I’m a Sim Racer Going Wheel-to-Wheel Racing for the First Time Ever at Watkins Glen

After years of virtual seat time, I’m taking the deepest plunge I can: a seven-hour endurance contest at Watkins Glen.

byChris Rosales|
Culture photo
Bill Strong / Champ Car

Thanks to a surprise text from my friend and driver Michael Ryan Johnson, I’m now signed up and barreling towards two 7-hour endurance races at the fearsome Watkins Glen International in the amateur endurance series known as Champ Car. I’m doing it on a budget with the help of some friends, a few lucky breaks, quite a bit of my own money, and plenty of preparation. Did I mention that this race is in four days, and it’ll be my first time going wheel-to-wheel?

I’ll be racing the long course at The Glen in a 1993 Mazda Miata prepared by Open Throttle Racing. There’s zero runoff in most sections of the track, and where there is runoff there’s slick grass waiting to absorb you into the storied guardrails of the track. There’ll be sweet reprieves with big asphalt runoff areas in turns one and 10, but otherwise the margin of error will be virtually nonexistent. I do have one ace up my sleeve: sim racing.

The long course at Watkins Glen

Sim racing is one of the best tools modern drivers have to learn a track and even master them. While in real life I’ve never even seen Watkins Glen, I’ve spent the better part of 10 years sim racing on the track virtually. And I consider myself decent in the sim, somewhere between a fast casual racer and esports capable, but nowhere near the top of the pile. But I firmly believe that sim racing teaches you applicable skills, racing logic, and muscle memory that makes you a better high performance driver.

Of course, real life is a different animal, with track conditions, reliability, tires, and bravery dictating much of the pace in a real race rather than my knowledge of a track. At the very least, I’ll know which way to turn and learn some permanent reference points from my time in the sim. I’m used to a time attack all-out style of driving in my real-life experience too. Now, my only job is to be consistent, safe, and make sure to get the car home.

It’s all become incredibly real incredibly quickly. Not long ago, I was an awkward nerd staring at racing simulators at random car events I’d go to hoping I could get a shot at getting the best lap time of the day. Now I’m happy to say that I’m (still) an awkward nerd that got the chance to buy a race seat in an amateur endurance team with two professional drivers. 

It’s not SCCA or NASA competition, but it’s a start. And I want to approach it with as much rigor as possible while still keeping it light and fun. I’m not nervous yet, but I know I will be once I see the track. But my god, I am excited. Stay tuned for the full post-race report next week, and in the meantime, wish me luck.

Got a tip? Send us a note: tips@thedrive.com