Rookie of the Year

trackThere’s a reason 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 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.


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, 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?


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.


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 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.

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 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.


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.


The First Month


I think it was around this time last week, I entered a practice session for an event later in the afternoon on Race2Play, and was promptly congratulated by a fellow sim racer for my performance at Edmonton International Raceway the previous evening. If you’re one of my officially licensed stalkers, or you just can’t get enough of this God forsaken website that you need to follow my various social media accounts as well, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’ve thrown my ass in a real race car this year to make a point: It’s cheaper – and significantly more fun – to go racing at your local short track for an entire 22-race season, than to throw money at optional simulator hardware in the endless pursuit of immersion.

How did this all come to be? 

The story isn’t nearly as exciting or significant in the grand scheme of things compared to the articles and videos you’ve seen on prominent sim racers such as Ray Alfalla or Greger Huttu. Even though Edmonton is primarily a city that lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps hockey, we’ve actually got our own little sim racing center on the north end of the city. Run by Amjad Othman, Impulse Sim Racing features ten custom cockpits powered by the commercial rFactor 2 software, along with complete leaderboard functionality, and the ability to organize custom sessions with your friends. Considering I have a pretty ghetto sim setup compared to most of my fellow virtual drivers, I began making weekly trips to Impulse as a way to mess around with rFactor 2 in a rig completely different than my own – triple monitors, Fanatec pedals, Buttkicker audio… The stuff considered high-end on most sim forums, Impulse had ten identical rigs with these components. The owner was pretty cool, the atmosphere of the place was comfy, and it was a fun way to meet other like-minded sim racing nerds such as myself. Away from the absurd forum autism plaguing most online communities, there are some pretty cool people who enjoy these games as much as we do.

Predictably, I made a name for myself in dramatic fashion as being that asshole on the leaderboard with inhuman times. Rather than compete in the organized race nights and blow out the competition to feed my ego & reel in the prizes, I willingly sat out and played the role of race steward instead – which was a lot of fun. Every single event went off without a hitch, and there were one or two occasions where everyone hung around the place until almost midnight – re-watching the entire race from front to back. So before y’all jump on me when I question certain officiating decisions of other leagues, keep in mind that I’ve basically run my own league in a place where on-track incidents could result in very real parking lot altercations, and not just shit-slinging over voice chat.


At some point, a couple of local short track racers from Edmonton International Raceway – including last year’s track champion Justin Horton – walked into the place while I was in the process of running solo laps, and knowing I was a huge stock car fan, Amjad shut down my session and introduced us to each other. After couple of intense 40-lap sprint races at Charlotte… Sorry… Mountain Peak Speedway… I was asked if I’d consider coming out to the track during the 2016 season and driving one of their rental cars for a race or two – a process made significantly easier considering the track owners already knew me, and my NASCAR license was just sort of sitting in my wallet. Realizing someone who actually won a championship and knew what he was doing would be maintaining my car, I upped the deal a bit and asked what running the entire season would cost.

It was much cheaper than a direct drive wheel. If you want to believe I’ve used the ad revenue from PRC to pay for my real world racing adventures, I won’t stop you – it makes for a good story.


We’re now a little over a month into the season, sitting a bit behind schedule thanks to some extremely unfortunate rain-out weekends. After four events, I’ve picked up two heat race wins, finished second in two different feature races, finished third in another, and find myself sitting second in points to my car owner and last year’s track champion on sheer consistency alone. Rookies with no prior racing experience, and surrounded by a field of drivers who have been at this for several years prior, aren’t supposed to be this competitive immediately out of the box. These are drivers from all age groups, posessing multiple years of experience under their belts, and with tons of support from either family members and/or friends, and here I’m just this random guy  Justin found playing rFactor 2. On paper, I should have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, and judging by some of the failed attempts at putting prominent sim racers into the real thing, should be throwing up in the pits and a rolling hazard to others. It’s basically the opposite.

Rather than outline the results of every single race in an extremely lengthy blog post, I’d like to take this entry in a much different direction. Obviously, after sim racing for so long, and then getting to drive in a competitive environment away from the keyboard, there’s a couple things I’ve discovered from my travels so far, and I’d like to publicly share them in the hopes that a developer or two can implement my findings into future versions of their software. This post is about to get a whole lot more boring and dull.


Audio Overload

There are a diverse array of random sounds that no racing simulators have bothered to model, and they damn well should in order to help drivers to prepare for the real thing. Yes, RaceRoom Racing Experience added in a whole shitload of chassis sounds and miscellaneous cockpit garbage to up the immersion factor, but it’s so much more than that. When I’m pacing, I can pick up bits of the public address system blasting out the track announcer depending on where I am on the track – usually in turn one. If there’s a big moment on the track, someone stuffs it up and nearly loops their car somewhere near the rear of the field, I can hear the audience collectively gasp provided I’m near that section of the facility. If some asshole left a random bolt floating around in my car, not only can I hear it skating around behind me, I can accurately judge how fast its moving from one side of the car to the other. The chassis creaks heard in RaceRoom are indeed present, but they feel like only 40% of the overall auditory experience.

Running over marbles left on the track by Sportsman or Late Model entries… These are not just minor bits banging off the underside of your car, they are fucking loud and a constant distraction. The big chunks sound like gunshots, as if your tire spontaneously blew. If those pieces of rubber are bouncing off your windshield – which they do quite frequently – it’s not an inaudible bug splat, it sounds like someone is pelting the front windshield with tennis balls. All of this little garbage adds up and could do a lot for modern racing sims. Project CARS at least experimented with some of the above effects I’ve mentioned, but a lack of time and resources prevented Slightly Mad Studios from completely fleshing out these immersion effects. I could see drivers getting distracted by this shit in real life, but I found myself thinking “oh wow, this is really cool, racing sims need this” when driving in a pack last night.

And lastly, there’s the contact. We’re not allowed to intentionally dump people, but this is short track racing, and these cars do have fenders. Contact is loud, scary, and disorienting. Even minor door banging, stuff that would be harmless fun under caution at Bristol in iRacing, is loud as hell. It’s so loud, your brain immediately says “don’t do this ever again.” No racing sim has gotten this right as of yet. Shift 2 Unleashed was on the right path with how the helmet cam would aggressively rattle around after contact, but the reality is that the experience is more of an audio overload and a slight head wobble than this super over-the-top camera shake.


Force Feedback Has a Long Way to Go

Your traditional force feedback effects system in any modern racing simulator is designed to condense what a driver feels from the suspension, tires, gravitational forces, and his ass, all through a plastic steering wheel. As a result, certain effects overpower each other, while other effects feel outright unnatural, making the wheel jump around in ways that simply don’t occur in real life. The truth is, while high caliber wheels offer tons of sliders to adjust to your liking, the reason you can never get the wheel to feel 100% right, is because game developers are sending the wrong inputs through the wheel. Instead of focusing on a weird combination of G-Forces, suspension activity, weight transfer, and “canned effects”, the emphasis should be solely placed on tire behavior, because that’s what you feel through a real steering wheel. Early builds of Assetto Corsa in Early Access were quite good in this regard, hence why the game received such high praise from pretty much everyone including myself, but slowly moved away from this type of Force Feedback as the title matured.

During the first three or so laps in any session, the way the steering wheel in my Cavalier feels replicates what you probably feel at all times holding a plastic steering wheel – again, I’ll come out and say Assetto Corsa from the middle of 2014 was extremely accurate in this regard, and all developer teams should seriously study what Kunos were doing back then. However, as the tires heat up on my real car, it’s like a switch has been flicked, and an entirely different force feedback mode has been enabled. I can physically feel the tires deform, flex, shed pieces of themselves, and sustain a dynamic variety of abuse based on my inputs. Depending on the corner, how hard I’m driving, or what line I’m running, it’s a very uncomfortable but extremely informative feeling. It is not a small and insignificant shudder, but an integral piece of feedback.

Right now, racing sims model tire wear as “the car slides around and the steering wheel feels light.” This feels like someone has tried to create plastic Hot Wheels tires that never flex, and instead use complicated algorithms that determine when the tire has grip, and when it does not. A tire is a round piece of rubber that heats up, cools down, deforms, flexes, and sheds pieces of itself inside a competitive environment. Yes, sometimes it does slide around, and in the case of last night’s event, sometimes I’m driving the final five laps with the ass end of the car hanging out, but that’s not all it does.

And that’s just tire wear under normal circumstances. I haven’t even started talking about what happens when you run over a piece of rubber left over by something like a Late Model or Sportsman slick. It’s not uncommon to run the middle groove, pick up a piece of rubber, and develop a fucking massive vibration – one which would frighten most sim racers and convince them they have a serious problem on their hands – when in reality all that happened is you ran over a random piece of rubber on the race track.

I will say though, that catching slides is basically the same in real life as it is in a sim, so developers are making progress when it comes to Force Feedback. As you can see in the shot above, my car owner thought it would be “funny” to dump my ass going into Turn 3 as a form of hazing. I basically did what I’d done a few weeks earlier in RaceRoom Racing Experience to save the car – retaining the position in the meantime.

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Shitty Netcode Simulates Momentum Transfer

As I’ve said earlier in the article, we’re not allowed to outright dump people, but this is short track racing after all. Contact is a part of every race, and when we’re not trying to actively move people out of the way, pushing someone to help them get by a slower car is a tactic pretty much everyone uses. On restarts, I’ve become notorious for driving like your stereotypical iRacing asshole and pushing someone to the green flag, but in doing so, unintentionally discovered something hilarious only sim racers will find useful. When you hit someone in an online race, it’s as if there’s a slight delay while the game calculates how much momentum needs to be transferred from your car to the guy you’re hitting. A lot of people actively complain about shitty netcode contact physics, especially in Assetto Corsa, but believe it or not, this delay compensates for the highly complex damage model God has used in our current laws of physics.

In a real car, when you push someone from behind, the front body work partially absorbs the impact of the slower car until the force is applied to the frame of his car, which at this point the force is then completely transferred into the other car, killing your momentum while applying a speed boost to the car in front of you.

Racing simulators don’t model crumple zones, meaning this delay in momentum transfer doesn’t exist – offline, at least. All sim racing cars are made of unobtanium, an infinitely strong substance that begins at the front bumper, and ends at the rear bumper. Sure, you can lose bits and pieces of your vehicle thanks to rudimentary damage calculations, where “If X amount of force is applied to Z component, player is penalized with Y damage to Z component”, but the outright lack of a crumple zone means the slight delay of real car-on-car impact isn’t modeled at all. When you hit an AI car with your front bumper in a sim, you’re hitting them with a brick. The front bumper panel does not compress backwards towards the frame, finally making contact with the frame, and then transfers energy to your intended target.

However, latency in an online race acts as the crumple zone delay during contact. All of those weird incidents where you’ve nailed someone in a corner, and they’ve been affected by it a quarter of a second later, that’s what moving people in real life feels like. Last week I moved a guy up the race track for a heat race win, and I basically had to execute the maneuver at an earlier spot in the corner to accommodate what I could only describe as real life netcode. That slight momentum transfer matters, and if developers are lazy and don’t want to implement simulated crumple zones in their upcoming simulators, they could just not fix the netcode problems.

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Managing an Event is Easy

Once you get to the level myself and other extra-terrestrial beings are at in the world of sim racing, managing an event is basically how you win any sort of major online race, and it’s something we outlined how to do efficiently through several chapters in Black Flag: A Crash Course in Sim Racing. You need to know what goals to set for yourself during practice. You need to know what you should be doing during pace laps. You need to be comfortable in traffic. You need to pay attention to your gauges. You need to listen to your spotter and radio feed. You need to consistently glance at the caution lights, flag man, scoreboard, and your mirror. You have to play games and be defensive on the restarts. You need to devise strategies on how to pass other drivers. You need to be confident in your abilities to avoid wrecks. The art of being successful in a virtual environment does not change when your ass is in a real car – racing is racing.

