I'm Going to Try and Become a Pro Sim Racer. Here's What it Costs to Get Started
With all motorsports canceled, real-life racing driver Robb Holland dives into his rookie year in the sim world.
Well, that escalated quickly. This season started off looking fairly decent for me. I was working on deals to race both the St. Petersburg and Long Beach Grands Prix in the SRO Motorsports America series, then the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, and potentially a few races in Europe at the end of the year.
But with the coronavirus outbreak in full swing, all of that has come to a screeching halt. St. Pete and Long Beach are canceled outright. Pikes Peak has been moved to the end of the summer. And Europe? By the looks of things, racing is the last thing on anybody’s minds over there.
What's a pro driver to do? Well, you go to the only place that’s currently racing. Time to get Extremely Online. So after nearly two decades of racing at the pro level in the real world, I’m attempting to make the switch to sim racing. Don't get me wrong, I’ll still run in traditional races whenever that's possible again. But for now, I’m going to make a serious go at competing in the virtual world.
I’ll be looking to compete in several iRacing Road Race series and the more mainstream Forza Motorsport series as well. It appears that I’m not alone, either, judging by the popularity of this past weekend’s iRacing NASCAR race (which was broadcast nationally on Fox Sports 1) and IMSA’s Sebring race. A huge cohort of real-world pros are now fully onboard with sim racing.
This is the reverse of what you normally see—sim racers trying to make the move into real-world racing. But right now the real world is going to hell, and the virtual world looks like it could be the place to be.
One of the things that kicked this off for me was that I was invited to compete in The Race's All-Star Esports Battle against drivers such as Max Verstappen, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya, Nelson Piquet Jr., Neel Jani, Colton Herta, and Felix Rosenqvist. That was a hell of a lineup. I was honored to be asked but unfortunately, I had to turn it down because even though I’ve done sim racing in the past, I didn’t have a rig built up enough to really compete.
I’m working on changing that right now. Here’s what I’m doing, and what you can do too.
After watching that event, I am under no illusions how difficult this is going to be. A lot of these so-called “gamers” are pros in their own right and have been doing this for years. They've gotten quite good at it as a result. In fact, the best-placed real-world pro driver in the all-star race was Rosenqvist, and he finished down in seventh. This isn’t your and your college roommate getting drunk and playing Gran Turismo.
Now like I said, this isn’t exactly my first rodeo with sim racing. I helped the folks at iRacing (which is currently regarded as the top racing simulation platform on the market) when they were developing their Nürburgring sim a few years back. I was living at the ‘Ring at the time and was extremely experienced with the nuances of that circuit. So I took a few iRacing engineers around the track and pointed out all of the really important reference points I learned from the locals while racing the VLN and the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. I also spent a lot of hours driving the virtual prototype Nurburgring Circuit while it was under development.
Additionally, I worked with Base Performance in the UK (owned by Aston Martin works driver Darren Turner) to develop a model of my Audi S3 British Touring Car for their sim (which also helped me learn some of the UK circuits I had never driven before). Finally, I assisted the engineers from Forza with scanning both my BTCC car as well as my Pikes Peak TT RS.
That's all to say I'm not a complete noob at this, but I still will be starting at the bottom, facing a very long climb to the top.
Whether in the virtual world or the real world the first thing a pro driver needs is good equipment. To that end, I am starting to assemble the bits I will need for my sim rig build. Since I’m trying to be competitive at the top level, the rig I am putting together is going to be pretty top-shelf. Not that I couldn't be competitive on lesser equipment, but it would be just one more thing that I would need to overcome to get to the front.
This is a case where both sim racing and real-world racing are absolutely the same. There's an old adage that in motorsports, “You are only as good as your equipment.” It’s true here too.
Being primarily a Mac guy—iRacing only runs on a PC or in Boot Camp on a Mac—I’m not very well versed in my PC hardware knowledge. So before I went out and got exactly the wrong stuff, I figured I'd put in a call to the folks that would know exactly what I needed.
I reached out to iRacing’s Manager of Marketing and Sales, Angela Tagariello, to find out what things I should be looking for in a system that would be competitive on their sim. Turns out it comes down to the three components that play a large role in how good a system runs any game: CPU, GPU and RAM.
There are really only two major players in the CPU space pertinent to our discussion here: Intel and AMD. When it comes to racing sims, there isn't much difference between these two players.
That being said, as a driver that is looking for every last bit of an advantage, after reading through multiple sim racing blog posts it looks like Intel's i9 processors have a bit of an edge when it comes to the top of the line iRacing builds. Now a lot of the newer CPUs have multiple processor cores on each chip. My general understanding was that the more cores, the better because each core can process the same amount as the original core giving you multiples of speed when it comes to processing massive amounts of information.
Angela’s recommendation was to find a CPU with four cores at the very minimum and eight cores at the higher end. That means on the Intel side of things, you’re looking at a system that contains something like an Intel Core i5-9400F processor ($120) or an AMD Ryzen 3 3200G ($95) at the entry-level, and an i9 9900k 5.0Ghz ($530) or AMD Ryzen 9 3900X 4.6Ghz ($420) at the high end.
