By Doug Atkinson, Lone Star Region
Just as you need tools and equipment in PCA Club Racing, so do you in PCA Sim Racing.
Broken down to a few basic categories, you’ll need:
- Sim racing software
- A desktop or laptop PC computer
- Sim racing controllers
- An Internet wired connection (Ethernet)
- A computer monitor
- Headset with microphone
- A place to race
Let’s delve into each of these in detail.
At the current time, PCA Sim Racing uses the iRacing service for all of our events. iRacing has an annual subscription fee and beyond the basic starter set of several cars and race tracks, each additional car and track must be purchased.
While the pay-as-you-go approach can be controversial, significant benefits offset most concerns. iRacing offers several entry levels and the starter package provides multiple tracks for road racing such as Laguna Seca, Summit Point, Lime Rock Park, Oulton Park, Oran Park, Okayama, and Daytona, and Charlotte rovals.
If you just aren’t into the idea of running iRacing right now, I suggest Assetto Corsa with the Porsche car packs. It can be purchased on the website Steam. Steam is free to download and can be found here. The page for Assetto Corsa is here. Note the significant number of Porsches that you can drive with Assetto Corsa! From the 356 to the 917, and many 911 and 930 variants in between.
The sim racing website Race Department has a multitude of free tracks and cars for Assetto Corsa. There is a multiplayer component to Assetto Corsa. I suggest Champion Motorsports if you want to pursue online racing in Assetto Corsa or its sister title, Assetto Corsa Competizione.
Beyond the sim racing software, you will also need to download and install Discord. Discord is a communications package the integrates a traditional message board, live voice-based chatting, and video stream and playback formats.
Discord is what PCA Sim Racing uses for its day-to-day communications, and there is an entire section on our Discord server dedicated to hardware and software discussion among members. Our page on installing Discord is here.
Depending on what computer you already have at home, you may or may not need to buy a new computer for sim racing. An easy way to check is to run the iRacing system requirements software. That will tell you how close your current machine is to get on the sim track. Many people already have a computer that will work just fine with iRacing!
Should you need to buy a new computer, your options are an x86-based Intel or AMD processor desktop (tower) system or a gaming laptop. Yes, Mac lovers, you can run iRacing with Bootcamp, but there are varying degrees of success reported. Proceed with caution as to your expected success especially with Apple’s reported future stance regarding Bootcamp.
PC computers, again like real-world racing, can vary greatly in cost. Expect to spend $1500 for a “decent” computer, not including the sim racing controllers, monitor, or iRacing software. You can go lower in price, but not by much. Going too low will not provide you with enough computing power to get a good experience. You’ll struggle to get smooth driving and less than a desirable number of cars and details viewable.
If you build computers for fun (raising my hand!) or for profit, you can build a more robust computer for $1500 than you can buy from a hardware supplier.
If you want to buy a pre-built computer, you have several options currently available. All options have benefits and some drawbacks. Let’s go through some options available.
Gaming Computer Companies
Purchase from one of the gaming computer companies. These companies cater to the computer gaming community and can offer premium components not offered by mainstream companies. Most of the mainstream companies offer subsidiaries that sell gaming computers.
Gaming computer companies tend to have huge sales periodically and you can get quite a deal on a machine, but don’t trip over the sizzle. There’s lots of RGB flash at some of the sites to look past that rivals a Las Vegas casino slot machine area.
Here’s a good article on the 9 Best Custom PC Builders of 2021.
Make sure you check with a friend who knows computers or post in our Discord area to get other members’ feedback on your selection. The YouTube computer technical channel LinusTechTips recently ran a couple of very interesting 4-part series called Secret Shopper 1 and Secret Shopper 2. Take the time and look at them.
A Friendly Build
That friend mentioned earlier in the discussion above may be your best bet to build a computer. Some people actually like doing it (raising my hand again) and consider it fun. Have them put together a system specifications list from PC Parts Picker.
Depending on their knowledge, and your trust in them (!) they may be your best bet to build a computer. If you have an interest, ask them to supervise as you build it.
If that makes you queasy, take the parts list to a Micro Center (if you have one anywhere near you) and ask their in-house build service to do it. I am a big fan of Micro Center. No, I am not affiliated with them in any way but I have spent an embarrassingly large amount of money in their Houston store.
Okay, you know that Carrera listing that looks just too good to be true, then you investigate it and find out its nasty accident history? Same thing here. You may do just fine, or you may get a piece of junk. Again, look in our Discord section and if there is a local computer shop that sells refurbished systems, check them over. But buyer beware.
Last desktop suggestion, go to a small “boutique” system integrator. Typically, great personal service. Usually, top-quality components. But you pay for the hand-holding. If you’re interested in going this route, contact me on Discord and I’ll offer a few names of companies for you to contact.
If you want to go laptop, be prepared to pay more for less than you will get on a desktop, but the flexibility and maneuverability may make it worth pursuing. That’s not to say that current gaming laptops are bad. They are usually good, but just not as powerful especially graphics-wise as a desktop system for the same price.
Besides the obvious mouse and keyboard, you will need a sim racing steering wheel and pedals. The same point again as made earlier. You can spend a nominal amount on controllers or a lot on controllers. First, I suggest you take a few minutes and look at the Sim Racing Paddock video primer on controllers.
Now that you have a good idea of what is out there, find the price point that works best for you. You can purchase sim racing controllers directly from the manufacturers or from Best Buy, Amazon, etc. Pricing can vary considerably for the same unit among different resellers, so shop wisely.
