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The Science of Fast

Can Simulators and Video Games Make Great Racecar Drivers?

There are two schools of thought about what makes some people the best in their fields. One is that some people have innate skills or traits that allow them to become great. The other is that anyone can be great if they just work at it hard enough.

There are some obvious limitations to the second theory. The average NBA basketball player is 6′ 7″ tall, while the average American man is about 5′ 9″. Great endurance runners have more ‘slow-twitch‘ muscles, which specialize is sustained output rather than bursts. While you can train the quality of your voice, your vocal range is determined by your physiology.

But you don’t need any genetic advantage to be a good racecar driver. Racecar drivers are often shorter than average, but that might be because the taller guys are playing basketball and football. And, of course, there’s Michael Waltrip (6′ 5″) and Elliott Sadler (6′ 2″). Jimmie Johnson runs marathons, but I’m betting Tony Stewart never has. And, as the new generation of women drivers is proving, a Y chromosome isn’t a requirement either.

So what makes a racecar driver great?

So You Want To Be a Racecar Driver?

Driving a racecar around Texas Motor Speedway was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done. I’m afraid of basically everything: crowds, spiders, heights… But I loved driving fast. I loved the feel of the car, the challenge of hitting marks and the adrenaline rush. When I finished my lesson, the instructor said it was too bad I hadn’t discovered this earlier because most racecar drivers these days start young.

And I mean young.

Case Study 1: Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson at two years old, in front of his collections of toy Sprint cars.

That’s Kyle Larson (5′ 6″ if you were wondering) at age 2. The Fox Sports page where this photo is posted has a video of Larson going down the row of Sprint Cars reeling off the drivers’ names.

Larson attended his first race a week after his birth and started racing himself at age 7. A lot of people will tell you now that if you don’t have your kid in a go-kart by age 5, she might as well give up on a career as a driver.

But what if you aren’t born into a racing family?

Case Study 2: William Byron

William Byron grew up in Charlotte and got interested in racing at age 6 after seeing stock cars on television. He took up iRacing in 2011 at the advanced age of 13. In his first two seasons, he:

  • Started 683 races
  • Qualified first in 95 races (14%)
  • Won 104 races (15%)
  • Finished top 5 (including wins) in 307 races (45%)

Byron didn’t get into a real racecar (a Legends car) until age 15 in 2013. After that, he ran:

  • K&N Pro Series East in 2015 (finishing 1st),
  • Trucks in 2016 (He finished 5th, but won 7 races, four more than the eventual champion, Johnny Sauter)
  • Xfinity in 2017 (finishing 1st)
  • Was a Cup rookie last year, in 2018 — at age 20

Admittedly, he struggled in his first year, but so did Kyle Larson. And Chase Elliott.

Does Seat Time Matter?

Malcolm Gladwell famously claimed that the key to success at anything is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That doesn’t just mean 10,000 hours shooting free throws or making laps. Deliberate practice challenges you and stretches your abilities.

CAVEAT: While the 10,000 hours is a nice sound bite, most scholars view Gladwell’s claim as overhyped simplification. One study found that practice accounted for 26% of performance in games, 18% of performance in sports, and much less in fields where the rules constantly change (like entrepreneurship). But you can’t deny that practice is a necessary requirement for making it to the top echelons of motorsport.

Video Games and Simulators

Getting practice in motorsports is a lot harder than in baseball or music because you need so much more equipment: cars, tires, safety equipment, safety personnel… and a track. So even if you had access to a car and a track, it would be prohibitively expensive to just go out and make laps. Even if you could run three races a week, that still doesn’t make much of a dent in the 10,000-hour target.

But maybe those 10,000 hours don’t all have to be in a physical car on a physical racetrack.

Enter technology.

Simulating Reality

I’ve posted before about racing simulators. At the top levels, these simulators are advanced enough to function like wind tunnels: The expense and necessary expertise are too great for individual teams, so they are shared resources. Unlike a wind tunnel, though, they are specific to manufacturer. All Ford drivers, for example, use a simulator the manufacturer opened in 2014.

A view of the Ford simulators in action.

The Ford simulator has a 26-foot wraparound screen with a three-dimensional display — if you’re wearing 3D glasses. Production car simulators don’t have the 3D option.

The cockpit is an exact replica of the inside of a NASCAR car. It sits on a base with six degrees of freedom, meaning it can move and tilt in any direction. It’s not just running according to a program: it responds to the driver’s input. If you miss a shift, you know about it. They even have little motors that tug on the seatbelts when you brake to simulate what you’d feel in the real world.

Twenty-five computers run the simulator. I don’t know how many engineers are required for programming and maintainance, but it must be a fair number. Simulators are expensive, but so is transporting cars and crew to a race track — if teams were even allowed to test.

Some have complained that NASCAR’s testing ban just forces teams and manufacturers to spend more money in other areas, but simulators are being used more and more in production car design and testing. This is an area in which investment in racing will have significant spillover into the production car side. It makes sense that the manufacturers develop and maintain the simulators.

While the simulators impress all the writers who see them, drivers are a little less impressed.

