By Jonathan M. Gitlin, Ars Technica
As a hardcore racing fan, the first racing game I really got into was a Super Nintendo F1 game. But it wasn’t until the release of Gran Turismo on the PSone that the game console could finally provide a virtual outlet for those with the desire, if not the cash, to go racing.
Since then, racing games have given us ever-more lifelike physics, graphics and artificial intelligence. We’ve even got the the chance to race online against other humans. Peripherals like real-feel steering wheels have gotten better; the best of them promise racing immersion from the comfort of our couches. It’s all been great fun for racing fans, but is any of it truly realistic? What do racing video games teach you about racing real cars?
I got to answer this question ChumpCar racing.
Before I go further, let me say I know there are PC racing sims with far more realistic physics models than console games. I’ve played a couple of hours of GTR, but nothing more. But I have played lots of GT and Forza Motorsport and other console racers. That’s the gaming experience I drew from as I tried doing it in real life.
It’s a cold, gray April Fools’ Day in Wisconsin. There are snowbanks here and there, along with icy puddles. I’m wearing Nomex, standing on a low wall and wondering if I’ve made a terrible mistake. A Ford Contour pulls up. It’s not exactly in showroom condition. The headlights are missing, replaced by plastic covers. The hood’s been rattle-canned black. The windows are Lexan. And there’s a beefy roll cage inside. I squeeze through it and strap myself into the seat. I can barely see over the dash, but there’s no time to worry about that. I get the signal to accelerate out of the pit lane and out onto the tarmac of Road America, a legendary circuit.
People who know me know I only play racing games. I’d be lying if I said my honeymoon didn’t involve the Monaco Grand Prix. I didn’t get into cars until high school, but once I got a driver’s license I was hooked. Magazines like Autocar provided constant exposure to Formula 1, touring cars and Le Mans. It soon became obvious motorsport is not a cheap hobby. I’m also not much of a grease monkey. I’ve never had the space or the opportunity to learn how to spin a wrench for anything beyond basic stuff. If I still lived in flyover country, it’s quite possible that I would have turned my Miata into a track car. But I live in Washington, D.C.
Thank heavens for video games.
She might not look like much, but she'll run with the best. Photo: Alex Bellus
Batteries Not Included
Sony is hyping GT Academy, where virtual racers can earn a seat in a sports prototype. Recently, iRacing gave one of its best players a test at Road Atlanta. Even Top Gear got in the act, comparing Jeremy Clarkson’s performance around Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in a real and virtual Acura NSX.
Now it’s our turn.
A thriving grassroots racing scene in the United States has significantly reduced the barrier to entry. It hasn’t reached the level of a console and high-end steering wheel-pedals combo, but it’s down to a price that fits my wallet. The 24 Hours of LeMons is among the most famous of the low-buck racing series, but I don’t find it particularly attractive. It seems to be more about parade floats and the organizers having a good time harassing the entrants than flat-out racing. But LeMons isn’t the only game in town. Enter ChumpCar World Series, endurance racing for cheap cars.
My friend Nick ran some ChumpCar races last year in a Ford Escort. Over the winter, he and some friends built a new car for 2011, the silver and black one pictured above. Since it’s almost as easy to bring two cars to the track as was one, they asked if I’d like to drive the Escort in the first race of the season, at Road America. Finding additional drivers prepared to share the car proved harder than imagined. Fortunately, Nick changed the roster so I could join him, Mike, and Alex in the Contour.
Things started getting real earlier this year when I made a trip to OG Racing in Sterling, Virginia, to buy a helmet, suit, gloves, boots and Nomex underwear. I could have done it all online, but helmet fit is important. Trying several on for size means seeking out a brick-and-mortar retailer. I decided that looking fast and feeling fast is integral to being fast, so I sent my helmet out for painting. But there are few things more embarrassing than turning up at a track with a fancy helmet but no talent. Clearly I had to be quick in the car.
Train hard, race easy. Photo: Elle Cayabyab Gitlin
My training regime wasn’t rigorous, but that’s the point of this article. I played racing games, and I’d done an hour’s karting endurance race on a chilly Sunday morning in November while visiting family in the UK. I also read The Unfair Advantage, Mark Donohue’s racing memoir.
I conducted a dress rehearsal of sorts. In Forza, I built up a Ford Focus, a car I thought would be similar to the Contour, to roughly match what I knew about the Contour. Wearing my racing gear, I proceeded to lap Road America for about 45 minutes until a combination and discomfort — it’s hot in all that gear — prompted me to call it a day. I was able to ensure my helmet was comfortable and that my glasses wouldn’t fog, but the virtual laps felt remote, something I attribute to the layers of fireproof fabric between my hands and the wheel, and the extra sound absorption of the helmet.
