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Competitive spirit drives Cape Coral iRacer

By Staff | Mar 26, 2020

Hands tightly grasping the wheel, eyes down track, ready to put pedal to the metal, 93-year-old Cape Coral resident Jim Baker is ready to burn rubber.

He’s in his drivers seat, waiting for his signal to slam the gas. That signal though, comes from a computer screen in his dining room at Gulf Coast Village, a retirement community in Cape Coral.

Baker, with his interactive set up complete with three HD monitors, racing-style driver seat, steering wheel, gas, brake and shifter, is an iRacing driver — a virtual, as-close-to-the-real-thing you can get, interactive racing simulator.

“With the feel from the steering wheel and from your brake action and your acceleration action. It’s pretty realistic,” Baker said of the simulation, via a Skype chat. “I would say on a scale of one to 10, it’s probably a 9.2/3.”

In a current climate where residents are not allowed visitors due to COVID-19, Baker is passing the time tearing up tracks and fulfilling his need for speed.

NASCAR has even begun holding interactive races for their drivers amidst the outbreak.

“It’s certainly nice to have with what we’re going through right now,” Baker said. “I spend my time on it and it takes up a lot of my time during the day.”

The World War II Navy veteran has been an iRacer since 2015, and picked up the virtual alterative after ending an auto-racing career he embarked on in his 70s, competing across the Midwest, Northeast and South.

Baker even claimed some victories in regional races and cruised renowned tracks across the country in his silver BMW Z3 Coupe, a car he still drives today.

Baker craves competition, and has all of his life, no matter his age. He’s also competed in the sailing world with his two sons — where he was quite successful — before he picked up auto racing.

“I’ve been competitive since I was a kid,” Baker said.

He recalls having little red wagon races with his friends as a child. Baker said that’s where he realized an important part of racing and found his competitive spirit.

“I picked up on the idea early of how to shift weight, which is important both in sailing and in auto racing,” Baker said. “I learned (in the little red wagon) it would help the guy pushing if I shifted my weight and turned. My competitor wouldn’t shift weight and they would turn the handle but still go straight.”

Baker moved with his wife from Chicago to Louisiana later in his life, having to sell his boat before heading south. That’s when he said he got interested in and wanted to explore the world of motorsports.

Baker has always loved to hit the open road, “And usually fast,” he joked.

There may have even been a speeding ticket or two, Baker said while laughing.

He stayed quite active in the motorsports world until around 2010, while in his 80s, and moved to Cape Coral after his wife unfortunately passed in 2011.

While Baker wasn’t hitting the track anymore, the fire inside to compete in some capacity was still there.

“I slowed down actual motorsports racing, but I still loved competition,” he said. “That’s when I started to investigate simulation racing.”

Baker discovered that Dennis Trebing of Trebing Tile & Carpet in Cape Coral was a professional racer in Europe and linked with the family. They then directed Baker to a man named Ray Alfalla who they knew had a racing simulator at his home.

Baker and Alfalla met, he tried out his simulator and was sold. Alfalla, who now is a four-time interactive racing world champion, then helped Baker set up his configuration, which he still uses to this day.

The former life insurance salesman said the tracks and cars have an authentic feeling, with his three monitors giving him perfect sightlines. The center monitor looks right down the track while side monitors pick-up side views, grandstands, safety stations and scenery.

Where you can really feel it, is in the steering and pedals, Baker said.

“You still get the feel of a curb or a rumble strip – it translates back into the steering,” Baker said.

With his nearly 37 cars to choose from and 44 different tracks to ride, Baker is mastering his craft and improving on his ranking, or, “safety rating.”

His favorite cars to race include the BMW M8 (his favorite), Mazda Miatas and McLarens.

Baker has even driven on tracks he races on in the game, including, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Watkins Glen International, Lime Rock Park, Sebring International Raceway and more.

“The looks of the track are about 95 percent the real thing,” Baker said.

There’s always someone to race online and competitions are broken down into time slots and classes, with each race 20-30 laps or up to 200 if you’re in a pro circuit.

“I never go online and there’s less than 2,000 racers,” Baker said. “There’s close to 12,000 iRacing members total.”

Baker said his sons come and visit and have a blast taking practice runs on his simulator.

Diana Nicol, with the Life Enrichment Department at Gulf Coast Village, said everyone in the community is in high spirits during this time. They’ve been helping residents stay connected with their family while visitations are suspended.

“We’ve been very proactive in implementing Skype in all of areas which allows the residents to feel like they’re right there with their families — they can see them face-to-face,” she said. “That’s been huge.”

Activities staff are also conducting “room visits” — going down the hallway with a cart offering playing cards, word searches, crossword puzzles and other things of the nature.

“We’re really doing quite well,” Nicol said.

– Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj