Blurring the Line with Dustin Lengert

10498282_698077343591931_6547662291601746614_oIf you’ve ever been aimlessly cruising around YouTube, finding yourself spectating a live iRacing event out of sheer boredom, and bearing witness to a single driver at the front of the pack utterly decimating the competition – such as Ryan Luza in his recent iRacing Pro Series efforts – there’s a good chance their performance isn’t entirely down to skill; most of the time, these sim racers are making good use of a specialty car setup developed by a guy named Dustin Lengert. Listed as one-third of the core PretendRaceCars.net writing staff, Lengert serves as our resident iRacing expert and general car setup guru, an individual who has propelled virtually every major sim racer – including none other than Ray Alfalla on select occasions – to a victory they desperately needed, while also supplying us with a steady stream of information to ensure the pieces we publish about iRacing are as factual as possible.

And yes, that includes some of the more ludicrous entries.

Though his current role in the world of sim racing is largely spent lurking in the shadows of numerous Teamspeak servers, allocating most of his free time to picking apart iRacing’s physics engine in pursuit of an extra tenth here or there for the sim racers under his guidance, Lengert hasn’t achieved his status in the underground iRacing community by the process of trial and error. The eldest son of a former heavy hitter whom regularly competed at Evergreen Speedway among drivers that eventually made it into the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, and an accomplished late model pilot in his own right, whose statistics sometimes surpass those of his fellow competitors you may see participating in the glamorous ARCA Re/Max Series events broadcasted on Fox Sports, Lengert’s vast library of knowledge is the result of several decades spent knee-deep in the motorsports community both as a driver, and as a crew chief.

14993510_949868395157330_8199230581054922749_nCurrently turning the wrenches and calling the shots for his father’s late model team as they tour throughout British Columbia, there’s a certain irony in assigning a real world stock car crew chief – an individual who has spent many evenings calling specialty performance shops and ordering expensive roll center simulation software onlineto review the lighthearted automotive sandbox game My Summer Car for the readers of PretendRaceCars.net, but that’s the exact kind of personality we need on our side to pick apart modern racing simulators on a regular basis. As if you created an alternate reality version of the late Alan Kulwicki, and raised him on a steady diet of snowboard videos and Xbox Live, Lengert’s no-nonsense approach to discussing some of the more sensitive topics we cover has raised many eyebrows around the sim racing community, with the same people who once praised him for his entry-level car setup guides currently turning around and blasting him for his extremely cynical review of Assetto Corsa’s new Porsche-themed downloadable content.

The mysterious occasional contributor to PretendRaceCars.net now has a face and a name; our third entry in the on-going series of interviews dedicated to profiling sim racing community members with real-world racing experience centers around none other than our very own Dustin Lengert.

3815a880-82a7-4e80-865b-dfded1cbe51PRC: Your father was a regular face at Washington’s Evergreen Speedway in the 1980’s, competing against many talented late model drivers who eventually landed spots on the NASCAR Winston Cup series grid, so it’s safe to say you’ve been a race car pilot yourself not long after you could walk. Growing up as a kid in the 1990’s and watching video games evolve from 2D sprites to the hardcore NASCAR simulators we see today, at what point did you first realize all the time you put into dominating kids on Xbox Live was actually paying off on the race track?

Lengert: The first racing game I can remember that really had a profound impact on me was Mario Kart 64, and looking back on it, I might have picked it up on the day of release, as opposed to some Nintendo 64 kids who most likely got the game used from their local Blockbuster a few years later. I dabbled in a little-known EA Sports title by the name of Andretti Racing prior to the age of eight, and afterwards jumped on the NASCAR 99 bandwagon. It’s funny, right now it’s almost the cool thing to hate Electronic Arts, but back in the day it was genuinely exciting whenever a new EA Sports racing game came out, even with the console limitations of the 1990’s severely restricting the experience. EA couldn’t always get the rights to every track on the schedule, and systems at the time could only handle around twenty AI cars or so, but it was a simpler time where we were just happy to have something that recreated what we saw on TV to a partial extent. My family had been one of the first to really embrace the concept of a home computer as well, so I have some pretty fond memories of turning laps in Sierra’s NASCAR Racing 2 with the basic keyboard layout – something that would be considered almost a sin if you were to mention it now.

I grew up in Langley, British Columbia, and being the outdoorsy type who loved extreme sports, I had a bunch of close friends on the regional BMX circuit – boththe racing kind and the freestyle kind – so I discovered my competitive nature quite quickly with them, and started out racing bicycles at a lower level because it was something easy and fairly accessible, before venturing into kart racing and taking after my father. To his credit, my dad was really the first one to notice, possibly out of the entire older generation of race car drivers, that video games were helping my overall driving skills. Even in entry level karting, when we were campaigning as an underfunded team just sort of messing around with it as a hobby, my dad always commented that my choice of racing lines were really beyond someone who had as little track time as I did. Thinking back fifteen years ago, it’s not like vehicle dynamics in Xbox games I sunk time into – such as the phenomenal Rallisport Challenge – were anything to write home about, but the concept of going fast and conserving the momentum of your vehicle based on the track geometry was still extremely relevant.

7d678872-f40b-4ecb-96b4-94cb5424818The first two Forza games, however, that stuff really opened my eyes to the feeling we all know of rushing home after high school and burning through your homework, just to turn a few extra laps. In both of the original Forza releases, I was constantly finding myself in the top ten of the U-Class car leaderboards, which were the unlimited cars you could create after upgrading everything on your vehicle to the fullest extent.deba2eb7-ebb5-46da-bf1e-a41fb4a10ceThough I eventually put in enough hours to temporarily achieve the number one rank in Forza Motorsport 2 during its heyday on Xbox Live, I ended up getting sucked into the drifting community because it presented a really unique driving challenge to me, and I wanted to challenge myself rather than sit back and rest on my newly acquired internet fame. Although in my opinion the physics of Forza Motorsport were never the greatest, especially as we look back at these older games from a simulation value standpoint in 2016, at the time they truly taught me a lot about general car control techniques.

15435750_969770836500419_2069494496_nIn the weeks leading up to my transition from karts to full-bodied stock cars, I was extremely cocky and told everyone that I would most likely win my first start, exhibiting the same kind of behavior we occasionally mock on here when we talk about sim racers trying to make the jump to reality (and failing), but this time it was actually my family doing their best to bring me back down to earth rather than forum trolls – and that I was instead in for a very real wake-up call that real life is nothing like an Xbox game. To their surprise, I went out swept the entire event – both heat races, and the main at the end of the evening – thanks to the time I spent preparing on Forza Motorsport. I had absolutely zero fear of running door-to-door with people, which is something that regularly scares the ever-loving piss out of new drivers, and drove around the leader at Motoplex Speedway in Vernon for my first victory, less than an hour after making my debut in an entry level stock car.

It turned a lot of heads, and at least in our circle opened peoples eyes to just how relevant video games are in the grand scheme of things.

nascar-screen-1My stock car career took off at roughly the same time I was really going hard on NASCAR 07, as this was during an era where both the original Xbox and the brand new Xbox 360, existed simultaneously, and not all of the established franchises on the older console had made the transition to the new one. Transitioning back and forth from NASCAR 07 to the real thing on weekends, I completely dominated the hardcore NASCAR guys online, achieving the number one spot on the game’s ranked leaderboards for a good three or four months, though in this case I feel it was more about how much time I spent on the game compared to everyone else. Unlike iRacing, where it does some funky math to calculate the total points you’ve earned each week based on the top twenty five percent of your starts, NASCAR 07 had a basic ELO system that benefited those like myself who would grind out several evenings in a row.

Once I made the jump to the late model class – the highest level of amateur stock car racing before you start talking about the NASCAR K&N Series and other high profile touring championships – I was a bit older and started exploring the hardcore racing simulator scene, which was really starting to take off on the PC thanks to games like GTR 2, rFactor, and eventually Race 07 being thrust into the spotlight. Hopefully the watermark on this picture gives people an understanding of the time frame we’re operating on right here.

fullAs one of the drivers who saw the value of video games in my real world racing career right from the start, I can safely say that virtually everything transfers over onto the physical racing surface. It begins with your line choice; you understand how to approach unique corners and explore setting the car up for different positions on the track, but then it extends to being smooth with your control inputs, navigating through the pack of cars around you, and staying calm in situations where other drivers would be prone to let their adrenaline get the best of them. It’s like showing up to a mid-term exam where you can recite every page of the text book as if it’s the lyrics to your favorite Tool song, while the rest of your classmates are trying to fake sick or writing formulas on the bottom of their shoes in a last-ditch act of desperation.

However, I will say that nothing beats seat time in the real thing as far as speed goes. Hitting some of the speeds we do in a late model stock car isn’t for everyone; this isn’t something you can replicate in your buddy’s Mustang when merging onto the freeway. You find out real quick if you’re cut out for this stuff or not.

stevesbabiesbigPRC: One Canadian auto racing journalist dubbed you to be “Canada’s answer to Jeff Gordon” during the height of your late model racing career; a career which saw you compete and win against a stout lineup of incredibly talented drivers – one of which is currently paraded around as a minority figure in the ARCA Re/Max series. Is there a sense of community and accomplishment felt when you see some of your old fellow competitors on Fox Sports 1, or does it light a fire under your ass knowing you were the statistically better driver?

