How useful is iRacing really?
Sim racing hasn’t been around very long. And yet it has rapidly become the standard method of training for a majority of professional racing drivers – infinite seat time for a remarkably low cost.
Most professional racers use sim racing to augment their racing program, not as the method of turning pro. But Glenn McGee is a revolutionary.
By winning an international championship inside iRacing’s top level simulation software, Glenn was recruited by Mazda to drive a factory MX-5 in the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup – one of the SCCA’s pro racing series.
Make no mistake about it: sim racing is the future of motorsport training and Glenn is the first (of many, I predict) to prove that you can turn pro using only affordable sim racing software.
Introducing: iRacing phenom and Factory Mazda driver Glenn McGee. He’s going to share:
- Why his non-existent racing experience didn’t matter at all.
- The exact process he used to turn pro through iRacing.
- How to successfully make the leap from virtual to reality.
- How to mix iRacing and go-karts to maximize your potential.
Glenn, before iRacing.
Racers HQ: Glenn let’s go back to your pre-iRacing days. What were you doing before sim racing? Did you have any racing experience at all?
Glenn: No. I was a really high level sort of semi-pro gamer in the shooting range. So Halo and things like that. And I got into console racing games through the typical games
like Gran Turismo and Forza and things like that. And that’s my transition – from the high competitive shooting games to competitive racing. I started to realize I was good at it and I realized this might be something I can do in real life.
And I just really fell in love with it. I got really obsessive with it and started to compete on the PlayStation in Gran Turismo and was one of the top guys in the world, speed-wise. I had a lot of the lap records and things like that. I was actually very fortunate to compete in the GT Academy which was a driver search for digital drivers.
It was the national search in each location so there was one in Europe, one in Asia, one in America.
The console gaming led to simulation gaming as well. I was always interested in the physics of it. I wanted the physics to be absolutely perfect – as close to your life as you can get.
“I always wanted to compete against the absolute best drivers I could find.”
And I’ve always liked the challenge of competing and gaming because the barrier for entry is extremely low. All you need is a console or a PC.
So I started to get into actual simulation because the physics were a lot more enhanced. That was iRacing’s strength – producing a physics model that was way above what the consoles could do. And also being able to have a system that could tier the best drivers, the best virtual drivers from around the world. So that met both of my criteria.
Racers HQ: So your strategy was basically to compete against the world’s top level virtual drivers and find a way to beat them.
Glenn: It was more like, “Hey, let me find the best guys in the world because I want to get my butt kicked.” I think I’m very challenge-driven and that’s certainly one of the biggest things I like. Obviously I like getting the pole and running away with it, but I’d much rather fight to get a top 10 qualifying division and fight the race to get a third spot or something like that rather than winning.
As far as enjoying it, that’s greater for me. Everybody likes to see their results. But I’m definitely driven by challenges.
You have basketball players or baseball players and they can start in a junior league and they sort of compete in regional leagues to get to a top level. But it’s different in gaming where everybody is competing immediately. You’re immediately competing against the world in real time and you absolutely are finding absolute best talent in that arena to fight against.
You can’t replicate that in your life, particularly in racing, because the barrier for entry in racing is so high just to get on the lowest rung of racing. Even on a regional level that’s probably 40 grand or so to compete all year.
So you just don’t see that, the simulation competition, you just don’t quite see that in real life. You won’t find that anywhere else.
Racers HQ: It’s funny you say that you’d rather start a little farther back and fight with everyone. You’re just like Cooper Webb in the Supercross Series. He doesn’t ride well when he gets the hole shot. But when he comes out of the gate in 8th or 9th he will tear you up and he will win the race.
Glenn: Yeah that’s funny. He is mostly enjoying it, I think. It’s just beating out everybody and just having that challenge. When you get it by just a couple of tenths it’s so much bigger than running away with it and getting it by just a couple of seconds or minutes.
Glenn’s launchpad: The Mazda Road To 24 Shootout
Racers HQ: OK so you did incredibly well in iRacing and then received an invitation to the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout which is a huge opportunity. How did Mazda reach out to you with that?
Glenn: So iRacing is a big partner of Mazda and they had this new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup coming out in real life. And over the past year during the development of this race car they used our partner at iRacing to develop this race car – the suspension and everything.
So they would take the iRacing physics model and run sort of analogs of real-life counterparts for suspension parts and this would help them determine what would be done to the car. So they would run a simulator and then put what they found on simulator on the real car and it would kind of go back and forth.
In that way iRacing would also develop their virtual version of this Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car. So you have this really well-developed virtual car and this virtual car and company was helping develop the actual real-life Mazda race car. So they are very closely tied together.
And they came out with this idea of, “Why don’t we, Mazda and iRacing, why don’t we sponsor a world competition and try and find who is the fastest guy in this car and then put him up against real-life guys?”
