This blog is mostly a “how not to race” using examples of bad driving. But where’s the “best practices” document that says what you’re supposed to do? There are many books on driving, and I’ve found several of them very useful. “Ultimate Speed Secrets” by Ross Bentley, “Driving to Win” by Carroll Smith, and “Going Faster” by the Skip Barber School are three of my favorites. While books provide a theoretical foundation and much to think about while you’re waiting for the next track day, they tend to focus on speed, not safety. In order to be safe in a wheel to wheel race, you need the forethought to avoid dangerous situations, the muscle memory to control a sliding car, and the experience to make the right decision. These thoughts and actions must be automatic. There’s no way to learn these skills from a book. They are developed from hundreds if not thousands of hours of training. As they say in the military, you do not rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training. So where are you going to get your hundreds of hours of skid pad, lapping, and wheel-to-wheel experience? Simulation training. Not only will you become a safer driver, you’ll also get a lot faster.
What is simulation training? It’s not sitting on your couch with a hand controller playing Forza or Gran Tourismo. That’s fun, but if what you’re doing feels like a game, it is a game. If it feels like hard work, it might be training.
Auto racing is an expensive sport. Considering that proper neck protection is over $500 alone, your personal safety equipment costs are at least $1000. A weekend at the track will typically set you back $500-1000 if you bring your own car, and much more if you rent. A useful simulator rig will cost you somewhere between $200 and $2000. If this gives you even a moment of pause, you have your priorities mixed up. Do a couple hundred hours of simulation training first and you will get much more out of your track day. There’s a reason why they use simulators for training pilots. They work, and it’s cheaper to crash a virtual vehicle than a real one.
A simulator rig includes
- Software (which we don’t belittle by calling it a video game)
- Controllers (steering wheel, pedals, shifter)
The best simulator software is currently iRacing, and it’s not because it’s the most authentic. The subscription cost is about $6 per month. The service comes with about a half dozen cars (e.g. Miata, Spec Racer Ford) and tracks (e.g. Laguna Seca, Summit Point), and you can buy additional ones for $10-15 each. The default cars are fine, but you’ll probably want others just for fun. Get a lot of tracks because each one poses different challenges. Again, if you’re looking at these prices and thinking it’s expensive, then either your priorities are messed up or you should find a different sport. If you’re going to be racing on a real race track, for safety’s sake (yours and everyone around you), do your due diligence and make your simulator investment a priority.
Why iRacing? Because your actions on track matter. Your “Safety Rating” determines which racing series you can drive in. If you’re completely unsafe, you will never get out of the rookie ranks. The only way to drive the advanced cars is by proving that you’re a safe driver. Your “iRating” is an estimate of your skill level. Every time you race, your iRating is at stake. The combination of Safety Rating and iRating identify what kind of racer you are. And there’s no hiding behind an avatar. When you sign up, you have to use your real name. Every time you hit the track, it’s your skill and reputation on display. Racing cars is serious business. To get the most out of simulation training, be just a serious in a virtual car and a real car.
There are a couple other good sims, and having more than one allows you to try out different cars, tracks, and surfaces. Assetto Corsa, Automobilista, Project CARS, RaceRoom Racing Experience, and rFactor 2 are all excellent. I’m also a huge fan of DiRT Rally, and have spent more hours on virtual dirt than virtual asphalt in the last year.
iRacing does not require the latest computer hardware. But you do need a large, widescreen monitor for a realistic field of view (FOV). When you peer into your monitor, the distances you see on the screen should look like real life distances. If you have a small monitor or a TV placed across the room from you, your ability to accurately judge the distance to the next corner will be impaired. You want your FOV to be as realistic as possible, and this means putting a large widescreen monitor right behind your steering wheel and then setting the FOV in the simulator to the correct angle based on the width of the monitor and the distance from your eyes to the screen. The really serious “simmers” wrap 3 monitors around their cockpit, but this requires a larger computer investment. Soon, people will trade triple monitors for 3D virtual reality goggles like the Oculus Rift. If you’re thinking this sounds too involved for a video game, you’re right: this is not a game, it’s simulation.
Your controllers can easily be your greatest expense, but they don’t need to be. You can find used controllers on Craigslist, Ebay, or the iRacing forum for much less than new. But be warned that some parts can wear out and you may need to do some minor repairs.