Lengert: It was extremely flattering at the time to be used as an advertisement for what was arguably the biggest auto racing facility in British Columbia. Sadly, I never had the funding to pursue a full-time racing career, but seeing people I used to race with move up in the racing world, and knowing just how much they had to spend to do so, I can’t say I envy the financial risks associated with their endeavors. If anything, I’m salty over the fact that auto racing as a sport has become more about advertising and how much money you can bring to an operation rather than raw talent, as I think the way a lot of drivers in the 1970’s and 1980’s made it into the show based on raw talent simply don’t exist anymore. Unless you have a good $40,000+ to campaign a late model around the entire country and can demonstrate there’s more where that came from, racing will never be more than an expensive weekend hobby akin to organized sports in your teens.

crooksFor example, Crooks Racing are hosting a competition in the United States where the “winner” – if you could even call it that – has the pleasure of paying over $15,000 per race to run their in-house late model, and they’re forced to pay their own travel expenses on top of that. How is this a prize? Yet this is what the racing world has come to; greed is placed above every other legitimate value, and the only people in it to genuinely enjoy the thrill of auto racing are the gentlemen barely scraping the funds together to run a limited schedule.15402992_969774089833427_802288467_nSarah Cornett-Ching is someone I know personally who worked her ass off to get where she is in the ARCA Re/Max series, saved a ton of money to do so, and every chance she had to put more work in to try and live out her dream, she damn well did. I was under the belief that raw talent alone would help me move up through the ladder, and though I wasn’t entirely wrong, I was merely a decade too late. The auto racing climate had changed; you now need to channel your inner Billy Mays at some point, rather than rely on the Cole Trickle route.

It also didn’t help that I was still quite young during what many would consider to be the peak of my late model career, so the extremely difficult part of growing up which we’ve all gone through in our late teens and early twenties – some a little rockier than others – when that happens during the prime of your racing career, it’s really not a good thing. Seeing guys like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney out there in the Monster Cup Series at an age where many of us were merely happy to get along with our bosses at some minimum wage job, I really hope they’ve got individuals around them who can help them grow and mature as people, rather than just race car drivers. It’s every bit as important that Chase can get through a nasty break-up or fight with his parents as it is for him to master the downhill rhythm section at Sears Point.

15409851_969774289833407_345175932_oPRC: The previous three or four years, you’ve actually taken a step back from driving altogether and have embraced the role of crew chief for your father’s team, essentially bringing the operation full circle and eschewing from the norm of a father/son racing program, where traditionally it’s the son in the driver’s seat. What was it that attracted you to the science project element of auto racing?

Lengert: Honestly, it’s all because of my grandfather Gene. He was a regular at Langley Speedway back when it was a NASCAR sanctioned track, he was the genius behind my dad’s rise through the ranks in the 1980’s, and he did his part to make sure I grew up inside the race shop to the point where I knew every detail of the cars we raced, and rebuilt my first engine when I was only ten years old. So the base set of knowledge was just sort of there for me to consume at an extremely young age and build on fundamentals most people don’t fully comprehend until their twenties, like growing up in a family where your dad coaches high school football, or your mom is heavy into baseball, that sort of thing.

15401416_969763246501178_1500369597_nIn the early 2000’s, when the local county made the highly unfortunate decision of building a race track right next to his house, he made sure to bring me to the track with him as much as possible, and introduce his grandson to the family’s pastime as a bit of a bonding thing, which I’ll be eternally thankful for. When my dad made the decision to get our family back into late model racing and eventually hand me the keys at fifteen, I got to the point where I just wasn’t happy with my current set of skills, and in a quest for self-improvement, I really just dove head first into consuming as much information on race car setup information as I could. Not many people my age willingly go out and read a bunch of Steve Smith chassis setup books, but I was extremely hungry for what I felt I was missing as someone who was around these cars every weekend.

My first year of campaigning a late model was plagued with mechanical issues, and when we did get the car running to a satisfactory level, I was extremely unhappy with how it drove. This is where iRacing helped me more than anything; it forced me to go out and research how to get the most out of a race car, and although most of what you learn in iRacing on the setup side doesn’t transfer over to the real thing, it put in my hands the incentive to dig for little tidbits and oddities that are floating around in the wild.

As far as choosing to be a crew chief over a driver in recent years, driving was getting a bit stale for me. After I had won on such a big stage in the Pacific Northwest, I felt like the competitive part of me died, and there wasn’t much for me to prove both to myself, as well as to the rest of the regional auto racing community. Like the transition from standard hot-lapping leaderboards to the drift community in Forza Motorsport 2, I realized I received more internal satisfaction from climbing the mountain rather than standing at the top. And I discovered I felt a really unique kind of rush watching someone else do well in a car that I had tuned and tweaked to perfection, than driving it for myself, which had almost become emotionless in a sense.

15102364_10206255833755260_1592445679_o-pngPRC: Your current role in the world of sim racing is that of a dedicated setup builder for iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series teams; the author of several race winning setups, not to mention the unsung hero of Ryan Luza’s squad that has been propelling him to unheard levels of dominance on the service. But it’s not all fun and games; iRacing’s constant stream of updates and continuous incompetence when it comes to both the tire model and individual vehicle patches occasionally renders your real world setup knowledge totally useless. Does it ever frustrate you to come across elementary race car engineering inaccuracies when building a setup for a team, only to hit up the forums and see the average iRacer praising the title for its alleged unprecedented realism? 

Lengert: A trend I’ve noticed that will most likely cause issues upon pointing it out, is that almost anyone who praises iRacing typically maintain an iRating of less than 3000, essentially indicating they either aren’t very fast and can’t push the cars to their limits, or haven’t been on the service for very long and are still in the honeymoon phase. I can’t care less about what the fanboys want to believe, and I’m sure they’ll read this and not give a shit about what I have to say. The part of the iRacing world I’m personally involved in is very different than what is presented on the surface, and most people will never be affected by it. As far as the inaccuracies, as I’ve said before in previous articles, the underlying goal of the car setup is the same as it is in real life – make the vehicle as low and as stable as possible. It’s all about finding the most grip, and the ways of doing that are simple: create the lowest dynamic center of gravity and aerodynamic efficiency, balance is balance, and the adjustments match up for the most part even if the numbers themselves don’t.

What does bother me, however, is the lack of updates since Eric Hudec left the service earlier this year. There have been almost zero updates to the oval cars themselves in over a year, instead we’re only graced with general track surface updates. As a dedicated setup builder, this makes everything very stale and honestly, we might as well just run fixed setups in the broadcasted championships since the innovation required is more or less non-existent at this point. Driving-wise, it has been close to real life at times, yet in its current state has some really weird interactions that I’ve never felt anything close to in real life. Certain corners in certain cars feel really lifelike, but there’s always a bad corner or a bad feeling to counter-act it.

Almost everyone is forced to under-drive the cars now, or create a setup that’s super tight so you never risk sliding the car, because iRacing’s tire model does some extremely wacky things when you lose traction. We’ve felt it in our own private NASCAR Racing 2003 Season online adventures; there’s a point where the tire model gives up in a sense, and it appears they haven’t totally eradicated this problem in iRacing. Many have created their own theories in the forums as to why this happens, but most come to the same general conclusion as I have – whatever you do, don’t get loose, because it breaks something deep within the game’s tire physics calculations.

11947753_10205394208907154_5135084414699377131_oPRC: It’s probably something you can’t go too deep into in fear of being blacklisted, but we’ve gotta cover it in this interview. There are an abundance of real drivers and crew chiefs who invest a serious amount of time into iRacing, but many of them – such as 2015 Porsche Carrera Cup USA champion Elliott Skeer – can be seen openly complaining on Facebook that the engineers at iRacing don’t listen to any of the feedback on the simulator they willingly provide to the team. Is this merely the result of whiny millenials not understanding the process of video game development, or does iRacing truly ignore legitimate findings from qualified individuals?

Lengert: They’ve ignored us many, many times. Most of us just don’t care anymore; we go through the motions, use the simulator for the stuff it’s good for – mainly to unleash the competitive fire in all of us – and as a time waster. To most real world guys, it’s not this highly authentic training tool used to prepare for the upcoming event as the marketing campaign claims it is, they use it as just another online video game, and you can treat it like a specialized version of Facebook where you can connect with all sorts of people in the real life auto racing community who are also major computer geeks on the side.

The ignorance on part of the iRacing staff seemed to start with Shane van Gisbergen. Now for the guys reading this who don’t follow Australian V8 Supercars a whole bunch, Shane is actually one of the best drivers Australia has produced in the past decade, behind only Mark Webber and Jamie Whincup when we look at raw statistics. Shane was a regular on the iRacing service during a time when the Ford Falcon V8 Supercar was laughably bad, and he reached out for them – as a fellow computer geek – to get it right. That lasted for one build, so about three months, and the very next build it was completely changed again, much to the anger of the entire community who very much liked the car. No apologies, no explanations, just ignoring someone who is now proven to be one of the best V8 Supercar drivers ever, and we’re still not sure why. This sort of led to an internal culture of ignorance, and there’s been no effort on the part of iRacing to rectify it.

bovke2ncyaaufqsSomething very similar happened when the Super Late Model was announced. Many people on the service, myself included, obviously race late models on weekends, and had been asking for a long time for a proper super late model without the truck arm bullshit the NASCAR sanctioned late models have. Different sub-rules and such. What they tried to give us in their first scan of the car was hilariously bad; it was clearly a twenty year old car with a 90’s Chevrolet Lumina body on it, yet sported modern Ford Fusion decals, and had clearly been sitting in the garage for a season or two. This, all while people were offering iRacing their brand new Super Lates out of their own shops, some even offering to trailer the cars to Bedford, Massachusetts, so iRacing could scan the correct car. It got so bad that iRacing eventually did reluctantly back down and scan a new one, though how they believed they could pass the original scan by the hardcore iRacing late model community in the first place is beyond me. Here you have this studio claiming to be the absolute pinnacle of racing simulators, and it was like they were scanning a Firestone Indy Lights car while calling it the Dallara DW 12. Stupefying.