So a very interesting concept, and it was growing. It was basically 12-weeks, 24 rounds of really intense virtual competition. You had to qualify online against the best guys from Asia, Europe, Australia, and all the Americas. Really anybody in the world who had an internet connection and a computer was able to do that, which is the world first as well.
Even with the GT Academy, because of legal reasons, they would sort of compartmentalize every nation into a little competition but for whatever reasons. Maybe Mazda and iRacing aren’t as fearful legally and did a full-on world competition and just let anybody into it. So I’m not sure how they got away with that but that definitely made it more fun.
“So every week, I would work my butt off and practice and try and qualify.”
At the end of the week there are two races and if you qualify in the top field you would compete against the top guys. And if you compete against the top guys, and you win that race, you would get the most points.
So usually I was competing against guys from Japan and Spain and all over Australia and all over the world so you can imagine how intense that was.
So I competed in this world championship. It was extremely difficult. It actually got my confidence level up because I had a lot of good races against some of the best virtual drivers from around the world.
And I came out of it with an invite to the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout. So it was Mazda’s intention to use this tool of iRacing to say, “I wonder if we can develop talent purely on iRacing and I wonder if we can take that developed talent and see if we could discover somebody that we can utilize in real life.”
We went into this real-life competition and it just sort of switches everything up because you really don’t know how well you’re going to do against all these guys.
So the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout is a grassroots competition which takes the best Mazda champions from around the nation and throws them into a competition against one another. So these are guys from Formula cars and Spec Miata and sports cars.
They’re all champions typically and there were nine of us in this competition. We share the same real-life car. We each got our own BFGoodrich tires which was nice. And we just go out and set laps and get interviewed by high level Mazda executives and get questions from a racing industry judging panel.
It was really interesting to go from in my living room, competing, to being sort of grilled on, “What do you think about this or what do you think about the car, what would you do if you won this” and being in a real car trying to put on times that were better than the real-life proven champions that were out there.
The Challenge: Making the jump from virtual MX-5 to reality MX-5.
Racers HQ: Can you share a little about your experience jumping from the sim car to the real car? How different were the physics? What did it feel like? How did you adjust over the course of two days?
Glenn: It was difficult. I do this thing where I try not to make a big deal out of anything, because if I do it will sort of get going in my head. So I was trying to keep calm.
And the first day of competition we had done a night of just interviews with Mazda executives and we woke up at 5 or 6 in the morning and went to this cold race track in South Carolina that nobody knew in this car that nobody has ever driven.
“These were the first prototypes. There were only two in the world of that Mazda at that point.”
So it was kind of nice being a sim driver when nobody has driven any of these. So it didn’t hurt me so bad.
It was raining pretty bad in the morning and that sort of set me off – nervously. So I climbed into the car. It was a bit claustrophobic. It feels familiar in a way but unfamiliar as well. Fortunately, they let us do some exploratory laps.
They said, “OK, we’re going to put you on these BFGoodrich tires and you just go out and do five laps and we’re not going to judge you. Don’t wreck the car.
If you spin off or things like that, we’re not going to judge you on it. Just go out there and feel the car,” which is really smart. They didn’t want people wrecking the cars.
Racers HQ: Right.
Glenn: So I went out there super nervous. I pull out at pits with the babiest of throttle and the car slides on to the track. And there’s sealant on the tires and it has no grip until that sealant is worn off which only takes a second but I was super surprised and I’m like, “Oh God! Is this what’s going to be like?”
But I will say the BFGoodrich tires are the rain tires, and the dry, but the rain tires are ridiculous. They have an insane amount of grip. So I went out there. Again, when I drive on the simulator, I’m driving as – OK, I’m driving on a subconscious level.
I think there have been a lot of studies that if you can compete without sort of thinking about it, if you can compete on that subconscious level then you’re going to do a better job.
Racers HQ: Instinct, you mean?
Glenn: Yeah, you’re driving on instinct. And it’s almost like you’re looking for it but you’re not really – it’s weird. You’re focused but you’re not.
I’ve not only developed myself as a driver but also mentally as a driver. They call it the zone, as you’ve heard or as you know probably. And I’m able to get into that quickly. So once I got the jitters out and I saw the car was doing what I told it to do I got in that zone quickly.
And at that point, the simulator is good – it mimics real-life really well. It also has the same responses that you would have in real life.
“So if you instinctively want to do something in real life, the sim teaches you to instinctively react in the same way.”
In general the concept is the same.
I was able to immediately go in and use instinct mode. So I would say the transition wasn’t as bad as I would have thought. The car is actually very close to real life.
As far as my subconscious goes I couldn’t tell the difference. Once I got into the zone, it should have just very well been a simulator at that point. You know what I mean?