“I could spend £100 on a PlayStation and learn the same amount.”

Lewis Hamilton, 2016

Hamilton went on to say that simulators were more valuable to engineers than drivers. When Alex Bowman was hired as a development driver, he spent a year as the Chevy simulator driver.

“It’s a real tedious process and it’s not a lot of fun for Alex, but he gets it close for us,” 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on Alex Bowman in 2017

Earnhardt felt that drivers viewed the simulators the same way they viewed engineers: No one wanted to listen to engineers when they first appeared on pit boxes, but now drivers brag about the ingenuity of their engineers. He thinks it’s as useful tool that will become even more useful as the simulator quality improves.

There’s another problem some drivers have with the simulator. A.J. Allmendinger’s first try in the Ford simulator lasted five Sonoma laps before he had to get out and throw up. Nausea in a simulator is not uncommon and the engineers were appreciative that Allmendinger got out of the car before getting sick.

“To me, I drive more on feel…There were a couple of small things, I thought, ‘OK, that will be interesting to try.’ But it’s going to be more based on feel when I get in the race car.”

A.J. Allmendinger on simulators, 2016

But you or I can’t walk in and ask for simulator time. This technology is reserved for the pros.

Video “Games”

Hamilton’s comment about the £100 Playstation was hyperbole. A serious video game racers wouldn’t be caught deal on a console. And they’d spend a little more than £100 ($132).

Okay, a lot more. The premier video racing “game” is iRacing. It may be fair to call it a game because it’s people racing against each other, but the racers who do it take it far more seriously than a game.

The program is amazingly true to life, updated even with the appropriate billboards. I understand they’re not far from adding a virtual reality component. But a program this sophisticated doesn’t come cheap.

In addition to powerful CPUs that often require computers specifically built for video racing, players need a steering wheel, a shifter, brake, clutch and gas pedals and a seat. And a button box to change brake bias. Bubba Wallace tweeted his iRacing setup:

Bubba Wallace's iRacing setup

Personally, I’m envious of the two giant boxes of Goldfish crackers at lower right. I’m also envious of Bubba’s metabolism, which apparently allows him to eat all those goldfish crackers.

Bubba gets to get into a real race car every weekend, so he doesn’t need all the bells and whistle. For $5500, you can buy a platform with three degrees of motion, or for $27,000 you can go full tilt with this:

A $27,000 iRacing pro set up.

iRacing put William Byron on the map, but iRacing is only one step down from a simulator. You’re not going to get as much realism from the console games, but they’ll still give you a taste of what it’s like to be on the track. You’re also not likely to convince your parents (or spouse) to buy a Late Model based on your proficiency on the Playstation.

Impact on the Sport

The biggest barrier to getting involved in motorsports is cost. Anyone can find a football or a soccer ball and a nearby field. It’s not so easy to find a race car, track and safety equipment. And if racing isn’t on your radar already, you might not even think of looking at it as a sport. That’s why so much of racing has been dynastic.

Video games open up racing to a broader group of people and, importantly, people motorsports needs for the next generation of fans. In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari notes that my generation valued access to information, but the newer generations value being part of generating and using that information stream. They want to be part of things, not watch them. This might be the way to appeal to that difference, and to attract a broader segment of people to motorsports in general. If you wondered why NASCAR is buying big into eSports, hopefully you understand now.

Can Technology Replace Seat Time?

People want to look at arguments as either/or, when the answer is usually much more subtle than that. As usual, there are pros and cons on both sides.

For Professional Drivers

Simulators are expensive, but each manufacturer already has one and they’re being used increasingly for production cars. Simulators are like wind tunnels: If you’ve got access to one, you might as well use it as much as possible. With NASCAR’s testing ban, it’s not like you have the choice of ‘Do I go to a track or to a simulator?’

That being said, there is a way to go before even the best simulator feels like a real race car.

  • It’s impossible to duplicate the smaller features of a track, especially those that change over time or with temperature. It would be a full-time job to try to add details like the seam sealer pulling up at Atlanta to the track model, and that effort would be for naught as soon as they repaved.
  • Speaking of temperature, none of the simulators have the ability to raise the heat inside the ‘car’ to 130 degrees.
  • Here’s something I hadn’t realized: Simulators don’t include the sustained G-forces generated by going around corners. That’s a big omission, especially for a track like Bristol which is 60% turning. Sure, tugging on the drivers’ belts helps, but it’s not the same thing.
  • Like wind tunnels, simulators don’t include the effects of other cars. You could program special cases, like simulating getting loose because another car is on your inside rear — but you can’t simulate how differently the car might handle in traffic vs. out of it. You can’t simulate the draft.
  • There is some truth to the idea that simulators are more helpful to engineers than to drivers, but that will change as younger, more-comfortable-with-technology drivers appear on the scene.

Even if it’s not perfect, simulators help. Each crash helps the driver get a better idea of what it feels like when they are nearing the limits of traction. But that’s a rather painful way to learn.

And here’s the big benefit of a simulator. You can program any situation.