And this story gets worse. The Super Late Model has been in a laughably bad state for about two years, and not one physics update has been released for it during that time. The only reason the Generation 6 Sprint Cup entries received any significant updates, were because of the rules package changes in real life NASCAR, and obviously their license obligates them to keep things relevant on the service.

In my position, it’s consistently frustrating to deal with iRacing. Both the sportsman late model, as well as the super late model, are nowhere near realistic – meaning the races never have enough participants to be counted as an official session – and the top level NASCAR entries have all become a fixed setup series, where all of the people in my position as a dedicated setup builder know all the various tricks.

057422PRC: Let’s talk Assetto Corsa for a minute… Much to the surprise of our readers, you gave the Japanese themed DLC a glowing review earlier in the year, which caught a lot of people off guard given the nature of our website, but the first Porsche pack resulted in a highly critical piece accusing Kunos Simulazioni of dumbing down the vehicles for the console audience they had recently acquired. Did you feel the two packs were genuinely on polar opposite ends of the spectrum? What did Kunos get wrong with the Porsche content that they got so right with the Asian package?

Lengert: Yes, I did feel they were polar opposites, but honestly I think the biggest thing wrong with the Porsche pack wasn’t the cars themselves, but the base setups that were for the most part completely stock, with only minimal adjustments. It felt dumbed down to cater to the lowest talent tier; you know, the ones who seem to spend the most money on sim equipment, but never enter the garage area nor sign up for competitive online races. Almost all of the cars in the Porsche pack which had somewhat adjustable setups for me to play with, I ended up getting to feel like a proper rear-biased car. The street cars all had zero setup options, and therefore I could never reduce the ludicrous levels of understeer that really ruined the experience. On an Xbox 360 controller, however, they felt alright. It seemed like it was designed for the steering to snap back and forth, as it would with a control stick. Read into that in whatever manner you please.

maxresdefaultPRC: Despite being heavily consumed by the iRacing community, you’re actually a massive supporter of Niels Heusinkveld, the sim racing physics guru currently employed by Brazilian developer Reiza Studios. Can you tell us how you became a fan of Niels, and why his work is so important to the evolution of sim racing?

Lengert: I first heard of Niels while I was looking for a drifting fix, since Turn 10 Studios had really neutered the private online drift lobbies which made Forza Motorsport 2 so popular on Xbox Live. I ended up on rFactor – because there’s obviously an enormous drifting scene on there – and through that found the Fredric Aasbo Supra replica that Niels had created, which was absolutely amazing and I couldn’t believe how far someone had managed to stretch the isiMotor engine. Heusinkveld followed up his excellent Supra with the 2012 Chevrolet Corvette C6, and from there I just sort of followed Niels as this closet fanboy all the way to his eventual YouTube series and employment at Reiza. Across the entire sim racing landscape, every single game, every single car, every single physics engine, his content is the only stuff I’ve driven in sims that feels one hundred percent correct, right out of the box. It’s obviously not possible to whore him out to everyone given that he’s contractually tied down to one developer, but for the future of the genre, every team really needs to sit down with him one on one at some point, and at the very least pick his brain.

hint-hintPRC: This one starts in very controversial territory, but ends with an important twist. We’ve all sat around on Teamspeak until the wee hours of the morning making jabs at the sim racers iRacing throw into real cars with no previous experience, and failing miserably because they suddenly learn their practice laps on a goofy tire model didn’t prepare them for the real thing in the slightest. Let’s pretend for just a second that it’s not a random sim racer taking part in one of these PR stunts, but a close friend whom you want to succeed. Using only hardcore racing simulators, how do you adequately prepare someone for jumping into the seat of a real race car, to the point where they’re highly competitive out of the box?

Lengert: It’s funny you bring up this topic, because I’m actually trying to put a car together right now for this exact purpose. I think the key is to point out the differences between whatever the person’s preferred sim is, and reality. So if someone spends an assload of time in rFactor 2, you have to sit them down and say, “okay man, that’s great you’re quick in the EnduRacers Porsche Cup mod, but that’s not how real tires feel or behave once they heat up, but the ZR1 is actually pretty close, so instead you should be turning laps in the Corvette ZR1, and make sure to choose only tracks where there’s a lot of low-speed corners where you’re forced to roll on the throttle, because the throttle application technique required is very similar to the car you’ll be driving.” That’s exactly how you have to approach this scenario.You simply can’t be a fanboy and refuse to play other games because you’ve already pledged your allegiance to your sim of choice

It’s also really important to point out that some of the nuances and tricks that are used in certain simulators can actually be catastrophic in reality, and part of what iRacing should be doing, or any developer dastardly enough to embark upon this marketing stunt, is hooking the sim racer up with a teacher who can train them to be fast in a simulator without those tricks. I’m under the belief that this is what has made GT Academy so successful; the engineers from Nissan understand the Gran Turismo physics engine on the same level we sit in the forums and pick apart the iRacing or Assetto Corsa physics engine, and they can sit with Jann Mardenborough, for example, and say “alright, that bullshit brake pedal modulation you use here and here, don’t you dare try that shit in one of our cars, but here’s how professional drivers attack the same corner using real world pedal inputs, and here’s why your bullshit technique works in Gran Turismo – Polyphony modeled this specific vehicle dynamic incorrectly”

I think most of these marketing stunts end in failures because they fail to diversify their library of simulators, and instead focus on one and fall for the marketing garbage that whatever they’re playing is the best simulator currently available. I also think most of these people simply aren’t prepared for the sense of speed that’s pretty prevalent when driving a real car, especially among iRacers due to the sense of speed in-game being non-existent. There’s also the act of finding the edge of the tire, learning how to react to that feeling, and using it to your advantage, rather than backing down from it. Because iRacing forces you to under-drive the car and prevent from sliding the car at all to avoid breaking the tire model calculations, I think it’s ingrained into some sim racers’ heads that you have to avoid this point of elation by any means necessary, when having the vehicle stretch the tires to their limit of adhesion is actually essential to driving a race car at a competitive pace.

rfactor2-2015-09-26-11-05-06-01PRC: Lastly, you were one of the early rFactor 2 adopters back in 2013 when the title first stumbled into the market. What are some of the things you thought Image Space Incorporated got right, and what do you feel went horribly awry?

Lengert: I have a fairly unique view on the whole rFactor 2 fiasco, since I was part of the rFactor drift community for a substantial amount of time. When rFactor 2 was first announced, everyone was hyped for it; the base engine is definitely much more advanced, and the level of detail we believed we would get out of the new game was going to blow everyone away. Sadly, the execution was far from acceptable. Most of the content has been third party garbage with the ISI seal of approval merely slapped on it, which at first seemed like an okay idea given how much the community drove the first game, but sadly didn’t improve the quality of the content at all. In fact, a lot of it was just hastily converted.

I think most of the blame lies on the modding community, as I saw from the drift side of things. When Assetto Corsa was announced, most modders said they were switching to the new platform out of sheer laziness. All they were required to do for Assetto Corsa was convert the rFactor mods they had spent years working on, rather than sit and learn a complicated new tire creation system, packaging format, and all the little hiccups that had turned people off of rFactor 2. Assetto Corsa essentially offered them a sense of familiarity on the modding side of things, albeit wrapped up in a much nicer visual package compared to the dated graphics of 2006. Plus, some argued that Assetto Corsa already had a built-in drift mode, but as things would play out, nobody really used this mode anyway.

Just like the original rFactor, the sequel relied heavily on a community effort to prolong the game’s lifespan, and that effort just doesn’t seem to be there aside from a few hardcore modding teams, which aren’t always putting out high quality mods given by the recent articles we’ve published. Maybe when I’m in my late thirties, my rFactor 2 lifetime subscription will pay off. Right now, it’s not looking like that will happen

15416919_969774099833426_1323737869_nDustin will be busting his ass throughout the upcoming winter months to prepare a car for the 2017 WESCAR Late Model Championship and embark on his first full season as a crew chief in British Columbia’s premiere stock car racing series, so cut him some slack if his name doesn’t pop up on PretendRaceCars.net as often as you’d like it to. Lengert will also continue to build custom car setups for prominent iRacing members such as Ryan Luza, and keep us updated on the world of iRacing from a position where he’s privy to information the average iRacer will never see publicly discussed on the official message boards.

For those who are interested in reading more of these articles, which chronicle a younger generation of race car drivers and their unique ability to transfer seamlessly from the PC monitor to the track, feel free to check out our previous pieces on fellow PRC.net staff member and resident German cultural expert Severin Austerschmidt, as well as our friend from Texas, Ryan Luza.

Blurring the Line with Ryan Luza

15025105_1399683276723392_2460143272430283825_oProvided 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.

12006212_828996763888563_4956391031433906185_nEnter 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.

15194369_1135737786494782_5538985985241686967_oAway 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.

12304039_10207355817485730_1867915556619925555_oPRC: 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.

12347812_932253786810199_380063146783988701_nPRC: 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.

15235746_1281349385242063_2531012548647974828_oPRC: 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.

15003320_1390784580946595_6078653625113394131_oPRC: 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.

nips-2PRC: A question with a much less cynical tone;  when was the exact moment you realized sim racing had turned you into a better driver on the actual track?

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?

15000002_1389731774385209_6803663225959691075_oPRC: 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.

14940027_1389731927718527_7343250446098784407_oPRC: 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.

11046493_956720897713678_3419569988889021446_nPRC: 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.

luza-winsPRC: 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.

iracing-five-flags-preview

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.

Can We Move Past Publicity Stunts, iRacing?

member_big_pabloFor those who have been around the block a few times in the world of sim racing, iRacing has yet again attempted to place one of their prominent online personalities in the seat of a real world race car to try and somehow prove that their pricey software is the most realistic on the market, only to awkwardly shift gears and dance around what actually happened on the race track once the event commenced. It’s always a bit embarrassing to watch it play out, and if iRacing keep plugging away at these publicity stunts without realizing the damage it’s doing to sim racing, there’s going to be the wrong stigma associated with sim racing as a whole in legitimate paddock areas both amateur and professional.

