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How virtual racing is turning gamers into drivers

Every kid dreams of being a sports star. Maybe it’s in the NBA, playing pro football, making it to the major leagues, or racing in the Indy 500. The ideas are mostly the same, but one of those dreams is not like the others. If you want to get good at baseball or hoops, you just need to find access to a ball and a playing field – and those are easy to find. But if you want to be the next Alexander Rossi, you need a car, a race track, and a metric ton of cash just to take your first lap. Unless your last name is Earnhardt or Andretti, it’s virtually impossible to get in front of the right people to show what you’ve got.

No simulator can match the feeling of G-forces and the blast of wind in your face.

The traditional methods of getting started in racing are go-karts and quarter-midget sprint cars, but you have to start racing when you’re 5 years old, and you have to win consistently. You’ll also need to have parents who are able and willing to spend millions of dollars to promote your career. That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. A season in an entry-level pro racing series like US F2000 or MX-5 Cup can cost upwards of $100,000, a year in Pro Mazda is upwards of $250,000, and a season in Atlantics or Indy Lights can cost a cool half-million dollars, and people still won’t know who you are.

Quick quiz – who won the Indy Lights championship last year? Don’t worry, I had to look it up, too. Spencer Pigot won the championship and rookie of the year award. He was the Pro Mazda champion the year before that. Pigot started in go-karts as a kid, and finally made it to Indy this year. He did that with a lot of financial help from the Mazda Road to Indy program where Mazda takes promising drivers and helps them cover the bills as they move up. Pigot has mad skills, and he’s been paying his dues working towards a pro racing career since he was in grade school. So what chance do you have when the path to even a career is harder than the Jedi selection process, let alone stardom?

Enter virtual racing

Technology has the capability to transform and democratize auto racing, because as virtual reality develops, it eliminates the need for the expensive part of racing. You can race every track and drive every car, and you can crash as many times as you need to and it costs you nothing to learn.

Of course, the first thing any racer will tell you is that VR is not the same as R. They’re right, it isn’t. No simulator can match the feeling of G-forces and the blast of wind in your face, and the certain knowledge that hitting the wall is going hurt your body and your wallet. But a modern racing simulation can make the first cut from hundreds of thousands of aspiring racers to the few who have the skills to warrant a real-world test drive. That fact has spawned a whole new ladder into top-tier auto racing.

As far back as 2008, Nissan partnered with Sony to take Playstation Gran Turismo racers and give them a shot at the GT Academy. The premise was simple – win online and you can qualify for a test and a seat in a Nissan race car. Out of about 400,000 competitors, 20 were selected for the National Finals and a test in a real race car. The winner of the national finals went to the International Race Camp at Silverstone in England to race against the best from around the world, and the winners of that event got to race for Nissan in the Dubai 24 Hours event. In 2014, the gamers won their class in Dubai.

Project CARS

One of the new opportunities comes through a venture called Project CARS. This is an international multi-player racing simulation that supports XBOX One, PlayStation 4, and 32-bit or 64-bit PC. Project CARS allows a gamer to race against competitors from around the world.

“There are so many restraints in the real-world that could keep back a person with lots of racing potential from ever reaching that potential,” says Stephan Viljoen, Game Director for Project CARS. “One of the key aspects here is practice time. Unlike with sports such as golf or tennis where you just simply take your clubs or racket and head out, motorsport is an extremely expensive exercise. You have to get your car over to the track, and that might be on the other side of the world. With Project CARS, we empower the aspiring race driver to practice on race tracks all around the world.”

One person who used Project CARS to prepare for actual racing is Nicolas Hamilton – you may have heard of his brother Lewis in Formula One. Nicolas had the advantage of family connections, but he also has physical impairment issues stemming from cerebral palsy. Virtual racing allowed Nicolas to hone his skills safely to the point that he was winning eSports championships with Project CARS. With skills developed on the simulator, Nicolas made the jump to the real-world Renault Sport Clio Cup and then the British Touring Car Championship.

“There are a number of success stories out there already, of drivers who have made the jump from virtual to real,” Viljoen says. “Our close collaboration with various manufacturers and race series owners will give aspiring drivers good exposure to any potential scouting operation, and we are also in discussions with some of these collaborators to award seat time to those virtual drivers who excel.”

The professional verdict

It’s not just aspiring gamers who are using simulators. Established professional drivers use professional-grade simulators to learn new tracks, practice maneuvers, and even test setup changes in the virtual environment before they take their cars on the actual track.

Phil Fogg, Jr. has raced in Pro Mazda and a variety of professional series, and he sees the value in simulations.

“I have really found the simulator to be helpful in preparing myself and the car for races,” Fogg says. “As a driver, I am able to get oriented to the track, build muscle memory for brake/shift/throttle points, and develop visual references.  All of this makes the first session or two much more efficient. I am always amazed at how close the simulator lap times are to actual times.”

Project CARS
Project CARS

The physics engines in the simulator software are now good enough that small changes in downforce and suspension setup can be reflected in the handling behavior inside the simulation.

“The tires are a variable that the simulator cannot address,” Fogg warns.  “However, you can get a general sense for the speed/time tradeoffs with changing rake, wing, ride height, camber, sway bar, and so on. It has definitely impacted a few race weekends.”

Professional racing simulators are not found in an arcade. Formula One and Indy teams have them, and there are a few high-end commercial simulators out there. CXC Simulations in Los Angeles and Maher Solutions in Portland, Oregon are the leading professional simulator providers. Purchasing a turnkey simulator will cost you at least $50,000. So, drivers will often travel to the simulators and rent them for practice and testing. However, as technology moves forward the differences between the professional simulators and the game-based platforms are shrinking.

Established professional drivers use professional-grade simulators to learn new tracks.

“Our biggest push right now is into the arena of Virtual Reality,” Viljoen says. “Racing simulation is the perfect fit for VR, as it now allows us to place the driver inside a full 3D recreation of the actual car and track, giving the driver the closest experience he can possibly have of racing, short of actually getting in a race car. When racing in VR, the driver experiences the same level of situational awareness that he would in a real race car. Being able to easily glance toward the apex of a turn, keep his eyes on the car next to him, or glance in the mirrors to see where that driver behind him is, brings a whole new level of immersion that was simply not possible when racing on a flat screen. It changes everything!”

Why go real?

Simulated racing is already growing into its own sport. Project CARS and other series offer drivers the chance to compete against drivers from around the world, and many may choose to make their careers online and never bother with the vagaries of engines that might break or injuries that could end their lives as well as their careers. The iRacing network offers over 40 competitive series, and drivers who win can move up and eventually join one of three iRacing World Championship Series and compete for cash.

When drivers can find fame and money racing online, and the online races are broadcast for public viewing, the virtual career path becomes a whole lot more attractive as well as attainable for the aspiring racer. It will take time to see if virtual racing will completely take over, but not a long time.