How race simulators changed my SCCA Runoffs prep

Image by Jason Isley

How race simulators changed my SCCA Runoffs prep

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

How race simulators changed my SCCA Runoffs prep

Above: Philip Royle uses a CXC Simulations Motion Pro II racing simulator.

My SCCA National Championship Runoffs prep has been horribly inconsistent. The first year I competed at the Runoffs was 2010, and that year I was enamored with the idea of competing at something I’d watched on the Speedvision network 15 years earlier; thus, no prep. When I returned to the Runoffs in 2012, I brought a new car and was simply hoping it would stay together. The car did fine, and I headed back to the Runoffs in 2013 with more confidence – so the car broke. During all of this time I had not actually prepared myself for driving the track or worked on vehicle setup for the specific track. I was winging it.

Approaching the 2014 Runoffs, I headed to CXC Simulations in Southern California. There, I used CXC’s Motion Pro II racing simulator to re-familiarize myself with Laguna Seca. I’d had a decent amount of experience at that track, even running the opening weekend of the Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Challenge in 2008 (scoring two podium finishes, I humbly add).

At CXC, I had fun wringing racecars around the virtual Laguna Seca circuit – and it’s hard to not be impressed by CXC’s Motion Pro II. The simulator setup moves the seat minimally, but the sensation of speed and g-forces are comparable to a real racecar. The steering wheel offers a force feedback similar to that found on the track, and the field of view is on par with what you experience when strapped into a racecar. But while I had fun that day, I left feeling like I didn’t learn many secrets about the circuit. A few months later at the 2014 Runoffs, that analysis proved true. And adding insult to injury, my car broke.

Down on simulators (and determined not to break again), I turned to car setup as my only Runoffs prep for 2015 and 2016, relying on YouTube videos and my autocross background to pick up the course layout on the fly. The 2015 Runoffs at Daytona International Speedway went very well, but midweek at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2016 I had to forego car tweaks and turn to driver coach Jim Kearney to help me find my way through the back section.

Now seeing value in learning a circuit before trying to race there, I returned to CXC in 2017 with SportsCar associate editor and multi-time SCCA Solo National Champion Jason Isley along with past SportsCar editor Richard James in tow – all three of us race in the SCCA U.S. Majors Tour. CXC custom programmed the Assetto Corsa software with the 2017 Runoffs-exclusive Indianapolis Motor Speedway road circuit, and Isley took the experience very seriously – that rubbed off on the rest of us, we learned a lot, and Isley went on to win his class at the Runoffs that year. I was sold.

Simulators are now part of my Runoffs prep. So this year, in preparation for the 2018 SCCA Runoffs at Sonoma Raceway on Oct. 16-21, Isley, James and I headed to Base51 (www.base51.com), CXC’s new public facility in Los Angeles that is slated to open later this year.

Image by Philip Royle

Base51 has more than a dozen high-end simulator setups linked together for walk-in customers looking for fun running iRacing, Assetto Corsa or the like in head-to-head competition with their friends (they even serve food and drinks), but we opted to utilize Base51’s private driver coaching in a separate back-room setup. With World Challenge racer Michael Lewis on hand, we received coaching via a headset connection to Lewis, plus post-session debriefs utilizing the Motion Pro II’s telemetry captured during our sessions.

Following a racetrack walk-through, I set out on a 30-minute session around the Sonoma Raceway circuit with Lewis coaching in real time via the headset. Once I was turning consistent, clean laps, I stepped out of the simulator for a debrief with the professional racer.

“Looking at your fast lap comparing it to an overlay of my lap, you’re really good in the last few turns,” Lewis said during his data analysis of my session. “Your lines are a lot closer to my lines in Turns 8, 10 and 11 then they are in Turns 4, 6 and 7.”

Michael Lewis goes over the data. (Image by Philip Royle)

Lewis then broke down my approach to Turn 6, Sonoma’s all-important Carousel.

“You’re over-slowing; too much brake,” he said, pointing to the data graphs that compare his and my fast laps. “You stop the car and then you put the throttle back on. I need you to brake a little bit less.”

I admit to Lewis my driving style includes a lot of quick throttle stabs mid turn; surprisingly, he was OK with that. Sort of.

“I don’t mind that, I do that too,” Lewis admitted. “But you do it a bit too early in the turn.

“You have a pretty good sense of minimum speed,” he added, pointing back to his and my data graphs. “But you need to bring a little bit more speed coming into the corner and not jab at the throttle. What you’re doing from the apex out is good.”

The entry to the Carousel, he said, will come with time and confidence as I crest the hill into the blind left-hander. And being a simulator, this is something I can practice again and again during my time at Base51 with no wear on a racecar.

I spun once or twice in my attempt to find the right approach, stuffing the car into the wall a time or two trying to improve on the section. But this is exactly why I came to Base51.

By the time my session ended, I was just over a second off of the target time Lewis had set – something I was very pleased with. Best of all, I left Base51 feeling empowered and ready to tackle Sonoma Raceway in October at the SCCA Runoffs.

It’s hard to overstate how useful simulator time is for learning new tracks – and with Base51’s obtainable professional driver coaching, CXC is taking race simulators to a whole new level for the average racer. The only caveat with simulator use, however, is no matter how awesome the setup is, you only get out what you put in – you have to take it seriously. In 2014, I didn’t. Now I do.

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