With the SCCA National Championship Runoffs rotating to different racetracks each year, pre-event prep has never been more important. For those local to that specific racetrack, seat time is easy – the problem is, the majority of Runoffs attendees each year will have never raced on that specific circuit before. Magnifying the problem this year is the fact that the SCCA Runoffs will take place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 25-Oct. 1 using a course configuration no one has raced on. In a nutshell, this is no one’s home track – so how will racers prepare?
For years, professional racers have used simulators to learn racetracks. Automotive manufacturers like Honda even have dedicated multi-million dollar simulators where their top pro drivers prep for the coming weekend’s competition. Amateur racers don’t have that luxury. Or do they?
In preparation for the 2017 SCCA Runoffs, perennial H Production Runoffs podium finisher Jason Isley spent time at CXC Simulations in Los Angeles, utilizing one of CXC’s $50,000-plus Motion Pro II simulators – but this is more achievable than that sentence makes it sound. It turns out, many businesses across the country rent time on similar race simulators, although admittedly in the U.S., CXC’s machines are hard to come by.
Compared to race simulators like Honda’s mega unit, CXC’s simulator doesn’t offer much motion, but as Chris Considine, founder of CXC Simulations, explains, his simulator produces motion where it counts.
“There’s so much more than motion that gives you physical feedback,” he explains. “There are all sorts of control surfaces that give feedback in a car, like with how the brake pedal feels – that’s a big thing. [On larger simulators] those little details get lost, so for us, we take a more holistic approach to physical feedback. Yes, the motion system is part of that, but there are many other things that are both active and passive physical feedback.”
Considine notes that CXC’s system starts with the basics, which includes hydraulic pedals, that allow the foot feel to be dialed in. In addition, the steering wheel’s force feedback utilizes a motor that’s powerful enough to hurt the user, should all safeguards be turned off. There are also multiple offerings in viewing monitor size and quantity, as well as sound setups, to help with immersion. Then there’s the motion.
“We use a low-mass motion system, so we only move the part of the body that can perceive motion,” Considine says, explaining that while the chair on CXC’s Motion Pro II seemingly moves only minimally, it’s really the bending of the elbows and knees that produce the biggest sense of motion.
“Imagine you accelerate in a car,” he explains. “There’s really only two things going on – you have the seat that compresses and your body that compresses. What that generally means is that not only are you being pressed back, but as you’re being pressed back in the seat, your elbows move slightly away and your knees move slightly away – your brain is programmed to process that as a high g-force moment. So not only are you being pressed back, but you’re also being pulled away from the controls – that little bit of movement makes you think, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of g-force.'”
Technically, a lot more is going on with CXC’s setup, and Considine explained how the system transmits road texture and the feel of brake lock-up to the user. In all, CXC’s setup is certainly miles beyond any stationary racing simulator – and should you choose to purchase one, CXC will hand deliver the simulator and set it up for you, making this a premium device.
But while CXC’s Motion Pro II can run virtually any PC-based automotive simulation software, none offer the exact Indy configuration the SCCA Runoffs will compete on in 2017. It turns out, however, this problem can be solved.
Prior to our arrival, Considine set his programmers to the task of modifying a version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway course offered via the “Assetto Corsa” racing simulator software, ultimately creating a version of the SCCA Runoffs Indy configuration. According to Considine, while these modifications to the software can also be made to iRacing’s tracks, his team finds Assetto Corsa’s software easier to manipulate.
It’s important to note that, as an amateur racer, chances are you don’t own a CXC simulator nor do you have the knowledge to manipulate software. The best chance of logging time with one of CXC’s simulators is via a company that rents out seat time – but even then, CXC’s saturation into the North American market (outside of private ownership) is limited. And while Considine didn’t place a specific dollar amount on the cost of modifying the Assetto Corsa Indy road course, the implication was it exceeded $1,000. That said, had we paid for a facility rental and software manipulation, it would have been worth it.
Isley spent four hours at CXC running a combination of open track laps and sprint races with two other racers (SCCA Touring 4 racer and Runoffs rookie Richard James, along with myself, an SCCA Runoffs regular who is taking this year off but couldn’t pass up the chance to taste Indy). After familiarizing ourselves with the course, we proceeded to run a series of races, all the while swapping between setups that ranged from a single-screen Motion Pro II to a triple-screen version to one running a virtual reality headset.
Of those in our group, both Isley and myself were staunch racing simulator skeptics. We’ve both used similar setups in the past and not felt much benefit – certainly not to the tune of $50,000. This time, however, we left with a radically different opinion.
Learning a brand-new track virtually, along with the ability to stand alongside a racer and watch not only their driving line but also their hand and foot movements was incredible. And while opinions in the group differed, my feeling was the precise pedal and steering wheel feedback added immensely to the experience – this is no gamer’s wheel-and-pedals setup bolted to a coffee table.
The value was also there. Given the ability to actually go to this specific racetrack and run this exact course configuration, once you added the price of an entry fee, tires, race gas, general racecar wear and the like, the cost for this amount of track time in real life would easily top $700 per person, plus the price of getting there. Suddenly, a few thousand dollars in software manipulation and facility rental looks downright plausible.
As we left the facility, the three of us felt both energized and exhausted, and we were as enthused as at the end of any SCCA race weekend. I, for one, was ready for a break, but possibly the most telling statement came from Isley. Jason, who had berated the usefulness of racing simulators the day prior, said, “I could have stayed there all day.”