The moment I opened the door to the hotel room on Friday evening, I realized this whole touring late model driver gig was exponentially more glamorous on paper than what it would physically manifest itself as. Opting to leave my PlayStation 4 at home, wrongly believing the Prince George Sandman would be stocked with old school CRT’s and tacky mid-1980’s wallpaper, I instead discovered fairly comfortable accommodations, and had to quickly deal with the fact that I’d be watching infuriating government propaganda and a blow-out pre-season CFL match until I somehow managed to pass out. Yet while I encouraged some of my friends to join me on my seven hour trip to Prince George in an effort to try and offset some of the monotony of waiting for race day to arrive by just sort of walking around and getting into trouble, in hindsight it was probably a good thing their wives and girlfriends made them all stay home.
For us here at PRC, the WESCAR event in Prince George was a crash course in the harsh realities of campaigning a $40,000 race car that’s designed solely to go fast and turn left while still making use of rather primitive automotive technology. Though it wasn’t a particularly expensive weekend – on paper we may have actually earned enough to offset the travel costs, plus a bit extra – sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. Mechanical gremlins and the time it takes to fix them – a portion of auto racing not replicated on the computer screen – derailed our entire team’s evening.
That being said, however, it wasn’t all bad.
The first major landmark you come across as you enter Prince George, PGARA Speedway is a 3/8th mile oval like something out of NBA Street; weeds sprout through cracks in the tarmac, what’s left of the physical racing surface is rough and weathered – comparable to your local outdoor high school basketball court – while spectators can back their trucks almost right against the catch fence as if we’re in New York’s Rucker Park. Not looking particularly flattering from the angle above, the track comes alive when the gates open to the general public; the facility lined with trucks, SUV’s, and miscellaneous recreational vehicles all vying for a spot against the fence, with numerous bonfires lit as the sun goes down. This is short track racing in British Columbia.
And it’s not something that any racing simulator can prepare you for. Though iRacing’s laser-scanned short tracks such as Myrtle Beach, Langley Speedway, and the Las Vegas Bullring offer near-millimeter accuracy, while modders for other sims will artificially reduce track grip as a static all-encompassing number, nothing will ever quite replicate a racing surface so raw and unadulterated. This is not a NASCAR sanctioned track, where a minimum presentable standard must be kept at all times; PGARA is an open history book, each race week adding yet another chapter to the track’s legacy.
Practice began at one in the afternoon, although we’d been at the facility since eight or nine. After I was forced to sit out the first scheduled Pentiction event earlier this month due to a last minute engine problem, not to mention a couple of setup changes implemented since testing a few weeks prior, Dustin took out the #2 Slightly Mad Studios Chevrolet SS for a shakedown pass to ensure he’d made the right changes to the car, and promptly returned to the pits before he’d had a chance to properly open the thing up. Like Toyota in the 24 Hours of Le Mans this past weekend, our clutch was slipping. All of this hype with the website and the sponsorship, the social media posts and the excitement from family & friends alike, and on race day number one, our ride is up on jack stands as the other cars in the field are beginning to populate the track.
Knowing how important it was for me to acquire seat time and get up to speed in traffic, I was promptly grabbed and tossed in the #56 Boyd Distributors Monte Carlo by Dustin’s grandpa, the car that would be piloted by his father later in the evening. With Steve’s late model career dating back to the 1980’s and featuring stints at Evergreen Speedway, he didn’t need three hours of practice time. I, on the other hand, was making my first start, so I understood why there was some level of urgency from the rest of the guys to get me out on the track in any car, just to log laps.
Up until then, I’d done a pretty good job at keeping my nerves under control – even during pre-season testing. I came to terms with the fact that everything around me cost a significant amount of money, and anything more than a gentle nudge of the wall would result in many man hours I’d be forcing a good friend of mine to endure just to get the thing back together in one piece. But in this situation, I wanted to ensure Steve would have a car to race when the show started and not force the crew to work on two cars, so I clicked off an initial set of very bland, uninspired laps before bringing it in.