We get two practice sessions in the afternoon, prior to the spectator gates opening. I do not use these for fun, they are almost like work, with the sole goal to diagnose any handling issues. During pace laps, I don’t aimlessly stare into the stands or make obscene gestures to my buddy beside me – I warm my tires and brakes in the same manner as my procedure in Stock Car Extreme. I check my gauges in front of me at a similar rate as I do in some rFactor 2 races on Race2Play. When race control comes over the radio to bitch at someone for unnecessary contact, I’m not startled by the voice from above – half the time, I run online races while casually chatting with bros on Teamspeak. All of the little shit you do as a high level sim racer in any sort of meaningful online race, it all completely transfers over to the real thing, and is 100% applicable. The only difference, is that you’re occasionally looking in different spots. The lap count isn’t planted firmly in the top corner of the screen; I have to take a peek as I’m exiting turn two. What sim racing lacks in immersion or authenticity thanks to the fact that you’re sitting behind a desk holding a toy steering wheel, it makes up for in replicating the procedure and tactics required.

I spent a whole bunch of time on Race2Play from January to May of this year, as well as participated in a league with the guys at Realish Racing, running in a few events every weekend to get my brain thinking in terms of auto racing strategy. As a result, real world events simply aren’t stressful. If I get fucked over on the grid order and start near the rear, I’m not paranoid that I won’t finish well – my brain simply recalls what I did during the reverse grid race at Cascavel in the shitty Brazilian touring cars. If I get shuffled back after a chaotic race start, I can calm myself down as I would on iRacing and dig through the field. Chasing down second place last night, it wasn’t Dawson McGill in the #47 Neon in front of me, I viewed it as Todd Laribee in the K&N cars from iRacing. And when I finally caught up to him, I used a lapped car as a rolling pick to get by him, just as I would on iRacing – a move your average rookie doesn’t know how to pull off. Yes, your body is getting thrown around and subjected to all sorts of G-Forces, and these can scare people who aren’t ready for it, but in terms of raw strategy and event management, sim racing is a bloody good training tool.

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Setup Changes are Identical

The isiMotor fanboys are going to jerk each other off over this one.

The first few events of the season went fairly well – I had been exceeding expectations in the standings, routinely busting out quick times in practice, and demonstrating I could handle a car well beyond what my rookie status indicated. For the third race,  Justin decided it was time to throw some advanced setup tricks at my car for that extra boost of speed, as aside from getting fucked over on starting spots (we don’t qualify), I was usually right there at the end of the day, and inexperienced drivers don’t normally display this level of competence. The topic of disconnecting the front sway bar eventually came up, an adjustment you can usually only make once on a 2004 Cavalier thanks to how flimsy the sway bar actually is. I was down for it, he was down for it, but in the back of my mind, I was a bit skeptical. On my road course cars in most modern racing sims, I detach the rear sway bar for improved corner exit grip, but in the back of my mind I just didn’t believe removing a fucking part from the car would be safe. I didn’t wanna be that armchair mechanic making setup suggestions based off of what I did in a video game, only to put the car in the wall and embarrass myself. Cause, you know, that would suck.

So I fired up rFactor 2 and put my ass in the Clio Cup at Joesville, a small oval track bundled with the vanilla install that’s just a big longer than where I’ve been racing at on Saturdays. The idea was to drive a few practice laps in an environment that closely resembled the car and track I’d been driving in real life. I ran a whole bunch of laps with the default setup; the quickest time I could achieve was a stout 18.17 after the track rubbered in a bit thanks to rFactor 2’s real road technology. When I couldn’t get any faster, I completely detached the front sway bar in the garage menu to resemble what Justin wanted to do to my real car, and my quickest time dropped over a tenth of a second, to an impressive 18.05 – a pretty big jump in oval racing. The car felt better absolutely everywhere through the corner, as if the front end was much more planted than it had ever been before.

We got to the track a few days later, and I ran the practice session with the front sway bar still attached in its default configuration, busting out a 16.10quickest in my practice split. Prior to the heat races, Justin hacked off my front sway bar, and basically said “it’ll feel different, but you’ll figure it out.” I responded by going out and winning both heat races, cranking out a lap time of 16.13 in traffic, and was on pace to sweep the entire event until my soft compound tires gave up with seven laps to go, allowing Justin to get around me for the win.  However, upon examining the lap time readouts, I discovered I’d actually ran my quickest time of the weekend – a 16.08 – with the detached sway bar. Just like in my late night rFactor 2 practice sessions with the Clio at Joesville, removing the sway bar from the Cavalier earned me a tenth of a second out on the real track as well. You simply can’t beat that level of accuracy.


As the season progresses, there will most likely be one or two more entries similar to this, outlining some of my observations I’ve made when it comes to comparing virtual racing to the real thing. I don’t plan to use as an outlet for my real racing adventures, so if you fancy that sort of coverage, most of my social media accounts are public, and I’ll try to post an increased amount of relevant content on there as well. I’m definitely happy that all of this time invested into wheeling a plastic steering wheel has seemingly paid off, and I now find myself in the thick of a championship battle with nothing but sim racing experience to guide me.

Des Foley’s video about testing a Formula Ford is worth watching

r/SimRacing user and Formula Vee driver Des Foley has recently uploaded a lengthy video detailing his time spent testing a Formula Ford at Kirkistown in Northern Ireland. As both an avid sim racer and real life driver, Foley’s video, coupled with commentary, is definitely something every sim racer needs to watch.

For those who normally stay away from Reddit, grab some popcorn and take ten minutes out of your day to watch the video and read his comments in the original thread.

