I figured I had the race in the bag. To begin with, there were only three other competitors, so, statistically speaking, at least, I had a one-in-four chance of winning. I was also vastly more experienced than the other drivers. In fact, I’d already raced several times on the track we’d be using -- Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Third, I’d actually hot-lapped at Laguna in the Mazda MX-5 Cup car that we were racing. How could I miss?
Let me count the ways.
This would probably be a good place to acknowledge that this wasn’t a “real” race. It was a virtual matchup contested online via the wonders of ones and zeroes manipulated by a very complicated computer program. The software was iRacing, which I’d written about a couple of years ago and which I considered to be the best -- by far -- of the off-the-shelf racing simulators. The cars were MX-5 Cup machines, which are modern, grown-up versions of the Spec Miata I race in the real world. Another nice carrot was that we’d be using high-end CXC Motion Pro II simulators built and marketed by Chris Considine, who’s the son of fellow SoCal freelancer Tim Considine. The only catch was that, before I could compete in the race, I had to qualify. Details, details.
The event, open only to local media types, had been put together by local P.R. mavens Doug Stokes and Stuart Rowlands to publicize Seat Time, a sim-racing facility that had opened recently at the Santa Monica Airport. The idea was that all eligible journalists would get a half-hour of, well, seat time in the sim, and then the participants who posted the four fastest laps would go head to head in a 30-minute race.
I arrived at Seat Time on the last afternoon before qualifying ended, which I thought of as my version of trying to get in the final flying lap before Q3 ends in Formula 1. There, I was greeted by owner Chas Lawrence. A track-day enthusiast who’d worked in corporate finance, Lawrence, 34, decided to start the company after sampling the CXC simulator coupled with iRacing software awhile back. “My goal,” he told me, “is to do for simulation what K1 [indoor karting] has done for karting.”
In fact, Lawrence said he could envision the day when people go to simulation centers like Seat Time rather than go-karting for real at local racetracks. That said, he acknowledged that it’s going to be a while before he makes serious inroads into the consumer market. For the time being, he’s focusing on professionals and semi-pro drivers who use the sim as part of their training program. He counts various American Le Mans Series and 911 GT3 Cup drivers among his regulars, and sometimes Indy car driver Townsend Bell had been in a few hours before I showed up. (Fortunately for me, even though he works as a broadcaster, he wasn’t competing in the Media Challenge.)
As befits a place aimed at hardcore racers rather than fair-weather gamers, Seat Time occupies a compact office space with a location that ensures absolutely zero walk-in trade. The magic is made in four small rooms, each containing a CXC simulator. These are top-of-the-line motion rigs with heavy-duty equipment; the armature is something you’d expect to find on the Terminator after the faux skin is burned away. When I climbed into the Corbeau racing seat and placed my hands on the Momo wheel, everything felt so authentic that I almost automatically slipped on the optional four-point harness. The powerful speakers and trio of 55-inch Samsung LED flat screen helped ratchet up with immersive quality of the sim.
According to the rules, we each got a half-hour to set our fast time, and I needed all 30 minutes. I spent the first third of my session recovering from crashes and the second third simply trying to complete a lap without botching at least one corner. This came as a surprise to me. I’m by no means an alien, which is what they call sim racers whose car control is out of this world. But I started fooling around with PC-based sims when they first appeared in the late 1980s. In the mid-’90s, I spent several months in a league based on Grand Prix Legends, the notoriously difficult sim created by Dave Kaemmer. I OD’ed on the sim scene after that. But when Kaemmer surfaced again a few years ago with iRacing, I once again spent a few months actively racing online. I was never under any illusion that the sim was real (except for the racetracks, which are dead-nuts perfect). But online competition through the iRacing server came far closer to the “real” racing experience than any game I’d experienced, and if events ever conspired to prevent me from racing in the real world, I could see satisfying my driving jones through iRacing.
So why was I having so much trouble keeping the car on the road? And why was I so slow?