I have a theory (totally unproven) that those of us who grew up in snowy states and have Spring birthdays were better at navigating snowy driving than our peers with birthdays at other times. Why? Because we were taking driver’s ed in crappy weather. We got to experience it. I remember being taken to an empty parking lot and being taught how to steer counter to the spin. You can’t do that in July.

But you can do it on a simulator. As many times as it takes. That’s what they do with airline pilots and in the military because it’s even harder to take a 747 or a tank out for a spin than it is a race car. The training purposely puts you in every possible bad situation so that, no matter what happens, you know what to do. By the time you encounter trouble IRL, you’ve faced it enough times that your response is instinct, not conscious thought.

There’s one more potential benefit, which is using the technology to better understand what makes a good driver, but since it affects more than just professional drivers, I’ll leave it til the end. For now, I think we can conclude that simulators are one part of a training program for drivers, but not advanced enough to replace track time. They may, however, allow you to spend the time you do have on a track in more productive ways.

For Prospective Drivers

Trying out video games and simulators before the real thing makes sense to every parent who has a tuba or saxophone sitting in their attic as a reminder of the six months during which their kid swore that he or she would be scarred for life if they couldn’t pursue their musical passion.

You can start as young as you like with minimal investment. Some kids will lose interest and some will be satisfied being iRacing stars. Others will want more. That’s where the money problem crops up again. Byron’s father is a financial planner and they lived in Charlotte. He was able fund his son’s interest. Not all parents are.

But as more and more drivers with electronic bona fides enter the ranks, perhaps prowess on the computer becomes a way of proving yourself to sponsors. That wold open opportunities for drivers without connections or financial wherewithal. That can’t help but be good for the individual and the sport.

So technology might replace seat time at the start of someone’s career, putting them on the path to becoming a professional driver.

The Untapped Potential of Technology as Research

I started this post pondering what makes someone great at something. So what makes a great racecar driver? Simulators may be the way to answer that question.

We already extract things like brake traces and throttle traces from race data, but a simulator lets you set up situations to see how drivers respond. And that often suggests things you might not have been aware of.

A scientific paper, by van Leewen, et al. (from PLOS One, 2017) examined differences driving in a racing simulator between experienced race car drivers and drivers who’d never driven race cars. Their hypothesis was that people who were really good at particular sports weren’t exceptional in general, but had mastered the specific tasks of their sport.

For example, people who play interceptive sports (tennis, soccer) are better at accurately predicting the path of a ball. That’s not because they have an exceptional innate understanding of physics, or their brain just works faster. It’s because they have developed the ability to know where the ball will go based on their opponents’ movements. They start moving before the ball hits the racquet.

Van Leewen et al. simulated laps at Mallory Park, a track none of the drivers (all professionals, at the GP3 level) had ever driven. They let everyone practice, then did four sessions, counting the best lap from each session.

A track map for Malloy Park in Leicestershire, UK

Their hypothesis suggests that the racecar drivers wouldn’t have faster response times than regular driver, but would still make faster laps.

And that’s exactly what they found. The mean reaction time of the two groups was basically identical, but the mean difference in lap time was about two seconds. The racing drivers weren’t just overall faster people: they’d developed particular skills that made them fast on the track. The best non-racing driver was slower than the worst racing driver.

But what’s interesting is why. Their simulator is outfitted with all the same sensors a real car would have: speed, steering angle, brake and throttle. The grey areas on the graph signify the turns.

Speed, steering angle, brake and throttle traces for racing drivers vs. non-racing drivers.

The racing drivers:

  • Steered more
  • Turned the wheel further
  • Turned the wheel more sharply
  • Braked later and harder
  • Got on the throttle sooner and harder
  • Didn’t get off the throttle as much or for as long.

This all might seem obvious, but the researchers also studied where the drivers looked. The diagram below shows you the three things they measured.

A diagram showing the parameters: the car's heading, the head direction and the eye direction.
  • The direction the car is heading
  • The direction of the driver’s head relative to the car direction
  • The direction of the driver’s eyes relative to his head.

The tangent point indicated on the diagram (where your eyes are focused) is where most drivers look to guide turning. But the racing drivers had very different behavior.

  • The racing drivers didn’t look at the tangent point.
  • The racing drivers looked much further ahead than the non-racing drivers.
  • The racing drivers turned their heads moreT

Their results were consistent with a 2001 study by Land and Tatler that did essentially the same experiment, but at the actual track with a real driver (Tomas Scheckter, then a GP3 driver).

What these studies tell us is that the driver looks at about where he’s planning on being one second later. That’s a distinct different from where most of us look, which is where we are immediately. They found an interesting correlation between the angle of the driver’s head and the rotation of his car one second later.

Here’s the best part: When they asked Scheckter, he was totally unaware of where his eyes were focusing. The former F1 driver who consulted on their paper was also unable to answer questions about where he looked when turning. It wasn’t something drivers think about: it’s something they just do.

Which means it’s something you can try to teach other drivers.

It won’t be long before MRI scanners are good enough that we can put one on drivers while they’re running simulators and peek into Kyle Busch’s brain to see what’s going on when the rear of the car starts to slide out from under him.

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