My excitement continued building through February and March. Each time I checked the webcam at Road America’s website, the snow seemed to have melted a bit more. But fate is cruel. Two days before getting on a plane, the area was blanketed with snow and the race was postponed one week. As a racing game nerd, I probably should have expected it. I certainly got used to GT and Forza releases slipping well past their original dates.
The delay proved to be a blessing, as the organizers arranged a test session the day before the first race to thank everyone for being accommodating. Had the race run as scheduled, my first laps in the car would have been in competition. Getting some time before the wheel before the flag dropped was a big relief.
You Must Be This Tall to Ride
Aren't you kind of short for a racing driver? Photo: Alex Bellus
And so here I was, standing on the pit wall on April Fools’ Day. As it turned out, my time behind the wheel would amount to an out lap, a flying lap, and an in lap. It didn’t look promising. I’m not the tallest person in the world, and the seat was about an inch too low. I could just see over the dash, and my lap time was embarrassingly slow: 15 seconds off my teammates. I went to bed sure I would be the guy in the fancy helmet who couldn’t drive. I did begin getting answers to my question about what video games had taught me, though.
Showing you the way around a track is one of the big things games provide. That assumes the track you’re on has appeared in a game, of course. Road America has appeared in the Forza lineup since its arrival as DLC in Forza Motorsport 2. Countless laps of the virtual track had provided a rough idea of the racing line through each corner. Even Formula One racers have used video games as a way of learning unfamiliar circuits. Of course, professional racing drivers also play video games for fun like the rest of us. GT was a firm favorite with the Corvette Racing team when I polled them in 2008, and iRacing is said to be frequented by many IndyCar drivers.
Looking far enough down the track also is something you can practice at home, and the introduction of motion tracking should help. Looking at the corner you’re in, not the corner your coming up on, impedes lap times in the virtual realm as much as the real one. The further ahead you’re looking, the more thoroughly you can set things up for the turn. Of course, this assumes you can actually see over the dash to look down the road.
Like me, this was Alex’s first race, and he too thought he’d learned something from gaming.
“You certainly learn a few things about roughly what line to take, how to get around traffic, when to time pit stops, and some of the fundamentals, but I’d say I’ve learned just as much by watching races on TV and in person,” he said.
Forza isn’t a perfect representation of Road America. It isn’t rendered to look like the beginning of April, with gray skies, patches of snow and bare trees. The game doesn’t feature dynamic weather, either. Turn 13 seems a lot different in real life. I struggle through it on the Xbox, but enjoyed it in the flesh. The uphill, off-camber turn isn’t much like what’s in the game.
The seating problem was solved after a predawn trip to Walmart to buy stuff for a seat insert. Saturday morning was spent with last-minute car prep, and I realized the camera mount I’d improvised wasn’t beefy enough. (That explains the in-car footage.) Street tires, cheap cars, and melting snow all probably figured into the decision to use the chicane instead of the much faster Kink at Turn 11. The chicane is rendered, and you can drive it in the game. But take note, Polyphony Digital; don’t put walls where they don’t belong (Monaco, Daytona). That explains the cones I drive through.
Above: Turn 11 as seen in Forza Motorsport 3, and then from the cockpit of the Team 3 Sheets Racing Ford Contour.
Nick decided the experienced drivers would go first: Mike, who built much of the car, then Nick, followed by me and Alex. The race was slated for seven hours on Saturday and seven hours on Sunday, both days starting at 9 a.m. Not to brag, but the car was fast. We had straight-line speed, plenty of torque and brakes better than anything else I’ve driven. If we could keep our nose clean and get decent fuel economy, we had a shot.
ChumpCar races start behind a pace car. Once everyone has crossed the start-finish line at least once and all the timing transponders are working, race officials choose a car at random and drop the green flag after it passes. It’s somewhat confusing but lowers the chances of pileups going into the first few turns.
Saturday’s race started on time, and things stopped going according to plan almost immediately.
We were called in to remove the driver-side Lexan window, putting us down a lap. But Mike’s times were consistent and, at just over three minutes a lap, fast. Then the other shoe dropped. Road America is a long track, just over four miles, and you spend a lot of time at full throttle. Our hope of going two hours on a tank of fuel vanished; 75 minutes was more likely. In the interest of safety, ChumpCar rules mandate a five-minute (minimum) pit stop for refueling, so every extra stop meant losing nearly two laps. But we didn’t have a choice. Nick took the next stint and maintained laps in the low three-minute range until the front differential decided the gearbox housing needed a hole.
