Trying like hell to keep up: What I've learned from sim racing the pros
While racing in the real world is rare, getting on track with the pros is easier than ever. Here are lessons from my sessions with some serious hot shoes.
Tim StevensFormer editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
In the automotive journalism game, we're lucky to drive on some of the world's best race tracks. Sometimes we're even chasing professional racers around. Porsche, for example, loves to bring Hurley Haywood and David Donohue out to run lead-follow sessions, as we keyboard jockeys do our damndest to keep up, egos deflating around every turn.
Likewise, many manufacturers bring racers out to give hot laps, quick thrill-rides to again show us what their product can do at the hands of legitimate professionals.
However, it's incredibly rare that we're actually invited to go racing on those tracks. The pros are never running at ten-tenths, nobody's clicking a stopwatch and any attempts at passing or the like generally result in a stern talking-to and perhaps even a disinvite from the evening's dinner festivities.
In the wake of COVID-19, with international travel and motorsport basically on hold, everything's changed. Sim racing is the new hotness and, with no worries about wrecking expensive cars or making unwanted hospital visits, manufacturers have been very generous in letting me mix it up with those who get paid to go fast for a living. Virtually, anyway.
While I've never managed to find the time to properly dedicate myself to the sport, I've been sim racing on and off for nearly 20 years now. In other words: I know my way around, but I'm no alien. With that context, here's a whirlwind tour of what it's like to try and keep up with those who've made speed their livelihood.
Mitchell deJong and the Porsche Tag Heuer Esports Supercup
X Games and Global Rallycross fans will surely know the name Mitchell deJong, a racer who slid his way to prominence by taking gold in RallyCross Lites back in 2014 when he was only 16. Today, he's making more of a name for himself for his sim racing exploits as part of Coanda Simsport, most recently by dominating the Subaru and iRacing iRX All-Star Invitational.
When I met up with Mitchell in iRacing it was in grippier conditions, racing Porsche 911s at the epic Dutch Circuit Zandvoort, due to return to the Formula One calendar next year. It's an amazingly fast and difficult track, one I'd not turned a virtual lap on in over a decade. And, after just a few hours of trying to find the right way around, it was time to meet up with deJong for a little race.
In our session together -- some practice laps, a quick qualifying and then a 25-minute race -- I learned a lot about Mitchell's regimen. "I'm a big list person," he told me, saying he stays focused by writing down everything he needs to achieve as he's preparing for an event.
How much time preparing for an event? Upwards of six to eight hours a day behind the wheel. My eyes start to glaze over after 60 minutes in the saddle, but deJong told me this is an acquired skill. "A couple of years ago I could't drive more than a couple hours a day before I stopped taking in information and stopped improving, but now I can pretty much drive for six hours and keep improving."
Check the video above and you'll see how much I need to keep improving myself. Despite being woefully outclassed, I still learned a lot and, if nothing else, had a great time chatting. You can read more about Mitchell deJong's successes in the virtual Supercup at Porsche Motorsports.
Subaru iRX All-Star Invitational
Later that same week I met up with Mitchell again, but this time as proper competitors as I was extended an invite to join up with the Subaru iRX All-Star Invitational presented by Yokohama.
(If there's one thing I've learned over the years of watching racing, it's important to get all the sponsors names in there, even though of course none of them were paying me anything.)
This six-week championship, run for charity, featured a raft of big-name rallycrossers like Travis Pastrana and Scott Speed, plus a selection of other handy pros like 2016 NHRA Funny Car champion Ron Capps and 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi. Mix in a few hardcore simmers like Mitchell deJong and Sami-Matti Trogen -- plus enthusiastic amateurs like yours truly -- and you have a mixture for a good time. And a good cause, too, with thousands on the line for charity.
We virtually visited Lucas Oil Raceway, an ornery little circuit I'd never had the pleasure of running before. It seemed simple enough, but as I'd learn there's a lot of nuance to the proper line and, more importantly, tracking how that line changes.
The big thing I learned here was how much the circuit evolved. I'd done a few iRacing rallycross events before, mostly short and sparsely attended. When I signed on for the first private practice session against the pros, lapping for over an hour, I was shocked at how much faster the track got. Corners that required a bit of a slide early evolved into turns where a bit of understeer was fastest.
The last, fast right-hander before the final hairpin was my real nemesis. Early on I could run a nice, easy drift through there. But, as the track gripped up, I just could not find a fast way through.
And that would cost me later. I qualified 18th out of 23 -- achieving my goal of not being slowest -- and ran well enough in the earlier heats. But not well enough to qualify for the feature race. I'd need to win the last-chance qualifier (LCQ) to get through.
Skip to the 60:00 mark above to see how it went. I started on pole and got a great launch into the lead, avoiding the chaos behind. I held the lead for more than two laps before finally falling to third behind pros Alexander Rossi and Travis PeCoy. I wanted to fight back, but just could not find my line through that fast sweeper, losing upwards of a half-second per lap on that one turn.
