Provided you’ve hung around iRacing for any substantial length of time, you most likely have heard about their $10,000 Peak Anti-Freeze Series, a seventeen race year-long affair considered to be the pinnacle of online virtual stock car racing – a series that is not only officially sanctioned by NASCAR, and the winner of which is flown out to Homestead Miami Speedway for their own championship celebration, but also sponsored by a company whose involvement in real world motorsports extends all the way to John Force himself – drag racing’s most iconic driver. In short, if you reside in North America, love the sport of NASCAR, and consider yourself a sim racing enthusiast, competing for a championship in iRacing’s Peak Anti-Freeze Series is your ultimate goal. There’s a lot of money to be won through your ability to work a plastic steering wheel.
But what you’re probably not aware of, is how the field is set in the first place. While the top thirt drivers from the 2016 Peak Anti-Freeze Series final standings are guaranteed a spot in the 2017 campaign, in a format that draws inspiration from European soccer leagues, the bottom ten participant slots are scratched for the new year and placed up for grabs. iRacing then begins a secondary qualifying championship – dubbed the iRacing Pro Series – to be contested over the winter months, in which the top twenty drivers are awarded the right to participate in the primary series you’ll normally see plastered all over iRacing advertisements. Objectively, it’s a very nice system that ensures drivers who are quick to rise up through the ranks on the service are given their chance in the spotlight, while competitors not making an effort to remain competitive are quickly shuffled out, resulting in a championship truly ensuring the best of the best are on the virtual racing surface in front of a live internet audience.
Enter Ryan Luza, a soft-spoken teenage late model phenom hailing from Cyprus, Texas, whose most notable accomplishment as of late includes capturing the 2015 Pro Late Model track championship at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola Florida, home of the legendary Snowball Derby event. Yet despite a six hundred horsepower monster parked in the family’s shop, and many long hours spent on the road to various race tracks across the southern United States, Luza’s focus has turned to the world of sim racing this winter, shedding the fire suit and HANS device in favor of a comfortable pair of pajamas as he becomes one of the numerous gamers parked in front of his computer screen vying for a spot in iRacing’s 2017 Peak Anti-Freeze Series championship. With three wins and one suspension in four weeks of competition, Luza has not only put a stranglehold on the rest of the field and penciled in his name as the 2016 iRacing Pro Series champion, he’s also making a compelling argument for his status as quite possibly the greatest iRacer of all time – winning this week’s Pro Series event at Auto Club Speedway in California after a pit road violation halfway through the evening’s festivities sent him to the very rear of the field; an entire lap behind the leader
As someone who actually spectated Round 4 of the iRacing.com Pro Series, Ryan’s penalty was merely a necessary handicap; had he executed a clean pit stop, he was on pace to lap every other driver in the server via sheer driving ability. This, in a series where only the best of the best are eligible to compete.
Away from the racing surface, whether it be out in the physical world or a pixelated rendition on the computer screen, Ryan is someone we’re proud to call a friend of PretendRaceCars.net. Luza is one of the handful of individuals we mention anonymously who perform a fantastic job of keeping us updated on the inner workings of sim racing’s most popular title, and works closely with our resident engineer Dustin week-in and week-out to ensure his success on the virtual race track is not due to capitalizing on the misfortune of his rivals, but instead calculated precision.
Thanks to a long road trip spanning from the Houston area to Pensacola eating up most of his Wednesday afternoon, I was able to sit down with Ryan for another entry in our Blurring the Line segment, in which we talk to accomplished race car drivers about how modern motorsports simulators can sometimes intersect with reality.
PRC: We have a lot of European and International viewers who are understandably not all that familiar with the various classes which make up the world of stock car racing. So before we begin, can you give our readers a basic overview of your real world car from a technical standpoint, as well as what would be an European road racing equivalent?
Ryan Luza: The car I drive on weekends is what’s called a Super Late Model, a vehicle that’s actually available on the iRacing service for anyone to purchase and race, since the license requirements to drive it aren’t very high. While I can’t give out the exact figures, we’re packing over six hundred horsepower under the hood in a vehicle which weighs roughly 2800 pounds, so it’s a bit of an insane ride. Beyond the shell is a very basic stock car frame, and though all of the parts we run are high end specialty products, this definitely isn’t a McLaren or a Ferrari with space-age systems tucked neatly behind extensive carbon fiber components. Stock car racing was originally created as a backwoods pastime for moonshine runners that could repair their cars in minutes, and seventy years later it still retains that same spirit; if you looked under my rear fender, you’d be surprised how little there is to it.