It all started with Greger Huttu’s journey into the unknown. iRacing once believed they could throw the greatest sim racer of our time, otherwise known as the World’s Fastest Alien, into a Star Mazda entry for a few practice laps at Road Atlanta without even possessing a valid drivers license, and use his performance as proof that long hours on their simulation can indeed prepare you for the real thing. The on-track results really didn’t play into their favor. What was originally intended to be used as hard evidence that the iRacing motorsport simulation can absolutely prepare you for real world auto racing, instead indicated there was still work to be done on the simulation side of things, with Huttu clocking a lap time a few seconds off pace – a time basically any average person from your local indoor karting facility could achieve – and promptly pulling into the pits to throw up.

Continuing down the same path, iRacing attempted to produce a different result with the exact same experiment by placing three-time NASCAR iRacing Peak Anti-Freeze Series champion Ray Alfalla in the seat of a Spec Miata entry at Homestead-Miami Speedway, who rather than naturally adapting to the situation thanks to his time on iRacing instead spent most of the event getting accustomed to the Miata’s gearbox behavior – indicating iRacing’s transmission model was in no way realistic and hadn’t prepared him for much of anything, which sort of went against the whole goal of the publicity stunt.

In both scenarios, iRacing took the time to generate hype through YouTube videos and lengthy articles about a sim racer “getting a shot at the real thing” while using iRacing as a legitimate training tool prior to the event, only to display that the simulation was completely and utterly useless, because these hardcore sim racers with a long list of virtual accomplishments couldn’t even produce results on-par with a kid who inherited a small fortune after the passing of a relative, and blew most of it on a race car.

Unfortunately, we’re here to add Pablo Lopez to this list, and I want to start by saying this is one of the few guys on iRacing who actually deserves to have his fifteen minutes of fame in the spotlight; he’s a goofy Spanish lad who takes to being in front of a camera quite well, and has an instantly likeable personality on top of being one hell of a virtual driver. This is the exact kind of person I want representing sim racing to the outside world; not some kid dropping $20,000 USD of cash that wasn’t his on a fake race car cockpit and matching custom fire suit.

Through finishing well in an officially sponsored Mazda MX5 series on iRacing, and producing a compelling biographical video that could be marketed to potential sponsors, Lopez won the right to compete in Mazda’s 2016 Road to 24 event at NOLA Motorsports Park, which is more or less an invite-only time trial competition in the race-spec Miata typically reserved for some of the most talented SCCA drivers in the country all vying for a shot at a $100,000 Mazda Racing scholarship. The goal of this competition was quite simple: beat the shit out of everybody else on the property, and Mazda themselves will throw some serious dough at you to become a semi-professional race car driver under the Team Mazda banner.

It’s a pretty neat gig. And it would have been sweet if Lopez went out and held his own against the field of competitors. But he didn’t, because treating iRacing as a teaching tool to prepare you for the real thing, isn’t a very wise idea – the underlying physics just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

mazdamx5_iracing_2Through no fault of his own, Lopez obviously wasn’t very quick compared to the other drivers – most of which were seasoned SCCA racers with many years of experience to draw upon. And that’s to be expected in a competition such as this one; Lopez is essentially the equivalent of a walk-on student athlete just trying to hold his own against starters for the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Oregon Ducks. However, over the course of the ten minute event summary on YouTube, it eventually comes out from both other drivers and Lopez himself that he was essentially the slowest car on the property, couldn’t quite figure out the proper downshifting technique, almost wrecked the car on one occasion, and was just sort of there to be “that guy” who won a contest. Nothing against Pablo, as I said earlier this is exactly who I want representing sim racing to the auto racing community – he’s just the right mix of everything – but unfortunately he is now in the same boat as Huttu was at Road Atlanta, and Alfalla was at Homestead.

And this doesn’t really help iRacing’s underlying cause in the slightest. Hey man, if you’re going to go out on a limb and say you’re the most accurate racing simulator on the market, it’s cool, and I respect the balls it took to say that. Good for you for having faith in your product, you can collect your participant badge next Friday. But on three separate occasions, you’ve now tried to stuff accomplished sim racing personalities – some of the best online racers ever – into a legitimate race car, and it’s never translated into any sort of success. Your drivers are either throwing up, spinning out, or struggling with something basic like shifting gears. An accurate simulator should teach them how to do that. Y’all have some explaining to do as to why some of your best drivers appear to not be learning a damn thing from the software they’re supposedly training on.

maxresdefaultIs jealousy fueling this entry? Not in the slightest.

Like Pablo, I found myself in an entry level race car throughout the summer of 2016, and had absolutely no performance driving credentials to draw upon whatsoever – racing simulators were the only thing on my resume even remotely qualifying as “experience.”  Using software powered by the aging isiMotor engine as my primary means of education, and an ancient oval racing game that sometimes retails for $200 on eBay to perfect my pedal input rhythm, I found myself in the points lead by mid-season, only lost the championship due to a blown engine in the final race, and still brought home Rookie of the Year honors against several other drivers who were basically shoe-ins for the award. I’ve been able to write several articles detailing how I trained for my own racing endeavors using many different simulators on the market, and as a whole I personally didn’t find the transition from video games to some kind of amateur car to be all that difficult. If anything, I went out and proved that this once-unfathomable scenario of going from video games to the real thing is in fact a viable option.

For iRacers, on the other hand, this is suddenly asking too much. Despite laser scanned tracks, vehicle data straight from Mazda themselves, an experimental tire model built from years of research into how rubber behaves, modern force feedback effects designed to work with wheels that aren’t even affordable for most consumers, and a highly competitive environment where you’re asked to get every last tenth out of your virtual car just to hold a candle to your opponents, when an iRacer gets a shot at driving something in real life, they just can’t get the job done. And I’m at the point where I’m no longer pointing the finger at the driver or making excuses for their results – things like “well, Ray’s an asshole and Greger didn’t even have a drivers license” – because in this instance, I actually liked Pablo and wanted him to do well. He’s someone that’s marketable, someone I want to see paraded around the likes of VirtualR and RaceDepartment as the guy to represent us – all of us – to the outside world.

But he practiced on iRacing, and it obviously didn’t teach him anything of value.

iRacing need to stop with these marketing gimmicks until they’ve improved the simulation side of their software enough where it actually translates to satisfactory on-track results, otherwise it just looks incredibly fucking stupid. It’s not doing anybody any favors to hype up a story about a sim racer getting a chance to drive a real car thanks to iRacing, only for them to pull out of the garage area and basically poke around at the back of the pack with the same consistency and pace as someone who’s never even heard of iRacing. To the team in Massachusetts: these little vignettes don’t magically prove your game is realistic in the slightest, it just means someone understands the basic concept of pointing the steering wheel in the direction you want to go, and they’re trying not to hurt themselves.

Real Life is a Frankensim

race_steam-2016-01-26-18-26-01-83Earlier in the week, I discussed how becoming a student of the game – or a student of sim racing – made the transitioning phase from hardcore sim racer to amateur race car driver virtually non-existent. In a lot of articles you’ll see discussing some sort of accomplished gamer landing a seat in any form of grass roots motorsports, you’ll often discover a prominent turning point in their journey was the precise moment they were forced to “unlearn” bad habits they had picked up when sim racing. This is part of the driver training process most marketing campaigns for several prominent franchises don’t touch on simply because it’s bad publicity – yes, Polyphony Digital, Gran Turismo, and GT Academy helped Jann Mardenborough land himself a Nissan GT3 ride, but you can bet your ass the team engineers at Nissan spent several weeks explaining to him how fucking backwards Gran Turismo was, and to not even contemplate using some of the techniques that helped him to become incredibly successful on the PlayStation 3.

Personally, I don’t believe this kind of approach is all that necessary. I think the underlying factor in easing the transition from fake cars to real cars is not having a driving instructor privately tear apart your simulator of choice within one-on-one training; the reality is that many modern racing sims get portions of the overall driving experience absolutely correct, and understanding how to piece them all together – by sitting your ass down and investing time into all of them – is how to be successful when the Simpson belts are strapping you into the seat. What I’m saying, is that if you play primarily iRacing, or primarily rFactor 2 and refuse to try out other sims, it’s going to be an uphill battle if you suddenly find yourself signing up for an autocross event next year, or convinced a buddy to let you test his Spec Miata entry for a weekend. However, if you take the time to bounce around the genre and learn about the nuances of each particular simulator’s physics engine, inside the car you’ll easily recognize certain elements of competition driving that you’ve already learned how to deal with from multiple simulators. A lot of them get something right, and at speed, it’s like someone’s loading up a different game on Steam with each passing lap. Familiarizing yourself with all major simulators and the driving style required to be successful in them is the key to making a bit of a name for yourself out on the real track.

Throughout this article, I’ll outline some of the title’s I’ve spent the most time on over the past year or so, and discuss what characteristics about them transferred over to my real-life shitbox season. In a recent comment, someone said there needs to be a bit more of a positive outlook on PRC.net, so this one’s for you, anonymous shitposter.

slideRaceRoom Racing Experience

To satisfy the guys who will undoubtedly complain, I have to begin by stating that we’re on good terms with Sector 3 Studios, and while we’re not outright paid to push any of their products, we do receive what’s called Media Access to their Free-To-Play racing simulator, effectively giving us all of the premium content the game has to offer at no cost, and this means I’ve spent a bit more time with the game compared to a traditional consumer forced to deal with the rather intrusive micro-transactions. That said, RaceRoom Racing Experience was basically the one game on this entire list that I can say with 100% certainty made me a better amateur race car driver.