Papyrus Taught Me How to Drive a Stock Car

No matter how many times we here at cover a story featuring NASCAR Racing 2003 Season in some aspect, the opening paragraph never changes and is always necessary to drill home the magnitude of what consumer racing simulators can achieve. Released in February of 2003 and depicting Winston’s final year as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s biggest series, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season was Papyrus Motorsports’ magnum opus – one last incredible oval racing game aimed at the most hardcore of Stock Car fans before the company went out of business.

5170B9Y902LAs someone who’s owned the game since launch, out of the box, the game was phenomenal. A landmark achievement in video game history, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season was to Stock Car fans as Microsoft Flight Simulator was to aviation enthusiasts and amateur pilots. A robust, realistic physics engine unlike anything on the market was complemented by pinpoint-accurate tracks, computer opponents who drove with the tenacity of NASCAR’s best, and a multiplayer component that spawned online friendships long before the world was blessed with Facebook and Twitter. A few short years after the game’s release, just as Nextel had begun to adorn the mandatory contingencies of each car on the NASCAR circuit, news began to leak that several top-level drivers were using NASCAR 2003, a computer game you could buy for $30, to practice for upcoming races. This was passed off as a goofy, unsubstantiated rumor, until NASCAR’s most popular driver confirmed it in an ESPN segment.

The EPSN piece on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. confessing to spending their off-days playing pretend NASCAR with each other gave way to several other stories of drivers using this ultra-hardcore NASCAR simulator, one that was now a few years old, as a legitimate training tool. Jerry Nadeau credits the game with helping him recover from his crash at Richmond in 2003. Denny Hamlin won the Bud Pole award and eventually his first Nextel Cup race at Pocono with the help of NASCAR 2003 in 2006. Most recently, 2012 Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski admits to spending long hours in the shop running races at Watkins Glen in NASCAR 2003 as a kid before he got a shot at his own career in NASCAR – a career which includes several road course victories.

And once a community surrounding the game had formed, the longevity of the title increased with each passing month. Dedicated players, skilled in third party editing programs such as Sandbox and Photoshop, set out to turn NASCAR Racing 2003 Season into an eerily-accurate virtual encyclopedia of North American Stock Car racing. Despite the game only shipping with the Winston Cup lineup as of February of 2003, entire decades of ARCA, CASCAR, IROC, and USAR seasons are represented among the hundreds of combined historic NASCAR championships churned out by the community. Virtually any car that saw more than five laps in a NASCAR practice session since 1970 has been faithfully recreated for the game, along with era-specific tracks that allow anybody to travel back in time to the days when Ontario Motor Speedway, South Boston, or North Wilkesboro were still on the calendar.NR2003 2014-03-28 19-59-31-16With such a talented, diverse community of 3D artists, attention eventually shifted on expanding the list of additional tracks available for the game to include obscure local facilities. Once the community grew tired of producing historic versions of tracks like Riverside, and keeping up with the current Cup Series schedule by renovating tracks already seen in-game like Homestead and Las Vegas to mirror their current configurations, several individuals gave nod to the weekend warriors of oval racing by faithfully reproducing tracks where Late Models reign supreme and Fan Appreciation Night cut ticket prices in half. Evergreen Speedway in Washington State, New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, Mesa Marin Raceway in California, and Edmonton International Raceway in Alberta were just a fraction of the local short tracks offered for those wanting to flesh out their own personal K&N Pro Series or Canadian Tire Series schedule.

Speaking of EdmontonAlberta_Has_Energy_300_green_flagOpening in the mid-1960’s as a quarter mile dirt oval before being paved in the mid-1990’s, Edmonton International Raceway is home to the Alberta Has Energy 300, the fifth stop on the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series tour. Located 45 minutes south east of Edmonton in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, this is my local track, and the only NASCAR-sanctioned track in the province.

Some kid made it for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season in an effort to complete the list of 2014 Canadian Tire Series tracks available for the game.

EIRI come from a family full of racers, although they’re more of the straight line variety. I’ve always wanted to get into racing myself, but obviously the cost of fielding a sportsman drag car is beyond what’s attainable for most families, even if numerically it works out on paper. As a result, racing in general has been strictly off-limits for me, forcing me to get heavily involved with all different types of sim racing to get my fix. Over the years I’ve driven everything from virtual Stock Cars to virtual Monster Trucks, and been quite successful at it. A couple iRacing K&N Series championships, a couple GT championships, numerous Indy Car wins, and a top five points finish in Brazilian Touring Cars of all things are just some of my online career accomplishments; although I still hate motorcycles with a passion.

The more successful I was in the virtual world, the more I heard about how real drivers were using the same racing sims I was playing for fun as legitimate training tools, and the more I learned about how affordable other forms of racing are compared to Nostalgia Drag Racing, the more I wanted to jump in a car and try it myself. Trips to the local karting complex, while fun, weren’t cutting it anymore. And despite everyone telling me how dangerous it was to buy my own kart and do dumb shit around the neighborhood with it, I never hurt myself. I had a bunch of money saved up, and Skip Barber looked like a sweet option, but the logistics of flying to California as a Canadian, from booking a hotel to renting a car and getting my ass to Laguna Seca, would be a total nightmare and more of a hassle than what it was worth. As auto racing isn’t as big in Canada as it is in the United States, it’s entirely possible I could come away with an SCCA License and have no use for it.

I was thinking about all this at work earlier this summer, when I thought back to the World of Outlaws event up here last August. During driver introductions for the Dirt Late Model portion of the night, our local track announcer mentioned one of the rookie drivers, the daughter of an accomplished local racer, had recently attended oval racing school in Wetaskiwin, attaining a license that allowed her to drive in events alongside her father.

Wait, we have a racing school here? That’s much easier than flying to California.

On its official website, Edmonton International Raceway offered two variants of a Stock Car racing experience – one designed as a gift akin to the Richard Petty Driving Experience for about a hundred bucks, and a much more expensive option essentially acting as a one-day course to obtain a proper NASCAR competition license in order to compete on short tracks all across the continent. I dropped the $650 and signed up when I got home, receiving a huge package in the mail about a week later.

