• Danny Lee

Sim Racing Isn't Real Racing, But That's Fine

Sim racing is fake, but that’s fine by me.

If you’re a sim racing fan with unresolved aspirations to go racing for real one day then this article is probably for you, and with this I am speaking to everyone that takes sim racing seriously and passionately to any degree. In many ways I’m also talking to myself in the past, you’ll see what I mean when I get into it. I'm gonna start high with some words on sim racing, then go on a bit of a downer as I bring up the cost of chasing the dream, then high again with the overall point, so stick with it...

Sim Racing as a Sport

Everyone knows It doesn’t sound half as cool to say ‘I’m a sim racer’ as it does to say ‘I’m a racing driver’ but quite frankly these days I don’t hold back when I talk about sim racing, there’s plenty of reason to love it, it’s more than just entertainment now. When friends and family visit these days and ask me to have a go on the racing thing I’m always delighted to introduce people to it even if it’s just a taste, especially for those with a casual or active interest in Motorsport, because here is an awesome gateway to living the thing we love in a capacity that can be confined to a 2 by 2 meter corner of the house. Every single one of them finds it exciting and captivating with a little guidance and if there’s any kind of natural spark in there, it comes out quickly.

We’re so lucky to have all the equipment we have nowadays, indeed you can start small but potentially build up your kit to make it feel pretty physical to the point where every race you do is a total sweat-fest where the wheel fights back. It can’t give you the body-crunching g-forces and risk that real racing provides but count your blessings - Few other sectors of gaming or simulation are as fortunate as us - Football’s the biggest sport in the world but there’s no way to physically enjoy football games beyond the buttons on a game pad, at least not yet. Before you say it, I know you can just buy an actual football for a tenner and go outside but you know what I mean.

We’re also at a stage now where you can be pretty confident everyone you race with has a steering wheel and pedals, to varying expense - no offense to those just starting out and using controllers, I’m just talking majorities here. That means in a race with 40 people on the grid, you can be confident that those other 39 people all in their houses, sheds and garages simultaneously giving it their absolute best effort to be faster than one another in real time using equipment that allows them to use their body in a way that mimics real driving which is represented directly by the cars you battle on track. In a rough kind of way, you are all, every one of you, physically driving something.

Sim racing would be nothing without your fellow competitors in each session and this is what elevates sim racing for me far more than anything else. When I talk about sim racing I specifically refer to the direct wheel to wheel competition you can have with people of roughly similar ability, which is why iRacing is my sim of choice because of its strengths in that area. If you want to treat virtual racing seriously then you are in great company. If you ever see me on iRacing you can be assured I’m doing the very best that my mind and body can give from flag to finish, that’s what makes it a sport by definition - if you beat me, you beat me at the best I could do at that time. My capabilities are tested against your capabilities and if we both treat it with the same level of reverence and respect, that’s the exact recipe for a perfect sim racing experience and your mind is transported into it as if it was the real thing. This feeling is something I’ve experienced countless times and it’s what keeps me and all of you coming back. Anything competitive can be considered sport, the question is whether or not it’s interesting and complex enough to gain and hold a following, and at this point it’s safe to say sim racing has that. In fact, it’s one of the few sports where it’s so easy to take part in that there are practically no spectators - in the nicest possible way - because everyone that loves it can easily just do it rather than just watching it from the sidelines.

The organised community structures that have built up around the pillars of sim racing such as broadcasted leagues go even further with this, in that you have more of the rules and regulations of real racing at play to keep conduct as clean as you can get, to reach the closest possible resemblance to motorsport at it’s best. Because of all of this, sim racing is now an interconnected metropolis where there’s more stuff to do and take part in than any one person can find the time for.

As we all know, sim racing’s entire mission is to closely mimic real Motorsport. I can’t vouch for whether it does or it doesn’t, I’ve never raced, but what I can say is that it gives me a good enough experience to keep that racing bug fed that lives in me and you, and that’s all it has to do. I would say that sim racing will never provide the peaks of thrills real racing does, but it also shields you from the deepest troughs of real racing, too. Behind most racing drivers’ life stories is a wake of sustained sacrifice that we sim racers overlook when we peer over the fence with envy at them, because sim racing is so easy to pick up and put down and that is definitely not how you can describe Motorsport. There’s no loss of life, limb or liquid money when things go wrong in sim racing and you can race all day long if you like, it might all be virtually generated but behind all of those digital cars are real people making real inputs, all that really matters is that your opponents are real people and that they putting in the best effort they can. That’s why at this point in time we can unashamedly call this thing a sport.