Catching slides in R3E is scarily realistic, and this is both a combination of the game’s fantastic force feedback, as well as the underlying tire behavior. The way the game forces you to stay about a quarter of a second ahead of what the car is doing while in a slide, the vehicle sort of “hanging” at full steering lock as you wait for your control inputs to actually do something, and the exact wheel & pedal inputs needed to safely keep the car under you, are 1:1 with the real thing. As I’ve documented in the screenshot above, before our real season began I was having this killer battle with Milan Stefanovic over on Race2Play, and I blew the entry to the corkscrew at Laguna Seca on the final lap. It was an admittedly sweet save, but I was pretty bummed that Milan held on for the win. A few weeks later out on the real track, I received a massive shut from my car owner as a bit of a hazing incident, and once again was dead sideways – but this time, a mistake would directly affect my bank account. I simply did what worked in R3E earlier in the month; turning into the corner a quarter of a second before the car was set to snap the other direction, and getting back on the throttle. The wheel weight even felt the same.

But that’s not all R3E gets right; for those who have played it, you know full well that the game really magnifies both understeer and oversteer characteristics. If you missed the setup and the car is tight, it’s not just a minor issue; it feels like you’re driving a school bus, and within no time you’ve washed up the race track, requiring you to really get out of the throttle and nurse the car back to the preferred line. On the contrary, if you’re loose for whatever reason, it’s frustrating to keep the back end in check, and you feel like you’re in a never-ending fight with a temperamental toddler. Yet when you get the line just right, it’s like you’re on rails, and it makes the driving experience extremely satisfying. This is how it is in a real car as well.

I think it’s the way that you subtly adjust your driving line to deal with unwanted handling characteristics and fight with the control inputs that really drills home how good R3E can be out on the physical track. My alignment was fucked after heavy contact at the end of the season, and it made for a car that did nothing but understeer. It took two practice sessions and a pair of qualifying laps for me to finally decide to evaluate the alignment problem, as R3E had done such a good job of teaching me how to modify my driving line to adapt to a car suffering from perennial understeer, I was still running fairly well with what other drivers in the garage area would consider a broken car. Only the lap time readouts – which indicated I had inexplicably lost a tenth of a second – caused me to be like “yeah, I think there’s a problem.”

Lastly, the throttle rhythm, even in other classes, is dead on with R3E. At one point during the season I had positioned myself in turn three to evaluate what drivers in other classes were doing, and I noticed that this year’s track champion was fighting a bit with her car while trailing the leader. Her throttle rhythm in her Pontiac Grand Prix resembled what I do in one of R3E’s several GT3 cars when I’m just a hair tight through the center of the corner, and I could tell she was getting increasingly frustrated lap after lap, because I’d had that exact handling problem and throttle rhythm in Turn 10 at Zandvoort when things weren’t going my way.

R3E makes you brake once, lift once, and get on the throttle once. It helps you learn how to manage a shitty car, and gives the best “on-rails” sensation when you dial in the setup. If you don’t focus on your fundamentals – like a WNBA athlete – such as braking in a straight line, carefully rolling on the throttle, and being smooth with the steering wheel, R3E makes quick work out of you. Jumping into some kind of amateur car, having practiced this stuff beforehand on a simulator is incredibly valuable.

But it was only one piece of the puzzle.

grab_049-2Traditional isiMotor Products

I’ve discussed this in the last article, but I feel as if I should elaborate on it a bit more. The way you manage your tires in Automobilista, Stock Car Extreme, and both rFactor titles is spot on. Let me explain it to you in terms that even the most green of sim racers can understand: isiMotor titles reward a car setup in which a driver steers the car primarily with the brake pedal. So that guy you’re following in a multiplayer server who seemingly hangs the rear of the car out on entry, that’s something you should be aiming for as it significantly reduces tire wear over the course of a long run. I personally use a brake bias of 58% across all isiMotor games, but there are some guys I know – such as our boy Dustin – who drop down to 56% or even 54%. The reason for this is to initiate a four-wheel drift on corner entry and rotate the car around the corner, rather than turn the car with the front tires, and in the end this helps extend the life of all tires because they’re met with less lateral resistance.

In real life, this is essential, because lateral resistance on a tire does more than just wear down the numbers being displayed in the tire wear black box and make the car a bit nervous to drive; they can start to chunk, blister, and deform in ways that racing simulators won’t be able to model for a solid twenty years. I’ve seen massive bits of rubber fly off of a tire due to an inexperienced driver using too much wheel input on corner exit, and no video game has yet even tried to model what happens when the dynamic piece of rubber connecting the car to the road begins to self-mutilate. I think we all know that a tire wear indicator of 60% makes for a rather slick car to control, but physical damage to a tire feels like the entire car is going to shake itself apart. It’s not fun.

If you gain confidence in steering the car with the brake pedal within a traditional ISI simulator, applying that same driving style in real life prevents you from physically assaulting the outer edges of your tires. This saves you money and helps you reel in other cars over a long period.

nr2003-2014-04-02-22-12-46-80NASCAR Racing 2003 Season

It’s really fucking old and most people have probably moved on or lost their CD by now, but there’s a definitive reason real-world cup drivers were all competing in private leagues for this game back in the day. I recently discovered a hacked EXE file that turned NR2003 into a competent Super Late Model simulator, and I was fairly surprised at what I found. Not only were the lap times at my local track replicated down to the thousandth of a second, an integral part of short track driving carried over seamlessly.

RaceRoom Racing Experience teaches you to brake in a straight line and really think about your pedal inputs, but NR2003 elaborates on the art of braking. Most notably, when you’re pushing at max attack and chasing somebody down – as I had been during the final race of the season – the way you throw the car into the corner and ride the brake pedal is perfectly replicated in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. You don’t just hold the brake at 7% pedal input and wait until you’re at the apex to lift; all of the little shit you do alongside riding the brake, such as kicking the rear end out just a tad and see-sawing on the wheel to maintain stability, that’s all present in NR2003, and it makes for an extremely accurate representation of driving on the limit. The other night I was running a 140 lap race at Oxford Plains just for shits and giggles, and during the middle of a long green run I noticed I was eating the AI cars alive under braking. Well, upon analyzing the replay and checking out the cockpit view with the steering wheel displayed (I disable mine while driving), I was doing the same things in NR2003 under braking that I was doing in my Hornet, and they were just as effective in-game as they were in real life.

The authenticity extended to the garage area as well. Very few games get this portion right, and as I’ve touched on previously here at PRC.net, earlier this year you could run the exact same setup across every type of car found in RaceRoom Racing Experience, so the garage menu is an aspect of racing sims that just aren’t there yet. NR2003 really drilled home how even a single adjustment or two could drastically change how the car handled, and I found myself really experimenting just to understand the diversity of possible changes. One testing stint, I ran a setup that had come bundled with the track, featuring stiff right side springs and soft left side springs. It was loose as hell and really enjoyable to manage the right rear tire slipping on corner exit. In the following stint, I inverted the spring rates to mimic what you might see in a real life late model stock car, and was rewarded with a quicker overall lap time and a much more stable car throughout the corner. Sway bar adjustments and wedge tweaks did wonders to fine tune what was already a satisfactory setup. Tire pressure changes of even a few PSI were noticeable within a few laps.

On the contrary, there are some titles out there, such as Project CARS, where you can run completely bullshit nonsensical setups and stomp the field.

acs-2014-05-18-22-45-11-16Assetto Corsa

We’re going to talk about this game in a serious light for a second, as I feel there is one element Kunos Simulazioni have gotten absolutely perfect when it comes to Assetto Corsa. The way street cars exhibit weight transfer and general inertial is basically spot on. Obviously I can sit here and contact people around the sim racing community to dig up stuff on fudged numbers and all that, but the raw sensation of cornering in the BMW M3 E30 or the Toyota GT86 is really unmatched by any modern simulator on the market, and it’s a large reason as to why so many people still praise the game despite the incomplete list of modes and features.

When going into a corner in Assetto Corsa, it’s a multi-step process. You have to make sure your wheel inputs are smooth and the suspension has time to interpret the sudden shift in inertia. You have to wait for the centripetal force load to transfer to the outside tires, springs, shocks, and for the car to become complacent in its current state before you make any drastic input changes. The way you have to wait for the car as a machine to process the forces that are acting upon it is very close to perfect in Assetto Corsa, and if you familiarize yourself with how this process feels at competition speed, it won’t be much of a shock out on the real track. On a lot of performance driving websites you’ll hear guys talk about “keeping the car balanced“, and this is what they’re referring to – allowing the natural gravitational forces to act on the machine without losing traction or changing direction.

This isn’t something I paid much attention to until we shoved a couple of spring rubbers in the right rear a few weeks into the season, and I used an entire practice session to understand how the car was loading on the right rear in a different fashion with the modified spring behavior. Now with a lot of new drivers, when they jump in a car after making adjustments, you’ll have to physically tell them what that adjustment is, how it benefits them, and what they should expect it to feel like on the track. I went out already knowing how to throw the car into the corner in a way that would let me test out the modified spring rate thanks to Assetto Corsa familiarizing me with sending a car into the corner under load and being able to process what was going on with the suspension, and used this sim knowledge to give my car owner short and concise feedback on the adjustment.

dirt3_game-2016-10-01-10-16-25-40DiRT 3

It’s not much of a simulator, but a lot of Codemasters games – DiRT 3 in particular – do a great job of establishing an overall atmosphere for any kind of auto racing event. Now while iRacing or Project CARS may boast laser scanned tracks or extremely high fidelity graphics, the environments often feel lifeless and bland. What DiRT 3 does right, and I’ve displayed it in the screenshot above, is litter the track with all sorts of legitimate distractions that you’d find in a real event. You can essentially make eye-contact with the camera men standing behind the fence, and while many sim racers may believe this to all be a bit pointless, it serves a purpose.