11731649_10203489190270902_5389850859536530335_oI’d really like to say I jumped in a car with no prior experience, but that would be a lie. Previously, guys like Greger Huttu and Ray Alfalla were given a chance at real-world racing; although both of them struggled in the end. Hailing from Finland and being a fisherman by trade, Huttu had never driven a car before, running a handful of laps at a time before becoming nauseous from the unfamiliar feeling of G-Forces acting upon his body, and Alfalla’s time on iRacing meant he’d accustomed himself to iRacing’s improper transmission model and had to re-learn how to drive a standard, having never done so before.

I wouldn’t be going into this totally blind. My bizarre list of actual on-track experience is a hodgepodge of stuff that has at least gotten me familiar with G-Forces and driving a car at speed. Across the field (literally) from where I work is Castrol Raceway, which hosts both an IHRA and WoO national event during the course of the summer, along with several national drift and superbike events. I’ve taken both street cars I’ve owned to the Friday night street legal events, routinely cutting the tree down on much more expensive cars and amassing two perfect lights – more than some professional drivers have in an entire career. Currently, I drive a 1998 Dodge Dakota, so one of these .000 RT’s was accomplished by leaning under the steering wheel to release the E-Brake as the tree dropped.

Most of my real-world experience comes from road racing, as we have a pretty huge karting complex up here that offers the standard stat tracking and ranking system common with indoor kart facilities in 2015. One of my high school buddies and I used to frequent the place so much, we found out that after ten races, the engine restrictor was turned off for us and we’d graduated to a much faster class. We got so proficient at driving these things, and the place ate into our wallets so much, we eventually bought our own karts and resorted to making stunt videos around the neighborhood. In the long run, it was actually cheaper.

And finally, iRacing member and real life Spec Miata driver Greg Cloutier introduced himself to me on the iRacing forums, dragging me out to a private track day shortly before the City Center Airport IndyCar course would be permanently demolished in 2012. At the time I was driving a 2005 Ford Focus sedan; a day that should have ended with my car in several pieces resulted in nothing more than a moderate tan and a sore neck from the technical section that makes up the back half of the course. So all of the big hurdles I’d be introduced to when tasked with driving a Stock Car, such as G-Forces, how much you can ask from a set of tires, and what different handling characteristics feel like, I’d already experienced one way or another.

The biggest problem I was facing, is that I would have no way of practicing for the school ahead of time. The indoor karting facility had exploded in popularity to the point where I’d have to skip work to avoid waiting in lines for hours on end, and running laps there would really help re-familiarize myself with what driving hard feels like. Therefore, the only other way to prepare was to run laps in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, and pray that Earnhardt, Keselowski, Hamlin, and Truex weren’t bullshitting when they attributed their success to what’s now in 2015 an obscure NASCAR simulator you can’t buy in stores that was sitting on my shelf.

Aero88_2_Car_PersentationTo replicate as much of the upcoming school as I possibly could, I selected the 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo from the Aero88 mod, a third party modification that uses the game’s Craftsman Truck Series handling model to represent what a late 1980’s Winston Cup car would feel like. In this case, the 1988 Monte Carlo body style is a popular choice among Street Stock competitors, and would therefore replicate the exact visibility I’d have when looking out the window. And in order to replicate the relatively low power of a Street Stock (a little over 300HP, compared to a 2003 Truck with 750 HP), I threw a 4.11 Rear End Ratio into a setup designed for Langley Speedway, and left the car in second gear.NR2003 2015-08-21 18-12-12-41Wetaskiwin is a 1/4 mile bullring; almost a scaled down version of Richmond, except the Start/Finish line is on the backstretch. The track was repaved for 2014, and features a huge rumble strip along the apron on both ends of the race track. You lift off the throttle about a car length after the Start/Finish line and gently drag the brake until the car settles along the bottom. At this point the car is neutral, and you can work the brake pedal if you come in a bit too hot. You put in around 10% pedal input, and progressively lifted off until your foot was off the brake in the center of the corner.

NR2003 2015-08-21 18-12-23-55Unlike most short tracks, there’s actually a coast zone in Wetaskiwin that lasts all of about 30 feet. These turns are long, and applying the power too early will send you straight into the outside wall because the corner hasn’t opened up yet, so you essentially coast with both feet off the pedals for half a second.

NR2003 2015-08-21 18-12-32-03Once you’re about to see a gaping hole in the wall, you can put the throttle to the floor and let the car drift out to the middle of the backstretch. Ideally you don’t want to let the car drift too high, because someone will poke their nose under you, and a late apex for turns 3 & 4 isn’t ideal for a low powered car like this.

NR2003 2015-08-21 18-12-40-16You begin braking for turn 3 at a point that seems ridiculously early, although with how tight turn 4 becomes, it’s necessary. Like turn 1 in Richmond, you gently ride the brakes to set the car along the bottom, following the line of rubber and not the yellow line on the apron until both of them eventually meet.

NR2003 2015-08-21 18-13-01-58The center of turns 3 & 4 show you just how nutty this end of the track is. Under braking as you approach the apex, the car dances around a little bit, and you need a combination of both gentle steering inputs and a smooth left foot to set the car along the bottom of the track, because the centripetal forces pull the car to the outside wall. That wall is mighty close, and turn 4 is eerily reminiscent of Turn 2 at Richmond – it’s a sharp left with little room for error; the black marks on the wall of the real thing served as a reminder that people can and do make mistakes rolling on the throttle too early.

NR2003 2015-08-21 18-13-09-41And just like Richmond, you regularly scared yourself by pointing the nose of the car at the wall on exit, lap after lap, because once you put the throttle to the floor, the car would lazily float up there, setting you up for another lap.

DSC_1328I put roughly 300+ laps into practicing, including 70 straight laps in the hour before I left the house to try the real thing. It’s the strangest feeling in the world to spend a bit of time at your computer desk running laps on a sim in the comfort of your jammies, only to jump in a car and be walking around at the real thing an hour later.

