Virtual Racing: Get Off the Couch and onto the Track (Which Is Also Your Couch)

Story by J.G Pasterjak • Photography Courtesy the Manufacturers

It’s no surprise that interest in online racing platforms is booming at the moment. With tracks around the country–and around the world–shuttered, events rescheduled with best-guess dates for fall, and people stuck at home, online racing can provide a convenient and accessible outlet for everyone’s competitive juices.

But what if you’re not up to speed, so to speak, on the current platforms? Maybe you haven’t played an automotive simulation since you were hoarding your quarters to play Night Driver at the arcade in the ’80s. Or maybe you tried some sims back in the late aughts, when they were just breaking big on the scene, and came away unimpressed. Either way, you can easily rejoin the action.

Here’s how.

Choose Your Fighter

First, you’ll have to make some decisions regarding what sim best suits your goals. The good news is that there are lots of great sims out there at the moment. The bad news is that those sims are supported by a number of different hardware platforms, so starting from scratch can be a daunting prospect.

On the console side, you’re looking at either a Sony PlayStation 4, which gives you access to the iconic Gran Turismo series of sims as well as Project CARS and Assetto Corsa (among others), or an Xbox. The Forza franchise is the signature sim for the Xbox platform, but other excellent sims like Project CARS are also popular for it.

While dedicated communities exist around console-based sims, the true hardcore users tend to gravitate to PC-based options, with the most popular being iRacing. SCCA, IMSA and Lemons have all taken their eSports offerings to iRacing, so that’s got to tell you something about the level of the sim and the quality of the product.

“When we needed to make a big push into sim racing,” explains Heyward Wagner, the SCCA’s Senior Director of Marketing and Experiential Programs, “iRacing was the natural fit. We had an existing partnership because they already reach out to SCCA members and offer them a discount with their new memberships, not to mention their physics model and communities are excellent. There were already a6 ton of SCCA members on the platform, so it just made sense for us to use them as our eSports provider.”

Cost-wise, the console-based sims run from $15 to $50 for the basic software, with some offering additional downloadable content–cars, tracks, etc.–for additional cost. iRacing follows a subscription model, with plans running around $10 per month, give or take, depending on the commitment and payment plan.

And while iRacing comes standard with many popular cars, as users progress through the licensing procedure, they’ll likely want to add additional cars and additional tracks to gain access to more race series. Most of these added cars and tracks cost $10 to $15.

On, yeah, we mentioned licensing. One of the factors that keeps iRacing’s on-track carnage to a minimum is a strictly enforced driver progression model. While anyone subscribing to the service has access to track time with the fastest and hairiest cars offered, engaging in virtual races with other live drivers in those digital missiles will be limited until drivers can prove themselves in more moderate hardware. In other words, don’t expect to wipe out an entire grid of MX-5 Cup cars on Day 1 and immediately be allowed to do the same in a Le Mans prototype contest.

Choose Your Weapon

Running sim software–and we’re mostly talking about iRacing on a PC–means you’ll need some hardware. And that hardware is most likely going to be PC-based, as there is no Mac port for the iRacing client.

In the past, we have operated previous versions of iRacing on high-end Macs running Windows via BootCamp, but it’s a suboptimal situation at best. There is some good news here for Mac fans: Once you price a very powerful gaming PC, you’ll likely reconsider your Apple loyalty.

We turned to our friend Shane Donohue for some detailed hardware recommendations and explanation. Shane co-hosts the Cone Coach autocross podcast, and his day job puts him in the computing industry. He’s also been building gaming computers of widely varying budgets since he was 8.

“iRacing is a bit of an older application at its core, so it was designed with lower spec processors in mind than we commonly see today,” he explains. “But in the late 2000s, multi-core processors started to become the norm, with things like the Intel Core 2 Duo and AMD Athlon X2 chipsets. Instead of increasing the speed of a single core, chip designers just started adding more cores. For the longest time, consumer computers would generally top out at two cores, with high-end stuff being four cores.”

Chip builders also found other ways to push performance. “The manufacturers also do some wizard tech stuff called threading, which lets you work with virtual cores that make your computer believe it has double the amount of physical processing cores it actually has,” Donohue explains. “What this accomplishes is it allows your computer to queue up tasks. Think of it like two lines leading to the same checkout counter, so there’s always a new customer ready to go when one finishes their transaction.”

