Project Sim Racer: Part 1 – Building the Rig
The beaten to death cliche goes something like, “speed costs money- how fast can you afford to go?” When people think about fast cars, they usually think about all the cash that gets dropped on the trick parts and the cool gadgets. When it comes to actually driving though, sometimes the investment in the driver makes far more difference.
Event entry fees are not cheap. These days, with $3/gallon or higher fuel prices in much of the US, and even higher prices in other parts of the world, just running the car at the track is an expensive proposition. For some, even getting the car to the track is expensive! So what’s a wannabe racing driver to do? Enter the modern-day racing simulator. But first, some history.
While some of MotoIQ’s readers weren’t even alive in the 1970s, the first driving video games started to appear at this time, growing in popularity and number along with the rest of the nascent arcade industry. It wasn’t until 1982 with Namco/Atari’s “Pole Position” that things really started to take off. From there it was simply a matter of continually evolving and stressing the available hardware of the day to the max to provide a more exciting driving experience. At some point, the industry diverged, with simulation and arcade/game experiences going in different trajectories.
Today’s racing simulators are far from arcade games. They are extremely accurate representations of real world physics that can be paired with realistic controls to drive on real-world circuits that have been scanned with lasers, lidar and other cutting-edge technology- all in an effort to provide an extremely faithful representation of the real world. Even 2- and 3-dimensional motion simulators are “affordable”, depending on your budget.
So what does it take to get started, and where can you go for a reasonable sum? We decided to find out.
I’m a little bit of a gamer and computer nerd, if you haven’t yet figured that out by reading my articles. I also work with computers in my day job. Here’s my office. Those are some ancient Pioneer CDJ-800s on the desk because I’m also a wannabe DJ. But, you’ll notice that- no, not the standing desk- I have a computer! And, it’s a decent gaming computer! It’s the computer on the left. The computer in the back corner is actually my file server for the house. Then, there’s another computer I used to use for work. You can’t see the other OTHER computer, I think I have gotten rid of another computer and there’s a pile of laptops… wow I have a lot of computer stuff! And, a Tamagotchi and a Digimon and a pile of… don’t all of you have this kind of stuff in your office!? OK stop judging me! Let’s get back to it.
I generally upgrade once every five years or so and buy just-not-quite-the-newest technology when I do so. You could get a decent motherboard, CPU and video card and other things for less than $1000, and many of you might already have a nice gaming setup. I’m not going to spend time detailing the intricacies of building a PC in this article series. There are plenty of websites and resources to find that stuff out, or you can just buy a pre-made gaming PC from any one of a gazillion places on the internet. Yes, a gazillion. I looked. The key here is that I do not have the latest cutting edge equipment when it comes to the PC part, and you’ll see that the experience is pretty darned good.
Also, you’ll notice that I am talking about a PC here- not a Mac, not a Linux computer (although I wish I was talking about open source!), not a Playstation or Xbox. I'm definitely not a Nintendo…thing. That’s not to say that there are not good racing games for consoles. Gran Turismo and Forza are actually really good titles that, when paired with good controls, are simulator-like. But they’re still focused on the gamer first, as opposed to the hardcore racing enthusiast looking for a training tool.
While we’re on the topic of consoles, here’s an Xbox 360 controller. If you buy a dongle, or have a wired controller, you can actually use it with a PC. For those who have been around gaming for a long time, you know that the triggers on a game pad do provide quite a bit more control than pressure-sensitive buttons. However, the experience of using a realistic driving simulator with a gaming pad leaves much to be desired.
Don’t get me wrong. If you spend a good bit of time diddling the calibrations, you can make some of the titles we tested very playable with a game pad. But the key word is “playable”. They’re not really fun using a game pad, and you certainly aren’t improving your skills much as a driver in the real world by using one.
The best simulator experiences are had on the PC, so that’s what we’re focused on. We’ve very roughly covered the PC part (“I have one that’s good enough”), so the next step is to look for a cockpit. Enter GTR Simulator.