Is Sim Racing Real Racing?


story by chris berg • illustrations courtesy iracing

Today’s Racing Simulations Teach Real-Life Driving Skills to Veteran Hotshoes and Novice Gamers Alike–but Is Virtual Racing a Motorsport in Its Own Right?

The lines between virtual reality and actual reality are getting blurrier by the day, and the world of auto racing offers a fascinating look at this phenomenon. And we aren’t just talking about the increasingly lifelike graphics and game physics in today’s racing simulators.

The paychecks of professional-level virtual racers are also beginning to resemble some of their real-world counterparts. Some sim racers are even making the jump from computer rigs to real cockpits. Meanwhile, top talents from the real racing world have been turning to iRacing and other highly detailed sims for training and testing.

Kenton Koch, who drove to a first-place finish in the Prototype Challenge class at the 2016 Rolex 24 At Daytona, is one of those drivers who uses simulators as a means of mental training between races.

“When I was getting into racing cars, I had never raced at any of the tracks that the series visited,” Koch says. “With companies like iRacing, who laser-scan race circuits, it gave me the opportunity to get a visual experience from the driver’s seat. It helps me get up to speed more quickly, so I can spend the most time in trying to find the last couple tenths of a second available instead of spending the opening session figuring out where the track goes.”

Enter the Matrix

While real-world hotshoes have been using sim racing as a training tool for several years, racers who started at the controls of a simulator are beginning to cross over into real-world racing–even at the professional level. Glenn McGee is among this group.

McGee hopped on the sim racing bandwagon relatively early–about 10 years ago–and moved to iRacing in 2010. By 2015, he had become a pro racer in the virtual world.

As a result, he was invited to compete against 21 traditionally trained grassroots racers and one fellow iRacer in the 2015 Mazda Road to 24 Shootout. Not only did his skills translate to a very real race track, but in the end they helped him earn the grand prize: a $100,000 scholarship providing backing for a year in the highly competitive Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires. This gave McGee the opportunity to pursue a real-world career in professional motorsports.

“In a way, my story is kind of unique,” McGee says. “I am a professional simulation driver, which means I race on iRacing for cash. As the first professional sim driver to get his break in the real world, my whole development as a driver has come through sim racing.

“I had never raced with a helmet on, but I’m still comfortable racing in a professional racing series because, in my mind, this is familiar. From a mental standpoint, I’m probably the most experienced guy on the grid because I’ve driven more race laps around many of these tracks than they have been able to do in the real world. While technically I am a rookie, mentally I am on the same level as many other professional drivers.”

McGee says that his transition to the real-world Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car has gone mostly well. “The whole thing was a dream come true and my performance was well beyond my expectations,” he says. “Unfortunately, some bad luck and an injury stopped my rookie title bid–with a dull pain acting as a constant reminder that this stuff is not a game.”

At Watkins Glen, in the wet, he encountered a spinning car. “I got spinal compression on pretty much every vertebrae,” he recalls. “I took forever to heal, but felt fine about five or six months later at my final race.” Despite the wreck, out of the 56 MX-5 Cup drivers who recorded series points this past season, McGee finished the year in 11th place. As he notes, he immediately challenged for wins, led races, set fast laps, passed a lot of cars, and earned several top-five finishes, all in an extremely competitive pro series. He plans to continue running with Sick Sideways Racing in 2017.

The sim seat time helped him get up to speed, he explains. “The overall parallels are astonishing, and even the general characteristics of the car at the limit are spot on, but I find it absolutely insane how similarly I drive the car in the simulator compared to real life,” McGee says. “The car has the same brake distances, brake points, even brake pressure, turn-in points, apexes, minimum speeds through the corner, speeds down the straights, and lap times over the whole lap.”

On his first trip to Watkins Glen International with the Global MX-5 Cup series, McGee topped the time charts during practice. “Happily, I think everyone has been impressed, including myself, with just how well the simulator has prepared me for real racing,” McGee says. “I am likely the first professional racer who had never actually started a real race, and my first-ever race start was a professional-level event. I’d never even owned a helmet, HANS, or bought a suit before that pro race week, and didn’t quite know how to put on all the safety equipment without help!”

Total Recall

Glenn McGee poses next to his real life ride.

