There was no Agassiz post, because Agassiz was a nightmare. The tone for our scheduled late July invitational event was set neither during the opening practice laps, nor the scenic three-hour journey west towards a cluster of small resort towns just outside of Vancouver, but instead sitting in the airport terminal on a Thursday morning, just waiting to catch a flight out to Kelowna and meet up with the guys. Obviously when your weekend will consist of piloting a $40,000 race car that has the capacity to hurt you if you don’t have your shit together, there’s a bit of natural anxiety that comes with it all, but for most of the week I’d done a good job of keeping it under control and actually managing to get excited about the event. Yet in my childish giddiness, I was inadequately prepared to discover first-hand how three simple words landing in my inbox – the emotionally loaded question of “are we okay” that no guy wants to deal with – could drastically alter the tone of the weekend. And though it started life as a top-tier inside joke, we would later discover it was an omen for much more ridiculous shit to come.
Agassiz Speedway is unspectacular on a traditional map, located seemingly far off the beaten path at the foot of a mountain, but absolutely gorgeous in person. Every last portion of the drive, from the initial romp on the world-famous Coquilhalla mountain pass showing off some pretty breathtaking views, to the inevitable transition onto the Trans-Canada Highway, and finally the journey through the normally quiet town of Agassiz itself, is part of the reason I chose to take our sponsor money for the season one province over, instead of keeping it for a local gig. Visually, nothing can compare to the partially civilized portions of British Columbia; patches of humanity seamlessly intertwined with untouched landscapes – and it’s incredible that we get to spend our summer racing here.
As for the track? Oh yeah, some crazy bastard built a quarter mile bullring on the side of a mountain. Like the old layout of Fuji Speedway that killed a whole bunch of people before it was reconfigured, drivers literally drop into turns one and two at the bottom of a hill, accelerate out of the corner climbing a very noticeable hill, and then rocket upwards into the banking of turns three and four. The start finish line is then over a blind crest that sitting in the cockpit, you can’t actually see over – you instead aim the car at an irregularity in the fence to set you up for turn one. And not only is the layout itself pretty wild, the staff have done a great job of maintaining the facility to keep up with modern race track standards. The racing surface is immaculate, there’s a campground next to the track very similar to some inner-city parks here in Edmonton, and the physical show was run in a very professional manner. Absolutely loved it there.
It’s just a shame we didn’t actually race.
With all of the external bullshit still occurring in my inbox, I’d never been happier to just disconnect from the outside world for a moment, jump in the car, and turn some laps to acquaint myself with the track. Immediately I sent the emotions through the right foot & started catching people in practice, realizing that most of the speed was coming not from a hyper-focused mindset of refining a line and dialing in the car, but just wanting to casually bomb around for a bit in a sweet ride that was loud as hell and looked the part. I distinctly remember a guy getting loose in front of me on corner exit – a driver that’s actually quite good – gaining a car length on him, and instantly receiving a mammoth boost of confidence. A lap later, I’d say a second or two after the above shot was taken, I was subjected to an absurdly loud backfire, and promptly received next to no throttle response, to the point where I thought the engine went.
The distributor rotor sheared off. An exponentially cheaper problem than cratering an engine, but it still meant our night was more or less over just three minutes into the weekend. I qualified the car for a laugh, down about 1,000 RPM and God knows how much horsepower – somehow managing to out-qualify a guy in the process – but decided against starting any of the heats or the main because I was in rolling safety hazard territory. That’s fine to do in shitbox racing because you’re an impromptu chicane, but out here it’s disrespectful. Also you’re going to hurt somebody and junk a bunch of expensive cars.
myLaps put us at 13th out of 16 cars on the board for free practice #1. Out of sheer boredom I used my account to look at each individual driver’s fifth (or sixth) lap to see what pace they were at after a similar amount of on-track time as we’d been privileged to receive – so about two minutes – and we were actually sitting 8th or 9th when the distributor went. This was the one positive of the weekend, as it’s clear we would have had a mid-pack car at the very least if I’d been able to turn more than just six laps total – there was absolutely a 14.4 or a 14.5 in the car; I hadn’t even learned the damn track yet. My teammate Steve, who was only a hundredth faster than us after a significantly longer amount of track time (and actually having raced at Agassiz before), finished the event in sixth after holding down fourth for most of the evening, so we were all left wondering what could have been.
