There’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.
I 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
I 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?
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.
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.
Most 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.
During 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.
At 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?
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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To 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.