But is it possible to have too much computing power for sim racing? “iRacing, having been around as long as it has, was only really designed to use two threads at any time,” Donohue explains. “And in the last three years or so, the core wars have launched, and it’s all about more cores for higher-end processors.

“But iRacing can’t take advantage of anything past two,” he cautions. “So, spending a ton of money on a processor with a bunch of cores doesn’t buy you any processing advantage with the software. Anything beyond a quad-core–two cores for iRacing and two to handle system tasks–gets into the realm of diminishing returns pretty quick.”

So, an obvious question: Why not just go back to a CPU from 2012? “Well,” Donohue answers, “actually, you could potentially get away with that. But while modern CPU developers have bolted together more cores, they’ve also made each core better with technology revisions. So current-generation hardware is technically better than previous versions.”

For an apples-to-apples comparison, he says, look at the base core speeds and boost core speeds. “Maybe the best way to think of these is idle speed and full throttle speed,” he says.

His top-end example: “A modern, gaming-optimized beast of a processor like the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X has a whopping 16 cores with boost processing speeds up to 4.7ghz; its base clock speed only starts at 3.5 ghz.” Retail price is near $800.

He points to the six-core AMD Ryzen 5 3600 processor–with a typical retail price around $200–as more suitable for iRacing: “Its base clock speed of 3.6 ghz is actually faster than the base speed of its big brother, and its boosted speed of 4.2ghz is well beyond what iRacing would ever need. Remember, we’re only going to see two or three cores in use running iRacing, so having an extra 10 cores isn’t going to help much, even on high-end systems.”

If you’re just waking up from a knowledge coma, here’s what all that tech talk means: You don’t need the most bleeding-edge hardware to have a perfectly satisfying iRacing experience. A moderately priced CPU–which is the part of the computer ultimately responsible for handling the physics and engine that run the sim–like that $200 AMD Ryzen 5 or Intel i5 is a perfectly good chip for an iRacing build.

Graphics-wise, you’ll need a bit of horsepower to drive iRacing’s complex demands, but you’ll also want to consider the display used. For example, if you’re using a typical modern large screen TV, you’re probably using a device with a 60 hz refresh rate. Essentially, the image is redrawn 60 times every second by the display. So a graphics card capable of outputting 90 frames per second is overkill. You’ve bolted on a huge turbo, but left the snow tires in place.

However, if you’re running a gaming-style monitor with much faster refresh rates, or a virtual reality device like an Oculus Rift, or multiple monitors, more video horsepower is a nice addition.

For a system hooked to a TV-type display, a graphics card with 6GB of video RAM should be more than adequate–so budget $200 to $250 for something like a GeForce GTX 1660 series card. These moderately priced cards can drive a VR system as well, but for a better VR experience, a monitor with a high refresh rate, or a multiple screen setup, you’ll want to look at a card with 8GB or more of video RAM. Plan on spending $400 and up for something like a GeForce RTX 2060 SUPER series card. From there, the sky is the limit, but a $1200 GeForce 2080 Ti card with 11GB of video RAM won’t buy you any more performance if you don’t have a display capable of taking advantage of its capabilities.

All in, you can build a perfectly good iRacing rig paired with a large TV for less than $1000. Moving up to something that can comfortably drive a VR system or gaming monitor can be accomplished for less than $1200 if you shop carefully. And if you want to just buy something off the shelf, we’ve seen nicely equipped gaming computers with Ryzen 5 processors and GeForce 2060 Super video cards on sale at Best Buy for less than $1400.

Not comfortable building your own computer, but still want something a bit more tailored to your sim racing aspirations than what you could buy off the shelf at a big-box store? Having an expert custom-configure and build a system tailored to iRacing is a more affordable option than you might think. And computer builders are getting more and more savvy regarding what sim racers need and don’t need.

Winchester Computers, which is located not far from our office in Daytona Beach, Florida, is hand-building iRacing-optimized systems that they ship all over the country. The company has even branched out into rigs and accessories.