Frustrated, we all crammed into Dustin’s Volvo and raced home to Kelowna in the wee hours of the morning rather than camping out as planned, blaring Linkin Park, as I believe this was like, just a few days after singer Chester Bennington killed himself. To add insult to injury, in the midst of race car troubles, British Columbia then experiences near-complete spontaneous combustion, and all of our scheduled August events are now postponed indefinitely because half of the province is literally on fire.
With cancelled races and car troubles now becoming a recurring theme throughout our 2017 season, the goal tangibly shifted from running well and dialing in the car, to just taking a checkered flag at the end of the afternoon and getting a full length race under our belt. Stop number three took us to Thunder Mountain Speedway just ten minutes west of Williams Lake; the town once again a modest resort outlet, and like all British Columbia short tracks, the layout a unique twist on the standard 3/8ths mile oval. A similar American counterpart can be seen in Jefferson Speedway, but for all intents and purposes, this place was like a miniature Darlington. Turns one and two are extremely tight – kind of resembling a slightly banked Martinsville – whereas three and four feature a short dogleg that can be approached with a few different strategies based on the situation at hand.
I was a crazy motherfucker and drove here by myself – all 1138 kilometers worth of road.
Like the practice regimes seen in F1 2017, I had to slowly work on individual segments of the track at a time, chain them all together for a complete lap, and then work on getting quicker. Ian put this wicked video together featuring our in-car audio where you can physically see the pace pick up over the course of a session, and it’s a neat little insight as to what goes on during these shakedown laps; it’s pretty systematic. By the end of the run, as well as in subsequent sessions, I was managing to knock it off the rev limiter going into turn one, and it became a game of Dustin adjusting the ignition box, only to go out and hit the chip again. You actually don’t feel the jolts of the car losing power and re-igniting as you’d think; instead it was a sound-only thing, and I was using it to time my braking points and gauge my consistency more than anything. Full throttle, align with the wall, three pops, brake.
But as you can probably guess from the footage, once we ran through a few practice sessions – all of which went incredibly well for us and were a major confidence boost, again visibly closing the gap to other cars on the track – the skies opened up. This created a bit of a scramble for hotel rooms as the race would be delayed to Sunday afternoon instead of the intended Saturday evening affair, and with Williams Lake residents just returning home from wildfire evacuations, not all businesses were fully functional, let alone open to begin with. This is the part of auto racing that no video game has tried to replicate; the logistics of traveling to and from events are completely omitted from the experience, in favor of the Nurburgring being a click away.
With the weather delay, Sunday becomes a pretty abbreviated event. We’re given just a lone practice session – which all of us use to break in the tires – before promptly lining up to qualify, and of course the event itself. The lack of grip from the rubber washing off the race track the previous night is pretty noticeable, with the exit of turn two now requiring a slightly more delicate right foot, but surprisingly three and four remain relatively unchanged considering you’re entering them at a higher speed. The pits are also a mess, with puddles and light mud tracking all over the place, adding an extra dynamic to the on-track experience; basically everyone is hitting the racing surface with tires caked in a layer of mud, and it causes predictable problems. As drivers we all eventually lobby for warmup laps prior to each session to get all the shit off the tires, and the race directors are happy to oblige.
I take the full blame for our qualifying results. There was absolutely, positively a 15.9xx or 16.0xx in the car – which would have put us in the top three – I just choked majorly in turn four by cutting down too early, and then the rear end wandered a bit over the crest. It wasn’t much of a bobble, but it was enough to sacrifice a tenth or two due to suboptimal angle of attack & wheelspin, and that was kind of shitty. Regardless, the posted time placed us fifth, directly in the middle of the field; four cars were faster than us, and four cars were slower than us. Although former Evergreen Speedway track champion Shane Harding obliterated the field by clocking in a tenth off the track record, the other three cars in front of us weren’t actually that much faster – Kendall Thomas and series organizer Sheldon Mayert in particular bested us by less than a tenth, which is what, a fender at best? These are guys who have been driving late models for years, if not decades at this level, and by comparison – let’s be real here – I’m a nerd running a video game website. It’s delusional to think everyone who gets into sim racing will ascend to the level of William Byron, but it certainly can turn you into a mid-pack late model driver, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.
