Diving Into Sim-Racing

As our new COVID-19-dictated existence blurs one day into the next, I see the HPDE schedule melting away in 2020. With some luck, we’ll all be fortunate to return to some level of “normalcy” before the end of the year and if we’re really lucky, the track-day nerds like me will actually get safely hoon around our local courses. Until then, it looks like we’ll have to bide our time.

So it comes at no surprise that I, like approximately 99.9999% of all other track-junkies, have taken to sim-racing as way to get their fix. As a “tech-guy” and general nerd, sim-racing seems like a natural fit for me. But I have always cast a wary sideways glance at sim-racing. As a relatively new HPDE-driver, I was always concerned that playing something too “gamey” would reinforce bad habits and make me both slower and less safe on the real track. It also looked like yet-another money-pit for me to get sucked into. Sure, the cost of a sim-rig is a fraction of actual track-days, but did I really need both in my life?

Well, the short answer is “yes”. With no track-days going on, I figured anything was better than nothing, and the more I looked into sim-racing the more it looked like it could not only be a lot of fun, but also extremely rewarding as a learning opportunity.

The Stone-Soup Approach

I don’t know if I would have gone all-in if I hadn’t, by chance, inherited a racing-wheel setup through a relative of mine. I figured that not having to spend $300-500 bucks on a wheel meant I could dip my toe into this pool pretty easily. However, my best intentions were waylaid by a variety of technical hurdles and what I hoped would be a gentle easing into the waters of sim-racing turned into a head

I quickly learned that being a “Mac guy” is a bit of desert island when it comes to gaming and particularly for racing games. I figured if I was going to get into this, I was going to do it right so after some research I concluded that Assetto Corsa and perhaps later, iRacing, were going to be my sims of choice. This meant I was going to have to deal with Windows.

I have one of those oddball trash-can Mac Pros from 2013 that I use heavily for music and video stuff. I figured if it was up to the task for media-work, I could probably dual-boot it via Bootcamp. Alas, my poor SSD was already bulging at the seams so my first task was to swap that for a new 1TB SSD.

The Mac Pro, aka “The Cylon Diaper-Genie”

The brain-swap worked surprisingly well and the next order of business was to get Bootcamp on there. Unfortunately, due to compatibility issues with some of my music-production hardware, I can’t yet upgrade to the latest MacOS. This led to three days of fruitless attempts to repartition the Mac Pro in an attempt to get Windows installed on it. In the end, I never did get it to work.

OK. Not a promising start, but I needed the HD upgrade anyway, so why not just get some more arcade-y game for the Mac and at least try the wheel out? I had previously bought Grid Autosport for my Nintendo Switch as a fun car-related distraction. I figure track-driving with those controls probably wasn’t going to ruin my behind-the-wheel skills and might even be beneficial as a way to work on vision. So I plonked down $10 for the same game on the Mac, plugged my wheel in, loaded up COTA and immediately drove straight into the wall at turn 1.

Sigh.

I do some digging and as far as I can tell, this inherited G27 wheel should be compatible with Grid. But I’ll be damned if I can get it to work. So after a day or to of contemplation I come to the conclusion that I will likely have an easier time overall if I just get a PC.

Now, I haven’t had a Windows machine in 15+ years, but there have been enough times where I needed a PC for some odd thing that maybe it was finally time to get one. I just bought an iCarSoft OBD-port tool for my Cayman and I could only update it via some janky Windows EXE I had to download. So before all things that are fun for shut-ins are sold out, I managed to snag a decent Alienware PC at the local Best Buy.

Boy howdy…nothing says new Porsche owner like assuming you can fit anything bigger than a six-pack in your sportscar. This would have fit more easily in my Fiesta.

As a long-time Mac user I was simultaneously horrified and fascinated by this new computing citizen that appeared in my office. Unlike the sleek silver and black devices from Apple, this thing looked like a robot that walked straight out of Portal. But I do my best to go into this with an open-mind, so I booted it up and dealt with Windows in earnest for the first time since Bush Jr. was in the Oval Office.

Alien-ware, indeed

I get the PC unboxed and plugged in. I get my Steam account setup. I get Assetto Corsa downloaded. I plug-in the G27 wheel, load up Spa-Francorchamps and immediately go straight off into the barriers at the La Source Hairpin. No turning again. The pedals work, the buttons work, the shifter works, but no turning. This is not really what you could call a “reasonable compromise”.

