Sev wanted to try out a proper NASCAR sim to understand what all the fuss is about, and with ARCA Sim Racing being totally free, we spent last night giving him an hour-long crash course in oval racing, which included stops at both Chicagoland and Salem Speedway. The floaty cars with fragile tires piqued his interest, and he wanted to try a proper online race tonight against a full grid of real people. ARCA Sim Racing may have a small community, but the game’s launcher does a really great job of displaying where and when the next scheduled online race would take place – sending us to Sonoma Raceway at what would be around 2am over in Germany.
Bad decisions make the best stories.
I’m not going to go into too much detail on how an American Stock Car drives; we’ve done that already. But to bring you up to speed, they’re big, heavy, stiff race cars with four gears and minimal downforce. Five laps later, when the tires start to wear, you’re basically driving your Grandpa’s 80’s Oldsmobile, with 850 Horsepower being sent directly to the rear tires. Near the end of a fuel run, the car is actively doing everything in its power to kill you; like forcing Marshawn Lynch to play the NFC Championship Game in Skateboarding Shoes, traction is an afterthought and slowing the car down is a twelve step program.
In the quest for eternal glory, I selected the #36 Toyota Camry of InsideSimRacing Host Darin Gangi. Sev opted for the ultimate noob car and took Dale Earnhardt Jr’s #88 National Guard Monte Carlo. The free version of ARCA Sim Racing X features a mix of fictional liveries and the most popular ARCA drivers from 2008, while the full field of ARCA cars I’ve seen teased in screenshots appears to be lost in the sands of time.
Yet, the version of Infineon Raceway we’d be racing at was ripped directly from NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. The tracks that shipped with the boxed copy of ARCA were built from the ground up by The Sim Factory, but in the quest to make a complete oval racing sim, tracks not featured in the title were quickly converted by the community from a pile of much older NASCAR titles. There is no sugar coating how bad this version of Sears Point was, especially after having driven the obscure Brazilian masterpieces found in Game Stock Car Extreme by Reiza Studios. The overall layout and basic track mesh weren’t horrible, but after R3E and iRacing both offering shockingly accurate versions of Infineon, we were stepping into a time capsule to a period when AOL trial discs still regularly appeared in our mailboxes.
In practice, I clicked off a 1:15.077, which was almost a full second faster than the rest of the grid, and two seconds faster than Kyle Larson’s K&N Series track record of a 1:17. Sev was third on the practice leaderboard with a 1:16.2. I’m going to blame this huge discrepancy on the fact that we were racing on a track modeled when I was still in elementary school.
Qualifying was hectic. As it was a fixed setup server, where the steering lock reset after each session, both myself and Sev foolishly burned up one of our two timed laps by leaving the pits with eight degrees of steering lock instead of our traditional 540/18 setup. With one lap to score a decent spot on the grid, I clicked off a lap on cold tires only a tenth slower than polesitter Brett Horner, who placed at the top of the charts with a 1:15.4. Sev put the noob car in fifth with a 1:16.3.
It’s important to note that this wasn’t just a casual race night for a group of Teamspeak friends who’d jumped from game to game over a period of years – each race on ARCA Sim Racing X that you can access from the launcher is part of a points series, and both myself and Sev were effectively playing spoiler for a season that had already ran three races. The 21 drivers that made up Thursday night’s grid encouraged us to join their Teamspeak channel, and both of us were given an extremely warm and friendly welcome by a like-minded group of sim racers. It was almost as if we were in bizarro-world; today we learned the clean, respectful, courteous personalities that are advertised as being the norm in iRacing are instead found in ARCA Sim Racing. One guy even recognized our names and complimented us on the site. No little kids, nobody whining about being wrecked in practice, heck, we even got through the pace lap without an incident.
Brett Horner led the field to the green flag, I was a sitting duck on the outside, and points leader John Richards would start third in the #6 Valvoline Fusion.
