Is Sim Racing Real Racing?

Update from March 2020:

The following story first appeared in print and online in 2017, but it seems even more relevant recently, for some odd reason or another. 

Since this article was first published, the number of digitized tracks and race cars has grown in all the popular sims, and with the recent advent of affordable VR headsets, sim racing is now more immersive than ever. We even opened a dedicated subforum

Following the recently enacted guidelines limiting social contact due to Coronavirus, sim racing is also seeing a very heavy boom in popularity and public awareness. 

During the first weekend of widespread high-profile race cancellations, IMSA, NASCAR and the FIA streamed sim races featuring their star drivers live to the internet. As of week two of widespread quarantines, we now have sim races featuring pro drivers scheduled for major network national TV broadcast. 

The big question: How will this long-term social distancing impact sim racing in the long-term? Is the current surge in popularity and awareness going to dissipate once we’re all fully released back into the wild, or is this sim racing’s big move into the wider public consciousness?

Enjoy the story and join the discussion below. Maybe include your screen name and platform, and we’ll try and give you a virtual point-by sometime.

 

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

None

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

None

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

None

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

None

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.

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Comments
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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.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/25/20 1:57 p.m.

Just bumping up something that seems more relevant today than ever. The following update has been added to the original article

Update from March 2020:

The following story first appeared in print and online in 2017, but it seems even more relevant recently, for some odd reason or another. 

Since this article was first published, the number of digitized tracks and race cars has grown in all the popular sims, and with the recent advent of affordable VR headsets, sim racing is now more immersive than ever. We even opened a dedicated subforum

Following the recently enacted guidelines limiting social contact due to Coronavirus, sim racing is also seeing a very heavy boom in popularity and public awareness. 

During the first weekend of widespread high-profile race cancellations, IMSA, NASCAR and the FIA streamed sim races featuring their star drivers live to the internet. As of week two of widespread quarantines, we now have sim races featuring pro drivers scheduled for major network national TV broadcast. 

The big question: How will this long-term social distancing impact sim racing in the long-term? Is the current surge in popularity and awareness going to dissipate once we’re all fully released back into the wild, or is this sim racing’s big move into the wider public consciousness?

Enjoy the story and join the discussion below. Maybe include your screen name and platform, and we’ll try and give you a virtual point-by sometime.

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
3/25/20 2:06 p.m.

Nice timing here, as I just renewed my lapsed iRacing account, then my G29 decided it wasn't going to do force feedback on any sim (iRacing, ProjectCARS or Assetto Corsa). So, anyone care to either give me some G29 PC troubeshooting tips, or suggest a nice upgrade that I can spend my Coronacash on?

_
_ Dork
3/25/20 2:55 p.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

I have a G 29. Sometimes FFB can be a Settings related issue that gets disrupted with an update. (Windows or software). Since that is low hanging fruit, attempt that first.

 

When it comes to simulation racing, the penalty system is simply not there yet. What would happen in a real life race, if you splashed into the back of someone's car? If you did it intentionally you are likely in for a black flag, a wad of cash, and potentially banned from that series. not to mention having to repair your car which would cost money. That is where Sim racing needs to be with the penalty system. Don't give out so much money for each race until people make it to the big leagues. And they have to qualify to be in the big leagues. So when you are starting out, in your spec Miata, you don't drive like an ass hat. Otherwise, you will go broke on the game and have to start completely over from scratch

L5wolvesf
L5wolvesf Reader
3/25/20 6:29 p.m.

Is this post in reference to 'Playstation' type games or just pro level simulators?

and From AJ Foyt:

"Foyt discussed some of his favorite race tracks, his favorite Indy 500 win and then blamed himself for missing victory in the infamous 1979 Daytona 500. But when questioned about simulators – had he ever tried one, and would he like to race Tony Stewart (for whom Foyt is an idol) in a simulator NASCAR race, Foyt was dismissive.

“No, that’s not racing. I never wanted to, even though people have wanted me to try it. For me it would just be a waste of time. I have too many other things I want to do…

“I never cared about simulator stuff. If I were to do anything, I’d want to race [Stewart] in a car.”'

https://www.yahoo.com/autos/foyt-cites-ward-toughest-rival-230147050.html 

_
_ Dork
3/25/20 8:33 p.m.

In reply to L5wolvesf :

I'm not a professional racing driver, but all of my skills on track have transferred from sims. They use a sim to train jumbo jet pilots. They use sims in nasa. They use sims in the military.
 

I'm not taking what Foyt said as gospel. That's just the bantering of an old man. Now if we want to compare the thrill of racing in real life to sims, it can't compare. Would you rather spank it online? Or actually get down with a lady? Watch golf on tv, or go the country club? 

