Need To Know: 10 Reasons Your Racing Should Begin In A Simulator

By Winding Road Staff

June 06, 2018

We talk to lots of drivers who have an interest in track activities. But they often are slightly confused about how to get started. On one level, we say "just do something" because getting experience and getting in the habit of doing track activities is how you get comfortable and begin to develop some skill. And it is, often, fun. We know that, but new track drivers don't.

Really, this advice is too vague. The information about where you can do track stuff and what memberships and licensing you need is scattered and complex. And then there's the cost. If you're going, for example, to do a track day, the cost is perhaps $350 for entry and $325 for a helmet, plus a day or two of your time. We'd say that's a good deal, but for many people that's a substantial sum, so they are hesitant.

For everyone who is considering doing HPDE (High Performance Driver Education) or racing "some day", we'd strongly advise: start your racing on a simulator. Here are 10 reasons to do this, with some suggestions on how to get started:

  • Low Entry Cost. You only need a steering wheel, pedal set and iRacing account to get started. Total cost: $212
  • Easy To Grow. Yes, you also have to have a desk, chair and computer with an internet connection, but we assume you already have those. The total cost for this is: $0. Of course, as you get into the sport, you may want more sophisticated equipment, like a cockpit and pedals with more realistic feel, and more or larger monitors. These can be added as you feel the urge and have the budget.
  • It Is A Demanding, Relevant Sport. It helps to get it in your head that simulator racing is not a game -- this is real racing. It is real racing because high-level skills can be developed on simulators. It is also real racing because it can be a sport unto itself.
  • The Skills Translate. If you contemplate these ideas, you begin to see that you can build very useful skills on a simulator that translate to "real race cars". MX-5 Cup rookie-of-the-year Mark Drennan, Mazda Road To 24 Scholarship winner Glenn McGee and Spec MX-5 Challenge pole sitter John Allen, among many others, all started and got much of their experience in simulators. Allen says "I used iRacing Motorsport Simulations for 5 years before I got in a real race car.  I drove over a thousand races on the simulator. There is no doubt in my mind that the "seat time" I accumulated on iRacing built a strong foundation of muscle memory that I now get to apply to the real world version of the same car (NC MX-5)." One of the things these drivers seem to get from sims is a skill that is hard to develop in real cars: a high-acuity visual sense of speed and yaw. In all racing you will need to operate the car at the edge of control. In physical cars, this mostly comes from the inner ear (motion sensing). In sims, you seat isn't rotating, so you substitute visual cues for slides and rotation. That skill, once developed, works anywhere.
  • Great Novice Platform. Oddly, because simulators are challenging to drive at the limit, simulators are a good place to begin learning the basics of track driving -- where early on you won't be at the limit (and if you are, it is inexpensive to make a mistake in a sim). You can and want to start forming good habits rather than bad, so doing this from the beginning on your sim makes sense. To help with learning it right, at a minimum, get a copy of Speed Secrets and apply it step-by-step to your simulator driving. Cost: $27.
  • Driver Development From Clear Goals. Pick a car that you like, but not the fastest thing on earth (fast cars, like the GT3 Cup shown below, are harder to drive and you will quickly find that simulator racing is a big challenge in any car). Pick a track you like (not the Nurburgring) or think you would like. This could be a track near you or a track that seems cool but realistic to drive. Then start by practicing (just doing laps, not in a race). Practice, practice, practice. Look up what a good time for your car on your track is and see if you can get within a few seconds of that time. No matter what, you will be building skills.

  • Quickly Build An Arsenal Of Skills. Once you have the ability to get around the track and can get to a reasonable lap time, try another track in the same car. This will reinforce and expand the skills you've been working on. And it is fun to try a new track. You probably couldn't gain this diversity of skills in several years of conventional racing unless you were independently wealthy. 
  • You Can Work On Race Craft. On a track where you are comfortable, enter a race. You can set up your own race to avoid interrupting another one or you can join an existing race. You will quickly see that racing involves some skills that fast lapping doesn't. This is usually called race craft, and it is a thing. You will also probably or eventually find that being in races is more fun than just doing laps. This leads to more seat time and increased skill.
  • You Learn Relevant Tracks. Keep trying new tracks. There is a real skill in getting up to speed quickly on a new track. And this keeps you fresh. New tracks will also give you a chance to try things you haven't tried before. Turn 6 at Laguna Seca or Hog Pen at VIR or Turn 11 at Watkins Glen are just different and require different techniques from other turns you've probably run. If you get into a semi-pro or pro series, knowledge of the tracks on iRacing will be quite useful. 
  • You Can Take Your Skills Into The Wild. Do a track day or an HPDE day in your street car. Yes, this costs money (estimated $700) but it will show you that you have some idea what you are doing from your simulator work. It will also show you that track driving in your street car is different. The two reinforce each other, but this should motivate you to keep spending time on the simulator. And vice versa.

Most of all, have fun.

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