In a real car, I can see my buddy Metro taking pictures inside the exit of Turn 2. As you pass under the flagman’s perch, you can physically point out some kid eating a hot dog in row three, seat twelve. You can hear pockets of audio from the track’s PA feed, or spot a line at the concession stand. Hell, maybe there’s a rag on the track because it was windy that day and it blew all the way out towards the wall from someone’s pit stall. What I’m trying to get at, is that these are all little visual distractions and irregularities that can fuck with you while at speed, and only DiRT 3 has gone the extra mile to include all of them. Camp fires, tents, cameras, and crowds of people that serve a purpose – not just objects that have been scattered about randomly – all line the track and bring the facility to life. It has nothing to do with immersion, because quite frankly every developer does their best to inject some sort of atmosphere into the facility, but DiRT 3 is a game I’ve found does the best job at it. So if you find yourself playing this game, and on the exit of turn five at some rallycross track in Michigan you notice a crowd of people huddled around a fire pit – congratulations, we notice that shit in the real car too. It’s nice to be trained for it ahead of time in something like DiRT 3, even if it’s not the most realistic game.

Gran Turismo 6

Gran Turismo 6

I’m not trying to shill for something many will label as a simcade title, but if you plan on doing any form of amateur auto racing that mandates street-spec tires (autocross is a realistic goal), I’m here to inform you that just like in Gran Turismo 6 for the PlayStation 3, there is no option to turn down the tire sounds. Street tires are ridiculously loud, and I’m thankful my time spent playing GT6 taught me how to tolerate them, and even interpret the various pitches to understand what I’m doing to my tires.

Unlike a full-on racing slick, street or performance tires sing at even the slightest of stress. They are annoying as fuck, and you’ll be glad both the helmet and in-car radio do what they can to drown it out. Now at speed, a medium pitch indicates the tires are approaching the limit of grip, whereas a very high, ear-piercing pitch says you’ve gone past what the tire can hold, and the tires are no longer doing their best possible job to keep you glued to the race track. If there’s one thing Gran Turismo taught me, it was how to dance on the fine line between the satisfactory medium pitch squeal, and the unwanted high pitch squeal to get the absolute most out of the tires. Becoming comfortable with the intrusive tire sounds in GT6 also caused me to jack up the tire sounds in other simulators, as it’s a pretty direct form of information that replaces what you may not be able to receive from force feedback effects.

race_steam-2016-01-23-15-04-33-09

There are a lot of PRC.net readers who most likely do own some sort of track day car or are considering getting into something like autocross or grass-roots competition. When it comes to using a racing simulator to prepare yourself for the real thing, I think the worst thing you can possibly do is restrict yourself to just one piece of software based on your own personal alliances. It’s integral to your success that you bounce around and become a literal student of the game, exploring each application in an effort to learn something from it. As a video game critic I can indeed sit here all day and tell you to avoid Assetto Corsa because it’s unfinished or stay away from Project CARS because it’s buggy as hell, but there are genuine aspects of performance driving you can take from even the worst of simulators that will greatly assist you on your journey.

Real life feels as if you’re constantly opening a new application on Steam every thirty seconds or so, and being graced with the most prominent aspects of basically every simulator on the market. When I’m driving, there have been times I’ve seen a massive chunk of rubber fly through someone’s window net and think “oh wow, it’s just like Project CARS.” Fifteen laps later, I’m conserving my tires like it’s rFactor 2, and with five laps to go, threshold braking resembles NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. You really have to become a student of the game and explore the inner workings of this genre in order to make your sim experience translate to the real thing, but once you’re behind the wheel in something that won’t be too expensive on your wallet if you fuck it all up, the fruits of your labors will be rewarded with on-track success.

Rookie of the Year

trackThere’s a reason PRC.net has essentially been neglected on weekends. Rather than throw copious amounts of money at high-end simulation gear in a desperate attempt to live out my childhood fantasies through unfinished video games, I was lucky enough to find a ballsy car owner willing to take a shot on me. With zero real-world racing experience to draw upon, an extended family completely unfamiliar with motorsports not involving a Christmas Tree, a select group of knowledgeable Teamspeak buddies to fire me driving advice, and a sim racing career highlighted by off-track conflicts rather than sheer driving ability, I almost won the goddamn championship.

While Finnish alien Greger Huttu threw up in an amateur open wheel entry during a private test day, and iRacing dominatrix Ray Alfalla walks around passing out iRacing hero cards in the ARCA garage area, a Chevrolet Cavalier funded by the ad revenue from PRC.net took home Rookie of the Year honors, and was part of the closest championship battle in the history of Edmonton International Raceway. No, buying your kid the newest iteration of Gran Turismo and telling him to plow through Career mode on medium difficulty won’t turn him into the next Ayrton Senna, but years of competing at a high level within the online world of hardcore PC racing simulators will most certainly prepare you for the real thing. In fact, it will turn you into a legitimate threat.

shift2u-2016-09-19-17-01-46-17I stumbled into this opportunity purely by chance, though it’s a completely realistic scenario for anyone with a desire to jump into some kind of amateur auto racing scene purely on a sim racing background. I happened to run into last year’s Mini Stock track champion at Edmonton’s only sim racing center, and told him I had no problem putting down the cash required for someone else to build & maintain a car for me. I didn’t care that I wasn’t entirely familiar with the techniques required to be successful in front wheel drive cars, and I wasn’t worried about running in a lower-level class with cars that were less than pleasing to the eye – I just wanted to drive something for a season and see if the skills from the simulators we’re all familiar with transferred over to the real thing.

It was supposed to be little more than a long-term gimmick; take someone who was dominating the rFactor 2 hot lap leaderboards at the sim center, and let them putt around at the back of the pack to inflate the car count. Instead, I put the car on the podium in my first evening, beating out a sizable rookie class that included a flock of younger siblings from multiple established racing families who knew what they were doing. A few weeks later, I almost swept an entire event – failing to seal the deal in the feature race when my car owner poked his nose under me with a handful of laps to go. I responded by winning a few weeks later after an extremely satisfying evening-long duel with a reputable Super Late Model driver, who was in the process of fine-tuning the ride for his Granddaughter. I was no longer a novelty renting a car from last year’s champion; I was the points leader and a genuine threat to win the championship.

This was an absurd scenario to deal with on a personal level. Obviously, at any racing facility, you’re given free reign of the property provided you’re rocking the classic competitor wristband, and you can just sort of wander around during downtime to kill your boredom. There were many instances throughout the season where people with official-looking shirts would make light conversation with me, and I had no idea who they were, what their names were, how they knew my name, or what their role even was at the race track. It hadn’t set in yet that I was putting together an improbable championship run and people were beginning to take notice. And during the post-race festivities, where the fans are allowed to wander around the internal pit area for a bit to collect autographs or bullshit with the drivers, I was genuinely surprised to receive compliments from fans for my driving style & post-race monologues. I wasn’t aware I had a driving style, and I was most definitely winging my podium interviews, so it came as a shock that people were actually rooting for me – little did they know I was just out there because racing a shitbox was a better bang for your buck than buying an overpriced direct drive wheel for unfinished PC racing sims.

zip-tieThe reality of the season finally set in when I discovered my car owner stuffed deep within the left rear fender of his Pontiac Sunfire prior to the National Anthem. I’d put together an especially solid pair of practice sessions earlier in the day, and was on-par with his pace to the point where it would be a gladiatorial battle if we got anywhere near each other on the track. He backed away from the car to reveal he’d compressed his left rear spring using a mammoth amount of zip ties, in the exact fashion shown in the shot above, because he “couldn’t beat me on speed.” I didn’t doubt his ingenuity; after all, he built my own car and I was pretty happy with how it drove, but the Google search results say all that needs to be said about how well this worked for him in the end.

Needless to say, there were an excessive amount of zip ties lying around the track twenty minutes later, and he said you could feel each one snapping individually at speedI was used to watching guys put in hundreds of practice laps on LiveRacers before a Stock Car Extreme league race to try and take a shot at my mock qualifying time. Physically seeing a competitor zip tying his springs just to try and beat you – even after Google says things like don’t try this at home and “it’s not my fault if you get hurt” – that’s the exact moment I knew I should have got into this shit sooner.

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With three weeks left in the season, and a championship lead that was slowly being reduced thanks to a fantastic late-season push from several drivers, I contracted a crippling bowel infection. I couldn’t go to work, couldn’t eat much of anything, couldn’t run laps on my simulator of choice, could barely churn out a regular stream of articles for PRC.net, and had been put on a dangerous antibiotic known as Flagyl to get rid of the infection as soon as possible. If you do some background research on the side effects of this stuff, there are people on message boards far and wide threatening to sue Pfizer for how this shit has royally fucked up their life. Doing my best not to display any symptoms at the race track in front of officials, which included not being able to walk straight and intermittent shooting stomach pains, I suffered through a complete loss of power steering for the night and moved my car owner up the race track in the feature for second place to retain my championship lead. This was the moment in the season where I became okay with potentially losing the title. Driving that hard in that kind of state was an accomplishment unto itself.

By what can only be described as divine intervention, I entered the final event on the schedule – a 75 lap marathon under the lights – locked in what was essentially a three-way tie for the points lead with both my car owner, as well as his best friend. The highest finishing driver between the three of us would win the championship. NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series manually produces a final showdown at Homestead-Miami Speedway each year with the way their current chase format works. Our final showdown came about naturally, the closest in the track’s history.