The single most important part of your controller rig is the steering wheel. It must be able to transmit realistic forces to your hands. This is your muscle memory training, and it will not only get you out of typical oversteer spins, it will also make you faster through every corner. The minimal wheel is the Logitech Driving Force GT. These have recently been discontinued, but you can find them used for $50-100. The wheel comes with a forward/backward shifter built into the console and 2 pedals. Despite its limitations, you can learn a lot with this rig. A step up from the Logitech DFGT is the Logitech G27 (or the older G25 model). This comes with a separate H-pattern shifter and 3 pedals. It’s almost the perfect entry-level package at about $250 new. Thrustmaster and Fanatec make excellent steering wheels, some of which are packaged with pedals. Expect to pay $400-$1000 new for these, but you can find them used for less in the usual places.
The brake pedal is the most important pedal in the car, but has a very unrealistic feel on most commodity controllers. The brake pedal in your car is hard. That is, it moves a minimal distance before it becomes very difficult to move further. Commodity pedals use a potentiometer to measure pedal distance and a spring to provide resistance. To train your leg muscle memory, you need a brake pedal that feels like a real brake pedal. You can buy a kit that will put a load cell on your brake pedal for $100-$300 (the more expensive ones use hydraulics). The alternative is buying separate brake pedal controllers. Fanatec makes excellent 3 pedal units for $150-$250 but if you want the top of the line gear with hydraulics, expect to pay $500-$1000.
Odds are that your wheel has integrated shifters in the form of paddles and/or stick shift. If you don’t like these, you can buy stand-alone H-pattern and sequential shifters. Heck, you can even buy an E-brake. But these things are the least important part of your sim rig. If you have the money, go crazy. If not, you aren’t missing much.
Do you need a cockpit? No. But every time you sit down for a training session, you should be taking it seriously, and a cockpit with a similar layout to your race car will put you in the proper frame of mind. You can purchase a purpose-built sim cockpit or build your own using someone else’s plans or your own imagination. The iRacing forum has hundreds of examples of people who have built impressive cockpits from a wood, metal, or PVC.
Once you get your simulation rig sorted, it’s time to train. Be serious about this. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t think to yourself “I’m just going to play around”. Yes, simulation is fun, but make it into a training activity by being professional with your time. Start a racing journal. Begin each session by writing down your specific goals for the session. For example. “Try to carry my trail-braking farther through T1 at Lime Rock. Focus on pedal release”. A more general goal might be “Do 5 laps without incident all within the same second”. After you’re done with your training session, write a quick debrief to self-evaluate your performance.
Spend some time on the skid pad (Centripetal Circuit). Learn how to drift various cars, not because it’s cool, but because you need to get the recovery sequence hard-wired into your nervous system. 1 hour per day for 2 weeks is a good start, but make sure you revisit this training regularly.
At some point you’ll enter your first practice session online and be absolutely blown away by how fast some of the other drivers are. Your first thought might be “they’re cheating” or “I wonder what their setup is?”. There’s no cheating, and in your first practice sessions, you’re in a car with a fixed setup. All the vehicles are identical. The difference is all in the driver, and unfortunately, you suck at simulation racing. You need to put your hours in, just like they did. Some of these people are professional racers with decades of experience. But that’s good news for you, because you can learn from them. You can watch their laps from inside their cars (and many other angles). You can get lots of help in the iRacing forums and even hire a coach. You can even use the iSpeed telemetry software to record and compare your G-forces, braking pressure, steering wheel angle etc. to those of other drivers. Never in the history of road racing was there a better bargain than simulation training.
I’m currently using a Thrustmaster TS-PC Racer steering wheel, Logitech G25 pedals with a Perfect Pedal hydraulic modification, and a Logitech G25 shifter. The pedals and shifter are on Bodnar cables because they no longer have a G25 base to plug into. The computer has quad Core i7 2.67 GHz CPUs, 14 GB RAM, nVidia GTX650ti graphics card, SSD storage, and a 24″ 1080p monitor.
Logitech Driving Force GT
Perfect Pedal Kit
Fanatec CSR Elite
Richmotech DIY Cockpit