Racers HQ: Unbelievable. That says volumes about the iRacing physics engine. That’s amazing.
Glenn: It is. And I think that’s where the value is. I think you couldn’t do a direct apple to apples comparison. Obviously it’s not going to react exactly how it is in real life but the basics are there. And the physics are much, much, much closer than any other simulator.
But if you were to go out in the car with a certain tire that you understand and then you come in and you change manufacturers of tires, a completely different manufacturer got the same car, it’s going to feel a little different. But it’s still the same. You know what I mean? That’s kind of how the simulator is.
It’s just like running the real life MX-5 but on a different tire. The change is really that small. Your adaptation to this can be that small.
Racers HQ: That’s absolutely fascinating. So it sounds like the action-reaction-action sequence between the sim and real life is spot on. Would you agree with that?
Glenn: Yeah, it is. And that’s the biggest value. So in real life the reaction might have to be bigger but you instinctively know to have that reaction.
So your input might be slightly different, but in general it’s the same motion. It’s the same concept. The same goals that you have as a driver – to catch that slide or take that line that you want, or come off the brake in the way that you want to, load the nose the way you want to, and really drive the car the way you need to through a fast corner.
All of that is there.
So when you’re training on a simulator you’re getting 95-98% of what you need to drive visually. I’ve realized there is a talent for driving on a simulator and there’s a lot of visual cues and mental strength that you need to have to drive fast in a simulator. And you also need that in a real car.
But in a real car you also need this feel for grip and there is sort of a talent there that isn’t needed in simulators other than the steering wheel.
So in the steering wheel in a simulator we do have force feedback and that does give you some feels and actually some good training for real life.
But beyond that you still have your G-forces. You have to be able to have that centered gravity and feel for the car when you’re going through corners and feel for how much grip there is and feel for the limit.
And I think that’s the only thing that you need in real life experience to get that last bit of time.
Pay attention, new racers. iRacing is your dream-come-true.
Racers HQ: So it sounds like iRacing is the best place to develop your instincts and get that subconscious level of skill you need to be a successful racing driver.
Glenn: Yeah. Mazda and I were talking about this as well. And they brought up a lot of drivers. They’re very big on bringing up drivers who were less fortunate, let’s say. Usually, these drivers have enough to compete in a regional level, which we know say $40,000 a year or so. And I came in with the least amount of money.
Well, no money spent on real racing but my rig was a normal computer that anybody can buy and I’ve installed about $500 worth of equipment as far as a graphics card and having a steering wheel and everything.
“So the barrier for entry is extremely low.”
So if I have to start all over again and I had a budget to go racing, and I wanted to develop myself as a driver instead of trying to struggle with that budget in regional racing, I would absolutely buy a really good computer and get iRacing.
Get a decent steering wheel, get some good pedals, and spend about let’s say 2 to 3 grand at the most on a sim rig.
And to get that feel for the tires I would use rental carts or you can get into a fast go-cart but that will give the feel for the tires. So you do that just to have that feel for the tires.
But you can develop yourself on the simulator beyond what a go-cart can teach you. A go-cart will teach you a lot about how to race, certainly – what the tires feel like, how to keep your momentum up, and all these forces that you’re trying to manage.
But it doesn’t teach you as much on how to drive a race car as the simulator does. You’re not having to learn all these little nuances that you need to know to drive a race car.
In a go-cart you can kind of drive your way around it. In the simulator it teaches you discipline and all those little nuances and theory and everything you need to know to go fast in a real race car that even a go-cart would not teach you.
But I would say, if you have a small budget, do the simulation and also couple that with some carting here and there just to get a feel for the tires and everything.
Racers HQ: That’s such a clever and affordable strategy. iRacing for the instinct supplemented with karting for the tire feel.
Glenn: Yeah, you can take the best simulation drivers in the world and I guarantee you they will be within 3 seconds of some of the best real drivers in the world just based on their visuals.
So if they were one of the top guys in the world visually and mentally, their mental capacity is high enough to be able to drive competitively against the rest of the world and they’re going to be super fast in real life.
But they miss out when they don’t have the talent for the feel and that is where the 3-second gap starts. Either you can go beyond that 3-second gap or you’re stuck at that 3-second gap from the best guys.
And I’m sure that feel can be developed and certainly think if you get any chance do it you should. But it’s an important piece of the puzzle. I can learn everything I need to know to a racing driver in a simulator and that is true up to 98% – as far as driving the car and as far as strategy in a situation.
You actually learn more in a sim I think than in real life, in that regard. But there is a feel to racing as well.
“This is where the absolute greatest drivers become great.”
Glenn McGee is a factory Mazda Driver. Follow Glenn’s unique story on Facebook and Twitter. He is proudly partnered with iRacing, Mazda, Battery Tender, and BF Goodrich Tires.