iRacing is the real driving simulator

iRacing's MX-5

I've never been to northern California's legendary Laguna Seca road course. In meatspace, at any rate. But thanks to dozens of realistic racing game recreations, I know the track's serpentine layout and its infamous corkscrew corner like the back of my hand. I've barreled through it hundreds if not thousands of times since 1999's Gran Turismo 2, so it darn well ought to be familiar by now, right?

And it was, right up until I loaded onto iRacing's version of it.

iRacing's Laguna Seca

Sim vs. game

iRacing doesn't change Laguna's layout. But it changes everything else about the virtual driving experience because it is literally a simulation rather than a game.

My first lap was a comedy of every conceivable motorsport error, from an inability to hold my line to a variety of spins that utterly destroyed my virtual racing ego. Ultimately, I throttled back to a pedestrian 70 mph in order to complete my initial lap. And this was in a lightly-modified Mazda MX-5 (a Miata, for you Yanks), which isn't exactly a high-performance beast.

Have you ever messed around with any of the entries in Microsoft's long-running Flight Simulator series? iRacing is the same idea, only it's for gearheads instead of wingnuts. There's a tiny bit of game to be found here, but if you're looking to blast a few hot laps around Silverstone in your nigh-indestructible Ferrari or whatever, iRacing is overkill. If, on the other hand, you live and breathe cars but you're having trouble scraping together the funds for Autocross or various real-world amateur leagues, you can improve both your driving skill and your technical IQ by training on iRacing's professionally endorsed sim platform.

In other words, this is no arcade racer. In fact, it provides such a realistic garage setup and race track experience that professional organizations such as NASCAR and Skip Barber Racing not only endorse the sim but use it for training purposes. The real-world partnerships go beyond the usual licensed car models, in-game sponsor logos, and the like (though all that is included, too). iRacing's top level NASCAR circuit, for example, is streamed live in a format that closely mimics its real-world TV counterpart. The iRacing series is also tracked on just like the actual NASCAR season, and it features a five-figure purse for its annual virtual driving champion.

iRacing Laguna pit lane

All the infos

All this badassery comes at a cost, though, and that cost is accessibility. Don't expect to step into iRacing and know what's going on right away, even if you're a veteran of other car racing titles or an accomplished real-world driver. There's a ridiculous amount of meat on these bones, and it's absolutely overwhelming at first. You should start with the how-to video series. These are essential, and there's even an 11-minute long clip devoted entirely to understanding iRacing's labyrinthine home page!

Curiously, the sim requires you to manage most pre-driving tasks through its website even though it's not a browser-based title. Everything from scheduling sessions to client updating to car painting to tutorials is initially actuated via your login rather than the game client itself or an MMO-style launcher. I found it a bit strange at first, but now I rather like it since it's all customizable and I can keep everything related to the sim in a handy browser tab that stays open pretty much whenever my computer is running.

Yes, I'm that addicted.

iRacing setup

Controller considerations

Once you load into the sim itself, you're presented with a crazy amount of car setup options. Alternatively you can choose to enter stock setup races or even import setups from other drivers. Car control itself is accomplished via any number of peripherals, but if you're even considering an iRacing purchase, you'll want to also consider some sort of steering wheel and pedal setup as part of that purchase.

I played for about a week with an Xbox 360 PC controller, and it's definitely doable. But iRacing is realistic to the point that it demands very fine control more often than not, so I've since graduated to a Logitech G27. I'm no expert at this early stage, but it does make a huge difference in terms of knowing when the car is getting loose (thanks to more accurate force feedback), and it's also much easier to translate sim-acquired skills and reflexes to real-world driving situations when you're learning on similar controls.

Inside iRacing, there are no seat-of-the-pants G-forces like you'd experience in an actual automobile, so the more accurately you can process and control all the visual, aural, and vibration info coming at you, the better sim driver you'll become and the faster it will happen.

iRacing gyro view

For self-starters

iRacing, like any good PC sim, is designed for self-starting players who are motivated to learn and to practice. Along with the aforementioned how-to vids, there is also an extensive series of Driving School tutorial videos, but "school" is the operative word here. There's no hand-holding in the sim itself, and if you're a player who needs achievements or artificial progression to make a game worth playing, you won't enjoy iRacing.

While there's no official progression as it's commonly defined in MMO circles, the vids detail plenty of career paths for aspiring sim racers (everything from Legends cars to open wheel stuff and of course oval tracks and road tracks). These are just suggestions, though. They're not hard-coded advancement paths like the Forza- or GT-style career modes that you might expect.

iRacing does feature car classes and licenses, but it's up to you to pick a vehicle and then put in the time perfecting your racecraft on the test tracks before competing in a series. Once you start competing in the live multiplayer environment, your driver rating will update according to both how safe you are and how successful you are.

Practice is the meat of iRacing's gameplay, at least early in your career. You can't just jump into a race at, say, Charlotte Motor Speedway and compete with other players as you can in a more casual title. Well, I guess technically you could thanks to the rookie leagues, but it's not advisable due to the rating system and the fact that you will be crashing, spinning, and otherwise impacting your safety rating until you iron out your rough spots in practice.