Suddenly, he was stranded on the track.
Mike (left) and Kent (right) replacing the gearbox. Photo: Alex Bellus
That’s Just a Flesh Wound
When Turn 10 or Polyphony Digital takes you racing, one thing they don’t model to the last detail is damage and repairs. It’s understandable. Not many gamers would tolerate watching mechanics spend 20 minutes working on their car. They’d simply restart. Automakers also aren’t always happy to see their cars broken down or smashed up, so you can see why game developers don’t spend much time worrying about it. But in the real world, race cars sometimes break down, and it can take a long time to make repairs — if you can make them at all.
The car was hauled to our garage wearing a large yellow diaper to contain the fluid pouring out of the gearbox. Nick got out of the car, and what followed was nothing short of remarkable. Mike, along with mechanics Kent and James, set about the car with a calm but determined focus, removing and replacing the gearbox with a spare. Turns out the 2.5 hours needed to do the job is leisurely compared to the 45-minute jobs they’d often do in rallying.
We’d lost a little more than three hours, dashing hopes of a decent finish. But with 90 minutes left in the race, there was no point sitting around. It was my turn and the moment of reckoning.
Being strapped into a racing car is quite different from buckling up in your family sedan. Between the five-point harness and the HANS (head and neck restraint system) device, you’re fixed in tightly. There’s little range of motion for your head, but being tightly secured inspires confidence in your ability to interpret the signals transmitted through the wheels. The DIY seat insert worked, and I could see where I was going. Good thing, since I had to find my way from the garage to the entry to the pit lane, preferably without running over anyone.
Above: Turns 8 and 9 at Road America. Managed to spin here on my first green flag lap before I quite got the hang of keeping my foot in. Turn 9 is a lot of fun.
The route negotiated, all that was left was a quick radio check before going racing. During my brief foray the day before, I discovered all that torque and the fantastic brakes. They were so good that I overdid it going into Turn 8 and spun the car. Of course, the tires and brakes were cold, I was just getting the feel of things, and (insert other excuses here).
Once that momentary lapse in concentration passed, I was withing a few laps focusing on the fundamentals: looking well down the road, modulating braking, choosing my moments to pass. Track conditions don’t change much in gaming. Not so in real life. Tracks are dynamic things, changing as laps add up. For example, when drivers run off a corner, they bring mud and crud back with them. This was a particular issue with the Carousel, Turn 9.
I was relieved to see all those hours spent with a PlayStation and Xbox were not for naught. I was matching the lap times of my teammates and reeling in cars left, right, and center. Yes, we were 60 laps down, but that’s no excuse not to go racing. With the exception of a Spec Miata, no one was going to overtake me, and no one did. I handed the car off to Alex who closed out Saturday’s race. We managed to finish not quite dead last but took solace in the fact that the three hours we spent off-track was about as long as it would have taken us to make up the 60 laps on the winner.
One think I discovered during my first day of racing is, barring the purchase of costly racing simulators mounted on hydraulic posts or being sucked into your computer a la Tron, few of the physical sensations of racing make the jump from actual to virtual reality.
Force-feedback wheels are doing ever-better jobs recreating the feel of steering, but by and large, pedal and gearshift peripherals aren’t there yet. Elevation change on a track doesn’t come across well at all in a game. Hills can seem much bigger when you’re strapped into a car, and even the best games can’t duplicate that feeling in the pit of your stomach as you experience the effects of gravity and inertia.
That extra feedback makes driving on track a bit easier, in my opinion. As a driver, you get a lot of information through the steering wheel, but you get just as much through the seat of your pants. Being strapped in much more tightly than you would in a road car further amplifies the feeling of being able to sense what the car is doing by its attitude. I put the matter to my co-drivers to get their take on it.
“Nothing replaces that ‘X’ factor you get while actually racing,” Nick said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on a three-axis super-duper simulator machine.”
Tomorrow Is Another Day
Sunday held more promise. We knew the car had speed, and we were more familiar with the circuit. Sunday also brought something new: Weather. The morning started with drizzle, then light rain, then light rain and snow, then rain and sleet. Alex took the second stint, then lightning strikes stopped the action for 20 minutes. It was thoroughly grim in Elkhart Lake.
