By the time I pulled into Edmonton late Sunday evening, the odometer on the car said I’d traveled something like 1730 kilometers over the span of a single weekend. The first eight hundred and sixty four of those had been driven in anger; there’s a perfectly good NASCAR-sanctioned track an hour south of the city, but the back half of the summer justified my decision to take our sponsorship money across provincial boundaries at the beginning of the season. And that’s where this entry starts.
As some of you have probably figured out from hanging around my personal social media accounts, I haven’t completely abandoned the local auto racing scene here in Alberta. Because the Late Model schedule out in British Columbia is so sporadic, and seat time in anything is necessary given my extremely short career, I’ve continued to race Hornets back home during off-weeks from the big car as a way to log precious laps and have some fun with the gang. Not every track has a group of five guys from the same class that all love racing together and then invade someone’s house afterwards to check out the GoPro footage and hold an impromptu pizza party, so it’s important to capitalize on that atmosphere while it lasts. Yet in continuing to hang around and slug it out in the econobox class for shits and giggles, many have asked both casually and seriously why I felt the need to explore pretty drastic external measures the moment a sponsor came knocking.
On September 15th, they got their answer.
We paid $50 at the gate to be told track officials would be canning an entire heat race segment for all classes due to cold weather when the sun went down, and they would try to complete the event before sunset. In high school, I played football for a team that won the provincial championship in 2008, and sent a few guys to the Canadian Football League. Mid-September weather is not cold unless you are a bitch. Back in ’08, I threw a touchdown pass that made the local news highlight reel during semi-final action in the middle of November. That was cold. If you are too retarded as an adult to bring a jacket or wear a second layer when working outdoors or spectating a sport in September, that one’s on you.
We were then told intermission would be brief. Drivers from the premiere class at the facility proceeded to complain the sun was in their eyes, so intermission was extended into the precise portion of the night the facility originally wanted to avoid altogether. Needless to say there was a lot of shared animosity among drivers; I just put tape over the window and boom, the sun isn’t a problem, so I’m unsure why this is a predicament in other classes.
Knowing the kinds of things cool air temperature and no sunlight does to a racing surface – the track becomes very unkind to loose setups – I lowered the right side tire pressures on my Cavalier and jumped in. I’d be rolling off seventh of ten cars, as Edmonton’s rule is that if you do not attend the previous weekend of racing, you’re not considered part of the points inversion that determines the lineup, and you’re automatically placed at the back of the field. This is how the track retains a somewhat moderate car count – you’re forced to attend each weekend if you want a proper grid placement; my high school buddy Daniel started on my outside – as he missed practice – and two rookies started behind us. I had no idea what to expect; the heat race was chaos, but we all survived.
Two laps into the forty lap main, the pole sitter was spun in front of the field, and all nine of us were lucky enough to miss him. NASCAR officials did not deem this to be worthy of a caution flag. I took hold of the bottom and rode the preferred line all the way to third, being careful to save my shit knowing lower pressures can generate heat quicker because the tire has more flex. Andrew and Justin, my car owner, pulled away on corner exit, but I would catch right back up on entry since I seem to be the only one who’s figured out how to drive in super deep without losing the rear end. On lap ten of forty, I figured I’d be in line for a third place finish, which is basically just a podium interview and a cheap trophy, but I’m an attention whore so I love the whole process this entails.
On lap fourteen, the two lead cars in front of me caught lapped traffic in the form of a few rookies who couldn’t really hold their lines. Andrew and Justin both believed the safe route was around the outside, temporarily forgetting that Edmonton International Raceway is a one-groove bullring where you park it on the bottom and stay there. Rather than follow them in their exit route, I locked onto the lapped car and held the bottom, inheriting the lead with a car that was barely quick enough for a podium. My gamble in outright ignoring the lapped car’s presence in front of me paid off, as he pushed up off the corner and gave me a lane on the bottom to pass him with. So strategy-wise, I made a pretty glorious call and was now leading at the halfway point. I already snatched one win this season early on in a hectic battle with Justin, but it would be cool to win my last race of the season here for number two.