It was also really cool that several crew members & drivers actually came over and congratulated us for the lap, as a lot of the teams have watched us struggle with mechanical issues throughout the season, and were genuinely stoked to see us actually put down a competitive time that proved we deserve a spot on the grid. After seeing some of the animosity that takes place in sim leagues when someone outside the status quo starts coming into their own and turning a few heads, it’s really welcoming to see classy moves like that in the pits of the real deal. Unfortunately, I’d be giving up my qualifying spot to start directly at the back of the field due to my status as a rookie – as is common in all short track sanctioning bodies big or small – but the gesture is what counts here.
So this is where this article gets boring.
When you’re running a 100 lap feature race, heat races mean fuck all, so I just sort of hung back and spectated a few laps to understand how the pack would work here; what lines would be preferential, and when. Once we got into a single file conga line I started pushing a bit to see if I could catch the car in front of me, which I did, but of course you don’t want to risk anything retarded and damage cars before the main event, so I lazily turned laps behind the series organizer and let him have the spot if he cut down. I think a lot of guys will shit on me for not going balls out and trying to “prove myself”, but at the end of the day it’s a heat race at a track I’ve never raced at competitively before. There’s no point in being a hero.
And this mentality carried over to the feature race as well. The race was structured in two fifty lap segments, with a competition yellow at the halfway mark that would also include a complete field inversion – sans Rookie. This effectively meant the first fifty laps were an elaborate test session, and even if I passed any cars, I’d be forced to hand the spots back anyways. I rode around at like, 85% attack with the goal of focusing on consistency, and just sort of hung out behind eventual race winner Shane Harding – why not learn from the best, right? When my teammate Steve started messing with me and Shane got away temporarily, I made it my goal to catch him, which I did. It’s certainly a weird way to “race”, but with the rules given, that’s what naturally happened.
When we restarted after the halftime stint, sadly the car wouldn’t fucking turn, and this is something you can see pretty blatantly on video. I’m not sure if a rock got into the brakes, or the brake bias was too far forward, or I cooked the right front from using too much pedal input, but it was certainly not the car I’d been driving all weekend. Regardless, I hung back to try and avoid the initial clusterfuck that almost happened at the start – look closely and you can see four wide start to develop – but after that I more or less just followed the chain of cars and tried to catch whoever was in front. It’s certainly not the most exciting footage by any means, but what you’re seeing is a guy just trying to feel the car out and log laps without pissing anyone off – with the season going the way it has, there isn’t much of a point to driving in balls deep and being an ass. Let’s finish one of these first just to have one under our belt. The video is pretty long to sit through, but eventually I did reel in two of the series veterans primarily through hitting my marks and being patient.
And this is a fairly acceptable outcome for the weekend. We weren’t last, we didn’t damage the car, we beat our teammate, we stayed on pace with drivers possessing exponentially higher levels of real world driving experience, we turned some heads with our qualifying time, and one driver even remarked that I ran clean and controlled enough to maybe wave the rookie rule for the next event.
Considering the WESCAR series isn’t just a random amateur late model championship, but essentially the real world equivalent of a private online league – organized and promoted primarily by the drivers themselves, who just want a good, clean group of cars to race with – this is actually a fairly big deal. Some guys will knock us for finishing seventh out of nine cars, but results will obviously come in time. As computer nerds, however, PRC shared the track with some of Western Canada’s best stock car drivers – guys that have gone down to major tracks in the states and won – and not for one fraction of a second did we look out of place.
Hell, the entire event went caution free, and this just goes to show you the talent level among this group, and why I drive the 1000+ kilometers to participate in this stuff despite having a track in my backyard. It’s really fucking cool sharing the track with drivers this talented, after you’ve seen guys flip their late models upside down in a heat race back home.
And after a really wild summer full of mechanical failures and forest fires and cancelled races, we needed that.
