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Running the Streets of Nashville in Honda's epic IndyCar simulator

How do the pro IndyCar drivers learn which way to go on new circuits? It's thanks to technology like this.

Ahead of this weekend's inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee, all the IndyCar teams and drivers are facing the same, seemingly insurmountable problem: How the heck do you prepare for and test at a track that doesn't exist? The answer, as it turns out, is a high-grade, pro-level racing simulator, which I recently got the chance to try out myself.

To be fair, the circuit in question isn't exactly nonexistent. It's there, all right, but none of the teams can drive on it at speed until this weekend. The race, you see, is literally the streets of Nashville, winding through the Music City's downtown before screaming over the Korean War Veterans Bridge, making a few tight turns, then flying back across to do it all over again. For a city street circuit it's remarkably fast, but with drivers only getting about two hours of practice before qualifying, the teams need some sim time to make sure everyone comes up to speed.

Thankfully, HPD has one of those. HPD is Honda Performance Development, overseeing Honda's motorsports efforts. This includes providing engines for some of the top IndyCar teams and drivers for the 2021 season. The twin-turbocharged V6 engines can produce over 700 horsepower from just 2.2 liters of displacement -- more than twice the ponies per liter of the Civic Type R.

Teams that run Honda engines not only get access to the technical expertise provided by the brand, but also access to the Indianapolis-based HPD simulator. The sim is so popular that its schedule is almost fully booked within a few days of the calendar opening at the beginning of the year. That's been doubly true of late with COVID-related travel restrictions and event cancelations. Many drivers turn to simulators to keep their skills sharp, while their teams place extra emphasis on sim time to ensure they continue to develop and learn.

Now that the events are happening again, some of those learnings have carried on, as well. Before my time in the sim, I spoke with team manager Barry Wanser and technical director Julian Robertson at Chip Ganassi Racing, who continue to embrace remote work. Their team still sends fewer engineers to test sessions than before the pandemic, relying on tools like Teams, Slack and Zoom to save on the stress and cost of travel.

Meanwhile, I was very glad to hop on a couple of airplanes in exchange about 45 minutes of seat time in this high-dollar, high-demand sim. Before strapping in, I got a little coaching from Dale Coyne Racing driver Romain Grosjean. Grosjean is rookie in IndyCar this year, but anyone who follows Formula One knows he's far from a rookie in the world of racing.

His advice? After telling me how bumpy, twisty and frankly confusing the Nashville circuit is, he gave me a target of a lap time somewhere south of 80 seconds told me to watch out for "the DHL wall" -- so-called thanks to the sponsor billboard that adorns one of the trickier turns on the track.

HPD indycar simulator

"Don't forget the DHL wall."

Zach Hudson/CoForce

With that I was set loose in the simulator, strapping in to an accurate model of the front half of a Dallara chassis. The seat, wheel and pedal position meant I was more lying on my back than sitting down, but I didn't have time to get comfortable. The engineers flipped on the projectors and away I went -- after stalling the car once as I got the hang of the tricky hand clutch mounted on the back of the dizzyingly complex steering wheel.

The simulation rig itself is powered by a whopping 10 PCs, including one for each of the three projectors that create a full, 180-degree perspective allowing me to look ahead and through the next corner better than any triple-monitor setup at home. I usually race in VR using an HP Reverb G2 headset, but even so the experience of being in this cockpit was far more immersive.

The software here is a heavily modified pro simulation engine, adapted over the years based on input from Dallara and Firestone. That's paired with laser-scanned versions of the circuits, accurate down to the millimeter to make sure that every bump, rise and curb are exact.

It's thanks to that scanning that Romain Grosjean and I were able to run some laps around the Nashville circuit weeks before it opened. It took less than one lap to realize that the feel of this sim is vastly different than iRacing or anything else I've ever had the chance to pilot. The car felt lively and responsive but surprisingly loose. In most consumer-grade driving sims for open-wheel cars, a bit of lockup under braking or a hint of a slide are both very bad things. But here, everything felt far more engaging, far more nuanced.

And that was before they turned on the motion.

HPD indycar simulator

It takes a team just to run this sim.

Zach Hudson/CoForce

After a dozen laps or so, enough for me to stop hitting the walls, the HPD engineers flipped a switch and the entire contraption lifted a few feet. A series of hydraulic pistons provided motion for the rig and everything changed. Previously I could feel the bumps and ridges through the wheel. Now, they were full-bore kicks in the seat. Slides in the car sent me woozily drifting to the side and, yes, impacts with the wall were physically unpleasant.

No, the simulator can't come anywhere near the 3 Gs of force that a modern IndyCar can generate on the road, but even so it's enough to change everything. Grosjean told me that he was over a second a lap slower with motion disabled than with it turned on. That's huge.

And how quick did I get? I ran a long series of laps in the 79-second range, my quickest a 78.3. That put me about five seconds a lap slower than Grosjean's fastest but inside the 80-second benchmark he'd set for me. I of course wanted to be faster, much faster, but for my first time in the sim, first time at a new track, I was reasonably happy.

But mostly I just wanted more laps. It was a huge pleasure to get a taste of the kind of training the pros get. And for a little while, at least, I had more track time under my belt at Nashville than some of racing's best. 

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.