I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. We made it up the hill without anybody wrecking. Horner appeared to have the most composure on new tires, jumping out to an early lead. Richards immediately began working on me to try and steal second place away, because he had a championship to compete for. I was just there cause it was something to do after work and my buddy wanted to try NASCAR.
And the field retained its composure as we got into the more technical portions of Sonoma. Through the short chute, nobody killed the tire wall. Sev fudged the line a bit and dropped a few more spots after he was nudged by a competitor, but that’s to be expected. It’s crazy how rough and chaotic stock cars can be compared to traditional road racing series.
And then both myself and Horner blew the line into Turn 7, nearly ending both of our races mere seconds into the 35 lap affair. Thankfully, a combination of Horner braking late and me adjusting my line prevented us from making any meaningful contact.After this minor slip-up, we spent the first four laps with the top eight cars under a blanket. You couldn’t ask for better racing, and for Sev, you couldn’t ask for a better introduction to American Stock Cars.But then I lost a bit of my rhythm. John Richards stuck his nose under me in Turn 3A, and I fell back to third. He had a championship lead to defend.While the three-way fight for the lead began to heat up and I took second position away from the Valvoline car, Sev found a way to calm himself down and started a pretty impressive drive up through the field after his early struggles. Everyone was starting to feel the effects of tire degradation, and with our season spent in the ultra-twitchy Brazilian Stock Cars, Sev seemed to only get faster as we got deeper into the fuel run.
Other drivers couldn’t deal with the drastic change in performance. Polesitter Brett Horner, who had led every lap until this point, gave up the lead in Turn 4A when he looped his #25 Chevy Monte Carlo.
My overall skillset let me use the rest of the fuel run and a clear race track to pull away from John Richards, who struggled to get the most out of the car as the tires evaporated from beneath us. As I monitored the infamous rFactor black boxes, I noticed Sev had clawed his way up to third place. The race was on its way to being a monumental success for both of us – we each had a chance at a podium finish in a race we attempted out of boredom. Sev’s drive was even more impressive; he’d basically had less than 90 minutes of track time in ARCA Sim Racing, and today was the first time he’d ever run laps at Sears Point. It was also 3AM over in Europe.
This impressive drive wouldn’t last forever though, as a combination of fatigue and inexperience saw Sev launch a daring attack on the #12 car in Turn 7 while battling for third place. It didn’t work.
While Sev’s race was effectively over, the insane battle for the lead was in its early stages. Richardson was the first to pit, while I stayed out an extra lap as my tires hadn’t completely nuked themselves yet. In a drastic effort to avoid a speeding penalty, knowing I was too used to Brazilian Stock Cars and their super fancy speed limiter, I purposely drove 5mph under the 45mph speed limit on pit lane once I finally came in for new tires and two cans of fuel.
This paranoia caused me to exit the pits right beside Richardson, and we had half the race left.
The #6 car spent a handful of laps in the lead, but as our tires lost their grip, I slowly started reeling him in. With Sonoma’s challenging layout and how awkward it is to drive an American Stock Car on something that isn’t an oval track, passing opportunities were few and far between. Most times I’d just ride John’s ass because it seemed like the right thing to do, and I was never able to get the huge runs that would allow me to fully pass him. We weren’t far enough into the fuel & tire run yet where there was a big discrepancy between our corner exit speeds.
And while this is all happening, we’re pretty deep into lapped traffic; all of which graciously pulled out of our way, most of the time without even asking them. I think the only time I got on the mic, I said “beep beep” like a retard to some Coors car, and the guy moved.
John and I were about even in the first sector, but I was much better on the back half of the track. With fixed setups, it was all about maximizing your momentum. John would drive in really hard in the esses and scrub off speed when he’d hammer the rumble strips. I tried a different approach that involved pointing the nose with the brakes, staying off the kerbs, and being really aggressive with the throttle on exit. It seemed to work, as I was now tagging John’s bumper a few times each lap.Each lap, it got a little more intense. With about ten to go, John started positioning his car based on where I was putting mine. Not entirely blocking, but I knew he was trying to make my life difficult and that we were going to have a killer race on our hands.