Dustin’s grandpa pulled me aside afterwards and essentially told me to not give a shit about keeping the car together in the next stint, but to go out and run hard. The following sessions, it wasn’t long before I started hearing stuff like “perfect” and “that looks really smooth” over the radio from Dustin, with cars further ahead of me remaining in roughly the same interval, lap after lap. My biggest fear was going out and being a rolling safety hazard, as some drivers happen to be when they show up for a night or two for econobox racing here in Edmonton with no prior racing experience, but that didn’t seem to be the case here.
Unfortunately, there’s no footage of me turning laps in the #56, as our priorities were on running a race team, not rushing around to turn all the GoPro’s on for our shitty YouTube videos. All I can say is that I logged a lot of laps, I was in the correct competitive rev range, and writing this out a day later, my body can certainly feel the effects of being in the car all afternoon. I’m sure photographs of the practice sessions will surface eventually; there was at least one solid photo guy there who introduced himself to me, so I at least know where to look.
One thing sim racing absolutely prepared me for was in the use of in-car radio. Once you get passed the whole “holy shit, this car is loud” element from cranking the engine over, exiting pit road, and bringing the car up to speed, there’s a strange sense of familiarity that comes over when your buddy from Teamspeak is suddenly ringing in your ears, just as he would in iRacing league races from years ago. With my push-to-talk button in the same place in the real car as it is on my Logitech G29, it’s like muscle memory took over and suddenly I’m bullshitting with my crew chief about corner entry speeds for a few laps at a time… Though there’s a very real concrete wall a couple inches from the car. Just knowing when to hit the button in relation to what angle the wheel’s at, and when to wait a few seconds to focus on the next part of the track before responding… That’s really stuff league racing taught me because all of the good drivers just sit on a main channel and either shit-talk each other or relay vital information for the duration of an event.
Radio communication is such a small part of the whole racing experience so it may seem redundant to talk about this, but a lot of people tend to get easily distracted by it because some guys treat the whole gig as if they’re an athlete and need to get into some sort of “zone” where nobody’s allowed to come in and break their focus. In comparison, I was actually telling Dustin to talk more over the radio to kind of put me in that semi-relaxed Teamspeak sim racing mindset, something that seemed to work as that’s when the best laps would arise. I also found myself naturally asking where people were on-track and general status updates you’d find yourself doing in games like F1 2016 with the built-in voice recognition technology, so sim racing does indeed prepare you with the session management skills you’ll need out on the real thing.
Prior to leaving for Prince George, I spent an evening on Grid Autosport of all titles. In the past I’ve mentioned that my taste in racing games has drastically shifted after turning laps in a proper purpose-built race car, and this has only continued in an increasingly bizarre direction now with quicker laps on a properly cleaned racing surface under my belt. The V8 Supercars in Grid Autosport are exactly how our car feels, even under braking – which is what I initially took points away from it for.
But that’s probably because I was bored enough to make setup changes this time and get the brake bias to where it felt reasonably accurate.
Here is what almost all modern racing simulators get wrong, that Grid Autosport does right: Race cars are incredibly responsive, period. The WESCAR rule set has late models running on grooved slicks, resulting in a situation where you rarely can put the throttle to the floor unless you’re on brand new tires. Despite wheel spin occurring from anywhere between 20% and 40% of the lap, at no point does the car suddenly give up and go into this weird quasi-stall that feels like you’ve hit a patch of molasses and need to hold on for dear life during the long, painful slide and subsequent wall impact; our late model feels like the car is on some sort of central rotational wheel, and you can hold the ass end out there all goddamn day if you wanted to just by managing your throttle and wheel inputs.
Yet take a guess what sim racers have complained about in regards to Codemasters games, all of which use the same physics engine – the car feeling like it’s on a central rotational axis.
