Tips and Tricks I Learned Getting Into Sim Racing

Virtual driving isn't the same as real-world racing, but the tech's good enough now that a sim can help fill a car-sized hole in your heart.

Virtual driving isn’t quite the same as real-world racing, but gaming technology’s good enough now that sim racing can really help fill a car-sized hole in your heart if you’re stuck at home. Whether it’s trimming tenths of a second off of lap times in a race car, pitching an M3 sideways into turns, making your own racing livery, or just Forzavista-ing your favorite cars, sim racing has something for every enthusiast.

My journey with car games, not just sim racing, began in the early oughts. There was something spellbinding about seeing the cars move, open the doors, hear them, control them, in games in like Need for Speed: Porsche Unleashed. My parents didn’t care about cars too much, so I never had the magazine subscription to get my fix. It was always the newest games (and toy cars) keeping me connected to the car world.

Tips and Tricks I Learned Getting Into Sim Racing
Doing my best digital Chris Harris impression – Image: Chris Rosales

Where To Get Started?

In sim racing, and car gaming in general, the options are limitless. Controller and gamepad-friendly games like Forza, Gran Turismo, or Dirt Rally 2.0 are great ways to start off some competition, or just fun virtual driving. Each game has its own physics and nuances. In many ways, every game is like driving a different car entirely, with massively varying inputs, techniques for fast lap times, and communities surrounding the game itself. It’s like visiting different friend’s houses, or different restaurants. Each game feeds something different in my soul.

I didn’t spend a lot of money on a sim wheel from the start. I picked up my controller over a decade ago and just practiced as much as I could. I learned the tracks and physics of whatever game I played, and, being naturally competitive, I just wanted to win races and beat people. Before I knew what “vehicle dynamics” were, much less driving fast around a track, I left assists on. The “driving line” is an invaluable tool, teaching you where to brake, accelerate, and turn. Even more beginner oriented games auto-brake for you. Stability control and ABS help you focus on just getting around the track. Gradually, as the years peeled away, I worked my through turning these assists off.

Gradually remove assists as you get better. Once you feel comfortable, hop into some online racing lobbies of your preferred genre and have some fun, and experiment! Don’t hit anyone, and you’ll do great! Unless it’s drifting, where contact is encouraged. Online, there’s a variety of lobby types ranging from pure racing, to hot lapping, and even some door-to-door drifting. On Assetto Corsa you even have massive lobbies dedicated to just cruisin’ and having fun on huge replica maps of Angeles Crest Highway and the Wangan Tokyo freeway system. You don’t even need to get racing, you can just have fun and be social with the thousands of players just looking for time to kill. Maybe you’ll catch me in there sometime soon.

Tips and Tricks I Learned Getting Into Sim Racing
Image: Chris Rosales

Getting Up to Speed

The more experienced (read: serious) among us may dismiss Forza and Gran Turismo as amateur hour, but for one thing play whatever you want to play. For another, these games can actually teach you competitive skills in a less judgemental environment! I learned car placement, car control, the ideal line around tracks, and most importantly: race craft. Learning how to adapt to cars being on your ideal line and finding space for yourself on track is the cornerstone skill to sim racing, and racing in general. Learn how to be consistently quick and clean on your console controller, and those skills transfer over to the next step up in realism: PC sim racing with a wheel. Or, you can keep on going with your console on a wheel too. The most fun part of the console stuff are the well refined leaderboard systems, so you can go for time attack laps alone and hone your lap time compared to the best in the game.

On a PC, sim racing becomes a different animal. There are games that are much more serious as simulation exercises. As such, the competitors you’ll find online are quicker, more experienced individuals. The big sims are Assetto Corsa, Assetto Corsa Competizione (a full on GT world championship game), iRacing, and rFactor 2

These games are practically impossible to play on a gamepad; a wheel is required. It was around 2011 that I convinced my parents to get me my first force feedback wheel: a Fanatec GT2 wheel. Remember those?

This world is a little more intimidating than casual gaming, but I’m here to help you bridge the gap. If you’re reading this, you’re probably newer to online racing, in which case I’d recommend entry-level or intermediate wheels. There are some great options here at decent prices. 

Tips and Tricks I Learned Getting Into Sim Racing
My dilapidated old rig… soon to be replaced with Fanatec jewelry. – Image: Chris Rosales

So You Want a Wheel?

The ubiquitous entry-level wheels are the Logitech G920 and G29, designed for XBox and PlayStation respectively. Both work on PC, too. These Logitechs are considered extremely reliable. As a bonus, they come standard with a clutch pedal and H-pattern shifter for a virtual manual transmission experience. They run about $250. It’ll be your cheapest way to get in, by a long shot. Stand by for my article on building my dream sim rig though.

Most wheels come with a table clamp, so a stand isn’t necessary if you have a table to clamp it to. Stands run about $250 for a quality one, like this one (I actually own it) from Next Level Racing, if you need one. If you have room in your bedroom, that’s the most ideal spot for your setup, but best case you have a spare room to dedicate to it. I played with a legless chair propped on some blocks of wood with a Fanatec wheel clamped to a coffee table for years. Not kidding. I wanted to make it work! For most of you, I recommend just clamping your wheel of choice to a desk. It usually works out height-wise with your office chair.

Depending on your budget and ability as a sim racer, any force feedback wheel will work very well. $300 should get you a wheel setup to last many years before you outgrow it, if ever. The equipment itself isn’t the focal point of sim racing; you can be faster on a Logitech G920 than a dude with a high-end Fanatec Clubsport. 

Pulling Into the Pits

What matters most is treating sim racing with respect. It’s a skill that’s applicable to the real world. What you learn to do with your hands, how you hone your racecraft, and car control, are all practical. Good practice is the key to getting started in sim racing, whether that’s on Forza Motorsport 7 or Assetto Corsa. Sim racing is a great way to democratize an otherwise expensive sport, and get you wheel-to-wheel with people around the world for much less than even the most entry-level spec series. 

I never got to kart when I was younger, so my racing world was competitively matching up with virtual racers around the world. In all honesty, I have all of these racing games to thank for my interest and passion for everything automotive. I hope that you, the reader, can find the same sort of thing in your sim racing adventures!

Chris Rosales
Chris Rosales

Chris has owned 12 cars of questionable quality, is an experienced motorsports photographer, and a good all-around wrench. When he isn’t tinkering with his car in his home garage, you can catch Chris in the canyons around SoCal. He also hopelessly hankers for Euros, but he honestly knows he should get something Japanese, eventually. Contact the author here.