This weekend was all about understanding and managing tire wear, as well as what to do when the back tires broke loose. Real life would receive a failing grade from hardcore simulation enthusiasts for being too “exaggerated” and “responsive,” as what you experience in a real car has much more in common with the verisimilitude of Grid: Autosport – in particular the Endurance events that feature very basic 100 to 0 tire wear – than what you’d see in a traditional simulator like Assetto Corsa. A lot of the traditional simulators produce a sensation that’s like ice skating in molasses once the rears start to be of little use, and I’ve seen this in a Mazda 787b league in which gentle application of the throttle sends you rocketing out of control… twice in one lap. The original rFactor is also notorious for this; the car seemingly becoming a hovercraft stuck in sludge once the black box lists yellow or even red status.
Yeah uh, this isn’t what happens out on the physical race track, at least not in our car. If the rear end washes out, whether it due to sheer greed on throttle application – or you have mud on the tires – it’s relatively easy to catch, like the whole thing is pivoting on a central axis as if you’re playing Grid: Autosport. Here is a shot Ian grabbed of my out-lap before qualifying, in which I was that guy and tried to be greedy with a bit of dirt still on the right rear. If y’all were in the car with me and saw how little effort it took to save it – literally just a flick in the opposite direction – y’all would be demanding a refund for this game and crying that it’s too easy to drive.
Tire wear still provides a challenge for us after we’ve put several laps on them, but never does the car become unresponsive or stuck in molasses. You basically just can’t be as aggressive on the throttle as you could earlier in the session, and the ass end is more prone to swinging out like a pendulum, but that doesn’t mean it’s suddenly an unresponsive death trap. Your line changes, and it’s more of a strategy as to when you should push and when you should conserve, versus the simulator concept of suddenly coating the track in sludge.
Shifting is another aspect that all simulators aside from the mighty BeamNG fail to get right, and that’s pretty fucked up when you consider how much people are spending on third party pedal and shifter extensions. Straight up, I’ve never driven a standard before this car, because I’m 24 years old and nobody I know in Edmonton save for maybe Greg owns a standard transmission vehicle to practice on, and it’s been a trial and error process each event. Some guy in the BeamNG forums recently ripped the Late Model mod from American Stock Car, and out of curiosity I gave it a whirl – including disabling all of the shift assists that come enabled by default.
If you watch the practice video linked earlier in the article, you can actually hear me shout BeamNG over the mic after Dustin voices his surprise at my sudden increase in proficiency. BeamNG 100% taught me how to shift in the span of about 15 minutes, so thank you BeamNG devs, as well as Dummiesman for putting this thing in the game, because it’s by far the most realistic late model I’ve driven in any simulator to date – stupidly perfect. If you make a variant with semi-slicks on it, I’ll love you forever.
Lastly, and this is something I thought of while in the car, is that more simulators – maybe iRacing in particular – need to simulate single car qualifying.
Look man, whether it’s late models or hornets, part of the fun in qualifying is getting the butterflies in your stomach, watching the field take a shot one-by-one at the leaderboard, and then throwing down a lap when your blood pressure is at it’s highest and the entire property is watching you. Qualifying is infinitely more fun in real life than it is in sims because of this, and I kind of wish it was replicated across the board in stuff like iRacing, even if I don’t necessarily play it. Would the fast guys really be that fast if they had to wait in line for ten minutes and slowly watching the leaderboard fill up and a lone car whiz past pit road? I know the functionality exists for private leagues, we did it back in 2012 with WSU at Phoenix if I remember correctly, but widespread implementation – at least in some of the lower stock car classes – would be fucking cool. The thrill of qualifying just doesn’t exist in simulators at the moment, especially with traditional group stuff where you can just lock the brakes, mash escape on a bad lap and try again as many times as you can fit within ten minutes.
As always, thanks to Ian Bell and the folks at Slightly Mad Studios for allowing us to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the Lengert squad for preparing both cars, and iRacing personality Ian Plasch for following us around with a camera this summer. I’ve driven something like 200 laps + 2000 kilometers in the span of three days, so activity on the site might slow down for a tick, but we’ll return with a review of 704’s NASCAR Heat 2, and for those either in Quesnel or Yakima, we’ll see you later this month.