They’ll put together an Intel i5-based system with a graphics processing unit capable of driving triple monitors for around $1299. One of their VR-capable systems based around an Nvidia GeForce 2060 GPU will run around $1420. The upside of having a system custom-built by a pro: Not only do you know that it’s exactly configured for the mission at hand, but there’s also someone at the other end of the phone or email should any questions arise.

We talked with one of Winchester Computing’s techs about hardware and got the same answers Shane Donohue provided, including the importance of base core clock speed: “We like Intel processors, like the i5 and the i7, because they have fast base clock speeds. We also prefer the Nvidia GForce graphics cards over the AMD Radeon architecture because the Radeon cards seem to have a lot of driver incompatibility issues with iRacing.”

When asked about how business was since national stay at home directives were put into place, the Winchester staffer we talked with sighed a happy sigh and said, “Oh yeah. Lots of local interest in online racing in the last couple weeks.” Then we heard two other phone lines ringing in the background and let him get back to work.

Choose Your Gear

Once you have your computer and your software, you’ll need something to control it with. The bad news is you won’t be very competitive steering with the arrow keys and accelerating with the space bar. The good news is we’re in a golden age of affordable sim hardware that recreates a real driving experience with extreme accuracy.

At a minimum, you’ll need a steering wheel, pedals and a place to mount them. For the driving hardware, the easy button is a one-box setup from Logitech or Thrustmaster. The Logitech G29 and Thrustmaster T300RS both occupy the “readily available for around $300” slice of the marketplace, and both provide a solid experience with easy setup.

Moving up the ladder in price and complexity puts you in range of much of the hardware from companies like Fanatec, which provides gear for what could be called a “prosumer” all the way to high-end stuff. For around $600, Fanatec will sell you a wheel and pedals from their CSL Elite series: stronger motors, more robust construction and more precise feedback than the Logitech or Thrustmaster hardware for a price that’s still what many folks will consider a reasonable investment.

While these purchases might be dismissed as a luxury, investing in the proper wheel and pedals can have a dramatic effect on lap times, as well as on how well the sim experience translates to real-world driving. A wheel with a motor that’s powerful enough to provide real resistance, and fast enough to provide the reaction speed to properly apply that resistance so that it simulates actual grip conditions, will not seem as expensive once you realize how much it’s mimicking real-world physics. Likewise, a brake pedal that communicates with the computer via a load cell–which measures pressure rather than position–delivers a much more realistic experience.

From there, the sky is the limit. Belt-driven wheels, which use gearing to multiply the force of the motor providing feedback resistance, can run up to $1200 and beyond. Direct-drive wheels from boutique builders like Ricmotech, which couple the steering directly to the motor for the ultimate in realistic feedback, start around $1500 and get into “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” territory pretty quickly from there.

Once you have sorted your wheel, pedals and possibly even shifter–if you don’t want to roll with the paddle shifters most wheels come equipped with–you’ll need a place to mount them. While many a virtual race has been won with a wheel clamped to a table and pedals sitting on the floor under an office chair, chances are that if you want to start getting serious, you’ll want a setup that more accurately approximates the seating position of an actual car. Again, there are many options at many price ranges, and you don’t necessarily have to break the bank to get great performance.

At the budget end, there are simple rigs available on eBay that mount to your own seat and start around $100. We’ve seen a few of these in action, and they work okay–usually after a bit of time spent in the shop adding some bracing and making sure the hardware is properly sorted. They’re a great budget option, though.

Also on the budget end are a number of homebuilt rigs. We built Ricmotech’s DIY cockpit using their $50 plans and templates package along with about $200 worth of MDF, plywood and hardware; our Mazda3 seat came from the salvage yard. The rig is rock-solid, and the wood construction easily allows modifications or tweaks.

We also have plenty of friends who have built cockpit rigs using large-diameter PVC pipe–hey, if it’s good enough for patio furniture, it should work fine for your sim racing. Plan on spending $150 to $300 for a properly braced and supported DIY PVC rig.

Moving up the cost and complexity ladder, entry-level sim cockpits are available from a variety of manufacturers. Ricmotech offers a solid, versatile chassis for less than $600 including a seat. More elaborate chassis that can mount single or multiple monitors as well as race car-style seats while allowing more adjustability start around $1000.

