HICKORY, N.C. — For years, Ray Alfalla dreamed of the day he would make his debut behind the wheel of a race car.
That day arrived Saturday at Hickory Motor Speedway, where the four-time eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion competed in the 100-lap Limited Late Model race held during the 25th annual Fall Brawl.
It was a moment years in the making for Alfalla, who traveled from Florida to North Carolina to take part in Saturday’s event.
“It was hard enough just getting up here,” said Alfalla, who was born in Cuba but moved to the United States when he was 6. “We had to go through a tropical storm, flew in, and then had to drive through a tropical storm to the hotel. The whole travel day was hectic enough.
“It’s been a lot to get here, just to get to this race. It still feels surreal.”
The chance for Alfalla to live his dream started a few months ago when he tested a limited late model at Hickory under the guidance of 2022 track champion Landon Huffman and the Jason Smith Racing team.
Alfalla said he quickly realized there were some things he needed to improve, including his physical fitness.
“I did a test and figured out I needed to get in better shape,” Alfalla said. “I lost 20 pounds over the summer. I worked a lot on my neck, and it showed [Saturday]. I’m very comfortable physically in the car. Made a few adjustments to the steering wheel and the seating position from the last time.
“After the test, it was just about getting funding together and finding a race to do.”
The funding came from iRacing, the Virtual Racing School and Interstate Batteries. After a few false starts, Alfalla settled on the Fall Brawl and Hickory as the time and place to make his racing debut.
In order to prepare for Saturday’s race, Alfalla did what came natural by turning laps at Hickory on iRacing. The 0.363-mile asphalt oval was added to the iRacing service last year.
“Obviously I know the track perfectly; I have no issues with that,” Alfalla said. “I got out there in a practice session with a bunch of cars, and I felt comfortable. It was my first time ever with a bunch of other cars, and it didn’t feel any different than I would expect. I feel as comfortable as I think you can feel getting into a car for the first time.
“I’m really just focused on finding speed and not making any mistakes. iRacing has really helped flatten that learning curve a lot.”
Entering race day, the 33-year-old said his biggest concern had nothing to do with his on-track ability. Instead, he was more concerned about how to navigate pit road or how to get in the race car.
These are all factors with which the iRacer had never dealt.
“I was almost more concerned with the logistics of where to go and what to do,” Alfalla said. “Where to maneuver on pit road and getting in and out of the car, all that stuff. Obviously on iRacing you just sit on the sim and you just drive. You don’t have to deal with everything else.”
Alfalla qualified 17th for the 100-lap race, roughly half a second off the pole speed of eventual race winner Michael Bumgarner. During the race, Aflalla battled mechanical gremlins and ultimately retired from the event early, registering an 18th-place finish following a fuel pump failure.
While it wasn’t the type of debut for which Alfalla hoped, he was still grateful for the opportunity and is working toward adding more races to his schedule in 2023 in his home state of Florida.
“I’ve always been a big believer in sim racers,” Alfalla said. “There are a lot of drivers who are really good on iRacing but don’t have the funds to go race in real life. Now we’re seeing more and more of it. I’m happy to be another one of those.
“Thanks to NASCAR and iRacing for putting sim racers on the map and putting eNASCAR on the map and helping us really showcase that we can do this. The simulation is close enough to real life that guys get into a real car and they can get up to speed fairly quickly.”