And in the most ironic twist of events, I wished I was playing Assetto Corsa instead. You can’t blow your engine in that game.

rip-engine-2Maximum Simulation Value

Released on Steam’s Early Access platform in late 2013, moving to Retail Version 1.0 during the fall of 2014, and eventually landing on current generation consoles four weeks ago, Assetto Corsa by Italian developer Kunos Simulazioni was billed as the most authentic and accurate hardcore modern racing simulator on the market. As the intense heat began to make quick work of my legs, and the smoke turned the cockpit of my Cavalier into a fog, instantaneously detaching the window net and hitting the quick release on my five-point harness were not conscious decisions, but merely subconscious reactions to my engine expiring with 20 laps to go in the season.

Was I mad? Of course. But not at what was transpiring in the cockpit and out the front windshield. I felt I had driven to the best of my ability, and the powerplant simply exploded because I’d been hauling ass chasing down the two leaders and constantly redlining the car going into Turn 3. I was not going to be haunted by a botched corner or a blown pass; I drove at 125% attack, and the poor little Ecotec shit itself. I’d had a great rookie season, won a race against someone incredibly skilled, and proved that citing “rFactor” as your previous racing experience is no longer something to laugh at.

14500595_10157510057235072_5365705019779531248_oI was mad at Kunos. These losers from Italy had labelled almost everyone who had legitimate reasons to criticize Assetto Corsa as mentally ill nut-jobs who were out to damage their reputation. They believed any sort of terminal engine damage had not been essential enough to include in a game they themselves labelled a hardcore racing simulator, and it took years just for them to implement some kind of rudimentary brake fade. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, an Assetto Corsa owner who had spoke out about the game lacking simulation value had his real-life championship run ended twenty laps early by a simulation value element present in all other racing simulators – except for Assetto Corsa. It’s almost poetic, in a sense.

So how else does real life racing differ from the unfinished eternal science projects you can find on the PC? And in what ways is it the same?

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The Cost

Justin will probably bitch at me for revealing the specific monetary value for running a season of shitbox racing, but to retain the kind of glasnost policy we’ve got going on here, I’ll start by saying it was $1250 for a 22 race championship – though that’s subject to change thanks to the weather. This digit is all inclusive, so the breakdown is essentially $200 to purchase the car from an auction, with the final $1000 being used for the “race conversion”, tires, transponder rental, and in-car radio system. Gate entry fees were $50 each weekend, and you’ll obviously need fuel, so you’re looking at setting aside approximately $2450 for a championship campaign – though this clearly isn’t a lump sum you pay all at once in February and forget about for eleven months. It’s nearly identical to the cost of upgrading your PC and investing in some serious sim racing hardware, though the gate fees are cumulative throughout the year, so anyone with any kind of job can make this work.

The experience you get out of parting with that kind of money, however, differs drastically from one medium to another.

Sure, it’s nice to have a solid sim racing setup and the ability to jump to any car and location you can possibly dream of. But let’s be real here; the games aren’t finished, developers hate their own audience, very rarely is there any sort of meaningful single player campaign, and message board shit slinging contests pull in more active users than most dedicated online leagues. With sim racing in such a pitiful state, it’s becoming increasingly hard to justify high-end purchases to play a group of video games that all seem to be stuck in a never-ending beta period.

The atmosphere of strapping yourself into some kind of low-key amateur race car most definitely over-rides the mundane process of showing up to the same track – or collection of tracks – each and every weekend. Sure, you don’t get to travel back in time to the classic layout of Watkins Glen and compete against Jim Clark himself, but stumbling around Wal-Mart half-asleep with your buddy in a quest to find snacks to get you through the event are timeless memories that no video game can replace. And with no restart buttons in sight, yes, you most certainly will waste an entire day at the track, only to come home with a horrible performance that embarrasses you to your core. But getting matched with a driver from another class on Tinder and watching the awkwardness unfold provides a set of keks that generic message board drama and iRacing voice chat fights can only hope to achieve.

ams-2016-03-03-17-30-42-81Refcar

I think a lot of sim racers will be surprised to find out that the driving standards online are actually quite high when it comes to comparing sim racing with real life.

Online leagues, for the most part, not only have better officiating, but a more concrete set of rules as well that are routinely enforced. Regardless of whether you’re at RaceDepartment competing under the Gestapo rule set enforced by Bram or one of the other prominent moderators, or if you’re racing with the relatively lax governing body of Realish Racing, you always know what’s expected from you out on the track. Yes, Bram will hand out thirty seven minutes in penalties if you do so much as breathe on a white line, but at least you’re well aware of the consequences of doing so before the lights go out, and you can expect your competitors to receive the same treatment. Even within the absurd and sometimes favoritism-laden realm of iRacing, everyone has a uniform idea when it comes to what’s allowed on the racing surface, and what’s generally not acceptable. Some private league moderators even go the extra mile to write up complete incident reports with videos and/or screenshots, partially to document the habits of certain drivers and spot problematic individuals before they happen, and partially to serve as teaching tools or precedents for future incidents.

hbtmMost notably, there is a zero tolerance policy towards disruptive drivers. I’m not talking about guys who spin more than the average person, because that’s fine; I’m talking about guys who are literally getting run over because they’re so slow, can’t hold a line to save their lives, or are clearly trying to use their car as a weapon. Basically every half decent online league gets rid of these people almost immediately, and as a result the general driving quality is better online than it is out on the real track. Combined with a dedicated group of moderators policing the action, as a driver you’re rarely left to guess at how races will be called. Failing to run a league with some semblance of an iron fist, and it dies a painful death.

This kind of ultra-serious mentality doesn’t carry over to real life, and I really wish it did, because I hate guessing at 110 km/h. I can only comment on what I see out my front windshield, but I witnessed some phenomenally bad calls over the course of the season;  incidents which would result in suspensions, lifetime bans, boycotts, and/or blacklisting in the world of sim racing.

13874598_10205527220380381_553272261_n-pngDuring a mid-summer race, a guy running a newer-model Dodge Neon threw some experimental shit at his setup, and was wrecking loose in every single corner. I mean, this guy was going to put his car in the wall if he didn’t change everything back to the way it was during the intermission. Not that he was a bad driver or anything, he just missed the setup completely. I was about five feet back from him during the opening ten lap heat, riding the brake to avoid plowing into him, and instead received a race-ending drive-through penalty for contact with him that didn’t actually happen.

You could see it on the footage – he got loose all on his own. When I brought this to the attention of the nearest official during the intermission break, they responded by saying “well, I gave you the second race, so it evens out”, referring to how they started me on pole and let me walk away from the field for an easy win. This didn’t really solve the root problem at hand; my car owner received the same penalty for non-contact in the feature race an hour later – ending his race as well.

dsc_3159At one point during the season, we were given the privilege of super pole qualifying – a rarity for our class. We were told during the drivers meeting several times that the field would be seeded via standard qualifying format, so no inversion or any novelty stuff like that would factor into the starting grid. Ten minutes before we were set to climb into our cars, we learned there would be a near-total inversion. I didn’t give a shit because my alignment was fucked during my qualifying run and I would directly benefit from the invert, but the front row had every right to be furious.

Some of the more bizarre stuff included contact rules which varied from race to race, as well as yellow line rules, which were drastically changed each week. On some occasions, we could use the rumble strip to turn the car, but not to complete a pass. The night prior to the NASCAR Pinty’s Series race, the entire field was threatened with a disqualification – save for one or two backmarkers – for touching the yellow line and “ruining the paint.” After the green flag dropped, on some weekends you weren’t allowed to attempt a pass until exiting turn two – try implementing that rule in an iRacing league. When the same driver continued to cause incident after incident due to a lack of composure behind the wheel, they were repeatedly given their spot back at the front of the pack, and we were yelled at via the in-car radio system as a group for racing too aggressively, despite my own on-board camera displaying the same driver instigating wreck after wreck.

I’m not trying to belittle anyone here; I’m simply stating the difference between driving at a physical race track and driving from the comfort of your own home, but from a sim racer’s standpoint, if any of the above occurred within the confines of a private online league, that league wouldn’t exist the following week, and somebody would probably send in an article about it to PRC.net. Keep in mind, that’s for a video game where the cars aren’t worth any real monetary value, and it’s only an hour out of your day to participate in that particular online race – so shouldn’t the real thing be taken more seriously, not less?

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The Social Element Matters

If you join a private league, or you’re just poking about in a random iRacing official session, there are no repercussions for telling it like it is. If there’s a guy in there wrecking the shit out of everybody – maybe he’s been the cause of three or four cautions  in a row – you can call him a shitty driver and ask what the fuck his problem is over the headset. League officials, provided they aren’t best buddies with the guy, will promptly remove him provided you’ve saved a few replays of his shenanigans, and most decent leagues do implement some kind of a crash limit, forcing a moderator to disqualify you after X amount of wrecks in which you’re found to be at fault. Troublemakers are booted fairly quickly, untalented drivers are told to go back to Forza, and even semi-competent drivers who simply can’t hold a line at places like Daytona or Talladega often find themselves shuffled out or intentionally dumped by a user unwilling to put up with their garbage. What I’m getting at, is it’s not uncommon for people to get banned from a league for any number of reasons. The notorious offenders are blacklisted and become household names – Chris Miller is a name that comes to mind from iRacing.

This doesn’t always work out away from the computer monitor. Across multiple classes and multiple events, drivers who weren’t achieving a base level of competence behind the wheel were simply allowed to continue doing what they were doing, even if it meant junking race car after race car. Usually, this boiled down to nothing other than politics. During our final Super Late Model event, there was a car four laps down cutting off lead lap vehicles and interfering with the outcome of the race. In a virtual environment, this guy would have been booted, no questions asked. And for a few consecutive events in our class, we were starting incomprehensibly inexperienced drivers on the front row, resulting in iRacing Rookie Street Stock-tier incident numbers; I think we hit four yellows in eleven green flag laps during one weekend, all of which involved the same driver. When I spoke my mind about this during post race interviews and asked for something to be done about it, the finger was pointed at me for being an asshole. Yes, eventually they were placed at the rear of the field, but when they resorted to outright wrecking lead lap vehicles after going several laps down, there wasn’t a sense of urgency to curb this stuff immediately. Again, this behavior would not only lead to a ban in the sim racing world, other league owners would talk to each other and blacklist you from their own leagues as well.