We ran about three more laps and then caught another lapped car. A buddy of mine was on my ass, and unwilling to give up the lead like Andrew did, I continued to hold the bottom. The backmarker pushed up, giving me a nice lane to get by him safely, but at the same time I received a pretty massive shunt from my bro behind me, directly into the lapped car. I kept a steady wheel and made out from the contact completely unscathed aside from some heavy paint scrapes, but knew others weren’t so lucky as we got the Red Flag call about ten seconds later, and I parked it in turn four to see the track littered in debris, destroyed econoboxes, and ambulances. A lot of guys feel shame or embarrassment for causing wrecks, but I knew that one wasn’t my fault right from the start, and I was just hoping people got out alright. Once I saw my car owner getting helped out of his vehicle by the EMS crew I felt a pretty big sense of relief, and went back to internally contemplating my strategy on the inevitable race restart. There were twenty to go, and I had a good enough car to win.
Not even a minute later, I’m sent to the pits, disqualified for reckless driving. I’m ecstatic. I run a helmet cam – obviously – and I knew for a fact the shunt would be visible from my view, so this would get hilarious in a heartbeat if they tried to blame me for it. Justin also runs a roof cam, and there was a chance his on-board would clear my name as well, which it did.
But we didn’t need either piece of footage. Upon parking in my stall, I was surrounded by a wave of drivers and crew members from other classes, asking why I randomly pulled off the track while leading under red flag conditions. Once I told them I was disqualified for starting the wreck, this wave of people then promptly went over to the officials to advocate for my penalty to be revoked. There were people I actively had beef with, defending me and questioning NASCAR officials why I was blamed for being rear-ended into a lapped car.
So an official comes over to me while still under red and asks if I’m okay, and I’m like “of course I am, the wreck happened behind me, car’s fine too, can I get back in my car and go take my spot back?”
Nope. I don’t get an explanation for the disqualification. I don’t get an Email a few days later, which I should have because technically I was already on probation for aggressive driving and that incident genuinely did warrant some kind of Email to say “hey you’re suspended now” or “yeah our bad, Rick caused that wreck, not you, please don’t say mean things about us on your blog or social media.” Nothing. Absolutely nothing. To add insult to injury, the race was restarted with just two laps remaining on the lap count, and the car who caused the wreck was given the win. My only consolation was that a bunch of us all crammed into my room later that night to review the footage, and the winner of the race agreed he should have been penalized, and that I should have remained on-track at the front for the inevitable victory.
This is the second win that’s been taken from me this season, as I technically won opening night on a textbook bump and run maneuver (he saved this, I promise), only for officials to disqualify me and say the bump and run maneuver isn’t allowed. So I obviously love opening websites like Speed51 to see some of the best short track drivers in North America, drivers I should aspire to study and learn from, win races in ways that would get me disqualified at my nearest short track. This is an extremely confusing message to send to any amateur driver who genuinely loves the sport and wants to get better at it by studying the best.
So rather than subject a major sponsor I’m genuinely proud of landing to blown calls, politics, and the pussification of stock car racing, I figured I’d just bring them to actual stock car racing instead, and hope maybe the local joint gets their shit together for next season. Last weekend, that meant driving the eight hundred and sixty four kilometer one-way-trip to Quesnel, British Columbia, fueled by Tim Hortons and Mountain Dew Code Red. I still feel disgusting.
The best part of the late model campaign has been getting to travel to all of these little resort towns for the first time, and Quesnel is no different. Though the pictures don’t really convey the landscape all that well, Gold Pan Speedway is literally located in the middle of a residential area and about five minutes away from two separate commercial districts, so it was extremely cool being almost walking distance from the hotel and the adjacent Wal-Mart, to the race track. And like most tracks on our schedule, the facility had been naturally built into the side of a hill, so there weren’t any grandstands to speak of, just a massive slope people could sit on or park at the top of. It reminded me of Cardston, Alberta’s High School football stadium that we played at many moons ago. The atmosphere was just really neat.
Shitposting about post-release bugs aside, I thought it was pretty cool to head into Wal-Mart the night before the event and see Project CARS 2 sitting on the shelf of the PlayStation 4 section for its September 22nd launch, knowing teenagers would come out to the race tomorrow and instantly have a car to root for because the logo on the hood was something they could identify with. As much as I’ve appreciated the sponsorship from the start, this was the moment it clicked for me. I remember back in the day when EA Sports would sponsor cup cars for one-off races, or Jeff Gordon’s dirt late model, how no matter how much their NASCAR games sucked at the end of their lifespan, it was cool to have some sort of representation of our niche community on the grid, and I felt that same sort of shared identity here. Throughout the summer we’ve obviously had people ask us about Project CARS 2 and Slightly Mad Studios, and it was just really neat to finally be able to say “it’s this racing game that’s on sale right now for $79.99 that’s kind of a competitor to iRacing, and we played a small role in its development.”
