If you can’t get enough of racing, you probably have at least one gaming console and the right driving game to get your fix of virtual, four-wheeled fun during the off-season. There’s only so much of a game’s physics model that’s believable, so once you get your fill of unrealistic and gamey driving, where do you go next?
You might be surprised to learn that the kind of simulators pro drivers use are more accessible now than ever. With a modest investment in some hardware, you can be racing the latest McLaren MP4-27 Formula One car at Circuit of the Americas or a NASCAR Sprint Cup Chevrolet at Daytona — and with a level of simulation that can almost trick you into thinking you are driving the real thing.
Where to Start
Instead of a game console’s controller, you’re going to need a couple of things before you get started, but you’ll be surprised at how economical sim racing can be. Most importantly, you’ll need a PC, which could be a computer you already have. You’ll also need a PC-compatible steering wheel and pedal set, which can be found for as little as $100 at many electronics retailers. For new sim racers, consider simply mounting the wheel to a desk, placing the pedals underneath, and using your PC monitor for your sim racing display.
After a hardware solution, you’ll have to decide on the type of simulator software you want to use. There are a number of sim racing choices on the market today, each with a little different flavor, so you have the option of selecting the best one for your needs.
iRacing is perhaps the most popular simulator on the market and it’s more software-as-a-service than pure software. You don’t buy iRacing’s software, per se, but instead subscribe to the iRacing service. The company seems to run frequent promotions, but the base subscription rate is USD $99 per year.
iRacing’s standard subscription includes seven cars, a Spec Racer Ford and World Challenge Cadillac CTS-V racer among them. You can drive them on the 10 available tracks, ovals and road courses, including the famous Lime Rock, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Charlotte Motor Speedway circuits, all laser scanned to millimeter-level precision. iRacing has an additional 21 cars and 42 tracks available for you to drive, which can be purchased a la carte, with new racecars and circuits coming online regularly.
According to iRacing’s President, Tony Gardner, it’s easy to get started and you’re not jumping into the deep end of sim racing.
“You can race any car or track you want, but we do start all rookies off together if you want to do our official racing and work your way up from there,” he said. “The bottom line is that our system automatically places similarly experienced drivers together and you progress at your own pace. Or you can go off and do your own things with your friends or people you meet on iRacing. Probably the most time consuming thing is learning all the different things you can do in iRacing because we do offer a lot of variety. You can choose from tournaments, official racing, special events, private league racing, time trials and open practice among other things.”
San Francisco-based Ignite Game Technologies introduced their Simraceway platform to public beta in 2012 and unlike iRacing, you can install and drive their software for free. Before the release, Simraceway consulted well-known racing drivers to optimize their physics model. They worked with Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon before his death, and continue to work with IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti and Le Mans winner Allan McNish. On a visit to Simraceway’s Performance Driving Center at Sonoma Raceway in 2012, McNish was on site to optimize the setup for his then-current Audi R18 TDI racecar with a Simraceway engineer. You can’t get any more authentic than that.
Simraceway’s software is free, but we all know nothing in life is free, so what’s the catch? Eventually, you’ll want to drive more than just the solitary free car, the Mitsubishi Evolution X. The catch is that cars come at a price and, cleverly, each car is priced at 1/100th of the value of that of the real-world version. Fancy a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport? That’ll cost you $24.27. Ayrton Senna’s championship winning McLaren MP 4/4 runs $38.00.
Like iRacing, Simraceway offers a variety of driving and racing experiences. Whether you want to just hop on and do some laps at Zandvoort or want to race against competitors around the world, there are many options to choose from. Not only that, if you just want to race, there’s no waiting, and Simraceway’s proprietary skill-matching algorithm will place you in a race with similarly experienced sim racers.
“Quick Race 2.0 is the fastest way for users to get straight into head-to-head racing,” said company spokesman Declan Brennan. “Also, Simraceway’s proprietary Skillquant system will then ensure that the user has the fairest and most competitive racing experience possible. The Skillquant skill matching system is in its early stage of deployment, which is focused on data collection and calibration.”