And that's how Travis Pastrana caught me. In the final turn of the final lap he gave me a little nudge, enough to spin me around and knock me back to fourth.
In the end I was awarded second place, with Pecoy and Pastrana both receiving penalties. Second may be the first loser, but I for sure felt pretty good about my performance here. No surprise that I'm at my best when the grip is lowest.
Sebastien Buemi in a Nissan Formula E
Rather than re-capping this one extensively I'll just link you over to my earlier write-up about what it was like to get humiliated around a virtual Monaco by a very real Sebastien Buemi, former Formula One ace and currently the most successful Formula E racer in history.
What'd I learn from this experience? Well, other than another reminder of the importance of taking it easy on cold tires, I learned just how much time you lose when you let yourself get a little too aggressive with the throttle and kick the tail out. Shame it's so much fun...
Roush All Star Series
Following my notable non-embarrassment in the Subaru iRX series came an invitation to join the Roush crew for the second round of their All Star Series. This one-make series featured a host of Roush factory drivers like journo/hot-shoe Robb Holland and even Jack Roush Jr. himself.
That one-make would be Ford, of course, specifically the Ford GT in GTE trim. This is, I have to say, one of the most evil-handling cars I've yet had the misfortune of driving in iRacing -- and I spent a (relatively successful) season running iRacing's first stab at Australian V8 Supercars.
Here I learned that in the iRacing Ford GT you need to be incredibly precise with every input. Trail-braking is hugely important, as it is with about every car in iRacing, but a hair too much will send the tail around. Too little? A one-way trip to Understeer City.
Too much of my practice time was spent figuring out how to stay out of the gravel, too little spent in pursuit of actually going fast, but I was reasonably pleased with qualifying 15th of 25 starters. I was also pleased to avoid the worst of the first lap collisions. I did get turned around once, though, then managed to spin on my own on the second lap. I fell all the way down to 24th.
From there I finally got into a groove. This hour-long race was far and away the longest stint I'd run in the car and, by the end, I almost felt like I was getting the hang of it. I opted to stay out for the first of two competition full-course yellows, moving up to third position.
I made my mandatory pit stop during the second yellow, rejoining in 12th. At that point I knew a top-10 was in sight and so I went charging. Despite old tires and heavy fuel my lap times kept coming down, to the point where I was hassling Robb Holland ahead of me for ninth position. Holland didn't make it easy, driving defensively to say the least, a situation later attributed a malfunctioning VR headset.
I'd ultimately come home 10th, just ahead of my host Jack Roush Jr. This left me reasonably happy with my performance -- albeit with traces of lingering guilt regarding being a bad guest. You can watch the full race here.
Lamborghini's The Real Race in Monza
Lamborghini is taking a different tack from the others by making their big entree to eSports something everyone can enjoy. The company launched a competition to bring the world's top sim racers -- whether pro or amateur -- to Bologna for the final round. You can read all about that here.
Ahead of the competition's launch, the company hosted a star-studded online race featuring Lamborghini pros like Dennis Lind, Ducati MotoGP rider Pecco Banaia and a bunch of ham-fisted journos like myself.
What did I learn here? Mostly that the... extreme driving habits I've seen again and again on Italian roads also happen on virtual Italian race tracks, only faster. Despite what the official broadcast of the race would have you believe, the first lap was a disaster, with multiple wrecks.
I'd qualified a mediocre 18th out of about 28 early entrants (some of whom ducked out before the frequently delayed race), but after the green flag flew I gained a number of positions, weaving my way through the dented remains of many an Huracan GT3 Evo. It seemed like half the field didn't even make it to the first chicane.
Later in the race I'd be viciously blocked multiple times, was run off the road by a lapped car who wouldn't let me pass and, suffice to say, I saw a lot of hijinks that left me gesticulating like an Italian myself. I ran as high as 10th and desperately wanted to finish there, but at the end of the day, I was happy to just survive and come home 11th.
All you need is love and time
Every mediocre racer needs a colorful palette of excuses and, as you've surely already deduced, mine mostly involve time. Specifically, the lack thereof. Running a site like this and managing the team of talented individuals who make it happen is not a nine-to-five assignment. Finding a free hour or four to sit in a chair with a funny headset strapped to my face is a difficult proposition.
While there are notable exceptions, sim-racing naturals who are blisteringly quick as soon as they take a seat, I've learned it's generally time invested that separates the really, really good from the merely capable.
But there's another key factor at play and that's love. Nobody would spend that much time stationary if they didn't love this stuff. As someone who's raced both online and IRL, the adrenaline rush is remarkably similar and just as addicting. Today, two decades on, my affinity for the sport of sim racing is stronger than ever. Opportunities like these just fan the flames.