The Cost of Racing

If we’re talking about how lucky we are in the world of sim racing then we have to put it into context against Motorsport itself, because all too often this crowd can feel like they’re treated as second class imitators that just play pretend. It’s not quite so black and white and there’s no reason to feel that way anymore, sim racing has its arms wide open to all and that’s nothing to look down on.

Pretty much all of you, regardless of age or status, love sim racing because you love real racing. Many of you would love to take part in real competition given a free pass. At the same time almost all of you have never and maybe will never enter a real world race for one very good reason. Motorsport costs a lot of money but so does life, so very few can ever have both in good measure. The closest that the average person will get to sampling the physical sensations, smells and atmosphere of competition is a good go-kart track or a track day and rarely does it go any further. There’s nothing wrong with this, though - putting the money you do have towards the roof over your head, education, travel, family and experiences of other sorts is as worthy as anything.

What this can do, though, is create the perfect conditions for you to live with a deep, unrequited passion bubbling away beneath the surface, like pressing your nose up to a shop window every day to look at the thing you want, but never having the money to actually buy it. Sometimes you see people stepping into the shop and buying the thing you’ve been dreaming about without appearing to break a sweat, like it just fell in their lap. This isn’t the case, but it’s how it can feel if you hang around that shop window too much.

What results is a fair amount of sim racers who are dreamers that feel like there’s no clear path to living that dream. If you’re just scraping by with the household bills, putting money down to do just one race weekend is beyond imagination. If you’re saving for your first house, do you delay stepping onto the property ladder by months or years by going racing just one time? Like many things in life the solution is never given to you on a plate, you have to sit and think your way to a literal or philosophical conclusion, and the first question you have to ask is whether it’s actually a good idea for you to give up what it will cost to go after this dream.

Any self-made professional racing driver at any level will tell you that to get where they are, they sacrificed almost everything from other areas in life, taking brutal dedication over many years and they have fought ruthlessly to remain there as it’s not just about money, you have to make friends and be noticed as well as having the money to do it. This magic combination doesn’t come easy. Yes, there are plenty of drivers that are from connected or wealthy backgrounds that can just show up and drive but they’re not representative of racing drivers as a whole. Most drivers have put everything they have on a do-or-die gamble and you will never hear of those that lost that bet, and they walk away having spent everything they had, and if it wasn’t them that staked the wager and risked it all, it would have been their family that did. Someone somewhere had to pay the price.

One person who has attained the aspirations that reside within many of us is David Perel, a professional GT driver, and he writes an article on his website on how to become a racing driver, words which do a great job of conveying the numerous personal sacrifices that are required to become a professional in any sense of the word. His article is great but the overarching question he poses is this - would you sacrifice everything - money, personal relationships and progress everywhere else in life - to go racing?

Another valid voice in this regard is Mike Epps, a racing driver that has ticked many real racing boxes that the average sim racer would aspire to match, who you can also find regularly wandering the corridors of iRacing. I asked him a simple question: “What has been the ‘life cost’ of pursuing your career which might not be obvious to sim racers with aspirations to go racing?” and his response was illustrative.

He described racing as an absolute life sapper, and the reality is that if you want to pursue a career in racing then unless you already have a nice surplus of money to put into it, your social, financial, family and all general life activities will all change to revolve around it. It’s a huge commitment. Drivers have missed the birth of their only children to go racing, and your winters and Christmas times are spent in limbo under pressure to find the budget you need and find your seat for the coming year with lots of time consuming and mentally challenging decisions.

He says, I missed out on a lot of things as a teenager to go racing, in all areas of life - however, I look back and I understand completely why. There’s nothing that compares once you’re hooked on driving racing cars and competing, it becomes a natural obsession comparable to addiction. The phrase “If you want to make a small fortune racing, start with a bigger fortune” is said for good reason and I’ve seen people go from riches to rags in no time from this sport. It’s no coincidence that the families of many racing drivers today happen to own or are high-up in global companies and brands. A normal day’s conversation would include pointing at someone else on the grid and saying ‘that kid’s family owns a chain of supermarkets’, or shop, nightclub, online brand, anything you can think of. I know of some drivers of arguably very wealthy backgrounds who have stopped racing because the finances became a burden and it begs the question ‘If they couldn’t sustain this, how can I?’