Michigan-based Image Space Incorporated produces the original rFactor ($39.99) simulator software, with rFactor2 now available in beta for $84.99. For those who are more hands-on with PC technology, rFactor’s deep online community develops a long list of cars and tracks. For the most part, the community provides users with some great cars and tracks, but with some shortcomings.
Unlike iRacing and Simraceway, the rFactor community doesn’t have the resources to laser scan race tracks, so their levels of accuracy typically don’t approach that of iRacing and Simraceway. On the other hand, the community-developed tracks are close enough to reality that they will at least give you a sense of a track’s flow.
What rFactor will give you are cars and tracks, as well as combinations thereof, that are not available anywhere else. If you want to drive something like a Porsche GT3 Cup car, rFactor is currently your only choice. If you need to practice a club circuit, like California’s Thunderhill or Carolina Motorsports Park, you can find those circuits through rFactor’s community resources. Heck, they’ve even got a virtual Putnam Park.
Using a Simulator
Now that you’ve got it, how do you use a sim? There is a laundry list of casual reasons to use a simulator, from straight practice to learning a new circuit. Also drivers and coaches use iRacing’s hosted service to do lead-follow exercises to give them head start on new circuits.
Online sim racing is readily available in iRacing, Simraceway and rFactor, though it’s easiest to jump on Simraceway to pick up one of their Quick Races. iRacing has an excellent hosted service that you can use to race with friends. With so many professional drivers using iRacing, you might just find yourself competing against Le Mans and IndyCar pros. Young NASA racer and MX-5 Shootout winner Elliott Skeer uses sims to improve his game.
“Simraceway is a great way to prep for races,” he said. “The track list is to the point where any track that I will be going to will be in Simraceway. The wide range of cars and tracks definitely keeps me sharp, being able to adapt to new cars and new track helps with learning the best way to get up to speed with both new cars and tracks.
“I used Simraceway to train for Thunderhill,” Skeer continued. “Consistency training can be optimized in Simraceway due to the real physics, to the point where the smallest mistake can lead to an off or a crash. Now, I also had to use rFactor purely because it has Thunderhill and some really good multiclass mods.”
Beyond simply learning circuits, serious amateurs and professionals alike use sim racing for real progression. Peter Krause, founder of Krause & Associates, which coaches drivers across the country and uses sim training as a core part of his teaching methodologies.
“The sim allows for unhurried, unrushed, most convenient and the least expensive way to make this detailed study of even familiar tracks,” Krause said. “When a driver combines the experienced observation of a professional coach, often the coach can gain huge insight into the driver’s technique (eyes, vision, head movement, interaction with the controls) by the simple act of evaluating the driver in a non-competition, real-time environment.
“For example, the competitive Spec E30 group in NASA Mid-Atlantic and NASA Southeast has spawned a whole bunch of drivers bound and determined to leverage every resource to get ahead,” Krause continued. “An early adopter was Mid-Atlantic racer, Dwight Varnes, along with National Champion and pro racer Mike Skeen. Having been party to some of the private, hosted races online with several NASA drivers, the action was just as heated and competitive synthetically rendered as it was in real life! NASA Southeast racers Evan Levine and Jason Tower are also products of the simulation training age.”
Optimizing your Equipment
As your sim driving progresses, you will find that better equipment makes sim driving more effective. There are always better steering wheels, pedals, displays, seats and PCs, so you will have to decide what suits your driving and budget. You can always build your own cockpit and even a gaming PC, but if you don’t have that kind of time, there are a number of commercially available solutions. For seats, the Obutto is one of the easiest to use due to its relatively small size, open pedal area, comfortable seat – and reasonable price. If you don’t have time to configure a PC, a gaming-specific laptop like the Alienware M17x gaming laptop will flawlessly run every racing sim, plus its compact size maximizes space. Advanced sim drivers don’t skimp on their equipment, either.
“A proper racing seat coupled with a sturdy wheel and pedal mount preserve the relationship between the driver and the controls,” Krause said. “Most sims have graphic details that are scalable. This means that the more powerful the rendering engine, the more objects and detail the screen will show. One of the most useful tools of using sims, that of finding landmarks critical in establishing turn-in, apex and track-out points, as well as lining up the car in anticipation of a complex section of track, is enhanced immeasurably with additional detail.”