14457296_10210261292079365_6033189602501585459_nBut the social element affects more than just inexperienced drivers. During the first half of the season, I truly jumped into my ride each weekend telling myself “it’s Stock Car Extreme and this is just another event on Race2Play.” I had no problem moving people, pinching people, and racing guys around me as hard as I would race guys like Maciej Bekas on RaceRoom Racing Experience – I basically saw the field as hyper-intelligent AI cars that would occasionally fight back. Once I started making friends and getting to know the other drivers, it became difficult for someone like me – who’s notorious for putting the bumper to people no matter what discipline we’re in – to knock people around to the extent I’d done previously. If you compare my stats from the first half of the season to the second, there’s a drastic reduction in my performance as the year progressed, and that’s 100% the reason behind it. I started realizing there were other people in the cars around me, and I liked hanging out with them.

14088402_10205698057851211_9014376487096187190_nDash Cams Save Your Ass

It’s common practice in the world of sim racing to save your replays after each major event; doesn’t really matter if it’s online or offline. They’re fun to watch, analyze, and with most modern simulators, take ridiculously artsy pictures of cool moments that happened over the course of a run. And when it comes to organized racing leagues, they’re 100% essential to conducting a satisfactory racing environment. Drivers will inevitably wreck each other, get pissed off, and point fingers. Each and every time, the server-side replay is the great equalizer, allowing moderators to allocate blame accordingly, and demonstrating to other drivers that “yes, you really did wreck him intentionally, we’re not retarded, we can see your wheel inputs and the line you were taking, shut the fuck up.

I’ve run a dashboard camera for most of the year just to have a neat little keepsake of my extra curricular activities over the summer, but the camera has inadvertently been the unsung hero of the 2016 season. Despite saved replays being integral to the operation of any semi-legitimate online racing league, on-board cameras are still relatively new to amateur auto racing, especially because a lot of drivers aren’t technologically inclined to operate them and upload the footage a few hours after the race has concluded. My footage alone has solved several fights and disagreements between drivers in our class because you could literally boot up YouTube once you got home from the track and watch the incident develop from the cockpit of another car. In the most prominent example I can think of where I was personally involved, an inexperienced female driver believed I had intentionally spun her out during a heat race because she “saw a silver car”, and had came over to my stall to chat once we climbed out of our vehicles, only for the footage to reveal there was no silver car around her to begin with – and I was something like 50 feet behind her.

Listening to people’s descriptions of each individual incident throughout the year, and then analyzing the footage afterwards, I was surprised to see how many drivers are rattled just by being in an amateur race car and turning laps. In many instances, how they described an incident simply did not match what occurred on camera. So let this be a lesson to all of y’all reading PRC.net with a bit of disposable income: if you’re going to get into auto racing and don’t want to get your ass kicked by your competitors over something that wasn’t your fault, buy the nicest on-board camera you can find within a 100 mile radius, and keep that shit on record as long as possible.

tireI Don’t Understand Tire Wear

If you’re big into racing sims, tire wear is defined by a single number. A tire status of 98% obviously performs much better than a tire listed at 72%. Some of the hardcore guys love to measure Inner/Middle/Outer temps to try and equalize everything, but I don’t because I’m lazy. You simply try and drive in a way where you’re using as little steering input as possible, and if the tire status percent is falling at a rate that’s detrimental to the remaining distance in the race, it’s time to back off and stop pushing the car so hard. Force Feedback effects found within modern racing sims don’t replicate the fact that a tire is a dynamic piece of rubber attaching the car to the ground – one which can deform in an infinite amount of ways – so you just sort of drive in a way that doesn’t murder the numbers in the black box.

Being able to physically get out of your car and monitor tire life with your eyes and your hands is a colossal mindfuck; one which I still haven’t even began to understand. I’ve been unanimously praised by my competitors for extracting absurd lifespans out of my tires – one even went as far as saying that’s been the most prominent impact I’ve had on the class , opening people’s eyes to how long you can last on a single set – but thanks to isiMotor sims teaching me to rely solely on numbers and status indicators, visually I’m still not sure what a good tire looks like, or even what a bad tire looks like. The way to preserve tires in rFactor flawlessly transitions to real life, but the way you monitor tire wear is a completely abstract concept to me.

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Is Real Road Placebo Effect?

The current revolution we’ve got going on right now in the world of sim racing is the influx of titles implementing a dynamic track system, where the racing surface heats up, cools down, and generates rubber build-up based on where the majority of cars are driving. rFactor 2 was the first piece of software to really complete the package, followed by iRacing with their new surface model, Assetto Corsa, and eventually Automobilista. Basically, when you jump into the first practice, the track is cold as hell and the car slides everywhere, but as the virtual race weekend progresses, the track gains grip before escalating to a really slick surface thanks to all the rubber laid down.

Maybe it’s just the class of car or the tire compounds we’re allowed to use, but real life’s real road effects don’t do a whole bunch. I found that no matter the weather and no matter the amount of rubber laid down on the track, the car always performed about the same. It was really sensitive to tire pressure adjustments, but eventually I got to the point where I’d manipulate those outside of my own designated “safe zones” based on how I wanted it to drive that day. I hovered around the 15.8xx range most of the season, and regardless of whether we were freezing our assess off waiting for the thunderstorm to hit, or metaphorically cooking out on the tarmac in thirty degree heat, my car drove mostly the same throughout the year. A bit loose on entry, hooked through the center, and displayed symptoms of understeer if I botched the line on corner exit. Getting the car down to my optimal lap time felt purely psychological, as opposed to the super grip you receive in rFactor 2 from a heavily rubbered-in track.

14481730_10157510056045072_6542392418955646838_oManaging a Long Race? No Biggie.

During my time on iRacing, as well as competing across a multitude of other sims, I ran in a lot of long fucking races. The 2012 calendar year saw me attempt both time slots of the Daytona 500 – netting a pair of top fives, whereas 2013 saw me win both the 2.4 Hours of Daytona and the virtual Coca-Cola 600. 2015 was highlighted by a GT2 class win in a league where races were over an hour long, and I killed the spring of 2016 by participating in a Brazilian Touring Car series with the boys at Realish Racing, where endurance events on the schedule ran the full sixty minutes under dusk conditions. The tactic in all of them was the same; drive like a sausage for the first 60% of the race, bullshitting with your mates on Teamspeak to pass the time, and then haul ass the moment you see your competitors are starting to lose focus.

My first feature win came not during a quick 20 lap affair where I managed to hold off a driver who didn’t have enough time to make a move, but rather during the longest race of the year up to that point. I was so used to marathon sim racing events and the lax atmosphere of mindlessly clicking off laps at 75% pace before driving my balls off, that once I got around the leader and began checking out, I started talking to the in-car camera because that’s what I’ve known for like four years. A lot of people came up to me the following week asking me why I was commentating my own on-board video, and the answer is that I was so comfortable in the car, I felt like I was sitting on Teamspeak with my mates, and the monologue came out naturally as it would in front of the monitor.

So when I saw they were going to give us 75 laps to settle the championship, I was more excited than anything. The plan for these races – or any long race for that matter – is super simple. Let your car fall back naturally at the start by driving with basically no aggression whatsoever. Allow everybody in front of you to make mistakes and beat the shit out of each other. The moment you see the composed drivers starting to blow corners or fall off pace, turn on the jets. To the audience in the stands, I was a non-factor on lap 11 of 75. In fact, I was shuffled out and had no chance of touching the leaders. With 30 to go, I was the fastest car on the track and closing in on the two front-runners. This is shit you learn in online racing, but out on a physical race track, without the lag and general netcode oddities masking driver errors and handling problems, you can spot the “moment” a lot easier. Usually I’d pay close attention to the live intervals displayed on the black box screen, but in real life you can physically look into your opponent’s cockpit and see when a guy is starting to break focus.

It’s obviously a shame the car exploded prematurely and things got real toasty inside the cockpit for a while, but I can’t say I left anything on the table. Sim racing taught me how to preserve a car until the absolute precise moment when it’s time to turn on the jets, the car just couldn’t take being driven that hard. I expect nothing less from a Chevrolet Cavalier.

gsc-2016-05-22-13-50-45-00To give a definitive answer to the most-asked question in the history of sim racing message boards, YES, you most certainly can use these games to prepare your ass for jumping into a real race car. Will you go from a slob covered in Doritos crumbs playing rFactor, to a semi-professional GP2 driver with only moderate practice? No. Hell no. That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works. I have been playing this shit for years, not only driving my ass off in a number of different disciplines across every major and minor title out there, but connecting with knowledgeable community members who can explain the shortcomings of each physics engine without being blinded by fanboy goggles or viral marketing agendas. Years spent being a student of the game – or of sim racing, rather – warranted one win, six second place finishes, eight total podium appearances, two blown engines, and a Rookie of the Year award in what’s admittedly a hobby-level class. Sure, there are some teams across the continent that would dream of having a season that successful, even at the amateur level, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not much.

I think in twenty years time, racing teams both amateur and professional will recruit heavily from organized sim racing. As you can see from the results above, it’s obviously doable, but it takes a very unique sim racer – one that has almost studied the genre rather than been entertained by it. We don’t have very many of those in our community yet, and the ones that dare take such a cynical approach are instead silenced by the developers and fanboys alike for going against the viral marketing agenda.