Finally, the worst of the weather passed, and racing resumed. I took the final stint, on a damp but drying circuit. In the interests of mechanical sympathy (i.e. not wanting to blow another gearbox) I spent my stint in fourth and fifth gear, dropping into third occasionally to dispatch slower cars. Except for that Spec Miata, I was able to get past everything I encountered.
Above: Turn 12. I overheard corner workers joke about the magnet under the gravel.
Given the slick conditions, some fellow competitors were having trouble keeping pointed straight. That meant choosing overtaking opportunities wisely to ensure I didn’t become part of someone’s collision.
You can learn a lot about car control from racing games, and a little about racecraft too. But real racing has consequences, and there’s no reset button. Online racing helps hone skills like defending a corner or setting up a pass. Overtaking another car in GT5 often involves physical contact because there’s no penalty. In fact, using other cars to make corners can benefit the player. Forza and other games that model damage reduce this impulse, as does racing online against other people. Doing that sort of thing on a real track would be foolish for many reasons, so you give other cars more space than you would online.
Driving on a slick track teaches you things you can’t learn on the street. I knew theoretically that the solution to getting sideways in a front wheel drive car involves more, not less, power. But now I know it from experience. I also know you need to quickly wind on, then off, the right amount of steering lock (known as “a dab of oppo”). The Countour could recover from slip angles I’d have thought terminal, and do so while putting a huge grin on my face. Improvements in force-feedback wheels have allowed would-be Lewis Hamiltons to practice these skills on a console.
We finished in sixth place with a real sense of achievement given Saturday’s trials. Closer analysis of our race pace compared to other cars suggests we could have done much better, assuming fewer trips into the gravel at Turn 12 and access to live timing that would tell us how much time we needed to make up. A little less sympathy for the car would have helped, too.
The Smells, the Sounds, the Rain and the Bratwurst
I went, I raced and I had more fun than I’ve ever had surfing or skateboarding or skiing. But did all those years playing Gran Turismo actually teach me anything? Are the latest generation of console racers anything close to real-life racing?
They help with some things, yes, but there’s no substitute for the real thing.
Car control and racecraft aside, rec-room racing doesn’t convey, say, how cold the footwell of a stripped-out car can be, or the water that drips from the mirror under heavy braking in rain. You don’t get the smell of the track. Car races smell like oil and gasoline and rubber and brakes, and beyond GT2’s scratch-and-sniff CD, that doesn’t come across to gamers. Game developers have pondered olfactory enhancements before, but it’s never really gone anywhere.
And then there’s the risk. Motorsport is dangerous. That’s why you wear fireproof clothing and a crash helmet, and that’s why there’s a rigorous technical inspection of all the cars. Games, on the other hand, are not dangerous, unless you’re the kind of scaremongering reactionary who hates kids and provides Ben Kuchera with so much to write about.
Racing also can be cruel. Race cars break, and sometimes you can’t fix them.
“One of my concerns when I got into the race car for the first time was that I was going to go really slow because in the racing games, you don’t have to worry about things like crashing, breaking things on the car, or running out of fuel,” Alex said. “In real life, all of those things have very real consequences.”
In the real world, tires and brakes take longer to warm up, and there’s no handy heads-up display telling you how much life they have in them.
Forza or GT replays give you time to reflect upon your driving, as you can look at the data instead of the track.
Of course, real racing provide loads of data to analyze. Data acquisition systems use GPS to log speed and track position and accelerometers to record G-forces, providing real-time info on your last lap and estimating your current lap. Pricier systems also will record engine data and overlay it on video from the in-car camera, something I hope to play with later this season. Such systems can be helpful analyzing driving performance. Even without 11 hours of in-car footage, our GPS data had sufficient spatial resolution to reveal differences in driving style between the four drivers.
Playing video games definitely helped me make (some) sense of the data.
Another difference is video games let you drive flat-out the entire time. Not so in the real world.
“When I got home from Road America, I fired up GT5 and found that I was actually slower than I had been before I’d raced,” Alex said. “I think I had more respect (or more mechanical sympathy at least) for the car in the game after seeing what could happen in real life if you beat on a race car too hard.”
Racing for real is enormous fun but requires more effort than turning on the console. Much of that effort is expended getting the car to the starting line. Even more is needed to reach the finish line. As I learned during my dress rehearsal with Forza, it’s easy to decide you’ve had enough when boredom or discomfort strikes when gaming. You can’t do that on the track. You have to deal with it and dig deeper. But the reward is so much greater.
“When I win a race in a game,” Alex said, “it’s a very short-term feeling of excitement, but the effect is much more long-term — and hits so much harder — if you do the real thing.”