DSC_1329The course began with filling out the necessary paperwork and being introduced to the Theiring family, who both own Edmonton International Raceway, as well as whose daughter competes in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. These were the nicest people you could possibly meet, and immediately put my mom at ease. Watching any form of auto racing is a bit difficult for her after my cousin’s fire a few years ago, and other miscellaneous close calls that she’s been on the starting line taking pictures of.

DSC_1322The first hour of the ordeal included a detailed track walk and a ride-along; an incredibly in-depth lesson about racing on an oval. Now, after having driven countless oval racing sims, I definitely know how to drive on an oval, but I’ve never been able to explain it to other people, particularly my European buddies, how to do it for themselves. Having all of the driving techniques I’ve picked up from sims over the years explained to me in ways that were easy to understand, as well as why the car behaves in a certain manner, was really eye-opening. I basically got every question I’ve ever had about racing in the past few years answered, with both mechanical and physical explanations that made sense. That was the first of many instances during the day when I thought to myself “it’s crazy how much you can pick up from computer games.”

DSC_1301One thing that stood out to me while walking to track was how good of a job the guy behind NRTracks did with the track surface model. While NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is a bit out-dated and doesn’t allow for super high resolution pavement textures, the overall surface of the track was surprisingly accurate and featured all of the bumps and elevation changes on the real thing. The kid who made it had never even been to the track in person.

DSC_1339Even better, the overall racing line and track shape was virtually spot-on compared to the third party modification. I mean, we’re talking that the braking points, coast points, and acceleration points were within five feet of the real thing. I went from feeling slightly nervous about driving a 3000lb Stock Car that had huge stickers plastered everywhere saying “you are responsible for any damage done to this vehicle”, to feeling as if I studied my ass off for a mid-term and was probably going to nail the test.

DSC_1337Being strapped into one of these is an experience you can’t replicate in a street car. You cannot physically get a standard seat belt to be that tight against your body. Obviously, it’s beneficial for safety reasons, and so you can get a better grasp on what the car is doing because you aren’t being thrown around by it, but for anyone who’s out of shape, I could see this being difficult for them. One thing that surprised me was the overall visibility; I run a crazy high field of view setting across all games to enhance the sense of speed, but in reality, what you see out of your visor is more in line with how EmptyBox has his cockpit settings set at.

One thing I sorely missed, right off the bat, was the lack of any heads up display, as well as a push-to-talk button. While there was indeed an in-car radio system built into the helmet so I could receive feedback from the instructor at any given time, I was disappointed I couldn’t respond to him. During online league races, it’s essential to have a plethora of HUD buttons and Teamspeak buttons mapped to your wheel to share & manage info about the current race, and during my first time on the track alone, I actually responded to a few things I heard over the radio, before remembering shit, he can’t actually hear me and this isn’t Teamspeak.

DSC_1401The first session out, I was instructed to demonstrate that I’d learned the proper racing line, and I drove like a total bitch to familiarize myself with how the car felt, picking up speed with each lap. Near the end of my first fifteen laps, I felt like I was reaching a pretty decent pace, experimenting once or twice with matting the throttle out of the corner. Just as Maple told me on Teamspeak the previous night from his time racing a Street Stock before progressing to a Late Model, these cars aren’t dangerous and provided you point the nose properly, you can lay on the throttle pretty heavily without consequences.

DSC_1507The adrenaline fully kicked in once I returned to pit road and received my briefing for the next session, being encouraged to pick up the pace as I felt comfortable. As I left pit road for my second session, one thing I noticed was how over-done RaceRoom Racing Experience’s chassis sounds are. While you can hear every little thing rattling around when putting around on the apron, the engine and tires eventually over-power everything at speed.

Four or five laps in, I actually started to push the car. I was afraid I was going too quick, as the whole point of the course is car control and not hotlapping, but my fears were put to rest as a friendly voice came over the radio and said “if you don’t hear anything, it means you’re doing a good job.” That was all the confirmation I needed to lay on the throttle and drive the car a lot harder. The rest of the session was done in almost complete radio silence, with the occasional friendly reminder about keeping up a good rhythm, until I eventually received the call to come back to pit road.

DSC_1544“The next session is usually designed to focus on your braking technique, but you seem to be doing it properly already. So just go out there and do what you’ve been doing.” That was the briefing I received before I began my third session. I didn’t actually know what the proper braking technique was, I was just doing what worked in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. You put in around 10% pedal input, and progressively lifted off until your foot was off the brake in the center of the corner.

DSC_1495I put in a few warmup laps and tried to push the car to the best of my ability, without mowing down cones or knocking down the wall. To my surprise, the quicker I went, the easier driving laps became. You lifted about a car length after the start line, gently held the brakes at like, 10% input while gradually lifting until the center of the corner, let off everything for a car length, then floored it and prayed you didn’t hit the final turn 2 pylon. You positioned the car for a shallow entry into turn 3, got slightly harder on the brakes, and as the center of the corner approached, did exactly like you did on the computer; worked both the steering wheel and brake pedal to coax the car to the bottom of the race track as centripetal forces pulled you outwards, before matting the throttle and pointing the nose directly at the outside wall.

I had no idea how fast I was going aside from the radio silence and roar of the engine, but the tires spoke up for me, squealing pretty damn hard in Turns 3 and 4, although the car didn’t exhibit any unwanted handling characteristics. It’s funny how I’ve ripped on Gran Turismo 6 for having these ridiculously over-done tire squealing sounds, yet in reality, that’s exactly what was occurring and I couldn’t just change the disc in my PS3 to make it go away.