But in terms of performance, I think the closest class of European race cars, at least concerning the power to weight ratio, would be the insanely popular GT3 sports cars. Not only do they handle about the same, they sit at roughly the same place on each continent’s motorsports totem pole – Super Late Model stock cars are the highest class of stock car racing before you’re considered a professional driver, similar to how the Blancpain GT3 series sits in the overall Endurance racing heirarchy compared to something like WEC or IMSA. I’m privileged enough to compete against some exceptionally talented drivers in my class, but there are also many drivers in the field every Saturday night who are merely out there for fun and don’t have any aspirations to make it into NASCAR.
PRC: Away from the plastic steering wheel attached to your desk, you’ve got some serious credentials to back up your instant success in simulators. Can you talk about how your real world auto racing career has gone over the past few years, and what your future goals are?
Ryan Luza: Concluding my many years of dirt go-kart experience, including 2 IKF National Championships (The Duffy), and a total of eight nation championships, we decided it was time for something bigger.
2013 was my rookie year of Pro Late Model Racing after coming off of a Track Championship in Legend Cars at Houston Motorsports Park with a very dominating year, including a 6 race win streak.
My first two Late Model races were very promising, running in the top three in both races and keeping the car clean, but we clearly were missing something to keep up with Casey Smith – who eventually won the 2015 Southern Super Series Championship – as he dominated the first two races of the year at Central Texas Speedway. We brought the motor to a chassis dyno and discovered the engine was down about 40 or 50 horsepower; a very big deal regardless of vehicle weight when everyone must run a spec engine.
Not only did we return to the track with a fresh motor, but it was the first time I was given the opportunity to compete with a real crew chief, and in my third Pro Late Model race, we were untouched and even fought back from an ignition switch malfunction, which caused us to lose power and drop from a two second advantage to a three second deficit, to win by half a straightaway. We returned for round four with the same result, though the last three races of the year proved difficult as we struggled with car balance woes, but still came home in a podium position each week, eventually tallying enough points to finish runner-up to Casey Smith in my rookie year of late model racing.
In 2014, we switched our focus off of local racing to more prestigious and competitive racing, specifically at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida. Even though we ran well, we weren’t contending for wins initially. In the last double feature night of the year, we finally got the car dialed in for the pair of feature races and, and landed on the pole for the first race. We led the first fifteen laps, and with five to go were turned by none other than Spencer Davis – currently a driver in the NASCAR K&N Series – and he went on to win the race without any penalty for the intentional contact. In the final event of the evening, the field was inverted and we started mid-pack. Coming to take the white flag off of turn four, I had a great run on race leader Bret Holmes; he got loose going up the hill to the front stretch, and I stuck my nose below him to try and claim some precious real estate.
As he lost traction, I very lightly touched his bumper, sending him spinning down the front straightaway. I took the white flag lap, crossed the start-finish line as the winner, but was disqualified for “aggressive driving,” and sent all the way back to Houston without a trophy, even though I was flat-out dumped in the previous race. Welcome to the political side of auto racing.
We returned in 2015 even more determined than ever to win the championship, and we were very confident after our first year of racing at Five Flags Speedway that we could establish ourselves as a threat to win each and every weekend. 2015 ended up being an amazing year, recording three wins and a flurry of top five finishes to sum up a very prestigious Allen Turner 5 Flags Speedway Track Championship in the Pro Late Model class.
December was highlighted by the highly lucrative Snowball Derby week, and we traveled to Florida with very high hopes for the Snowflake 100 – a support race for the main event. We topped the practice charts in both practice sessions the day before, managing to qualify 8th, directly behind Chase Elliott to make the thirty car field out of the near seventy entrants. We advanced to fifth with 55 to go when the car seeming faded out of nowhere. I had absolutely zero drive off the corner, and couldn’t get full throttle until I was going straight – which doesn’t happen in a Pro Late Model – so it was apparent something was fading quickly with the Gleason rear end. I limped to a thirteenth place finish, which was overall very disappointing considering our high hopes entering the weekend, but not bad at all for accelerating with only one tire.
In 2016, we made the jump to Super Late Models, as I mentioned before, essentially the highest amateur class of stock car racing before NASCAR comes calling. We proved to have speed, but similar to 2014, it was a season full of learning experience, and we’ve already set our sights on 2017.
PRC: Unlike many people who frequent PRC.net on a weekly basis, you’re someone who is very pro-iRacing. What attracts you to this piece of software when there are so many others available at a fraction of the cost?
