When I was in the beginner HPDE group (where I spent what felt like an eternity before getting promoted up), I noticed that there were these guys (and they were always guys) who would show up for their first HPDE event, spend a couple of events in the beginner group, and then get quickly promoted to the intermediate group. When I talked to them, they’d all say, “Yeah, this is my first track day, but I’ve played a lot of racing games.”
This was a strong enough pattern that I had to investigate. I hated video games, but I discovered that you don’t have to like video games, or even be good at them, to use them to your advantage as a racer.
Brad was a fan of Gran Tourismo 5 on Playstation, and already had been encouraging me to try practicing with that. He played with the Playstation controller and not a driving simulator wheel and pedal set, though. Unlike Brad and the upwardly mobile HPDE guys at the track, I haven’t spent decades building video game controller muscle memory. To solve this problem, I built myself a “sim rig” out of lumber and and a random car seat we had in the garage (it’s amazing how quickly random seats build up when you get into race cars), roughly following these plans. I bought a Logitech G37 wheel, pedal and shifter set and I had myself a racing simulator.
I hooked it all up to the Playstation and tried playing Gran Turismo. It was really hard. It was completely different than driving a real car and I utterly sucked at it. I felt dejected and demoralized. The sim rig sat in my living room for the next six months where I mostly just glared at it.
After six months and two more beginner HPDE events my frustration with my on track progress finally outweighed my frustration with the driving simulator, and I committed to practicing with Gran Turismo every day. Sucking at Gran Turismo every day took a lot of commitment. I dreamed about sucking at Gran Turismo in at night in my fitful, restless sleep. Over the course of the next month, I got marginally better at Gran Turismo. However, at my next HPDE event a month later, I discovered I had gotten significantly better at driving on track. After another month of daily simulator practice I attended another HPDE event and was easily promoted to the intermediate run group. The results were clear. My slow progress towards sucking slightly less in the simulator directly lead to dramatic improvements on a real race track.
Since then I’ve backed off a bit on the daily practice and have upgraded to a PC running iRacing, which is a more sophisticated and realistic racing simulator. More importantly, iRacing lets you race real people who do all the same stupid and clever things that real people do on real race tracks. In the two years since I built my sim rig, I’ve improved from where I started, but overall I still suck. iRacing rates me in their ninth division, out of ten, with one being the best.
Why are simulators so difficult?
You can’t feel anything. I’ve talked to a lot of racers, many of them much better drivers than me, that cite this as the reason they hate simulators. When you drive a real car on a real track, you feel everything that’s going on. You feel speed, acceleration, deceleration, yaw as the car rotates, and you learn to react to these things. In the simulator, the only feel you get is from the steering wheel. When so many of the cues you use to drive are gone, it gets really difficult to react correctly and quickly. It’s like trying to do embroidery wearing welding gloves.
Speed looks different on a screen. If you’ve ever taken in-car video of yourself driving (either on a track or on the street) you’ve probably noticed that your video looks much slower than you felt you were going when you were driving. The same thing happens in the simulator. The sensation of speed you get from a screen is just different. Sensing speed in a simulator is a different skill, and people who’ve practiced it a lot are much better at it.
It’s just plain harder. This is just a guess on my part, but I think racing game designers make the cars more difficult to drive to challenge the players. I’ve heard multiple sim racers who move to real race cars comment on how much more grip the real cars have. My guess is that game designers make the game more difficult because players can put in many more hours of playing a video game than real race car drivers could ever practice in a real car.
How I practice with iRacing
Ignoring the game part of it. I use iRacing to practice specific areas where I would like to improve. I don’t worry about the the points and driver rankings in iRacing because I’m only concerned with making progress on the real race track. I think of it like training at altitude.
Deliberate practice. I choose which races to participate in based on what I’m trying to learn. iRacing is my simulator of choice because there’s always many different types of races to join with competitors from all over the world any time of the day or night. For example, I’ll run a faster car in mixed-class racing to practice passing slower cars, which I don’t get to do very often in real life as a rookie in a Spec Miata. I also pick races with rolling starts to practice warming up the car and getting in formation on the pace lap. The first time I gridded up for a real race, the whole process felt familiar. I could even hear iRacing’s simulated crew chief voice in my head, “Line up on the right side of the track. One lap to green…”
Developing mindsets. In the practice sessions, I learned to learn tracks and experiment to find pace, which is very different from the qualifying sessions where I discovered I need focus and do what I know works to get a good lap in. iRacing seems best for these sorts of skills, which aren’t tied to one particular car or track. Which brings me to…
When iRacing isn’t like real racing
You can’t feel the tires. Most drivers who practice in simulators cite this as a “training at altitude” type thing and say they find it much easier to drive a real car because the tires give them so much more information. This wasn’t the case for me, though. When I finally put slicks on my car, I thought I could push them and find the limit like I do in iRacing. What actually happened was that I started to push the tires, experienced a ton of new G forces before I got anywhere near the limit, and freaked right the heck out. I discovered I had to deliberately get used to the G forces and feel how much load the tires could take before finding the limits. Learning tires on a real race car is a skill that must be developed with actual tires.
It’s still a video game. This means there’s artificial limits to what it can do and players that spend endless hours working to exploit those limits. One example of this is track limits. iRacing gives you a demerit if you exceed the track limits, and if you rack up too many of them it will kick you out of your race. These limits can be frustratingly arbitrary, like when iRacing dings me for taking my real life line through turn 3 at Road Atlanta. I deal with this by generally being conservative and trying to keep two wheels inside the line, but there are players who seem to invest excessive amounts of time exploring exactly where they can put the car so they can exploit some of iRacing’s other more lenient track limits to carry speed or make passes.
Because some of these players invest so much time in the game part of iRacing, they take it really seriously. I regularly see angry chat comments flying across the top of the screen after races or when players have incidents during a race. (I try to use it as practice ignoring distractions.) Sometimes the angry chat is directed at me; sometimes justly, sometimes not. I try to use those angry gamers as a feedback tool. Did I actually make a mistake? If so, how can I avoid making that mistake on a real track? You have to make mistakes to learn, and I’d rather those mistakes happen in pixels than sheet metal.
Overall, I still don’t love video games, and I’d rather be on a real track any day of the week. But, for about the cost of a track day you can build a sim rig and buy racing game, making it by far the cheapest way to practice racing. And because you don’t even have to be good at video games to see on track improvements from this type of practice, spending time in a racing simulator seems like a no-brainer for anyone who wants to improve their racing and performance driving skills.