Loweguy5
Loweguy5 Reader
3/25/20 8:35 p.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Thrustmaster T300RS has so much more natural feel and feedback than a G29, though the downside is they are less reliable.

I had a T150 that was awesome, upgraded to T300 and it died 18 mos later (I did put over 10000 miles on it playing GT Sport).

I now have a G29 and while it's okay, i wish for the more realistic feel of the Thrustmaster.

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
3/25/20 9:49 p.m.
Loweguy5 said:

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Thrustmaster T300RS has so much more natural feel and feedback than a G29, though the downside is they are less reliable.

I had a T150 that was awesome, upgraded to T300 and it died 18 mos later (I did put over 10000 miles on it playing GT Sport).

I now have a G29 and while it's okay, i wish for the more realistic feel of the Thrustmaster.

Yeah, tonight's project is to troubleshoot the G29, and if that proves unsuccessful, I'll probably pull the trigger on a T300 or an entry level Fanatec setup, because what even is money anymore, right?

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
3/26/20 9:25 a.m.
JG Pasterjak said:
Loweguy5 said:

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

Thrustmaster T300RS has so much more natural feel and feedback than a G29, though the downside is they are less reliable.

I had a T150 that was awesome, upgraded to T300 and it died 18 mos later (I did put over 10000 miles on it playing GT Sport).

I now have a G29 and while it's okay, i wish for the more realistic feel of the Thrustmaster.

Yeah, tonight's project is to troubleshoot the G29, and if that proves unsuccessful, I'll probably pull the trigger on a T300 or an entry level Fanatec setup, because what even is money anymore, right?

jg

Fixed. Needed updated drivers, which is not nearly as easy for a Mac guy working on a PC as it should be. 

Still thinking about upgrading, though :)

adam525i
adam525i HalfDork
3/26/20 9:31 a.m.

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

I have a T300 and I really like it but if I already had a G29 I wouldn't be looking to upgrade to it. I'd go the Fanatec route or higher, personally I plan on going to an entry level DD base when my T300 dies. The idea of running larger diameter wheels with the necessary torque to match what I actually use in real life is very appealing.

Adam

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
3/26/20 11:00 a.m.
JG Pasterjak said:

Nice timing here, as I just renewed my lapsed iRacing account, then my G29 decided it wasn't going to do force feedback on any sim (iRacing, ProjectCARS or Assetto Corsa). So, anyone care to either give me some G29 PC troubeshooting tips, or suggest a nice upgrade that I can spend my Coronacash on?

I figured a big shot magazine guy would be past the cutoff! devil

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
3/26/20 11:17 a.m.
z31maniac said:
JG Pasterjak said:

Nice timing here, as I just renewed my lapsed iRacing account, then my G29 decided it wasn't going to do force feedback on any sim (iRacing, ProjectCARS or Assetto Corsa). So, anyone care to either give me some G29 PC troubeshooting tips, or suggest a nice upgrade that I can spend my Coronacash on?

I figured a big shot magazine guy would be past the cutoff! devil

Yeah but I'm married to a teacher, so even if I had a personal helicopter, she'd average us out to government cheese levels.

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
3/26/20 11:17 a.m.
adam525i said:

In reply to JG Pasterjak :

I have a T300 and I really like it but if I already had a G29 I wouldn't be looking to upgrade to it. I'd go the Fanatec route or higher, personally I plan on going to an entry level DD base when my T300 dies. The idea of running larger diameter wheels with the necessary torque to match what I actually use in real life is very appealing.

Adam

Jesus you people are good at spending my money...

:)

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
3/26/20 11:45 a.m.

I'd go Fanatec for the wheel. My past rig that's what I used. Compared to friends Thrusmaster and Logitech I thought it was much better.

JG Pasterjak
JG Pasterjak Production/Art Director
3/26/20 11:57 a.m.

Just pulled the trigger on the budget Fanatec bundle. I'll probably do the load cell brake upgrade at some point in the future. 

dean1484
dean1484 MegaDork
3/26/20 2:33 p.m.
JG Pasterjak said:

Just pulled the trigger on the budget Fanatec bundle. I'll probably do the load cell brake upgrade at some point in the future. 

Talk to Mat (AKA e30matt). He uses one and he may be able to help with setup as I have heard that they have a boat load of adjustment. 

racerfink
racerfink UltraDork
3/26/20 3:56 p.m.

https://youtu.be/kgvqzg4sW9A

 

Dale Jr. and Hamlin talk about their race, and sims.

wae
wae UltraDork
3/26/20 4:45 p.m.

....so, what's the Venn diagram of people who think sim racing isn't real racing and people who think autocross isn't real racing?

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