Glenn McGee poses next to his real life ride.

McGee thinks sim racing is really beginning to reach a new level of popularity with the growth of the larger gaming industry. Today he’s part of Radicals Online, a professional online endurance racing team that competes in an invitation-only series backed by Blancpain. With sponsorship money in tow, the series is livestreamed on YouTube and is set for broadcast on British TV.

“Currently, some of the professional gamers I’ve talked with have won $2.5 million for winning a competition,” McGee says. “I wish sim racing were that big right now, but I think it has the possibility of becoming that big.

Prize money for sim racing? Yes. “I have had some luck with endorsements, which can come with product and equipment support as well, but most of the money comes from prize purses in a championship,” he continues. “The money can get pretty serious. The latest pro race that my team was associated with, Formula-E, saw a $1 million purse with $200K going to the winner and $20K going to last place.

“In iRacing, where the eSport of pro sim racing has its roots and has really developed, there are pro championships on both road and ovals that total $100K in prize money with $15K to $20K usually going to the overall champion.”

And there’s an audience, too. “If you watch a televised race, our races online are almost the same.”

RaceSpot TV specializes in broadcasting both sprint and endurance sim races from across the globe, complete with dedicated announcers, multiple camera angles and the all-important pre-race commentary. Broadcasts, including past races, can be found on YouTube. Their near-daily race schedule is listed on their website (racespot.tv).

Gamer culture may be more accepting of entertainment that doesn’t necessarily take place in front of them, but as Koch explains, plenty of the traditional motorsports viewing experience is missing from an online motor race.

“As for fans, I don’t think you’ll see a lot of crossover because the experiences are totally different,” Koch says. “With real-world racing, you’re out at a track and can hear, smell and feel what’s going on.

“When you’re sitting in front of a computer, watching, you may be watching an entertaining race, but it’s a completely different experience. One is more initially appealing to someone who is completely new to racing, and I think you know which one that would be. The fans watching an online race would, most likely, be diehard, since you have to have some background knowledge of what is going on.”

I Sing the Body Electric

While the fan experience of online racing is debatable, it is clear that sim racing is making an impact in both amateur and professional motorsports. “The fact that technology is getting so good that it can teach racers the skill needed to jump into a real race car proves that sim racing is a great place to start a racing career,” Koch says.

Then there’s the difference in budget requirements: Sim racing doesn’t require a truck, trailer, shop or crew. “To become a sim racer, all you need is a couple hundred bucks for an iRacing membership and a rig, which is often times less than a set of racing tires,” Koch explains. “That investment can serve you for however long you wish to do it.” A one-month iRacing trial membership costs less than $10, while McGee figures that he has about $500 total in his gaming rig, including the computer, wheel and screen.

That investment can pay off, too. “In many ways it could almost be considered another ladder system,” Koch continues. “Traditionally, drivers have started in karts and moved to cars. Now, drivers can start in their living room, move to [virtual] Spec Miata, then compete in the Mazda Road to 24. It’s another option to move up the ladder system.”

McGee agrees that the sim racing world gives a greater number of people the chance to follow their dreams and taste motorsports without spending a whole bunch of money.

“Once you get past the level of having the physical gifts or talents to compete, sports become very mental,” McGee says. “Racing is probably the most mental sport in the world. Other than the money and fear factor of crashing, there is not much difference between sim racing and auto racing in the real world.”

Sim racing also provides nearly limitless competition. “The talent pool for real racing is a very limited one, requiring money and connections,” McGee explains. “In contrast, one of the best sim drivers in the world lives in a Finnish fishing town and doesn’t even have a driver’s license. The talent pool in sim racing is just gigantic. The chances of finding a very gifted racer is much better, statistically speaking, with sim racing.”

Ghost in the Shell

Many will cite McGee’s experience in the Global Mazda MX-5 Cup series as evidence of sim racing’s legitimacy as a training ground for new drivers in real-world motorsports. McGee says he is not only confident in the skills he developed at the controls of an online simulator, but that sim racing will continue to produce real-world talent.

“I think, eventually, there will be an officially sanctioned series that is run like a current feeder series, including television coverage and prize money. Then, the season champion will be given the opportunity to move to real-world racing. It will help get the prestige of sim racing elevated to the point that it will just be another feeder system for pro racing.