So I install and re-install various drivers over and over. I unplug and reseat all the cables. I even attempt to start disassembling the wheel to see if it has a broken sensor before I realize that, even if it does, it’s beyond my capacity to fix it. Along the way I’ve found a world of niche sim-racing forums chock full of low-res ads and even lower-res grammar and spelling.

Sidenote: the internet is both a blessing and curse when it comes to troubleshooting problems with computers. It’s very rare that a technical issue you are experiencing is totally unique to you and it’s very likely somebody out there has had the same problem. However, trolling the web for fixes to this steering wheel reminded me that most of us (including me at times) don’t actually really know how things work. So there’s this weird cargo-culting of knowledge where you find a lot of YouTube videos or forums posts I would put in the category of this-one-time-I-did-this-thing-and-the-gods-blessed-me-with-a-bountiful-harvest-so-I-keep-doing-that. Needless to say, they did not inspire confidence. If our future relies on technology, I don’t find that future particularly encouraging. Anyway…

After about a week of fighting with drivers, I gave up on the donated wheel. I’m sure someone with more electronics skills than me could figure it out, and I wasn’t interested in turning this into another project. Meanwhile, every track-junkie in the world seems to be getting into sim-racing and all I could see was shipping dates slipping as I trolled Amazon for replacement wheels. So with little hesitation, I hit the ship-the-damn-thing-to-me-now button and got myself a new Logitech G920 wheel and shifter.

My house is filling with boxes at an alarming rate…

A few days later it arrives, I plug it in, and holy smokes, it works! Look at me! I’m sim-racing!

Yes, my desk is a mess. No, I don’t drive in the follow-cam mode.

Oh…except that my office chair is meant to scoot around on wheels. So every time I turn or press the pedals (particularly the brakes) I’m scooting around in my office. Hrmmm…okay…time to go to the local hardware store, look for those cup things you put under furniture to protect hard-wood floors…hmmm…nope that doesn’t work. OK, search the internet some more and BINGO, order some locking wheels for the chair.

Presenting the Stealtho wheels

Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. I get the wheel setup, then press down the locks and this seems like it’s working. But…oh…wait…after a few laps the whole wheel-stand is seems to be slowly creeping under my desk. Oh god…I know what’s going on…

Yeah, physics. Remember Newtonian mechanics? Equal and opposing forces? All that heavy braking sitting in a chair that won’t move, means the force goes into the pedals and corner by corner, is pushing the pedals away from me. Right…this is why people get complete sim-racing setups. Hmmm…I don’t have the space for that. Think…think…think…

After some scrounging around in the garage, I find some locking straps I bought to hold fuel-jugs together in my old Focus RS for track days. I go back into the basement, get my chair and wheel setup and then loop this between the chair and wheel stand. With that locked in, the pedals and chair finally stay in place as the braking forces are now in a closed system. Now I can finally turn some laps!

Oh the hacking…

So this won’t win any awards for elegance, but it does work. I have been able to turn some laps without my setup drifting around on me. With a relatively stable environment in place, now it’s time to focus on my driving and see how to get better.

The Plan

Because it’s me, I’m trying to go into this whole sim-racing thing with some kind of plan. I figure learning how this all works is going to happen in phases, so the goal is to make steady progress but not biting off so much in a single chunk that it gets discouraging. I think this how it’s going to play out:

  • Start with a low-powered car on a familiar track. For me it will be a MX-5 Cup car at The Ridge
  • Turn 100 laps with this setup without any hardcore data-analysis. Just develop a feel for the setup
  • Turn another 50-100 laps with actual data analysis (more on this later)
  • Start racing the computer in actual sim-races. I expect to be dead-last when I start out at this, but would like to “graduate” to mid-pack after a few races
  • Start racing against some real opponents. Expect a similar back-to-middle progression
  • Pick a new car (maybe a Cayman?) and start all over
  • Maybe start iRacing?

With all of that, I finally have a working setup in place. Yes, I could certainly throw more money at this with a better seating setup, or go triple-monitors or even VR. But for now, I’m simply going to turn some laps and try to get better at this thing. Oh, and I’ll try not to forget to have some fun while I’m at it.

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