And, finally, if you’re ready to go for broke (quite literally), there’s almost no limit to the amount of complexity (and cost) you can find out there and readily available. Full hydraulic motion, vibration transducers, hydraulic brake adapters, and pretty much anything else you can imagine is a couple of clicks away. A company like SimGear will happily trade $25,000 of your dollars for a hydraulically actuated motion base in which you can drive away your blues all day long–or at least until your credit card bill shows up.

Also at the pointy end of the rig spectrum, Simcraft has built several multi-axis, full-motion rigs for professional NASCAR and sports car racers. They’ll happily build one for you, too, and it’ll shake, rattle and roll you along multiple axes, fill your eyes and ears with seamless sound and images, and provide feedback through controls so realistic, they’re virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Of course, they’ll also take $125,000 off your hands, but the mere fact that such a complex setup exists to run the exact same sims you can operate from your desk chair for the price of a good cheeseburger says a lot about the basic software package.

Other companies, like SimSeats, cover the entire range of offerings, from the hobbyist to the serious competitor to the well-funded pro. Their SR-X simulator chassis comes in under $1000 but features some top-notch construction, all in the name of stiffness and rigidity.

Flex in a sim chassis will be one of the biggest contributors to lack of feel. Allowing the wheel and pedal hardware to work at their optimum is key to good feedback.

SimSeats also caters to the high-end customer with multi-axis motion rigs that use the same type of low-frequency vibration transducers that movie theaters place under their seats so you can feel every explosion. SimSeats also specializes in complete, turnkey packages featuring computers, displays, controls and chassis matched to your intended use. For someone starting from scratch, having a “one-box” solution can be a great option.

For folks who want to be able to incorporate some of the high-end features, but do so in a more gradual fashion without the huge expenditure right up front, SimXperience sells all the motion, vibration and feedback bits in a more modular configuration, allowing you to build your system piece by piece as interest and budget allow.

And it’s not just dedicated sim companies producing products for the racing simulation scene. Manufacturers and shops that have traditionally only built parts for real-world race cars are eyeing the sim scene and building parts for it based on real-world motorsports knowledge.

Mark Petronis of AMT Motorsport–whose spherical bushings and camber adjusters help our Corvette project car slay real-life corners–is leveraging his motorsports smarts and strength as a small-volume manufacturer to explore sim gear opportunities.

“Our Corvette business is still doing well and we haven’t seen a drop-off of sales,” he reports. “In fact, I’m hearing from a lot of customers who are specifically buying stuff to work on their cars during their time away from the track. That said, we racers need something to do and keep sharp during this debacle, so moving to sim racing seemed the only real avenue.”

As he went to assemble a rig of his own, though, Mark realized something: “The high-end hydraulic pedal stuff was mostly sold out, but also unrealistically overpriced.”

So he set a goal: “We wanted to leverage our knowledge and abilities from real-world motorsports to produce a high-quality, fully hydraulic pedal setup for under $1000. I already have manufacturing, assembly and electronics people being underutilized due to the slowdown from the pandemic, so repurposing my people to develop a new product, for an in-demand segment of the industry that nicely aligns with our objectives in motorsport, should be a win-win for everyone.”

Next Time: Choose Your Mount

Now that you’re hopefully a little better educated on how to get your simulation rig in order, in the next issue we’ll talk about actually going racing. How do you choose the best race series to match your goals, and how do you set your virtual car up to extract maximum performance on track?

We’ll also address one of the biggest questions: How will your efforts in the virtual world–from driving and racing technique, to strategy, to car setup–translate to your real-world experience? Are racing sims a pleasant diversion while we’re locked out of real tracks, or are they actually teaching us to be better drivers and competitors? Answers next issue.

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Comments
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GameboyRMH
GameboyRMH MegaDork
5/28/20 1:09 p.m.

"For an apples-to-apples comparison, he says, look at the base core speeds and boost core speeds. “Maybe the best way to think of these is idle speed and full throttle speed,” he says."

I think a better comparison would be regular full-throttle power vs. scramble-boost power.

To think, I felt pretty good when I sold my G27 control set in September for almost the cost of what a new G29 went for at the time...there was no way to know, but it was terrible timing.

fidelity101 (Forum Supporter)
fidelity101 (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
5/28/20 2:10 p.m.

best tag line ever

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