DSC_1498But I definitely picked up some bad habits from Sim Racing. In rFactor, we set our GT3 cars up super loose, and balance this in the corner by giving around 5% throttle input, even under heavy braking zones. In the game, this generates a neutral handling car, and keeps up your speed through the center of the corner, as well as on exit. In the world of iRacing, basic racing guides on the game’s official forums advise you to always have some amount of throttle input. Don’t do this in a real car. You don’t actually benefit from it, all it does is generate unnecessary understeer, and I had to be reminded a few different times to take my foot completely off the gas in the corner.

DSC_1416By the final session, I was extremely confident with my ability to control the car, and I made an effort to push beyond my comfort zone and drive the car pretty deep into the corners. During this session, I really began to understand why this month has been extremely deadly on Alberta Roads.

On one particular lap I drove it really hard into turn 3, knowing that my time in the car was coming to an end and it was time to go all-out. The car got really nervous under braking, and while wrestling it to the bottom of the race track, I glanced up to see how much space I had to work with if it didn’t stick. Out the front window, I had no more than a car length of room to get the thing settled, and that wall just past the cones was mighty big. While I succeeded and heard some positive feedback on the radio in the form of “good job, you’re looking really good out there“, it hit me that this is why the police say speed kills. Putting the throttle to the floor and whizzing past traffic is easy. Getting on the brakes and trying to slow down a 3000 pound car in a safe and efficient manner is something the general public would never be able to do without panicking and making the wrong move.

Upon exiting the car and packing up for the day, I was praised by the instructor for my braking, driving line, and overall smooth inputs. Whether your at home in your jammies or inside the real thing, this is what you want to achieve as a Stock Car driver.

DSC_1537You can’t feel anything through the wheel. A lot of sim racers, especially now, jerk each other off over Direct Drive Wheels, a highly expensive type of toy steering wheel that shakes and vibrates, meant to be leaps and bounds above other toy steering wheels (that also shake and vibrate), priced at a whopping $1,700. What I held in my hands while in the actual car, on an actual race track, couldn’t have cost more than $50. I would also argue that my Logitech G27 pedals were of a higher build quality. The car had a 14:1 steering ratio, which allowed for a lot more play compared to my usual in-game setting of 18:1, and coupled with how little you felt through the wheel at speed, the first session was getting used to driving with a wheel that felt like someone had turned force feedback effects completely off and compensated with a bit of Centering Spring in the Logitech Profiler.

It is hilarious to be piloting an actual race car with a $65 steering wheel, knowing full well that Sim Racers on various message boards are arguing about computer game toys that cost more than what an actual car is worth. I guess it’s a sign that the elite nerds of sim racing have lost track of their priorities.

What I use below is what I use for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (and I use 330 degrees of rotation, not 540, due to the age of the game), but a realistic feel would be around 30%. There was no actual feedback through the wheel, so turn that shit completely off if you want an authentic experience. What you did feel reminded me of sitting in my uncles boat, and we were hauling ass on the lake. You can’t replicate that without a motion simulator.

Centering Spring

A while back, I wrote a 2,500 word essay on iRacing’s Street Stock, and subsequently received a lifetime IP ban from the service the next day for what were pretty valid criticisms on how the car drove. After having driven this same car in real life, iRacing has gotten it totally wrong, which is strange, because the same developer team got it right over a decade earlier with NR2003.

This is a 3,000 pound boat with big, sticky tires. In the corners, it’s nervous under braking, requiring gentle brake & steering inputs to settle the car along the bottom of the race track. On exit under power, the car tightens right up, and you basically have a second to figure out the exact moment to get back onto the throttle. It’s essential to do everything in your power to keep up your momentum, as even the slightest flubbed corner, you can instantly feel that you’ve scrubbed off some speed.

iRacing’s Street Stock Camaro is ridiculously stable under braking to the point where it feels like a GT car, neutral in the center of the corner, and insanely grippy off the corner. The car feels glued to the track when taking even the biggest of bumps, and at no point does it feel like you’re in control of a giant boat on wheels from the 80’s. I put anywhere from 60-75 laps on the same set of tires during the night, and at no point did the car step out on me under power – and I was moving at a pretty competitive pace. In iRacing, as we’ve talked about in the past, 20 laps at USA Speedway were enough to grease up the rear tires and create a loose-off condition so bad that all but the most competent of drivers in the session would wind up nailing the wall and end their race prematurely.

iRacingSim64 2015-06-07 01-26-26-72If there was one big shock that came of the whole ordeal, it would be what Maple calls Adrenaline Dump. While in the car, your body over-exerts itself and shoots you full of adrenaline, as it perceives you’re in a life-threatening experience. This is understandable, as there is a huge concrete wall a few lanes away from you at all times that can send you to the hospital (and bankrupt you) with one wrong input. However, once you’re out of the car and the “threat” has been eliminated, your body is in a state of complete disarray. How one reacts to it, according to Google Searches, is different for everybody. Learning how to control it is a big part of auto racing, as well as in sports like Mixed Martial Arts, and even in Law Enforcement. The downside is that once you manage to control it, very little in life excites you, as you are so used to preventing yourself from getting excited.

To demonstrate this, on the way to the track, which is an hour out of town, I cranked as much fast, angry music as I possibly could, and purposely re-read infuriating text messages I’ve been too lazy to delete from my phone. By the end of the night, I had an uncontrollable urge to crawl into a corner and blast the slowest Taylor Swift songs about failed relationships. Upon waking up for work the next day, it felt as if the right side of my body had a terrible cold and desperately needed Dimetapp, but the left side of my body was totally fine. An hour into my shift, my body seemed to equalize, replaced with what can only be described as a crushing anxiety/depression hybrid that made talking to coworkers impossible for three hours – a scenario that became problematic when a constant stream of people asked “how did the racing thing go?”

At first, I believed this might have been a flair-up of old post-traumatic stress symptoms that I thought I’d gotten past earlier this year, but talking to both my cousin and uncle about their experiences with adrenaline dump after drag racing, this huge lack of energy for a day or two after being in the car is completely normal.

