I'm Doing A Sim Race Against Some Real Champions Tonight. Am I Ready For This?
With little time to prepare, our man Robb Holland is jumping into the deep end tonight.
I always have grand plans to do things the right way. You know, read all of the instructions, follow all the steps in order, and in the end, all my happy little trees will look just like the ones Bob Ross was painting. But my world is not that world. Instead of taking my time and getting my sim racing rig all dialed in and taking baby steps into the esports world, I'm jumping into the deep end without a life vest.
As you may recall, I'm attempting to make the leap between real-world pro driver and esports pro driver, given that the coronavirus epidemic has shut down my previous career for a little bit. And shortly after my last story about my sim racing build appeared here on The Drive, I got a call from my good buddy Jack Roush, Jr.
I was supposed to race with Roush in the Ford Performance Mustang GT4 car at the St. Petersburg and Long Beach Grands Prix this year, but clearly that did not happen, which is partly what precipitated my move into sim racing. Jack was excited to hear about my sim rig build because he too was suffering from racing withdrawals just as bad as I was, and he had a plan. He wanted to start a Roush Performance iRacing league with Roush drivers, past and present, taking part.
Now for those of you who are unaware, Roush has been one of the top teams in both road racing and NASCAR for several decades and has featured some of motorsports' most legendary names over the years. Drivers like Tommy Kendal, Scott Pruitt, Willy T. Ribbs, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Greg Biffle are all alums.
So barely two weeks after I started building my rig, I was now on the entry list for my first virtual race—alongside a bunch of the top NASCAR and Road Race drivers.
This should be fun, in the way a root canal is "fun" because the dentist gives you nitrous oxide and a lollipop.
Let's take a look at the driver lineup to see what I'm up against.
Leading the NASCAR side of things is semi-retired NASCAR star Biffle. Then we have current NASCAR cup driver and Xfinity series champion Chris Buescher. Andy Lally has seen success both in NASCAR (as the Monster Energy series rookie of the year) and on the road with five class wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Jack Roush Jr. needs no introduction as the son of Jack Sr., and he's a top road racer in his own right. Ford Factory driver Billy Johnson has several Le Mans starts and GT4 wins to his credit too.
There are also people who have been on the podium of virtually every level of racing: Joey Atterbury, Jade Buford, Dean Martin, Nate Stacy, Kyle Marcelli, Ken Wilden, Owen Trinkler, Guy Cosmo, Matt Plumb, Corey Fergus, and Shelby Blackstock.
And then there’s me.
Jumping into a real race that was so deep with talent would definitely give me pre-race jitters and real racing is something that I have almost two decades of experience with. I have less than two weeks' experience with the virtual racing thing, so this could get interesting.
On the plus side, a bunch of these guys have even less experience in the virtual world than I do. That should give me a bit of breathing room, so I won't have to worry too much about being at the bottom of the timesheets.
But that doesn't mean I can completely relax.
We were told last week that the car we would be using is the Ford GT Le Mans class car, and the track we'll be racing on is Road America. The Wisconsin track is where I took my first pro podium, holding off Randy Pobst for the better part of 40 minutes. But that's the only good news.
I have never driven Ford's Le Mans car so I have nothing to relate to in terms of how it drives. Johnson (who is on the start list for this race) helped develop the car and knows pretty much everything there is to know about how to drive it. Fair? Hardly.
But that's what makes virtual racing so much fun. Getting to go up against guys you might not normally get a chance to race in cars that you might not normally get a chance to drive.
The first thing I had to do before getting on track is to make sure my sim rig is dialed in. You might remember the last post where I got everything bolted together, but that's just the beginning of things. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in order to get everything adjusted just right.
For example, the Augury direct drive steering wheel that I upgraded to has dozens of different settings. There are adjustments to everything from force-feedback to sine wave curve settings for the motor (and for the life of me, I can't figure out what that actually means.) All of these adjustments change how the wheel feels and how it responds to inputs on track, and I have no real feel for what those would mean on a street car. Some of the changes make things better; others make things worse. You have no idea which is which until you get on the virtual track.
One of the changes I was focusing on was my brake pedal. Braking sensitivity is really important to how quickly you can get the car into a corner. With the stock settings, I wasn't very happy with the performance of the Huesinkveld pedal. The throw was super short and way too stiff. It felt more like the pedal in an open-wheel F1 car than a big GT car like the Ford GT. So I played around with changing some of the rubber bumpers to make the pedal softer and give me more travel to work with.
When I went back out on track to test my changes, the brakes felt way better. However, my lap times were way worse. I could not for the life of me figure out why that was the case. I checked over everything on my rig—all of my cables were plugged in and everything seemed to be working fine, but I was still more than two seconds slower than my previous laps.
Then it dawned on me. In changing everything I also changed the preload setting on the pedal, which made it very sensitive. Normally that's not an issue, but I left foot brake, and have a bad habit of lightly resting my foot on the pedal. With my new preload setting, resting my foot against the pedal was causing the brake to drag all around the circuit. Had I been driving the real car it would probably have burned to the ground somewhere on the backside of the circuit with all the heat I was putting into the brakes. Lesson learned.
In this race, they're going to lock the car setup so everybody has to use the same one. IRacing allows for an incredible amount of adjustment to the car, almost as much as you would find in the real car. However, that's not necessarily a good thing because it is very easy to make the car worse by accident. Without any real experience with the real car or the virtual car, getting this setup right would have been problematic at best and a literal disaster at worst.
In order to prepare everyone for the race, Roush held an open practice session for all of the drivers to show up and get their feet wet. I was definitely a bit concerned going in as I hadn’t had a lot of time to spend learning the car or the track. The little bit of time I did spend in the car (testing by myself) was usually spent hitting the reset button after I threw it off track on my out lap.
If this were the real world, I would've cost Ford millions. Thank God for small favors.
One of the big things I've learned in my short time sim racing is that virtual cold tires have diabolically little grip. So in order not to make a fool of myself, I started off very slowly on my out lap from the pits. I worked to slowly build heat in the tires to get more grip.
After about four or five laps I was able to gain enough grip to really start pushing, and halfway through the three-hour session, I was able to set a time just outside of the top five. I'd have been happier a bit further up closer to the front (like first) but considering the competition, I'm not too disappointed.
That being said, I'm not willing to settle for the top five, so it's back to work for me.
You can tune in at 7:30 pm ET tonight on the Roush Performance Facebook page for the livestream of the event. Practice and qualifying go down before that. I am also going to attempt to get my Twitch stream up and running for you guys, but I'm new at this whole thing, so no promises there.
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.