In our new normal, one of the complaints that I hear most often is how bored people are when there’s nowhere to go. Shops, stores, movie theatres, and restaurants are all closed. Baseball and most other sports are on hold for who knows how long? A lot of our free time was spent “going”. Now that you have all of that time on your hands, what do you do with it?
This is the perfect time to find a hobby. For years one of my favorite pastimes has been racing. While I have been lucky enough to own and drive some fantastic cars, I am not referring to racing real vehicles. I’m talking about digital racing, not in the form of Mario Kart or any other button masher, but racing simulations.
Racing isn’t about mashing the gas as hard as you can and hoping for the best. It’s an exercise of surgical precision, superb timing, and a personal relationship with Newton’s laws of motion. Driving is a ubiquitous skill for Americans, so perfecting it has a smaller learning curve than other simulated experiences. Racing simulations are available on nearly every type of computing device. Below are some of my favorites (pics link to the web sites).
Racing games have been in development for nearly fifty years . Gran Trak 10 was released by Atari in 1974 and featured a steering wheel and pedals control interface. It wasn’t much to look at but was entertaining. People flocked to it in the arcades and bowling alleys of the time. This encouraged the investment and development we are able to experience today.
When you flip on ESPN and see a vehicle race during the Covid pandemic you are most likely watching an iRacing event. iRacing is a subscription based virtual experience that is renowned for its ability to accurately portray the minutia of racing a car or truck. From Trophy Trucks to F1, every type of race and track is available. Tire wear, fuel consumption, track degradation and weather conditions all occur as they would in the real world.
iRacing supports Virtual Reality, motion simulators, advanced control kits, and nearly every other type of advanced equipment the sport has to offer. Make no bones about it, this is a sport; people spend thousands of hours practicing and honing their skills here. Spend the $6.50 for a one-month membership and see how you stack up.
Project Cars 2 is the game I spend most of my time playing right now. It features almost every type of car and track laser modeled to the most exquisite detail. Day and night driving in the sun, rain, snow, and ice are all represented. There are pro events, on-line matchmaking, and everything in between. It’s available on the Xbox and PlayStation but really shines on a PC with a high end GPU.
No article about racing simulations would be complete without mentioning the astounding amount of hardware designed to push the experience from something you see and hear, to something you feel as well. Most people start their rigs with a wheel and pedal set. From inexpensive spring loaded wheels to servo controlled force feedback sets, there’s an option for almost everyone. You can get gear shifters, hand brakes, gauge clusters, eye trackers, cockpit stands, and even full motion systems to take your racing to next level.
For me, nothing beats a force feedback wheel. Using small electric motors in combination with gears, or belts these wheels go far beyond the buzzing you get from gamepads. Pushing back on your hands in corners, the slip of traction loss, bumps in the road, a lot of driving is done through your sense of touch. A good kit to start with is the Thrustmaster TS150, designed for the PlayStation it is a little known fact that this wheel works great for PCs too; there’s a switch on the back and drivers available on their web site.
An excellent add-on for any driving kit, is a gear shift. Most of the wheel combos sold today come with a 3-pedal setup but don’t include a manual gear shift. You can add one from Logitech or Thrustmaster in a snap and be rowing your way through 6 gears in no time.
You can try to clamp your wheel and shifter to a desk and put the pedals underneath. They usually include clamps made for this purpose. You’ll have a hard time getting everything to line up where it would in a real car’s cockpit. Most of us end up getting a purpose made wheel stand. There are lots of makes and models, search Amazon to get an idea. The best ones let you mount the shifter on either side. When you run European races you can make your setup match the car.
You might be tempted to think that after you’ve got a wheel, stand, pedals, a shifter, a seat, and a cockpit that you’ve reached the end of racing simulation hardware. Nope, you’re just in the beginning phases of the addiction. After you’ve had a the stand for a while, a lot of people make the jump to a full cockpit. If you’re going to dedicate that much space and money to your setup, you might as well go all in and get the motion simulation too.
With prices ranging from $800 to $10,000, or more, full motion cockpits are the apex of racing simulation. Working in conjunction with your force feedback wheel and VR headset the seat will lean and pitch to make you feel the torque of acceleration, throw you forward on hard braking, and push you to the sides in the corners. I haven’t purchased one of these yet, rest assured that if I do you’ll be able to read about it here. Now I that I’m done writing, I think I’ll go run a few laps.