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The sweet science of simulated racing

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Tony Johns (2) leads Ron Quincel (4) during Hawaii Ace League sim racing action in 2010
Tony Johns (2) leads Ron Quincel (4) during Hawaii Ace League sim racing action in 2010

Simulated racing has been compared to Dungeons & Dragons for racing enthusiasts, and I guess that's pretty accurate.

I have been sim racing since 1989, when I discovered Indianapolis 500: The Simulation for the PC. Google that title and maybe you'll see a YouTube video or screenshot of the kind of gameplay that passed for "photorealistic" 22 years ago. Then you can sit back and laugh at how old I am. Har har.

At any rate, I've been a sim racing addict for over two decades. My involvement in sim racing actually got me a job briefly designing and researching racing sims themselves and eventually helped launch my ongoing career in motorsports. So I have no intention of rehabbing from this particular addiction.

For 15 of those 22 years, I have raced with the same group of sim racers. Our league is called the "Hawaii Ace League," so named because the first-ever multiplayer sim racing server was code-named "Hawaii" by Papyrus Design Group, the company essentially responsible for the creation of sim racing as a hobby. "Ace" referred to the fixed setup included by Papyrus in their games intended for advanced-level racers. Our league did not run with open setups because, frankly, most of us didn't (and still don't, in my case) have a grasp on the intricacies of racing engineering. Running fixed setups allowed us all to compete at about the same level.

Our league roster has changed over time - drivers get older, real life intervenes, and what was a great hobby in college gets shuffled down the priority totem pole as other interests and responsibilities loom. Three of our drivers - Mike Langston, Mark McCuen, and Bob Deppe - are no longer with us. But most of us still stay in touch via e-mail even if all of us aren't racing. Even Donny Lia, who has moved on to NASCAR Modified Tour championships and competition in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series still keeps in touch with his sim racing buddies.

This past fall, the HAL folks got back to racing again after a rather long hiatus. After Papyrus went out of business, we spent a couple of years watching the iRacing service as it slowly developed into a raceable platform and finally took the plunge in the fall of 2010. We wrapped up our 19-race season last night with a 150-lap race at Richmond International Raceway.

Maybe it was because I had spent so much time running iRacing during our hiatus, or maybe I just wasn't as rusty as the rest, or maybe I just had the racing gods on my side for a change - but after the checkers flew, I ended up as the season champion, a mere 82 points ahead of second place even after winning 8 of the 19 races.

In 22 years, I have only won a championship once before, eight years ago. I didn't think it would ever happen again, and now that it has you'd think I'd be beside myself with happiness. Strangely, though, after 19 weeks of hard racing, I mostly feel mentally exhausted and relieved.

Over the course of the season, I went through every clichéd sensation you could think of when describing the aspiring racing champion. I started the season off strong with a victory in our first event, but as the season wore on I started feeling the pressure, making stupid mental mistakes, and playing it too conservative as the guys behind me steadily made up ground.

It got to the point late in the season that I couldn't even enjoy winning races - all that concerned me was whether I had gained enough ground in the points to make my safety margins more acceptable. Since our rule is that the top five finishers in each race have to start from the back of the field the next week, I actually began to feel annoyed when I would finish on the podium.

That all-consuming preoccupation with points and consistency made the racing less enjoyable for me - moreso considering how rare an occasion it was that I was in that position in the first place. The pressure was intense, and the guys chasing me never passed up an opportunity to amp up the gamesmanship.

For my first championship, I received a wall plaque. The Flying Cocksman it ain't. But it still hangs on my wall and I look at it from time to time with a sense of accomplishment. I'm sure after I have time to decompress I will feel the same way about this season. For now, I'm just glad it's over.

That emotional component to sim racing is what makes it valuable to me. I'm pushing 40 and have kids, a wife, and a mortgage. I'm not ever going to pull a Harry Gant and go plant my ever-expanding butt in a carbon fiber seat to go racing at my age. But I can still gain insight into the competitive mind through this wonderful tool. I can experience firsthand the tooth-grinding fury of seeing the car ahead of you slowly but inexorably pulling away no matter how hard you push to stay close. I feel the incredible frustration when, after dozens of clean laps, I clip an apron and lose control just enough to brush the wall and totally throw off my car's handling. I feel the thrill of gambling with pit strategy and then, struggling on old tires, barely holding off a charging second-place car to survive for the victory.

Simulated it may be, but I have finished races with cramped muscles, soaked in sweat, and breathing heavily after hard-fought battles that span thirty or more laps. In some races, when I'm chasing someone down for position, time seems to fly - hours can go by unnoticed. In others, when I am leading, it feels like the seconds are years and that the race will never end.

I sometimes think all race fans ought to try their hand at sim racing if for no other reason than to give their understanding of the sport some context. It is one thing to watch - it is quite another to do. Not even the racing schools I have attended have been able to so completely replicate the competitive atmosphere of motorsport competition like sim racing has.

I've always known that motorsports are addictive, but it took sim racing and my pals in HAL to show me exactly why. It's more than going fast - it's the pressure, the focus, the all-encompassing drive to compete that sets your nerves and guts on edge, that makes success sobering and quiet rather than boisterous and wild.

What's not to love?