Ryan Luza: For me, it’s all about the competition. iRacing has the best officially structured series, and is basically set up so you can always jump on and find a race against people of a similar skill level. Even though the complete cost equates to that of just one set of late model racing slicks – an entirely different topic of discussion – for me it’s absolutely worth it in the end because no other product on the market offers what iRacing have built, or even tried to. I’ve obviously heard the rumblings from my iRacing teammates that maybe other games have better physics or graphics or whatever, and though some of them may be correct, you can’t beat the sheer number of people on iRacing, and how the underlying math for stuff like safety rating and iRating guarantee it’s not going to be an Xbox Live-like experience. I love racing for the thrill of actually driving at competitive speeds, inches away from my opponents, not just to make laps on an empty track and “enjoy the feeling” as some claim to do. That’s what iRacing provides me with, whereas other simulators don’t.
PRC: Given how many tire model renditions iRacing has seen since 2008 – all of which have driven drastically different from one another – it’s probably safe to say the game’s physics aren’t quite there yet. So when you jump in your real car after a week of warming up on iRacing, what do you have to “unlearn” during your shakedown laps?
Ryan Luza: I believe my mind has actually adapted to completely separate the two forms of racing. Real racing is very physical and relies on the “seat of your pants” feeling, which is near impossible to obtain on the iRacing service. You aren’t going to die if you mess up, you can’t hear the subtle engine notes boucing off the concrete barrier with pinpoint accuracy, and you can’t allow the G-Forces to transmit through each independent muscle in your body. Being fast and “feeling” the car on iRacing is completely dependent upon visual cues within the game. The slightest visual cue alerts an experienced sim racer may pick up on as to when the car begins to lose traction so they can quickly correct the car – such as the game environment rotating at a slightly faster pace on corner exit – that’s what a sim racer looks for, and it’s what they have to manage in a simulator. I do not believe I have to unlearn anything when I buckle in to a Super Late Model, other than the difference between my Driving Force GT wheel with no force feedback or centering spring – yes, it’s what many of us top drivers on iRacing use, I promise I’m not kidding – compared to a much bigger steering wheel with obviously real life feedback.
Ryan Luza: I’m going to go on a slight tangent to this question. I don’t feel like I have improved noticeably as a driver on iRacing for this very reason; I had a decade of driving experience before I even subscribed to the service. However, and this is a mammoth however, iRacing is a tool for perfecting your racecraft. Inexperienced drivers can learn the “art” of racing, such backing off on corner entry to get a run off the corner, arcing more or less depending on the shape of the corner and the scenario around them, trail braking to maintain momentum, saving fuel, defending positions, and basically developing a set of skills – or bag of tricks – that can be used on a real life race track.
Although I stated i do not feel like I improved as a driver by sitting down and grinding out practice sessions on iRacing, it does very much keep my race craft as sharp as possible, and for that reason it is worth every dime. When I hit the track on Saturday night, I feel as if I’m ready for everything short of an asteroid strike, because racing doesn’t change when you jump from the PC monitor to the real thing – only the physicality of it. Whereas some of my opponents are forced to think back two weeks prior to how they really nailed a late race restart, I can explore every single alternate tactic I have in mind for that scenario a hundred times over throughout the week on iRacing – which ensures I get it right the first time.
And I mean, you can never have too much wreck avoidance practice, can you?
PRC: The gear question is something I think everybody is waiting for. Guys occasionally go out and drop thousands on high end sim rig modifications in the pursuit of realism and immersion, while others are perfectly satisfied with a stock Logitech G27. What does your personal sim setup look like, and as a real driver, where do you draw the line at what’s considered overkill for a fake video game cockpit?
Ryan Luza: My personal setup is quite simple and relatively inexpensive. I use a Logitech Driving Force GT with Logitech G27 Pedals connected via what’s called a Bodnar cable, as the wheel itself won’t receive the G27 pedal attachment. I also have a Playseat racing rig which is very nice and I recommend to anyone who is sim racing or just getting interested in it as an outsider. My computer and monitors have racked up the bill quite a bit, but I feel it was worth it. I use three 144hz monitors – which came out to around $800 USD – and $1500 USD worth of miscellaneous computer upgrades. The personal upgrades I’ve purchased will be enough for several more years of sim racing and other online gaming, especially a few first person shooters which I use to relax away from the otherwise serious world of pretend race cars.
I don’t think have the right to draw the line on what is overboard for anyone else on a sim rig; it all depends on your financial situation and how important sim racing is to an individual.