The Ultimate in Sim Racing
Chas Lawrence operates Seat Time, a racing simulator studio in Santa Monica, Calif., which caters to serious amateur and professional racing drivers. Lawrence uses the full-motion CXC Motion Pro II simulators at his studio.
“Anything that isn’t full motion (pitch, dive, roll) isn’t a simulator. It’s just a game,” he said. “Of the ones I drove, CXC’s had the best motion profile, giving you realistic feedback without over-exaggerating a lot of the motion. Also, CXC’s components were all very high end, so the wheel, pedals, seat and chassis are all very good. The net effect is that the CXC is the most realistic feeling simulator, both in the inputs the driver makes with the controls and with the outputs from the sim and the motion profile. Also, CXC is the only sim designed by a racing driver, and continually tested by racing drivers, so the realism is baked in.”
This level of sim-racing goodness is not inexpensive. The Motion Pro II starts at $45,000. Full-motion rigs like CXC’s are the closest thing to the six-figure-plus “driver in the loop” rigs that professional racing teams use. It might surprise you to learn that CXC rigs aren’t just for commercial use. The company is the first to admit they have installed countless simulators for private use, but their customer list remains confidential.
Whether your interest in sim racing is casual or you plan to use it to supplement your professional driving career, there are a wide range of software and hardware options. Choose wisely and we’ll see you on the virtual track.
This video from iRacing.com shows the fast and challenging Road Atlanta course from numerous points around the track and from behind the wheel.
Learning Through Sim
My initial interest in sim racing stemmed from a need to learn my way around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I was invited to race a Mazda MX-5 there and I had never been to the track, even as a spectator. Plus, I had never even driven an MX-5 anywhere, so I was really under the gun. In the old days, you would get some tips from friends who had raced the track and watch some videos, but now simulators offer a deeper and broader learning experience.
That race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the fact that iRacing’s version of the track was the most accurate — with its laser-scanned precision —was the reason I installed iRacing as my first sim. At the time, iRacing hadn’t programmed the MX-5 and the closest car available was the Pontiac Solstice. With some tips from friends who had won races there, I drove countless laps around the virtual track, learning critical things like braking points, apexes and some of the nuances of the circuit. All of that practice paid off, too. Despite racing a group of drivers familiar with the cars and the track, I was fastest by the second practice session and I managed to win the race, too.
Since then, I have used iRacing to prepare for races at Road America, where I hold a couple of track records, and Road Atlanta before ever seeing those circuits in person. Last season I raced an MX-5 at Mosport and, although I was extremely familiar with the track, I hadn’t raced there in 20 years. iRacing was a great way to prepare for the weekend, and, in real life, I was on pace from the first practice session. Real world laps around Mosport were visually accurate to the sim, at least until I crashed the car in qualifying.
You see, when you crash a car in iRacing, all you have to do is restart the session. In real life, however, a crash is a more complicated. The car was dragged out of the tire wall, loaded onto a flatbed and required a few hours of repairs before it was again race worthy. Unlike crashing in iRacing, I was a little sore the next day.
One downside to the sim experience is that club circuits are not included in iRacing and Simraceway, leaving rFactor and its community of track developers as the only solution. Their efforts to recreate circuits are commendable, but they don’t have the resources like developers at iRacing and Simraceway. For example, I used rFactor to learn my way around Indiana’s Putnam Park club racing track prior to my first race there. The rFactor version gave me a sense of the sequence of corners and a rough idea of the general flow of the track, but it turned out to be a far cry from the real thing.
In my day job, I test racing and high-performance cars at different tracks, so I’ll choose either iRacing, Simraceway or rFactor to give me the best simulated experience to practice for the car and circuit where I’ll be testing.
Overall, I have found sim racing to be an essential part of my race preparation routine. It’s a great way to get back into the rhythm of the circuit and stay sharp between races, but it’s also a great excuse to just have some fun. Just don’t tell my wife that it’s fun.