As a car enthusiast, I absolutely love racing games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, but compared to many fans of that genre, I'm an exceedingly casual gamer. That said, it's not uncommon for serious devotees to have elaborate steering-wheel-and-pedal setups, or even virtual reality headsets like Oculus or SteamVR, allowing them to really get into the game.
Yet there's still another level of gaming involvement: the sim racer. And for these folks, there's Hawthorne, California-based CXC Simulations, which makes full-motion, in-home racing simulators. With prices starting around $60,000, these are serious machines for serious gamers -- or, in the case of the sim you see here, serious companies.
A custom sim
CXC was recently approached by Norwegian Cruise Lines to build a sim that looks like a race car and can seat two people. Norwegian commissioned CXC to do this a few years ago with a retired Formula 1 car. The result wasn't a full-motion sim, but it was so popular that Norwegian came to CXC again with a new idea: Make one out of a Le Mans prototype.
Unfortunately, a used LMP1 or LMP2 prototype costs serious bucks -- even too much for a company like Norwegian. Chris Considine, CXC's founder and CEO, suggested using something like a Porsche RSR race car, but Norwegian wanted something different.
That's how CXC landed on the idea of using a Radical SR3. These European-built, carbon-fiber track cars have been around for many years, and sold in sufficient enough numbers that they are relatively common on the used race car market -- you can find them for as little as $40,000. The SR3 is the entry-level model in Radical's range and is normally powered by a Suzuki Hayabusa 1,300-cc inline four-cylinder engine.
How it's made
CXC bought a used SR3 and took it to
International Raceway -- "the Nurburgring of America," as it's known. There, the company used the Radical's built-in telemetry systems to capture a ton of data. Considine's background as a professional race driver definitely helped with this data collection. CXC then sold off many of the car's components, like the engine and transmission, as well as much of the suspension, and shipped the SR3's chassis to the Hawthorne HQ.
With a bare chassis on hand, the engineers in CXC's special projects team had to figure out a few things. First, they needed to find the best way to mount the car on a cruise ship so it would be secure, but also be able to move around in a way that was believable to the person driving it. This was done with metal plates that are hidden from view. The plates won't allow the car to come off the surface it's mounted to, but it does let it slip and slide with the motion as actuated by the full-motion sim mechanicals.
Those mechanicals, or rams, are compact and powerful units that regularly see duty in CXC's Motion Pro 2 simulators -- though in this case, the way they're used is significantly different. The engineers designed a bell-crank system so that the rams are mounted inboard -- kind of like the inboard shocks on a Formula 1 car. The leverage added by the bell-crank design allows the ram to have more leverage without working as hard, and thus makes the whole system more responsive.
With the vehicle's motion sorted, the next step was for CXC to make the sim experience as engaging for the user as possible. One small area that required a change was transitioning away from the Radical's carbon-fiber shift paddles. These typically work on a pneumatic shift system, but without that air system, the actuation on the paddles was mushy. CXC decided to swap them out for some more plain-looking but much more tactile magnetic shift paddles, which offer a crisp click when you pull them.
One thing that particularly enhances the realism of this sim is its use of two costly servo-controlled ducted fans. Unlike a regular fan that uses a simple, brushed electric motor to spin a blade, these servo-driven fans have much more precise control and the ability to spin up and down very quickly. CXC uses them to blast the driver with air to simulate the sensation of driving an open-top race car at speed.
To make all of the various complicated parts of the sim work, CXC uses two computers and a very heavily-modified copy of the Assetto Corsa driving game. The software is able to control the SteamVR headset, the surround speakers, the fans and the car's rams, while also offering a ton of track options and surprisingly good graphics.
Behind the wheel
Remember, this is an actual race car chassis, with real racing seats and a full six-point harness. The harness sort of looks like it's there for show, but they're necessary to keep you firmly planted in your seat when the sim starts pitching and bucking with surprising violence. The harness is also attached to CXC's unique seatbelt tensioner device.
This device is essentially a servo connected to some springs which are connected to the belts. The servo will pull on the straps to tighten them against your body to simulate being pulled into the belts under hard braking. This feature is cool, but the response time of the actuator and the strength with which it pulls could have been quicker and stronger, respectively.
Once belted in, it's a matter of attaching the quick-release steering wheel and donning a VR headset. Upon getting in, I found that, at 6-feet, 4-inches tall, I couldn't get my knees under the dash and at an angle where I could work the pedals. Thankfully, the pedal box is electronically adjustable at the flick of a dash switch, and soon I was stretched out in relative comfort.
The sensation is really not that far off from climbing into a real race car. The materials are all the same, the controls have real weight to them and the feeling of excitement for what you're about to do is still there. The only difference is the lack of a real fear of injury or death and instead of a sweaty, gross firesuit and helmet, you're wearing your normal clothes and a VR headset.
It didn't take long for me to get the hang of the sim, and I was soon stringing a few corners together at a digital VIR, feeling the car shake as I ran the wheels up onto the curbing. I relished in the sensation provided by the big fans as I pinned the throttle in top gear on the front straight.
Unlike previous VR headsets I'd tried in the past, the SteamVR setup was surprisingly high resolution, and with its built-in earphones (that don't rest on your ears, but near them) combined with the surround speakers for the simulator, I felt none of the seasickness I'd experienced with other VR setups.
CXC's latest sim is a wildly engaging and wonderful thing. Those who climb aboard on the fancy Norwegian cruise should surely be impressed.
CXC Simulations built a radical simulator out of a Radical race car