But I didn’t just want kids in the stands to cheer for us because we were the token video game car in a field of late models sponsored by performance shops and construction companies. With it being the last race of the season, I wanted to make sure we came home with a good story.
With the relatively minimal banking at both ends of the circuit, concrete wall on the inside of turn one, and long, sweeping corners, Quesnel is almost identical to Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina, albeit with shorter straights. I wouldn’t call this one of my favorite tracks in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, in fact the version of it that’s available is of decidedly low quality compared to most add-on content by respected track makers, but over the winter Dustin and I did some LAN races here for shits and giggles.
It’s a bottom-dwelling track as you’d expect from this configuration, where you constantly flirt with the concrete barrier, but the outside line does work provided you can keep pace through the center and pinch the inside car on corner exit as seen in the shot above. If you can get to the throttle while maintaining a predominantly forward trajectory, the outside line can rocket off the corner much quicker than the inside car can, because his corner exit speed has been taken away by you occupying the space above him. If your wheel is straight and your foot on the throttle, while his wheel is still turned and he’s trying to hold his line, slowly rolling into the throttle, you’ll have the spot in two laps. But those will be a hectic two laps. If the inside car nails the line or you give him too much room to create forward bite, you’re done.
So a lot of the iRacing guys love to jerk themselves off over laser-scanned tracks, but this shitty mod track for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season more or less taught me the line for Quesnel before I’d ever turned a lap there. Immediately I was keeping pace with other cars, and unlike Williams Lake a few weeks prior, which took some line experimentation in turns three and four before pushing, we could instantly get to work on refining the setup. In my instance, I needed the car to have more rear brake and some track bar adjustments so it rotated through the center a lot better, but there was a definite goal in mind from both myself and Dustin as to what we wanted the car to do, and where. Unlike previous outings, there was no stress related to ensuring the car ran or hoping it held together long enough for the full hundred lap affair, it was all about going out and refining the handling to where we wanted it. And because we’ve worked with each other in the sim world beforehand, there was no language barrier to overcome; the terminology was unchanged from slugging it out on Teamspeak in random sims. There was a strange sense of familiarity to it all.
The whole process, spread out over three practice sessions, made me respect what Studio Liverpool had tried to do with Formula One: Championship Edition on the PS3 back in 2006. The game shipped with a practice mode entitled “Race Car Evolution”, in which the software’s virtual crew chief sends you out on track with a few different setup configurations, and you’re told to turn X amount of consistent laps before the game determines what setup you should run for the race based on your speed under certain settings. This is more or less what we were doing in real-time, though being able to physically watch a car traverse a circuit and respond to all of the little surface irregularities conveys just as much info as obsessing over lap times does. This is something you lose in sims due to latency in online sessions; you can’t spectate and physically watch a car set at a certain spot in the corners.
By the end of final practice – a session that is used exclusively for mock qualifying runs, and would also determine the qualifying order, so there’s an extra incentive to push hard – we were sitting fourth of ten cars. The setup felt great, and I’d clicked off two identical lap times at the end of the session, down to the thousandth of a second. This is more fluke than anything, but just goes to show that once the mechanical issues were out of the way and we could focus 100% on car setup, PRC turned into a competent late model team. Considering the talent level of the group we were running with – some of British Columbia’s cleanest and most talented stock car drivers – it was pretty unreal to sit back and realize a couple of computer nerds from a sim blog were now just behind the big money teams on the final practice speed chart, and they’d actually earned the right to qualify near the end of the order.
And then we failed tech. Unlike PC sims, tech inspection is like an actual thing you need to line up for, not a button you can click in the menu a billion times to see if your setup is deemed to be legal. Our punishment for failing to meet the minimum ride height first try would be the loss of one qualifying lap, a huge blow to our otherwise solid afternoon, as these tires need heat in them to produce decent lap times – and that includes using the first timed lap as an additional out lap to warm the tires. Unlike iRacing, in which cold tires produce the fastest times and then degrade in a very linear fashion, the first couple corners of your qualifying stint are used to absolutely obliterate the right sides as quickly as possible to get them up to operating temperature, and then string together a lap of the Gods for lap two. So not only was our lone timed lap an abysmal effort because I had no grip whatsoever, as a driver I failed to maintain awareness of the situation and did not intentionally sandbag for a shot at the pole thanks to the full-field invert. Oops.
