Interview with Doug Atkinson, Lone Star Region PCA
Doug: Hello, Matt. First I’d like to thank you for Spark Virtual Racing’s sponsorship of PCA Sim Racing as well as PCA Club Racing in 2022. We have a bunch of questions for you about the simulation business and would appreciate your thoughts. To start us off, what’s your interest in simulations? How did you get into them?
Matt: Hi, Doug. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. We’re really excited about our new PCA sponsorship and look forward to growing our relationship with the club.
We got involved with simulators in 2017. At the time, we were running a virtual reality arcade called Spark VR. We were the first virtual reality arcade in Connecticut, and that location was successful enough for us to expand into a larger store. With that new entertainment center launching in December 2018, we added 5 high-end full-motion racing simulators and became the first virtual reality racing center in the US.
Doug: Does Spark Virtual Racing also have sim-based flight training?
Matt: We have the expertise to offer flight simulation, rollercoaster simulation, and other simulator-based entertainment and training offerings. We even tested some of those offerings in our entertainment center. However, when COVID-19 hit and we closed our entertainment center, we committed fully to being the best in virtual racing. Our perspective is that we prefer being incredibly good at one thing rather than moderately good at a bunch of things.
Doug: What makes Spark Virtual Racing and your team stand out from other simulator companies?
Matt: Two things.
- We’re the only company whose simulators are tuned by an aeronautical engineer who worked on the hydrodynamics of nuclear submarines. That’s my business partner, Joe Eilert, who has both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Aeronautical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Joe’s ability to understand the nuances of what the car is doing, what the driver should be feeling, and how to convey that feeling through the simulator is unbelievable. That’s why our simulators turn skeptics into believers.
- We’re the only simulator company that started out as an open-to-the-public virtual racing center, meaning we tuned our simulators based on feedback from thousands of drivers from the general public.
Doug: Your entry-level simulator starts at $9,750. What do you get for that price?
Matt: For $9,750, you get to avoid all the research and headaches that come with building and tuning a simulator yourself. It’s a complete turnkey system – rigid chassis, powerful computer, excellent racing hardware, 4K resolution screen with realistic field-of-view, and our professional-level tuning and configuration. Our goal is to simplify sim racing as much as possible, especially the purchase process and the experience of using our simulators.
Doug: Equipment-wise, there are other significant, well-known full motion systems. What makes your motion system different?
Matt: We’re familiar with many of the motion simulators out there. In our experience, most people approach us to share negative stories about prior experiences on simulators, especially motion systems. The common story is that the motion feedback was exaggerated and unrealistic. We refer to those motion systems as amusement rides rather than training tools. They look cool, but they move way too much and communicate poor feedback to the driver.
Our motion system is the opposite of an amusement ride, and it’s all about the tuning. Our system features small, quick movements to communicate exactly what is happening to the car. To make it this good, the motion tuning went through hundreds of iterations and required thousands of hours of research.
Doug: So, you’re all about the tuning?
Matt: Yes, tuning is everything. In the video we filmed at the PCA national office, Manny Alban hopped into the simulator to provide his thoughts. Based on his prior experiences with simulators, Manny believed simulators were unable to truly replicate the feeling of the car. We asked Manny if he would give our simulator a try, and he loved it. We love those moments when real-world track drivers understand just how valuable simulators can be.
Doug: While you are providing a hardware and software solution, how much of a customer expenditure is the training and setup service?
Matt: Our Destination Fee includes white-glove installation, hardware fitting, and a tailored car setup session with the client. This charge ranges from $500 to $5,500 depending on geography and installation location (1st floor, 2nd floor, etc.). During the tailored car setup session, we take live feedback from the client, adjust the car just like a real-world mechanic, and get the car to behave just like the client’s real-world car. This is when the simulator becomes an everyday training tool.
Doug: Let’s talk a bit about how you train a new customer. Once they get their new system setup, they’re probably anxious to go, so how do you approach their exuberance?
Matt: Exuberance is a good word for it. After installation and hardware fitting, our first step is to temper initial expectations regarding how the car behaves, especially for our clients who are real-world track drivers. The simulator arrives with our custom tuning throughout, but car setup is the final piece of the puzzle. Drivers have different styles and tendencies, and your car setup should reflect that. We start with a stable car setup, listen to feedback from the client, and adjust the setup accordingly. Should the car bite more on turn-in? Do you prefer more rotation under braking? It’s all adjustable, and it makes a huge difference. Once the setup is dialed in, that’s when we hear quotes like “That’s exactly what my car would do there. This is addicting.”
Doug: On your website you state, “Luckily, virtual racing is a great way for drivers to improve their skills in a safe environment.” Simulations as a safety tool have long been part of the aviation industry, what are some more of your thoughts regarding this for racers?