The way Grid Autosport rotates around a center pivot point and still gives you such precise control of the car, even when throwing it around or under heavy wheel spin situations… That’s what our car does. No, tire wear is obviously not modeled very well in this game (aside from the endurance events, where it progresses in a linear fashion from fresh to worn), but the manner in which the car scoots under you during wheel spin and the ease you’re able to increase the angle or pull the rear end back from under you is identical to real life. In our car Dustin had to actually get on the mic and tell me to cool it down a bit, because there were a few laps I was being silly just to experiment with how out of line I could get the rear end, and even then I still thought there was a little bit more I could toss it out there. Mother Nature would receive a failing grade from r/SimRacing, as well as just about every other sim racing website that has a critical analysis element to work.
So if real life is as “simcade” as Grid Autosport according to some guy on a sim blog, why isn’t everyone a professional race car driver, you may ask? It’s the same reason some people shit their pants on the roller-coasters at Disneyland, and others are so bored by the experience they play chess for the token photo at the final drop of the ride. Not everyone can deal with what’s at it’s core complete and utter sensory overload. It’s loud, it’s hot, it smells funny, and mistakes are expensive.
And not everyone has the technological expertise to fix any mechanical problems that may arise when things aren’t working as they should. In between sessions, Dustin and the rest of the crew would go back to working on our #2 car, eventually discovering the clutch slipping was due to the clutch plate possibly being installed backwards on top of needing a new assembly, which was the root cause of the slip above something like 5300 rpm. It’s a pain in the fucking ass to remove a transmission multiple times over the course of the day for troubleshooting purposes, especially when everything under the car is ridiculously hot from the odd test lap or two.
Turning a final set of shakedown laps before qualifying was set to begin, Dustin took the car out for one additional check thanks to the track officials allowing us and another team some extra prep time, before I was scheduled to jump in and attempt to qualify a car that was completely different setup-wise to what I’d been running laps in all day. Yet while his three laps looked nothing short of amazing, with some of the sponsorship money being allocated to the exact suspension geometry adjustments we needed for a highly competitive car not just in British Columbia, but in additional regions across the western coast of North America, our engine had now developed a timing issue, and after closer examination, it wasn’t something you could start and park for last place cash, it was “park and spend the evening as a spectator.” WESCAR did give us our share of the winnings plus the customary tow money, as every effort was made to both run the car and prepare the driver by throwing me in a different car, so that was cool on their part.
Disappointed? No, not entirely. I mean, it certainly sucks to drive across the province and get sucked into all of the hype with your friends and family for your first start in a car of this caliber, only to have it all go down the drain at the very last minute as the cars are lining up for qualifying, but there are enough positives to come away at least somewhat satisfied with the experience in the end. These cars are satisfying and unique enough to drive on their own, where just the sheer amount of practice time I received was more than worth the trip seven hours to the west. I’m obviously not a fan of this particular group of sim racers, but it’s kind of in the same realm of how guys will just do solo laps in historic rFactor mods, pushing the car more and more each lap to explore it’s limits. Our sportsman late models have so much power under the hood and so little grip at their feet, every individual passage around the circuit teaches you something new about the ride or helps to refine something you’ve already got down pat.
My only regret is that we didn’t press record on at least one of the afternoon sessions, because I was extremely proud of how I ran and it would have been cool to take something home to my parents. Instead I basically have, like, Instagram photos plus the standard soreness from all the driving and that’s it.
Of course, we still had one car in the show; Steve notched second in the heat race and was starting on the front row for the main event, but as our team’s collective luck would have it, was unable to take the green flag. The car lost power as the field were about to take the green flag, leading to an extended parade lap period while the safety truck pushed Steve back to our stall. Several laps down already, the team managed to fire the car, believing some sort of ignition issue was to blame, and he managed to click off some solo laps until the half-time break at lap 50.
I’ve been playing with these things for a couple of months now, and GoPro’s are 100% worth the money. Unlike a lot of brand name items, the quality actually does justify the price, and the software it ships with by default is super easy to use if you’re not keen on pirating a copy of Sony Vegas.