DSC_1521Obviously I have to thank the Thiering family for operating such a great facility that allows people like me to come out and attain a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series competition license. From the time I stepped on the property to the time I left, this was a fantastic experience and I learned an incredible amount that will most definitely help both on the computer, as well as in the real thing. With some money saved up, the quest is now to find a ride, which is easier said than done.

But the biggest thing to take away from this whole experience, is that while left-wing activists claim certain mainstream video games are murder simulators and oppressing women, an obscure NASCAR game from over a decade ago is perfectly capable of teaching you how to drive a race car. And while iRacing IP banned me for daring to speak out against flaws in their tire model, with angry fanboys running over here to dismiss my legitimate findings as an “irrational vendetta,” Papyrus successfully helped prepare me for my first time in a Stock Car.

This now cements as the only driving game publication run entirely by licensed race car drivers.

Basic Setup Theory

imbpI’ve been involved in racing since I was a child. Mostly on the oval side of things, but also in Karting, as well as Spec Miata. Over the past few years I’ve spent my time studying engineering, and building setups for iRacing NASCAR Peak Antifreeze Series teams, as well as building my own setups for rFactor, rFactor2, Assetto CorsaR3E, and any other racing game I can get my hands on.

Tonight, I’m going to explain the process I go through every time I start on a setup.

When building setups from scratch, it’s very important to think through exactly what you want to accomplish with the setup. “Just make it fast” would be nice in a perfect world, but you need to be a lot more specific than that to build a setup properly, so what are the broad things we know for a fact make setups faster?

Center of Gravity –  This has always been a huge effect on speed; the lower the better. Race teams in real life are constantly trying to get a lower center of gravity in anyway possible, because it directly translates to speed and less body roll. How do we accomplish this in a sim where we can’t adjust where our weight is placed? This entirely depends on regulations first!

Let’s say you are in a series that has a ride height rule, for example current NASCAR xFinity Series cars, or the current Stock Car Extreme GT3 mod I’ve been working on recently. We only have one option and it’s a big reason a lot of series have gone away from a ride height rule. Run the softest spring you can possible get away with to get the car as low as possible on track while still being able to pass the regulation off track. Without a ride height rule, it comes down aerodynamic grip versus mechanical grip, and the lower we go ,the stiffer we make the springs to compensate. In a perfect scenario on a completely smooth track we could run a near rigid setup and ride the car a millimeter off the track at all times.

Contact patch is the other key to getting raw speed out of a setup. You can adjust this through camber, caster, toe and tire pressures.Featured image

The goal here is to get the majority of the tire in contact with the road as much as possible for maximum grip. You could have the fastest setup in the world, but if you are on -5 degrees of camber, you’re going to have a problem. More caster (the angle of the steering axis) results in more camber gain, so depending on track and different corners you may want more or less to get extra camber on those really tight corners where you crank the wheel, but in general this is at or near max everywhere in every sim.

Camber on the other hand is 100% based on a track to track basis, and always has an optimal number for grip on any given track. We just need to find that number.

We can do this with either tire temps in general, looking for a 10-20 degree hotter inner temp (because it rides on the inside more down straightaways) or even better, through telemetry. Toe in general is added for stability to the negative on the front and positive on the rear (you want to keep this at a minimum so you aren’t scrubbing straightaway speed), on top of this you have adjustments like the ackerman bump steer. I’ve seen no sim that utilizes adjustability, however, so I’ll disregard those for now.

Aerodynamics are another reason the lowest possible ride height is so important. Less air under the car equals more downforce and less drag. Think of an upside down airplane wing. Depending on the track, sometimes you will run more downforce, with wings or ride height adjustments. This is entirely dependent on track and car selection, so when experimenting, start at minimum front and rear values to begin with. In general, you want to lower the car until you start scraping and then bring it up just a bit.

465182_257064464437730_162884092_oSo now that we know the basic keys of going fast, here are my general thoughts I go through before I even start refining the baseline I’ve built.

  1. Ride Height Rule. Run the softest spring possible, usually with a big anti-roll bar to reduce body roll.
  2. No Ride Height Rule? Ask yourself is the car/track combination more Aero or Mechanical grip oriented.
  3. If it’s an Aero Dependent combination, run the stiffest springs possible to maintain max aero at all times.
  4. If it’s a Mechanical Grip combination, run softer springs and don’t care too much about ride height for Aerodynamic reasons. This is for cars like Street Stocks or Miatas that are not going to benefit from any aero tricks on ride height.
  5. Find optimal camber and caster for max contact patch in corners throughout the whole track. In some cases, on tracks like Daytona or Indianapolis, you want as little contact as possible for max speed under power.
  6. Consider how bumpy the track surface is to refine suspension settings.
  7. Search for a Brake Bias value that provides optimal braking distances and weight transfer balance.
  8. Camber should always be set at the start of your setup build so you get proper balance and feel during testing laps, while re-adjusting after every setup change. Softer springs will create more camber gain, but in general, the optimal camber shouldn’t change once you have your base together, at least not in a large amount.
  9. Double-Check everything.

You’ll only get better at creating setups the more time you put into it. It should take less and less time to find the optimal basics of the setup as you learn what works and what doesn’t. This is especially easy with telemetry, where you can see exact information of what the setup is doing when it comes to your dynamic ride height, camber… etc… And not have to rely on driver “feel”. Even I will sometimes build multiple setups per race just to see “maybe this will be a tenth a lap faster then that other one.”

In general, the basics from every setup will always be the same unless something was wrong in the first place. Once you have a good baseline setup for a car, you can take that to every track and just fine tune it for each track.

In most cases, I will have a smooth track setup for High Speed/Low Downforce tracks like Monza, Low Speed/High Downforce like Singapore, and a Rough Track setup mirroring the above combinations for places like Chicagoland and Monaco as well.

RRRE 2015-05-31 17-05-43-89If everyone appreciates these kind of articles, I will go in-depth into balancing a setup in the next article, Understeer versus Oversteer, how to account for different parts of the track, and corner types. Leave a comment and let me know what you think!