Qualifying ninth out of ten cars would see me roll off second on the grid for both the heat and the main, the absolute worst spot I could be in at that point in time. As mentioned above, Quesnel is a one-groove race track, and at the drop of the green flag odds were that I would get freight-trained by the entire field, finding myself in last place after just a few laps because I got stuck on the outside with nowhere to go.
Lining up on my inside inside was a guy by the name of Dave, who was sporting a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Provincial Championship fire suit – something NASCAR themselves give out as a prize at the end of each season. This is what I was talking about when I said everyone in this series has their shit together; the guy who qualified last has some serious credentials, and it only increases as you move up the leaderboard towards the top of the list. I would need to turn three perfect laps from the drop of the green to get around a former Provincial Champion on the outside, all while four rows of cars sat hungry in the mirror looking to capitalize on any mistakes for valuable championship points.
And yet despite all this, I figured I could get around Dave. I don’t know why, I didn’t really have the credentials that validated that thought process, I just had a feeling I could make it happen. The track reminded me a ton of Greenville-Pickens the more laps I drove, and I had a hunch that the outside line might work the same way as it did in the sim. I might have to be an asshole and pinch, but eh, the cars have fenders.
Oval racing rules state you cannot beat the leader to the start/finish line unless the green flag comes out while you’re behind, and you simply get there first by way of a better launch. On corner exit taking the green, I centered the steering wheel and shot towards the outside wall for as much forward bite as possible, staying even with Dave across the line. Exiting two, I noticed we were neck and neck, so as I’d done on the PC, I centered the wheel and aggressively hammered the throttle while carefully taking away some of the breathing room he had on exit. NASCAR Racing 2003 Season taught me this worked at a similar track layout, so might as well try it because we’re probably going to fall back a bunch anyway.
Then I noticed when glancing out the driver’s side window that I was indeed making progress. Like, what worked in NASCAR 2003 was working out on the physical track. With each corner exit I’d first check out the window and then the A-pillar mirror to see where Dave was at, cumulatively gaining about a third of a car length once we hit the center of the following straight. By lap four or five, Dustin gave me the “clear” call and I threw the car into the corner as deep as I could, in the event he still had a nose under me.
“Clear by two.”
“Clear by four.”
Now that the tires had come up to temperature, our setup work throughout the afternoon had paid off. The car was sketchy loose on entry, a combination of the rearward brake bias mixed with the extremely rough racing surface going into one, but through the center our car would go into neutral territory, just sort of planting on the right rear quadrant and accelerating straight off. Once I wrestled the car down to the bottom it was almost silly how little driving skill was required for corner exit. On the main stretch I pointed the nose at the flagman, and on the backstretch I had the car aimed at the billboards. This did not drive like a stock car, at least what simulators told me a stock car should drive like. I felt like we had stability control on. The whole thing was just point and shoot.
“Clear by six. Save some for the main.”
Dustin is unable to hear me when I’m at speed because these cars are ungodly loud and that causes obvious problems over the radio, so what he didn’t know was that I wasn’t pushing. I was just sort of hanging out and turning laps. I wasn’t being hard on the throttle, brakes, or tires, nor was I pushing for a quick lap time. I didn’t understand how I was pulling away from the field; I didn’t feel like I was going very fast, the car was just doing what I wanted it to in the corners and I got into a nice rhythm of turning the wheel to the exact same spot every single lap, then steadily unwinding and accelerating off the corner in a manner that was as straight as possible.
“Clear by twelve.”
“Clear by a straight”
After a season full of technical issues, we successfully dialed in the setup and won a heat race by passing the race leader on the outside at what’s typically a one-groove race track, and then checked out. Also, there are a bunch of late model drivers in British Columbia now wondering who Stefano is; apparently this showed up pretty well when the sunlight hit it.
As our boy Ian had already flown back to Chicago and on-board cameras weren’t our biggest priority, unfortunately I don’t have the greatest footage of this race – instead I’ve compiled my roof & helmet cam stuff into an eight minute montage that shows our progression from feeling out the car in opening practice, to winning the heat race, mixed with some post-session dialogue to give readers an insight as to what language we use to refine the car configuration. As I said, the entire process is very similar to what Studio Liverpool did with their last Formula One game, hence the title of the video “Evolution of a Race Car.”
I am aware the helmet cam positioning makes it quite difficult to see anything at all. The GoPro is aligned with my eye level. I can’t see shit either, hence the need for spotters.