Matt: I remember writing that exact line on our website. It’s a reference to practicing left-foot braking, heel-toe downshifting, looking ahead during turns – all things that are uncomfortable and possibly scary to practice at high speeds on a real track. Simulators are amazing tools for improving those skills and developing muscle memory. If you work through your mistakes in the simulator, your real-world track days will be safer and more enjoyable.
Doug: All of us that have a passion for simulations have heard the “video games for kids” comment. What do you say when you hear that?
Matt: We simply reply that simulators are used by drivers at all levels of racing, including Formula 1. We also mention the numerous stories of top virtual racers sitting in a real-world racecar for the first time and being incredibly fast. Then the most recent news, Cem Bolukbasi became the first “gamer” to make the jump from virtual racing into Formula 2. The evidence in support of simulators is not hard to find.
Doug: Is training done by the same Spark Virtual Racing staff, or do you have different instructors depending on the product model and what the customer wants to learn?
Matt: We have arrangements with multiple real-world track drivers and instructors who offer simulator-based coaching. All performance training is conducted by our recommended instructors.
Doug: Is training an additional fee beyond the purchase price of the equipment and setup?
Matt: Yes, training is an additional fee. The coaching ranges in price based on the capability of the driver and what the driver is looking to achieve.
Doug: Besides turnkey systems, do you also provide help to customers that already have a home system?
Doug: How does that work? Can you assist someone who has a $3000 home based-system they built or had someone build for them?
Matt: Yes, we can. Once the simulator is built, it needs to be tuned, and that’s our specialty. Hardware is important, but it’s the tuning that turns the simulator into a training tool.
Doug: What can you assist someone with? Is it task-based, like getting a triple monitor setup working, or is it more extensive?
Matt: We can assist with just about anything – screen alignment, FOV adjustment, pedal calibration, steering wheel force feedback, car setup. We offer it as a comprehensive simulator tuning.
Doug: There are sim racers who can’t get their equipment tuned then get discouraged so can you help them?
Matt: Yes, we can. There are way too many simulators out there collecting dust because of poor tuning. Our expertise can bring those simulators back to life. We always enjoy the “aha” moment as the car starts to feel exactly like the driver expects it to.
Equipment & Components
Doug: How has the current supply chain difficulties in computer parts, especially video cards, impacted how you conduct business?
Matt: It has been difficult at times getting certain hardware components, but we adjust accordingly and ensure we deliver an amazing solution. With the difficulty getting parts, we’re currently quoting 8-10 weeks for delivery on new orders, and we do our best to shorten that time frame.
Doug: After purchase, is there a path for customers to upgrade hardware with faster processors, graphics cards, and other ever-evolving technology?
Matt: Absolutely. For the specific computer components, we upgrade those based on clients deciding to add triple screens or a virtual reality headset. We also offer the ability to upgrade the steering system and pedals as well as add our haptic vibration system and an H-pattern shifter. We provide comprehensive support and act as a one-stop shop.
Doug: Do you ship the equipment to customers then go onsite to tune and perform the setup?
Matt: Yes, we do. Onsite installation, hardware fitting, and tailored car setup are all included in our Destination Fee.
Doug: You mentioned Assetto Corsa in the video. What other sims does Spark Virtual Racing like to work with?
Matt: In addition to Assetto Corsa, we primarily work with iRacing and rFactor 2. Our clients tend to prefer more realistic simulation software in comparison to the more arcade-style driving games out there.
Doug: I understand you recently sold a PCA customer one of your systems thanks to the recent video produced while you were at the Maryland office. Without getting personal, what were they looking to do and how did you arrive at the specs that would work the best for them?
Matt: We did. For this particular client, his real-world track days are behind him, so he wanted a simulator to experience tracks around the world. With several Porches in his garage, this client opted for upgraded higher-fidelity hardware to better match Porsche quality, so his system has the upgraded wheel and pedals, haptic vibration system, and H-pattern shifter. There isn’t enough floor space for the triple screens, so those were left out.
Doug: We would love to have you bring one of your systems to the PCA Sim Racing room at the 2022 Porsche Parade. Those who might be interested in purchasing a training rig could see it first hand.
Matt: We would love to be there! Events like Porsche Parade are a great opportunity for extended private sessions where we can walk through the car setup process. Oftentimes, sitting in a simulator for 3-5 minutes results in a negative experience because the car setup doesn’t match the driver’s expectations. During our private sessions, we continue to adjust the car setup until it’s dialed in for each particular driver.
We also plan to run a car in the 2022 Team Racing Series and we’ll have drivers running our systems and viewable on the broadcast.
Doug: Thanks for visiting with us today and we look forward to seeing more about Spark Virtual Racing!