This is quite different from mainstream titles like Forza Motorsport 4, where you can make liberal use of the instant rewind feature to correct mistakes on the fly as well as win races by intentionally incapacitating your fellow drivers. In iRacing there are no do-overs. And you'll quickly develop a reputation for dirty racing -- and possibly incur a suspension or a ban -- if you consistently fail to make clean passes and respect the title's real-world sportsmanship code.

iRacing Limerock

No MMO grind

While iRacing's learning curve is necessarily steep, thankfully there is none of the usual MMO gating nonsense to waste your time. Your driver ratings are determined solely by your own driving skill, though it is worth noting that you will be penalized for getting caught up in on-track incidents, even if they're not your fault. And since your monthly sub provides you with a substantial number of tracks and race cars that cover the full spectrum of the sport right out of the gate, there is no grinding for gear or equipment. There's just you, a huge variety of options, and your will to become a more proficient pilot.

Unless you're ready to devote several hours per day for the next decade to iRacing, chances are you won't even come close to mastering all the content on offer. It's not traditional racing game or MMO-style content, though. Whereas in most car titles you spend a lot of time unlocking and collecting various rides, in iRacing quite a few high-end machines are available immediately as part of your monthly sub, with more instantly obtainable in the game's cash shop.

Given the sim-vs.-game nature of iRacing, though, you're better off picking your favorite car and sticking with it for a few weeks, since all of the vehicles are rendered in exacting detail from the visual model right down to the handling characteristics. iRacing is as close as most of us will ever get to racing a Miata around Laguna Seca, so unless you're a once-in-a-generation virtual Mario Andretti, you're not going to be able to swap said Miata for a Ford GT and take it safely around the track without a few growing pains.

iRacing TV cam

Customization and community

I haven't spent a lot of time on the game's presentation here mainly because you can see for yourself in my screenshots and any of the thousands of gameplay videos available on the internet. It's a beautiful sim in almost every respect, though one of my few complaints is that the replay controls and the out-of-car interface are extremely busy and as a result, initially unintuitive.

The sim's customization options are numerous and blow-away badass. You can export texture files for your car, your helmet, and your jumpsuit and then either repaint them or design your own from scratch in an external graphics program.

You can then upload and/or share them with the community, but realize that no one will see your masterpiece unless he has the requisite files on his local machine. If you're not much of an artist, there are plenty of pre-made paint jobs available as well as dozens of sponsor logos, club logos, and even third-party audio packs that feature real-world crew sounds and spotter dialogue that reacts to your particular situation and takes race-day realism to an even higher level.

If all this sounds mind-bendingly complex, it is. But that's kind of the point. It's startling -- and refreshing -- to see a software company capitalizing on the infinite possibilities in the MMO space by thinking beyond fantasy, level grinds, and gear score. While iRacing is certainly a niche title compared to Massively's usual MMO suspects, it appears to be on solid financial ground thanks to its monopoly on genre realism, its real-world endorsements, and its fanatical subscription-only userbase that's nearly 50,000 strong.

One month into my maiden iRacing voyage, I'm happy to report that this community is both helpful and ever-present. There's always a handful of hosted races going on, even early in the mornings on the east coast. And of course the official series races are legion and spaced throughout the monthly calendar. Don't forget about the handy spectator mode, either. If you're not quite ready to put your newbness on display in a live practice session or race event, you can load in as a spectator and spy on setups, strategy, and tactics. You can even ghost race any driver in a live session, which is a fantastic way to learn from the best without their even knowing that you're there.

I find that no matter what time of day I log into the service, there are between 3,500 and 4,000 active racers, according to the population widget on the game's main page.

iRacing wheel shot

Final thoughts

iRacing is ultra competitive and not particularly accessible at first blush, but once you've spent a few hours acclimating yourself to the web interface and the extensive tutorial videos, you start to pick things up. It's an acquired taste, but if you're at all interested in cars or car culture, it's well worth taking the introductory $15-three-month offer for an extensive test drive. Some MMO players will probably balk at the ongoing cost given the fact that we're in the midst of the F2P age. There's the mandatory monthly fee, which gives you 11 tracks and six cars, and then each new track will cost you around $12 while each new car will run you about $15.

And the peripherals, hoo boy. Fortunately I already had a 360 PC controller, but the G27 set me back a whopping $250! It also works with your PlayStation 3 and 4, in case you're -- ahem -- looking for further ways to justify it. You can find cheaper ones, but getting a quality setup for less than $100 won't happen. And really, wheels and pedals are the tip of the iceberg. If you dig cars as much as I do, you'll soon be eyeing all of the other home cockpit stuff, too (switch boxes, multi-monitor setups, bucket seat rigs, etc.).

It's probably possible to play iRacing casually, but given everything it offers, I'm not sure why you'd want to. I've logged hundreds of hours in just about every PC and console-based racing game imaginable over the past two decades, but I've never seen anything remotely approaching the depth, breadth, realism, and fun to be had here.

With all due respect to Polyphony's kick-ass console series, iRacing is in fact "the real driving simulator."

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