To see how your CPU matches up, Angela recommends going to CPUbenchmark.net where they test and rank every CPU on the market. For iRacing the main performance feature you are going to want to look for in a CPU is its single thread rating, meaning how fast each core is on its own running a single set of instructions. The higher the rating, the better.
The reason why single-thread performance is so important for iRacing is that their software uses a single core for the physics modeling, a single core for the CPU side of graphics rendering, another core for the audio and the last core for everything else. So each core is working hard by itself, and not using the other cores as much for support.
Almost as important as the CPU is the GPU, the graphics processing unit that specializes in rendering images to your monitor. The more powerful a GPU is, the faster and more detailed your images will appear on the screen. As with the CPU, there are only two real players in the space: Nvidia and AMD. However, this time the competition isn't very close with virtually every gaming expert calling the Nvidia series GPUs as being head and shoulders above most current offerings from AMD. That's not to say that the AMD GPUs will struggle to run iRacing, but that the Nvidia cards will just run it that much better.
One of the big features to look for in a graphics card is dedicated memory. Entry-level cards like the AMD Radeon RX 570 ($140) and Nvidia’s GTX 1060 ($180) usually come with 4 to 8 GB of memory, whereas the big dogs like the AMD AMD Radeon VII ($580) or the Nvidia RTX 2080Ti ($1,400) are in the 10-16 GB range. The measure of a good graphics card is how many frames per second can it run any given gaming software. When it comes to racing, as you can imagine, frames per second is a huge deal.
Let’s say you’re racing along at 120 mph, meaning that you are traveling at 176 feet per second. At that speed, a GPU that can render 120 frames per second is rendering 1 frame every 1.46 ft. A GPU that can only render 60 frames per second is rendering at half that rate or 1 frame every 2.93 feet, or 50 percent less. That’s a massive amount of distance to be visually “blind” on a race track when you’re going door to door with 40 other hungry sim racers. Clearly you're going to want to spend your money here for a good graphics card.
The last thing you're going to need in your ultimate sim racing rig is a fair amount of RAM, or random access memory. Eight gigabytes is the minimum needed to actually run the sim but 16 GB is much better, and usually, the recommended amount for the sim to run well. At the high end, anything above 32 GB is just showing off.
Now you’re going to need a way to view all those pretty racing graphics that your really expensive GPU is working hard to put out. There are two schools of thought about what is best for sim racing. The first is that a good old fashioned monitor will work just fine. The second approach is that it’s better to get a newfangled virtual reality headset.
When I say “good old fashioned monitor” what I really mean is a 27-inch, 4K HD, LED flatscreen with a 144hz refresh rate such as the ASUS XG27VQ ($290). Actually, the top sim rigs will run three of these monitors, with the outside two angled in towards the driver to give a much wider field of view to see more of the peripheral action. The latest new tech to hit the market is curved screens. These screens, like Samsung’s amazing GRC9 ($1400), accomplish the same task as a multi-monitor setup but without the annoying monitor bezels in the middle of your view.
The ultimate, however, is the new VR headsets like the Valve Index ($999 if you can find one) and Oculus Rift ($650). These headsets place the driver right in the middle of the action with a viewpoint that shifts as you move your head around. It's easy to write this off as a gimmick, but that level of immersion is important when you're trying to hit your braking marks at 150 mph.
There are two unfortunate downsides to VR, however. First is that these headsets require massive computing power to run at all, let alone well enough to be competitive in sim racing. This means you’re not going to get them working right on anything less than a top of the line computer. Second, VR is still an emerging technology (it feels like it has been since the ‘90s, but that’s neither here nor there) and at the moment it can still be rather finicky. You really need to know your way around a computer to keep them working well. They can also be a bit bulky and hot if you like marathon gaming sessions.
Rounding out the important pieces of your rig are the actual physical touchpoints for the driver: the steering wheel and pedals. Tons of companies put out such consumer systems—everyone from keyboard company Logitech (G920 for $270) to gaming control maker Thrustmaster (TMX at $240). However, at the top consumer level, German-based Fanatec was one of the first to mass market a high end, professional wheel and pedal set (Clubsport v2.5 $1,450).
The two things to look for in a competitive steering wheel are a minimum of 900 degrees of rotation and force feedback. Force feedback is what allows you to feel what the car is doing on the track. In the absence of real G-forces, it's the only feedback a driver has to what the car is doing (leaving out high dollar full motion rigs for the moment) other than visuals, and therefore very important when it comes to pushing at ten-tenths.
So once you get through all the tech speak, what does this all mean for your budget? On the low end, you can get a decent sim racing package put together for around $1,000-1,200. On the higher end you are looking at $5,000-$7,500 for an ultra-competitive system, all the way up to $35,000+ for a Max Verstappen-level rig.
Going back to another racing adage, “Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?”
Now that I've got my head around what goes into a good sim rig, I can start identifying exactly what parts are going into my setup and get the party started. Tune in next week to find out how the project is progressing and get an unvarnished, PR-free look at how a professional racer takes to the sim life. I'll also go into detail about what gear I'll be using—including bass shakers.
I just need a good waterproofing solution for spraying champagne when I win. There are some things you just can't give up.
Robb Holland is a professional racing driver and journalist who splits his time between Germany, Colorado and now the virtual world. His work has appeared on Autoblog, The Drive, Jalopnik and more.