PRC: One of the admittedly coolest parts about iRacing is the ability to network with other millenial sportsman drivers like yourself across the country, and exchange info about your cars in a manner once confined to getting in with the right crowd at your local track. Have there been any instances where you’ve met a fellow late model driver whom you have no chance of racing in real life, and have taken that opportunity to share information with one another?
Ryan Luza: I can’t really say I’ve shared a lot of information or anything of that sort, since my setup knowledge is admittedly not very advanced. But I have ran into other late model drivers from across the continent in my online travels, one of which helps set up my car for iRacing Pro Series races, and it’s really neat to just hang out on Teamspeak as fellow computer nerds with several common interests away from the sometimes stressful environment of being at the track on race day.
PRC: iRacing’s marketing campaign really pushes the theme of “real drivers use our product”, but at times it can be a dual-edged sword. Rubbing doors against professional drivers from the comfort of your own home is an experience unlike any other, but with it, some sim racers have gotten the impression that real drivers actively monitor the world of iRacing in an effort to scout talent and recruit future drivers based on solely on their sim racing abilities. Answer this one for us, and feel free to leave out names if you want – has anyone seriously asked to drive your late model because they beat you in a random online race, and if so, how do we bring these people back to reality?
Ryan Luza: I can confirm I’ve heard a few snarky comments similar to what you are referring to, and though I won’t disclose specifics to avoid embarrassing said individuals as I don’t feel it’s the proper platform to do so with this interview, what I will say is that it makes me very uncomfortable to occasionally deal with those people. As someone who knows just how much work it takes to get off the ground in the world of auto racing and how much my family has sacrificed to allow me to do something every little kid dreams of, it’s actually very aggravating when someone has the nerve to say something like that directly to you – and they’re being 100% serious about it – especially when they have no real racing experience.
I’ve been driving various types of race cars since I was five years old, and I know for a fact you can’t just jump into something like a late model and expect to be up to speed, or even remotely close to that of a real drivers pace with years of experience. I don’t know where some of my fellow sim racers are getting this idea that they can go straight from mucking around iRacing to a high level sportsman stock car just because they beat someone like me in an A-Fixed race one evening, but it for sure makes me uncomfortable to see this genuine mentality – and trust me, it absolutely exists 100% – pop up more than it should.
I will say that a very select few have been able to jump to NASCAR, but it’s always been because of one element most overlook – money.
PRC: Your NASCAR iRacing Pro Series campaign has seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in just four weeks – starting the season with back to back wins, followed by a suspension, and then another win after losing an entire lap to the leader; the closest thing in racing to a season-long Gordie Howe hat trick. Now while I don’t feel it’s appropriate to bait you into ripping on the iRacing staff members given your love for the game, I’m under the impression week three saw you receive a suspension that kept you out of Pro Series action for an objectively petty infraction that was basically the result of a guy protesting you just to be an ass – he said you weren’t representing the Peak Series in the best possible way because you drove on the road course at Homestead and it accidentally brought out the caution flag, which in my book is just absurd for someone to file a protest over in the first place. Do you feel that there are some people who take iRacing far too seriously for what at the end of the day is just a video game?
Ryan Luza: I feel like there are mean people that are just determined to try and hinder the progression of others in this world, and that doesn’t exclude certain members of the iRacing community. If you are one of the best drivers on the service and have a handful of enemies, you can’t leave any room for the haters to take advantage of the extensive rule book, and they certainly can and will get you suspended for something that was completely accidental and had no intent whatsoever. I look at it as just learning a lesson; no matter which event I enter, even if it’s a race that I feel is utterly meaningless and it’s something I really only joined to race with a few online buddies, the bad aspects of the sim racing community are still present. It’s really unfortunate that it carries over into a hobby that’s supposed to be a break from reality, but it’s not much of an iRacing issue, it’s a people suck issue.
In the end, I had the option of getting mad and really unleashing on the individual in question, or I could go out the following weekend and win the race. I chose the latter.
We here at PretendRaceCars.net would like to wish Ryan Luza the best of luck in his 2016 iRacing.com Pro Series campaign, and can’t wait to see how he fairs in his #14 Super Late Model at Five Flags Speedway when our calendars roll over to 2017. Prior to indulging in yet another round of classic PRC shitposting, be sure to thank Ryan for taking the time to chat with us on the record, as many of our anonymous allies traditionally shy away from making their allegiance to the most controversial website in sim racing public knowledge.