The problem, I realized, was the hardware. In the past, I’d raced with a lightweight plastic wheel-and-pedals set that I clipped to my desk. Now, ironically, I found that the enhanced realism of feedback through the heavy-duty steering wheel and actual motion in the sim was throwing me off. As configured at Seat Time, the CXC rolls from side to side and dives and squats front to rear, but there’s no yaw because it’s too expensive and difficult to simulate realistically. Yaw is what you sense when a car gets sideways -- or worse -- so I would have thought that not feeling it would be a problem. But, in fact, it wasn’t. Amazingly, my brain managed to process visual cues so well that I swore I could sense the car drifting around corners. It was what happened next, when I put in some steering input, that kept throwing me off.
Every time I applied opposite lock, I felt a jolt at the back of my outside shoulder. I don’t know if this was a glitch in the software or if it was an overt signal designed to let the driver know that he’d just caught the rear end of the car. Either way, it was pretty annoying. But the more pressing issue was that, immediately after I caught the rear end, the Miata would start rotating in the opposite direction, setting a classic tank-slapper into motion. I know for a fact that this isn’t the way the MX-5 Cup car behaves. It’s conceivable, I suppose, that the lack of physical yaw feedback meant that I was late with my steering inputs, so the tank slapper was caused by my steering overcorrection. But I think the issue was more likely a problem with the handling dynamics built into the physics software.
Anyway, it was hard to drive the car anywhere close to the limit because I lacked the confidence that I could control the car if and when I started to lose the rear end. So I just puttered around on the correct line and made very gentle inputs and tried to make it around the track. Eventually, I settled into a rhythm, and the car started to “feel” more realistic, so I began pushing a bit harder. I knew that Elliott Skeer, a 17-year-old wunderkind who won an MX-5 Cup race at Mazda Raceway in May, had laid down a bogey time of 1:42 on the Seat Time simulator. Among the journos, the fastest qualifier had run a 1:44. At the moment, I was doing 1:50s. But as I started to feel more comfortable, my times tumbled. 1:49. 1:48. 1:47. Finally, a 1:46. I thought I could go even faster. But Lawrence told me that I was already third-quick, and my half-hour was just about over. So I hit the Reset button, undid my belts and climbed out of the sim.
I was sweating like a pig. Guess I’d been trying harder than I thought.
The race was scheduled for the following Saturday. I was pretty confident when I arrived at Seat Time -- not cocky, mind you, but reasonably sure that I could end up on the top step of the podium. Granted, I was two seconds off the pace. But I figured I could find some speed as I got more seat time. More to the point, I believed that this race wasn’t going to go to the swift. Thirty minutes was a long time to keep the car on the road. Also, I knew that it was frustratingly difficult for iRacing novices to run in close proximity. So I figured the race would turn into a crash-fest. And as long as I kept my nose -- and fenders -- clean, I gave myself a better than even-money chance of winning.
During the brief qualifying session, I tried a couple of new tactics -- left-foot braking, for example -- but my times got no faster. Again, I posted a 1:46, which put me third on the grid. On the pole was Jason Isley, associate editor of SportsCar, the magazine of the Sports Car Club of America. Like me, Isley is an SCCA club racer. But Edmunds.com assistant photo editor Kurt Niebuhr, who qualified second, had very little track experience. And while fourth-place qualifier Mark Takahashi, automotive editor at Edmunds, was a track-day maven, he hadn’t done any wheel-to-wheel racing. So I was liking my chances.
The race started with a pace lap. The four of us had trouble running close together and then gridding up properly. This reconfirmed my conviction that the key to victory was going to be staying out of trouble. We took the green flag and went over the crest of the hill in rough formation. I kept my distance from Jason and Kurt going into Turn 2, the Andretti Hairpin, to avoid any possible carnage, then drove a defensive line to keep Mark behind me. He bumped me a few times on the short chute down Turn 3, But I pulled clear of him and settled into third place. Kurt apparently had gotten past Jason, and the two of them quickly gapped me. No problem, I thought. My major concern at this point was to put some distance between my car and Mark’s so he couldn’t spear me inadvertently making an ill-advised dive-bomb maneuver.