Our first major scare came from one of the backmarkers. Basically, there was one line coming out of Turn 10, and it’s right by the sand. John drove it in like he’d been doing all race and had to check up for the lapped car that was right where he needed to be. I cut down earlier to try and use the lapped car as a moving pick on John. He wasn’t in the mood for that and darted out of line right as I was shooting by him. The Valvoline car got real big.This put us side by side going into the hairpin. This is basically when the gloves came off.Richards retained the lead and I blew it big time in Turn 2. Took too much of the rumble strip and the rear end stepped out. A lot.
Embarrassed by my own incompetence, I took advantage of the space between us and obliterated the tires in an attempt to quickly catch the leader, as the laps were winding down. Having a few car lengths between myself and John during this period of time was a nice change of pace, as when you’re driving behind somebody, you can’t see shit. Like, for real, I was playing “guess where the Apex is”, a game that’s on the same level as “why is there a yellow flag in this sector” when it comes to determining the outcome of your race.
With five laps left, I noticed a trend in John’s line where he couldn’t take Turn 10 to save his life. On some occasions, he was downshifting to second gear and losing a whole bunch of speed, which meant the section of track in between the billboards and the NHRA tower would be the best place to launch an attack. By comparison, I was taking that section in third gear, almost flat out.
John saw the move coming from a while away and threw a fantastic block. I didn’t even have time to react, I plowed right into him.
We almost died.
During our shared journey towards the tire wall, I vividly remember thinking to myself “I wonder how the tire wall’s collision detection is designed? Will it be jagged concrete like Lime Rock park tire wall in rFactor outside of the final corner, or will it act as a generic flat concrete wall?”
Neither of us got to find out, because we both pulled off saves of the millennium simultaneously. The weight transfer is insane in the live replay.
My save scrubbed off a little more speed than John’s and I lost some ground to him, but I wanted to win this race Goddamnit. I caught back up to John for like the third time in the past five minutes and launched a fake divebomb. I’m not sure why this move works, but anyways, you fake like you’re going to attempt the biggest retard move of the century, and the moment the guy flinches to defend, fall back into line. They will be so confused and so busy paying attention to their rear view mirror, contemplating why in the world you just faked a pass for absolutely no reason, that they’ll panic and completely blow the braking point.
But this mistake allowed me to pull alongside the Valvoline car with two laps left. I was trying my best not to get pinched into the wall, which at this point was a very real possibility since Richardson demonstrated he clearly knew what he was doing behind the wheel, and all of the lapped cars behind us are just sort of shitting their pants watching this all unfold.
John tried to cross me over and give me a boost going up the hill. Didn’t work.And then he tried the exact same move again in the very next corner. Still didn’t work. You can counter the bump & run by laying on the throttle and centering the wheel earlier than you normally would. On offense, the move works best on corner entry, since the unexpected forward momentum overpowers the brakes.That final counter gave me the win.
We will eventually get a much better oval racing game, with tracks not from 2003 and a physics engine not from 2005, but ARCA Sim Racing X seems to be the overall best American Stock Car sim currently available. That’s now two races where I’ve jumped in a random league room because I’ve had nothing better to do, and been greeted by a friendly, respectful community centered around a game that doesn’t require any exploits or elder knowledge to be competitive.
There will be people who whine at the understandably awful graphics (for real, it’s like, brutal), but in 2015, we apparently can’t have our cake and eat it, too. NASCAR 15 is more or less shovelware, and iRacing can’t get anything right.
ARCA Sim Racing X appears to be the best place to get your oval racing fix, and you don’t even need to be at an oval for the game to shine. We went an entire article without complaining about tire wear, the aero model, grip levels, force feedback, or anything that hardcore racing sims get put under the microscope for. Why?
Because ASRX does everything well. It just looks like complete ass.