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iRacing: How to build the best PC

iRacing is blowing up in a big way, but before you load up your cart with components, read what the professionals recommend.

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No, not real, but close. 

iRacing

Tempted to try your luck at iRacing? You're not alone. With the online race simulation blowing up in the wake of the coronavirus shutting down most forms of global motorsport, iRacing has skyrocketed to become an esports powerhouse -- particularly in NASCAR.

If you're going to get in on the action yourself, you're going to need some hardware to run it. I've been running in iRacing on and off since it launched in August of 2009, so I have a pretty good idea for what will get you in there. But, I thought I'd put a call in to the pros to confirm. I talked to Casey Mahoney over at Carolina Sim Works on what he recommends people buy.

Why should you trust Mahoney? Well, when pro racers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt DiBenedetto, and Leilani Munter needed a rig to run iRacing, they called Carolina Sim Works.

So, without further ado, let's get in it.

What is iRacing?

If you're a little unclear about what exactly iRacing is, don't worry, you're not alone. In short, it's a driving simulator, and while that term has been thrown about a bit over the years, iRacing has consistently elevated its experience on the realism scale compared to the competition thanks to its laser-scanned cars and tracks and finely honed driving physics.

"Our simulators are powered mostly by iRacing.com," Casey at Carolina Sim Works said, "which in my opinion is the most realistic simulation service in the market."

Cars range from the basic, like the Mazda MX-5 Cup car and SCCA Spec Racer Ford, numerous NASCAR Xfinity Series cars, the Dallara IR18 IndiCar and even the McLaren Honda MP4-30. iRacing even offers dirt racing now, including oval, rallycross and stadium trucks.

However, it's the competition that really puts iRacing above the rest. The service was quick to partner with various professional racing bodies, turning this "game" into a feeder series of sorts for real-world racing. That, plus a constant string of online challenges and championships, has created the best place to go racing online, bar none.

This is why so many pros use iRacing, either as practice for their real events or just for fun. And you can rub virtual fenders with them -- if you don't mind paying for the privilege. In addition to the hardware requirements, which we'll get to in just a moment, you'll need to subscribe to iRacing itself.

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Yes, sideways is included.

iRacing

What does it cost?

On a month-to-month basis, iRacing costs $13. Pay for a year up-front and that drops to $110, or $199 for two years. However, with all the excitement at the moment, iRacing is currently running a 50% discount, meaning two years is just $99.50 for new subscribers.

That'll get you in the game with a good selection of starter cars and tracks, but you won't get far without buying more. Most cars will set you back $11.95, tracks a slightly more dear $14.95. Yes, this can get expensive quickly.

Building your rig

If you want in on iRacing you'll need a PC (or a Mac running Boot Camp), but I'm glad to report that the system requirements are actually quite low in the grand scheme of modern PC gaming. That's at least partly because while iRacing is frequently updated and retooled, it has its roots in classic games like NASCAR Racing 2003.

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i9 isn't necessary, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

Intel Corporation

GPU and CPU

For many modern PC games, the graphics processing unit, or GPU, is king. It's what handles all the heavy lifting of making games look great. However, for a driving simulator like iRacing, the CPU is at least as important, handling the big-time calculations to make the cars feel right, not just look right.

For the CPU, iRacing requires a quad-core at a minimum, and iRacing specifically calls out the AMD FX-6300 and Intel Core i5-4430 as minimum. For a GPU, iRacing needs a unit with 2GB onboard, and cites the Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 or ATI Radeon HD 7850.

Casey Mahoney suggests you start a little higher. "There are some really good entry-level graphic cards on the market right now, you can start as low as sub-$150 for an AMD Radeon RX570 or the Nvidia 1060 for around $180. A good bang-for-the-buck combo would be an [Intel] i5-9600k for $250 and an Nvidia GTX 1660Ti video card for 300."

What if you have a little more to spend? Mahoney recommends you move up to an Intel Core i9-9900k and an Nvidia RTX 2080Ti.

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The Oculus Rift S will certainly make the game more immersive, but most racers still prefer fixed monitors. 

John Kim/CNET

Virtual reality

Virtual reality companies are still struggling to convince gamers that headsets are a necessary part of their lives. According to Mahoney, it's no different in the sim racing world: "Most people still prefer the fixed monitors over VR. VR is extremely cool and immersive, but the screen resolution still leaves a bit to be desired in most cases. Also, headsets can become uncomfortable over a long period of time."

I can also say that virtual reality adds yet another link in the chain that can possibly go wrong. I've personally had my Oculus Rift S disconnect on me midrace, which is not a good thing when you're battling for the lead -- or, in my case, scrapping in the midfield.

However, the sense of immersion VR adds truly is special, and it has another benefit: the relative low-resolution of even an Oculus Rift S means your PC won't have to work as hard to deliver solid frame rates.

That's especially true if you're considering going with a three-monitor setup, which is how many the pros run. That setup will give you an expansive field of view, nearly replicating that of VR, but at great cost to your GPU.

RAM and storage

iRacing requires 8GB of RAM, but I'd suggest stepping up to 16GB. There's certainly no harm in going to 32GB if you feel like it, but in my experience the game won't really use it. However, don't skimp out and go with the cheap stuff. After stepping up to an Oculus Rift for VR race simming, I was suffering from a bottleneck I couldn't find. As it turned out, it was my old DDR3 1,600MHz RAM.

And storage? Well, 10GB is a minimum, with iRacing saying you'll need 40GB if you're a big spender and get all the cars and tracks. However, my iRacing folder has nearly 75GB of content in it at the moment, so I fear that recommendation is out of date. I highly recommend you use an SSD if possible, because while you won't be stuck starting last if your PC takes the longest to load before a race, being tardy to the grid is no fun for anybody.

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The Logitech g920 is a great budget choice for getting into sim racing.

Logitech

Wheel and pedals

I could write a whole article on this topic, and indeed, I plan to, but it's important to note that you don't have to opt for one of the professional wheel-and-pedal setups that could easily cost you thousands of dollars.

"For someone on a budget you cant go wrong with the trusty Logitech G29/G920 setup," Casey Mahoney says. "You can have a complete wheel/pedal/shifter setup for around $300." These wheels also have the benefit of working with your PlayStation 4 or your Xbox One if you're coming from console racing.

DIY vs. professional

Finally, there's the question of build vs. buy. I've been building PCs for decades and it's easier than ever, especially with services like PC Part Picker helping you figure out whether that CPU will work with your motherboard's chosen chipset. If you're a bit handy with a screwdriver and have sufficient patience, building your own PC can certainly save you a fair bit of money -- assuming you can find all the requisite parts at the moment.

But, if all the terms above are a bit lost on you, turning to the pros is a very good idea. Casey Mahoney said that an entry-level, triple-monitor gaming rig will likely cost you between $1,500 and $2,500 if you let them build it over at Carolina Sim Works.

There are plenty of gaming PC builders out there to choose from, and I'd certainly recommend you shop around, but I will say there is some benefit in going with a sim-racing specialty shop if you can. Why? Well, sim racing puts some unique demands on your system. If your rig locks up during Half-Life: Alyx, you'll just need to load your last save. If that happens when you're battling for the lead with Dale Jr., you might be a bit more upset. 

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First published March 25.