This Secret $12,000-Per-Day Race Car Simulator Helps Drivers Win Championships

We tried the incredible Dallara Simulator—and it blew us away.

There’s only one chassis running in the IndyCar Series, and it’s from Dallara Automobili. The Italian company has seen its wares compete in everything from Formula 3 to Formula E to the Rolex Sports Car Series—and even in the past season of Formula One, as the underpinnings of the Haas VF-16.

But Dallara is perhaps most synonymous with IndyCar, after edging out earlier competition to become the sole constructor for the series. In 2012, Dallara set up an engineering and manufacturing hub in Speedway, Indiana, steps from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Inside the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dallara conducts research and development for its monocoque IndyCar chassis, manufacturers all the components, and tests its designs.

While the bulk of the space is dedicated to IndyCar, a small portion is reserved for government work, demarcated by a “top secret”-esque sign affixed to a massive steel door. (A tour guide wouldn’t reveal what was behind it, though it has to do with Dallara’s budding aerospace contracts, in particular its work with Raytheon to build a better decoy missile body for the U.S. Air Force.)

But that’s not the only secret hidden within the facility. Behind a door marked “Restricted Area” lies a multi-million driving simulator, one of the best in the world. Seat time costs a whopping $12,000 per day, and it’s only available to professional race teams and their drivers. Tracks from all over the world are can be replicated on it; you can drive Silverstone, Spa, Monaco, Barcelona, Suzuka, even the Nurburgring. American teams can summon Mid-Ohio, the Indy Oval, Sebring, Sonoma, or Long Beach circuits with a few keystrokes in the control booth. And those tracks are beyond precise: The actual circuits are laser-scanned, meaning every crack, bump, and undulation on the real surface can be replicated in Indianapolis.

We begged for months for a chance at some time with this sim. When Dallara finally agreed, it shared that The Drive would become the first media outlet ever allowed inside. After promising not to break anything, we found ourselves standing inside a massive yet sterile room in Indianapolis one warm afternoon this summer, listening to Massimo Moioli, the head vehicle dynamics engineer for Dallara, walk us through this marvelous creation.

Moioli coyly skirted a heap of questions about the machine and rental process. (Part and parcel of the secretive nature of the project, he explained.) Answers about the machine’s total build cost, some of the technological bits it employs and who uses it were all off-limits.

“We never reveal who buys seat time,” the Italian-born engineer smiled.

However, it wouldn’t be foolish to assume the entire current IndyCar field of teams have shelled out tens of thousands for their drivers. Moioli wouldn’t confirm—but didn’t deny—that scheduling becomes insane during the build-up to the Indy 500.

From his perch in the control room, situated behind and above the actual simulator, Moioli plays God. He can adjust everything from the weather and surface conditions of the track to every single aspect of the car’s setup. Want to see how your car will handle on the Indy oval on an intensely hot day, running soft tires after 30 laps? He can conjure that exact scenario. Want to adjust the camber to see how that impacts tire wear? No problem. Anything that you can do to a real car, Moioli can emulate here. The aim is to provide the team’s engineers and drivers with instant feedback and data for any situation.

The simulator is better than testing on a track, because it provides a controlled environment for the changes a team is looking to make. It’s also better for data collection, since the simulator removes any interference or outside noise that would impede tool calibration on an actual moving car.

The resulting data, which has been mathematically validated to prove its accuracy, is empirically backed by a host of professional drivers and team engineers who’ve used the simulator.

A final interesting fact: Moioli can’t see any of the team’s data. “It’s very well encrypted, so any team feels safe coming in. I can’t see anything they’re doing and we use special software to ensure data can’t be accessed later, by the next team using the simulator,” he says. “Privacy is key here, at every juncture.”

And now it’s our turn. A fire suit, helmet and gloves are required before climbing into the seat. While a professional driver would have his seat pre-installed before arrival to make everything authentic, we only got a bit of foam stuffed in the monocoque to make it moderately comfortable. There’s a sample IndyCar wheel with all the same buttons and shifter paddles, and the rest of the cockpit setup is the same as the real deal.

An earpiece and microphone allows you to communicate with Moioli. Beneath the seat, a number of motors and pistons allow the driver, platform, and the 180-degree screen to travel several feet laterally and horizontally. “We can simulate about 2 g’s,” Moioli says. “It will feel very, very real when it’s fully going.” (To see the simulator in motion, check out our Facebook Live video from our shoot.)

He’s not exaggerating in the slightest. While driving, they only notched me up to about 1 g—and that felt absurd. My camera guy for the shoot, a professional race driver named Ryan Lewis, hopped in after me, and we cranked the dynamic mode to maximum and set him off on the Monaco Grand Prix circuit. After seven minutes, his voice crackled over the intercom: “Oh man. This is not pleasant.” (Check out his full time in the simulator here or below.)

But was it real? “Very,” a breathless Lewis said, climbing out. Behind us, Moioli grinned. “The point of this is to give a team an edge in a safe manner,” he said as we shed the fire suits after our session. I inquired a final time about the sim’s efficacy translating into real-world results. Moioli held firm. “I wish I could tell you about the drivers who have come in and needed some work, spent a day with us and then won a major race or championship.”

This video was shot by Ryan Lewis, edited by Erica Lourd and produced by Cait Knoll.