So for a span of about sixty minutes, we were one of the quicker teams on the property. I genuinely can’t believe we got to write that sentence in this article.
But then the clouds came. And all of the recent dickwaving over dynamic weather and track surfaces in the sim racing scene suddenly made sense, because holy shit is important. For most of the day, it had been quite sunny in Quesnel, as you can probably deduce from the on-board footage. During the intermission process, the clouds rolled in. Now obviously from my time spent racing Hornets I knew that night time racing made the track super slick. I wasn’t aware mere clouds created the same sort of characteristics.
With our setup a touch on the free side, the lack of heat in the track surface turned what was an objectively great car earlier in the day, into one of those Brazilian Touring Cars from Stock Car Extreme or Automobilista. For one hundred laps, I couldn’t do anything; the car wanted to snap loose at the slightest of incorrect throttle inputs. This is the first time behind the wheel of any race car where I’ve felt sim racing mirrored reality; my time spent blasting around in virtual Stock Car Brazil leagues over the past few years is what kept me from either spinning out or knocking down the wall. Our car was absurdly twitchy, and though it sucks to finish the main event eighth of ten cars after a really rewarding afternoon, sim racing is what allowed me to identify the problem and complete the race in the first place. Once you settled the car at the bottom of the apex, it just wanted to over-rotate all on it’s own. Now in these cars, the car rotates under power, so I was getting twice the rotation on corner exit that I needed. The solution to solving the handling irregularities was less throttle input, unfortunately resulting in less speed. I have still yet to be a safety hazard out on the race track, but Goddamn it sucks having such a great afternoon, and then it’s just like “what happened to our car?” Other drivers revealed they had the same problem, but their baseline setup was naturally a bit tight which made the track surface less of a problem, whereas we had a car that was quite free by default. A free car on a slick surface is a handful.
It also speaks volumes about sim racing versus real life, when the only time I’ve felt sim racing was comparable to the real thing, was when the track conditions changed and our setup became incompatible with the forecast. If you are one of the idiots who perpetuate the myth that handling model difficulty = realism, you’re a fucking idiot. Stop.
But despite swinging too hard at the setup for the main, Quesnel was a successful weekend, and validated my choice to drive all the fucking way across the western portion of Canada, just to run around in circles for a bit. We unloaded with zero issues, immediately began working on the setup, were rewarded by cracking into the top half of the field during mock qualifying, and accidentally pulled a heat win out of our asses by driving around the leader on the outside at a one-groove race track. That turned a lot of heads, which was the whole goal of the season. I got into this with the minimum experience necessary to not be a safety hazard, and by the end of the season we absolutely proved we deserved to be there, both with pace and with clean driving.
I ended up taking home Rookie of the Year honors for my second season of racing in a row, and yes, there was another rookie in the field, and there was also a chance I wouldn’t finish ahead of him in points. We needed this weekend to go well, which it did. WESCAR gave me a pretty sweet portable grille for my efforts. I thought that was really cool.
I also found the whole atmosphere of the group a much-needed change of pace compared to back home. These are guys who understand not just stock car racing itself, but the ecosystem around it. I’ve never had a flagman come down into the pits and congratulate me on a session victory before. I’ve never seen series officials openly admit the dual-segment format of the last race wasn’t very exciting, and that they weren’t going to try it again. I’ve never been lined up for a main event that early. I’ve never seen a group of drivers this genuinely friendly and approachable. I’ve never seen staff members and score keepers that excited for a race day.
What I have seen at home, by comparison, is pretty disgusting. I’ve seen car builders and car owners responsible for 70% of their class getting into racing, told that nobody gives a fuck about how many cars they bring to the track on any given weekend. I’ve seen utterly hilarious one-star Facebook reviews from disgruntled fans who have no connection to any of the on-track activity, yet have pieced together what’s happening behind the scenes just by showing up and sitting in the stands for a few evenings. I’ve seen races cancelled because a big crowd wasn’t guaranteed. I’ve seen rules implemented that were intended to slow the cars down, only to speed the cars up and increase costs to the point where some drivers could no longer afford to race the most inexpensive category on the property. I’ve seen classes with just two or four cars registered for the evening. And I’ve also been the recipient of warnings and disqualifications that would not be a warning or disqualification anywhere else in North America.
British Columbia put on one hell of a show, and thanks to the support of Ian Bell, Slightly Mad Studios, the Lengert family, and our boy Ian Plasch, I got to see the entire thing take place out my front windshield. We cannot wait to see what next year brings.