That’s not to say that many of those in all levels of motorsport haven’t clawed and fought their way to where they are with no effort spared. I guarantee some have made crazy sacrifices for their careers and I believe if you have the determination you can lay down a fantastic pathway in the sport for yourself, wherever that may be. Does it require the biggest sacrifices you’ll make in your entire life? Yes, but if you really want to commit your life to it, is it worth it? Probably.

Mike’s words tell you a lot about how hard it is to stick your head out in Motorsport, and he has done enough to tick some awesome boxes, the problem is that there is no end to those boxes and each one you tick draws directly from another important box that goes un-ticked. Only committing fully to a life of pursuit will put you behind the wheel and keep you there. I would hazard a guess that there are more people that were chewed up and spat out back at square one, penniless and without achievement in Motorsport than there are people who thrived in it and remained, but you’ll never hear about them, because why would you? His use of the word probably at the end is telling - Mike has had a lot of racing experience and still he is reflective about what it has cost. It’s not all roses.

To give you a comparative example, if you want to be a premier league footballer, you have to be put through an academy from a young age and even then there is only a small chance you’ll reach the top. To do this, both you and your family have to make constant sacrifices in education, money and time over many many years and even if you meet all the criteria for making the first team, there are more applicants than spaces so your destiny lies almost entirely in the stroke of someone else’s pen. It’s easy to think that Motorsport is unique in its ruthless exclusivity, but at least it’s possible to pay your way into a race seat at any level if you have the money, but there is no paying for your place in premier football, once the window is closed, that’s it. In that respect, all of us sim racers can take solace that it might take you until later in life til you can afford it, but that’s pretty much the only barrier that stands before you and you can jump in at any age, there are loads of folks who do it this way in club level Motorsport and beyond.

Now, I am absolutely one of these people that has a restless aim to one day find myself in a car for real. However, I ask myself this - would I sacrifice everything I have, and by consequence everything of everyone around me, to become a racing driver? No. I’m 32 now and I like life, I wouldn’t really want to slow it down in order to drive cars fast, But I would put a little bit of sustained effort in over time to one day make a debut, a one-off - once is all I need and that would be awesome, anything over would be a bonus in my eyes. If you’re 18 and you’re not too far down the line with anything then you could make a go of it, but if I could go back 10 years and commit myself to racing then I know I wouldn’t have half the things, friends and experiences that I have now.

The point is I chose the path I’m on deliberately and I cannot be envious or self-pitying watching those who have given up things that I’ve chosen not to in order to be there, I realised I could stand by and respect that while I work towards it as best I can with what I can spare. Many of you watching will have had this internal dialogue time after time, and understanding that sim racing is an entirely valid thing to be absorbed into is like pulling yourself away from that shop window and shedding that nagging feeling that you belong in a world you can’t afford to be in.

Although I’ve highlighted testimonials from real drivers about how Motorsport strips everything from you unless you have support, I’m not trying to talk you out of it - far from it. The more realistic you are about the challenge you’ll face, the less likely you are to be naively blindsided and disillusioned by the reality of it.

The Lucky Ones

No matter what anyone says, sim racing is and always has been an open door sanctuary for people to live out the dream when the real thing is out of reach and it means a lot to them, myself included.

When you click that race button and you’re sitting on that starting grid, consider that all the other names popping in around you are people probably just like you, pressing their noses up to that window too, and there are collectively hundreds of thousands of us, you are far from alone. Sim racing is essentially how all of us can have a good time on this side of the glass.

After all, thanks to the experience it provides it makes it really easy to believe you are racing others just like you, because you essentially are, and if you are absorbed into the spirit of it what difference does it really make if it’s not for real?

For me, whilst I slowly but surely work on collecting what I’ll need to one day sample real racing and get that off my bucket list, sim racing continues to pull me in day after day because I keep having great races with everyone else. All that matters is that I’m one of those names on that grid when the same thing happens to you.

If you happen to read or hear of someone in high or low places taking a pop at sim racing for not being the real thing, don’t feel belittled for enjoying it. Anyone who knows how good it can get is already racing with you and many more will join over time, it’s still getting going. You’re already here, so shamelessly race for as long as it makes you happy.

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