As a reference point, and not to scare anyone off (!), but look at the Sim Racing Garage YouTube channel which caters to typically “higher end” sim racing controllers. The technology is there and depending on your wallet, really desirable! Just like we know real Porsche racing is!
Very important that you have a hard-wired connection from your computer to your modem/router. Sorry, wifi is not acceptable for PCA Sim Racing events. Everyone has a CAT 5 or CAT 6 cable connection on their modem or router. It’s just that most people have moved on from it due to the convenience and popularity of wifi.
Time to go back to it if you plan to do sim racing. If your modem/router is at the other end of the house, get a longer cable and connect it when you’re online racing, then roll it back up when you’re done.
You need at least one 24″ or larger monitor. Preferably with specifications of 2560 pixels x 1440 pixels resolution, a 144 MHz refresh rate, and 1 ms response time. Even if you use a virtual reality headset, you’ll need at least one good monitor.
While HDMI is acceptable, DisplayPort is the preferred connection for best quality. Most modern computers and laptops provide both as do most monitors. Alternately, Thunderbolt 3 can be used.
Some racers prefer to use their large television or use 3 monitors for a wraparound effect, or one monitor with a VR headset. Start with one good monitor and expand from that. I use a 3440 x 1440 monitor as my primary and a second monitor to the left for Discord, notes, and other references. Again, our Discord server has a lot of racers setups and discussion on what has worked and hasn’t worked for them.
Gaming headsets, like gaming computers, can be a mashup of great technology, flashing lights, and overpriced products. I am partial to JBL, Poly (formerly Plantronics), and Sennheiser gaming headsets.
I have had such nasty luck with Bluetooth (I hate Bluetooth. Okay, I said it.) that I stay far away from it. My current JBL Quantum 600 headset is perfect for me – soon as I turned off the cheesy RGB lighting effects.
If you go wired, you have the option of a USB or an audio jack. Arguments for both, but I prefer USB.
A Place to Race
No, I’m not trying to be funny saying you need someplace to park your carcass when you drive. I’ll qualify. You need someplace a. comfortable, b. away from others so you can concentrate, c. where you and the computer have enough room, and d. has the right amount of lighting.
That may be the favorite lounge chair or couch with a wheel stand, office desk/chair, cockpit, or motion cockpit, but someplace that you can set up repeatedly and continuously, or better yet, go to where it is ready for you.
After negotiating where your spot is in the home, decide what you want. Let’s look at each of these.
You have a favorite spot across from the big television. You want to sit there and race. Look at wheel stands. What you want is one that is heavy enough it doesn’t move when you go through Parabolica at Monza, nor one that isn’t portable when it’s time to quit racing.
Wheel stands are great for starting sim racing but they tend to be a very interim product. You will either progress to something more permanent if the sim racing bug hits, or get sold off if the sim racing bug doesn’t.
Pricing, like everything else in sim racing, can vary considerably.
Read the product reviews and if you see “moves around” it’s best for you to move along. A tip. There may be single-pole wheel stands that don’t wobble like a flag pole in 30 mph winds, but I’ve never seen one. Here’s a YouTube link to various wheel stand videos to give you an idea of the marketplace.
Office Desk / Chair
The obvious place to race from, but not necessarily the best place to race from.
If you get up every 30-minutes from your current home desk, how will you do at the next 45-minute race with +10-minute warm-up and cool-down periods? Is it still comfortable? What works doing a spreadsheet edit with the mouse doesn’t necessarily work with high-pressure racing pedals and tension-centering sim wheels.
Is the chair moving around when you go hard into a braking corner?
Does the lip of the desktop allow the steering wheel base to connect and not move around?
Does the height of the desk allow for the same height and arm position as your real Porsche?
One of the fastest ways to become discouraged with sim racing is to expect yourself to operate in an uncomfortable environment. I’ve known several racers over the years who will spend a lot of money on their system and controllers only to sit down at a punishing table and near-crippling chair.
If the office desk/chair works, great! If not, don’t do that to yourself!
Welcome to where it gets interesting in a sim racing environment. Presuming you have a corner of the world you can do a permanent setup, and you’re sure you want to stick with sim racing, a cockpit is one of the first things to consider. Like the person who gets their first garage door opener, you never knew what you were missing till you got it. Yeah, the cynics will tout you with comments like, “you wearing your helmet in that?”, just consider them “unenlightened” and move on.
Sim racing cockpits vary in price (as said before!) but you do not have to spend a lot of money to get a good entry-level cockpit. One of my favorites is the Obutto oZone for around $400. It has been around for a decade and the technology is dated, but it is solid and very durable.
A visit to Sim Racing Garage’s YouTube Channel will show you several reviews of variously priced cockpits.
The above with hydraulics. Two things about motion cockpits. They are more immersive and more pricey. Both, real quickly. Seeing is believing and only those with serious sim racing passion need apply. A small system attached to an existing cockpit can be a few thousands of dollars. An extended system can be in the 25-30 thousand dollar price range. And like everything else, a lot of pricing in between the low and high end.
A visit to Sim Racing Garage’s YouTube Channel will show you several reviews of variously priced motion cockpits.
In closing the article, I need to mention the 800 lb gorilla. Like other forms of technology and various marketplaces right now, PC gaming is impacted by the current world situation. There are a lot of factors involved besides a worldwide pandemic that is impacting the pricing and availability of computers and computer components. The situation is changing daily and some products you may have to wait for, or they may be in stock, or they may be in stock for a few hours. Literally. My general advice is, think about what you want, and when you see it, go for it. It may not be there when you go back to the store or refresh the webpage.
Feel free to contact me on our PCA Sim Racing Discord server or at PCA.org about any of the contents in this article. Let’s get you on (the) track!