“Eventually, I think, it will be more popular from a fan standpoint than many of the other feeder series we currently have.”

iRacing: Cars and Tracks

iRacing doesn’t put its 65,000 drivers in nondescript cars circling nondescript tracks. Both are based on reality.

Cars: In addition to a full suite of stock cars, ranging from Legends up through today’s top tiers of NASCAR, iRacing offers nearly 20 different sports cars, including NC- and ND-chassis Mazda MX-5 Cup cars as well GT3-spec cars from Audi, BMW, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz. Their latest creation is the old-school Audi 90 GTO. iRacing’s prototypes span from the SCCA Spec Racer to the Le Mans-winning Honda Performance Development ARX 01c. For a throwback, the Nissan GTP ZX-T was recently added. Formula cars are also part of iRacing: Indy, Formula 1, vintage, Skip Barber, Pro Mazda and more Coming soon: the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup.

Tracks: iRacing claims more than 230 configurations at 70-plus tracks. Most need little if any introduction: Le Mans, Daytona, Nürburgring, Indy, Watkins Glen, Road America, Circuit of the Americas, Spa-Francorchamps, Brands Hatch, Mid-Ohio, Sebring, Twin-Ring Motegi, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Road Atlanta, Virginia International Raceway, Barber Motorsports Park and many more. New Smyrna Speedway, the half-mile oval located near GRM World HQ, is even on the list.

Sources

Racing simulators host a dizzying array of series for both PC and game console owners. Other companies provide the rig equipment needed to race in these virtual worlds. The result is a mix of motorheads and techies from around the globe who go wheel to wheel on some of the world’s most famous race courses–all from the comfort of their homes.

SIM SERIES:

Assetto Corsa
assettocorsa.net/en

iRacing
iracing.com

RaceSpot TV
racespot.tv

rFactor
rfactor.net

RIG EQUIPMENT:

Ricmotech
ricmotech.com
(305) 417-9241

Simcraft
simcraft.com
877-SIMCRAFT

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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Huckleberry
Huckleberry MegaDork
6/6/17 1:24 p.m.

Does it contain the word "Simulation"? The question answers itself.

Nick (Bo) Comstock
Nick (Bo) Comstock MegaDork
6/6/17 1:34 p.m.

We just had this thread a couple months ago.

Ed Higginbotham
Ed Higginbotham Associate Editor
6/6/17 1:41 p.m.

This is the article that thread was about.

Nick (Bo) Comstock
Nick (Bo) Comstock MegaDork
6/6/17 2:03 p.m.

In reply to Ed Higginbotham:

Yes but the article was linked in the other thread as well.

LuxInterior
LuxInterior HalfDork
6/6/17 4:12 p.m.

HapDL
HapDL New Reader
6/6/17 4:34 p.m.

If a real race ran like races run on iRacing, about 6 cars would finish, the others would be littered about the track in varying states of destruction. The number of asshats in simulator racing is right off the charts and it's the biggest drawback to getting involved. However, it can still be a very useful tool for learning tracks, as McGee says because you don't have to race with the idiots, you can practice in private to your hearts content. As far as learning racecraft though, that's a lost cause on sims, it's more about pure dumb luck and survival. The attitude expressed out loud at iRacing is that if you got wrecked you likely caused it yourself which is BS as often as not.

And for those who think Sims are a joke, why does every professional team out there have an in house simulator and usually a dedicated sim driver?

LuxInterior
LuxInterior HalfDork
6/6/17 5:12 p.m.
HapDL wrote: for those who think Sims are a joke, why does every professional team out there have an in house simulator and usually a dedicated sim driver?

Not a joke. Not real. But a useful tool. An entertaining pastime. But I'd guess that the pros don't hang out on online racing "Asshat Central" systems

dean1484
dean1484 MegaDork
6/6/17 7:03 p.m.

I enjoyed the article Ed. I had no idea that there was that much money in it!!!! As for getting wrecked on line yes it happens. But settle in with a good group and that tends to go away. I race a lot on line and some days you are the bug and other days you are the windshield. In between you find some dame good competishion.

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