Yet the gremlins kept coming. Following the halftime break, Steve’s car lost fire yet again under pacing speeds, and once more was pushed by one of the rescue trucks into the pit area for maintenance. The culprit really drilled home how technically intricate some of these cars are – something you’ll never see in the virtual realm within our lifetime – and here is when I gained an incredible appreciation for how quickly the Lengert family as a collective unit can be at diagnosing obscure problems across every square inch of their race cars; the throttle cable was merely rubbing up against a bundle of ignition wires. When Steve blipped the throttle in an effort to clear the carburetor before taking the green flag, the throttle cable moved just close enough to the ignition wires to mess with the ignition system.
This is also why a lot of sim racers feel cheated at the random mechanical failures functionality in modern racing sims, and why some strongly advocate against their inclusion, especially in online racing leagues. In real life, crew members can physically hunt around the internals of the vehicle with a near-unlimited array of tools to diagnose a mechanical problem, or take the necessary precautions beforehand in an effort to prevent mechanical issues from occurring in the first place. In racing simulators, these same failures are merely the result of a random number generator that the driver has absolutely no control of. It’s just really not fair in the virtual world, because unless you’re playing something like Brick Rigs, car building and car maintenance elements are non-existent. Failures from existing damage that occurred earlier in the race is one thing, because then the player can at least think “oh, I damaged a certain part and now it degraded to the point where it broke”, but truly random failures really shouldn’t be modeled unless a driver can take steps to prevent them ahead of time – which they typically can’t.
Field of view was actually a topic of discussion Steve and I talked about after the event had concluded, though he didn’t know in the sim racing world there’s a specific name for it and simple mathematics behind it, not to mention a lot of rigorous message board debates regarding how to use it effectively. As we were pitted on the entry to turn one, our entire day at the track was spent watching cars aggressively attack the first corner, sometimes in disbelief at the speeds some of them were attaining – even though our spotters both said we were hitting the corner at the same speeds ourselves when out on the track. This got us to talking about why as a spectator the cars look ridiculously fast, yet inside the car everything feels much slower – and it wasn’t in regards to some sort of athletic “in the zone” mindset; aside from the engine sound and some of the g-forces, racing doesn’t look fast from inside the cockpit. There’s almost no sense of speed; it’s really strange.
And I believe the answer was down to what us sim racers refer to as Field of View as it relates to a traditional PC monitor setup. You honestly can’t see shit out of a late model cockpit, hence the need for spotters, A-pillar mirrors, and then a giant rear-view mirror several times wider than what you’d find in a normal passenger car. With the chopped roof combined with the ultra-low seating position, the front windshield replicates what you’d get out of using a field of view calculator on a single monitor setup; your eyes are always focused so far off in the distance, and there’s so little you can see out the front windshield, the sensation of stuff whizzing past you just isn’t there. Factoring in the window net on the left side, not to mention the ultra wide stance that makes it feel like you’re looking across a small walk-in closet when glancing to your right hand side, it’s difficult to receive visual cues of the surrounding scenery in relation to the velocity of the car.
As a result, it’s like you’re playing on some sort of ultra-wide 21:9 single monitor setup built by an elitist iRacer who thinks he’s mastered the art of FOV calculations, but in reality it just feels really fucking weird and slow, and you’re wondering what off-beat Czech sim racing forum he got his instructions from.
Summarizing the previous weekend? Well, it’s sort of impossible. Honestly it sucks to build up all of this hype with the website and the sponsorship, not to mention the friends and family members all bombarding me with texts asking for results, only to come out and say “yeah… we didn’t even get to qualify and basically had to forfeit before the night started because of a technical issue.” I mean, people who know racing understand that this is all just part of it, no different than a football player tearing his hamstring in practice by accident – you don’t just sign up for the Super Bowls, you also get the spring training gaffes along with it.
However, away from the cameras, I got an enormous amount of seat time, we refined the setup on the #2 car everyone’s been losing their minds over to near-perfection, and the last piece of the puzzle – a timing issue – is being taken care of. This is the part of racing that sim racing doesn’t replicate, and most likely never will considering video games are supposed to be fun diversions from the monotony of the real world, not second jobs that suck the life out of you. When it rains, it pours, but thankfully our calendar has a pretty good selection of dates through the middle of September, so one event where nothing goes our way isn’t exactly going to hurt in the long run and beyond.