’s eyes to the potential of sim racing as an entertaining product.

I dipped my toe in the water with the Turbo Touring Car Series; when the TCR car came to iRacing, I saw an opportunity and realised it was my chance to jump in.

 

LM: How did you go about getting the Turbo Touring Car Series up and running?

IF: From my experience competing in other leagues, there were a few things I found lacking, one of which was live race control. I was shocked at how bad the driving standards were and I was having quite a negative experience.

I put together a package designed around giving everyone the best experience possible; I look at all my drivers as customers. I found that if someone gets punted off and it gets dealt with by race control, at least it doesn’t leave a sour taste in their mouth.

The other issue I found was the one-week wonders. You might put three months into a series, and someone rocks up one week, wrecks your three months of effort and then you don’t see them again. From my club racing experience, I found that if you’re racing with the same people all the time, you get to know those people and you’re less likely to punt them off, because they’re people you talk to regularly.

I discovered that small things make a huge difference. Even things like handling entries – making people fill out a form and paying two bucks – I’ve found it keeps the dickhead factor low and minimises the chances of people only rocking up for one week.

All these things are designed to keep the error rate as low as possible. Being a simulation, people don’t place as big a value on not crashing as they would in real life because there aren’t the physical or financial consequences, so I’ve made my rules so people are discouraged from making contact. I’ve made it that you can get three drive-through penalties in a season, but if you get a fourth, you get suspended for a week. You see some drivers might get two penalties and then they’ll pull their head in, which is a sign that what I’m doing is working.

 

LM: What sort of commercial opportunities have you been able to create?

IF: If you want to attract sponsors and you want people to take your category seriously, you need to put on a good show. Coming from a TV and media background, my number one priority is how it looks on the broadcast.

I wanted to create a platform that would open opportunities for competitors to attract sponsors; the races are broadcast on Sim Speed TV and the number of people is easily measurable, which is data you can provide to companies that are interested in becoming involved.

For some events, the numbers are pretty serious; here in Australia, they’re not huge yet, but some of the bigger overseas events like online NASCAR races are getting tens of thousands of viewers. The audiences for sim racing are highly engaged – they’re people who are genuinely interested in watching.

 

LM: What drove you to create the Supercars and Skip Barber Series?

IF: Having established the Turbo Touring Car Series, tweaked things along the way and got it to a point I was happy with, I was ready to carry on with my expansion plans.

When I sat down and identified the holes in the market, the Skip Barber cars stood out because no one else in Australia was doing a series for those cars. They’re one of the most fun cars on iRacing, but no-one was doing a live broadcasted series for them.

I changed my mind about the Supercars so many times but in the end, I felt they were so popular I needed to have them.

In saying that, I think putting them on Friday night was a mistake, because there’s already AOSC (Australian Online Supercar Championship) on that night. But there was no other timeslot that worked with SimSpeed TV.

Another mistake I made was changing the format for the Supercars; I should have stuck with the same format as the TCR and Skippys.

 

LM: Are there any other challenges you’ve faced?

IF: Some of the administrative things around communication with competitors and league invites have been trial-and-error and we’ve tweaked them on the run.

At the start, I outsourced race control because I wanted to learn how it was done, but I’ve brought it back in-house because that gives me full control over how it’s run.

No matter what you do, someone will always complain so it’s about doing your research, making the right decisions and then standing by them.

 

LM: In the time you’ve been involved as a category manager, which drivers have impressed you the most?

IF: In Skip Barber and Supercars, it’s hard to name anyone specific, because those categories haven’t been running very long. Overall I’ve been impressed with the driving standards, especially in the Supercars where there have been very few incidents.

In Turbo Touring Cars, Jackson Souslin Harlow has been the standout for me. The way he has handled the penalties he’s been given, and the way he just gets on with the job has really impressed me and it’s starting to rub off on other drivers as well.

Kobi Williams has been a big improver; he has always been fast, but his race craft has really stepped up lately. Others like Riley Preston, Thomas Hinss and Simon Mezzomo are super-professional and very good at handling bad results as well as good ones. You can see why these sorts of drivers are becoming part of professional teams.

 

LM: What’s your long-term vision for the OZICAR empire?

IF: I want to help bring sim racing to the mainstream. It has so much potential; the fact I can sit in my living room and race people on the other side of the world is unbelievable.

I want to show people how much fun it can be and get the participation rate a lot higher.

One of my aims is to make it enjoyable to watch, so more people tune into it for entertainment. It helps having a professional broadcaster like SimSpeed producing such a high-quality live stream.

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