Lap 1 was uneventful. So was the first half of Lap 2. But coming out of Turn 5, Jason suddenly slowed, and I drove past him. Then, in my mirror, I noticed a bunch of dust. I couldn’t tell what had happened. But that was the last I saw of either Jason or Mark. (Turned out that both of them had gone off, though Mark continued while Jason retired.) By this point, Kurt must’ve been seven or eight seconds ahead of me. But I wasn’t worried. I just figured it was a matter of time before he threw it off the road.
So I continued lapping at comfortably in the 1:46s and 1:47s. Right on schedule, according to my grand strategy. Except that Kurt wasn’t following my script. He wasn’t crashing, and he was going just as fast as I was. As best I could tell, the race was about half over, which meant there were maybe eight or nine laps to go. That meant I had to make up something like a second a lap. So I started braking deeper into 2 and 11 and using more of the exit curbing at 4 and 9. As in real life, the big problem for me was Turn 6. You have to carry a lot of speed through there because, if you don’t, you get killed going up the hill to the Corkscrew. But it’s hard to gauge the turn-in point correctly. Turn in too soon and you clobber the raised curbing inside the apex. (I did this in my Spec Miata a few years ago and destroyed the left-front wheel.) Turn in too late and you drive off the track, with the usual results being looping it trying to work your way back onto the asphalt or getting beached in the gravel.
Despite my misgivings about Turn 6, I turned up the wick. Before too long, I got down into the 1:45s and then worked myself into the 1:44s. With what I figured to be about six or seven minutes to, I saw a high 1:43. At this point, Kurt was a touch more than two seconds ahead of me. It was just a matter of time, I knew, before I caught him.
Then I lost it in Turn 6, going wide on the exit.
I managed to gather the car up before going all the way around. But I lost all sorts of momentum. And the next time past the start-finish line, I saw that I was more than five seconds from P1. Damn!
I put my head down. I figured the 1:43 had been a fluke. But I knocked out two or three low 1:44s. By this point, Kurt must’ve been feeling the pressure, or maybe he made a mistake. But the next time past start-finish, the official gap was only 1.9 seconds -- the closest it had been all race -- and he looked even closer than that. How many laps were left? This was a timed race, so I couldn’t be sure, but I figured there were probably two to go. So I still had to make up a second a lap. Which meant this was no time to get conservative.
I’ve got only myself to blame for what happened next. Again, I drifted wide on the exit of Turn 6, and this time I spun. Then, in my haste to get back on the track, I ran into a car I never saw -- driven by Mark Takahashi, who was a lap down. I clobbered the wall, which deranged my steering. Fortunately, this turned out to be the white-flag lap. So I crabbed around the track at half speed and finished the race a distant second. Kurt was a deserving winner. But I sure wish I’d gotten close enough to his rear bumper to rattle his cage.
Once again, I was sweating like a pig when I got finished. And I was really disappointed. Which was a good thing, in a way, since it confirmed how realistic the racing experience had been. After the low-key awards ceremony, I watched Elliott Skeer do a few laps in the sim. What struck me right away was how violent his inputs were -- standing on the brake pedal, swinging the wheel from lock to lock with super-fast hands. The lap times he turned were very close to the ones he posted in winning the real MX-5 Cup race at Mazda Raceway in May. But the driving style was entirely different. Later, when I went online, I found YouTube videos of even-faster laps -- several 1:41s and one guy who managed a high 39, which seemed to defy the laws of physics.
The iRacing software isn’t perfect, and it’s possible to game the system. Elliott told me, for instance, that when you’re in what seems to be tank slapper, nailing the brake and throttle simultaneously will straighten out the car. But this isn’t to say that the sim is just a game. I like to think of it as an alternative reality. You can drive it like a real car and derive a lot of enjoyment -- and learn a lot about racing -- from the experience. But to compete against the top gamers, you’ve got to drive it like a sim, i.e. take advantage of the anomalies built into the software. And that’s fine. Either way, when you couple the iRacing software with hardware as stout and authentic as CXC rig, you’ve got an immersive experience that truly is as close to real racing as you can come without dragging yourself out to a racetrack.
Photos copyright Tim Considine