WHEN VIRTUAL BECOMES REALITY
From training rigs to engineering studies, simulators have become commonplace in racing. As more motorsports organizations look to leverage the increasingly sophisticated technology, it’s poised to become an integral development tool for a variety of applications in the real world.
Simulators have long been used by teams in the top tiers of auto racing to help drivers hone their skills when they’re not on-track, but recent advances have opened up their potential use to a much wider range of possibilities.
NASCAR has been one of the technology’s most ardent proponents, not only creating the eNASCAR platform for esports competitors—some of whom have used their online racing success as a pathway into racing careers in the real world—but also for uses that have changed the organization’s approach to development challenges faced outside of the virtual space. For instance, the track used at the Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum earlier this year was developed and tested in simulation to prove its feasibility long before construction began. Likewise, the 12-turn, 2.2-mile street course that will see racers from the NASCAR and IMSA series blasting through the streets of downtown Chicago in 2023 was actually originally designed for the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series.
These advances in simulation technology within the motorsports realm haven’t come by way of state-of-the-art military training equipment or highly bespoke software, but from a subscription-based online racing simulator for Windows PCs called iRacing.
“When we started the company back in 2004, the goal was to create a racing simulation that was truly authentic,” explained Steve Myers of iRacing, Chelmsford, Massachusetts. “The person who was really instrumental in taking it to that next level was [NASCAR’s] Ben Kennedy. He’s the guy who was willing to take chances and look at things through a different lens to see how that could benefit him and his company. He looked at it from a driver’s perspective first, as a way to learn tracks. I remember him telling a story about how he was going to a race at Five Flags Speedway, and he was using a spray-painted mark on the track as a reference point in the simulator, and then he went to the real track and ended up using that exact same mark as a reference point in the real world. I think that really resonated with him.”
Over the years, iRacing’s modeling capabilities have reached a level of sophistication that has allowed engineers to use the service as a test bed of sorts. “When NASCAR was working on the Next Gen car, its R&D department used iRacing as a way to help make decisions about the development of the car,” Myers added. “That naturally progressed into the realization that they could use iRacing to prototype ideas for changes to tracks, and that they could have a design completed before they ever moved a shovel-full of dirt.”
Mike Burch of Speedway Motorsports in Concord, North Carolina, noted that the granularity of iRacing’s modeling data has moved simulations from a general approximation of a vehicle in an environment to a faithful virtual representation that can be relied on when the rubber actually meets the pavement.
“It’s not just simulating the traction of the asphalt and all of the physical properties of the track,” he explained. “The cars’ dynamics have become much more accurately simulated, and it’s also able to simulate things like atmospheric conditions. It gives you a very accurate idea of how all of these pieces are going to interact on track. We just finished a project in Atlanta with the team at iRacing where we put some ideas into the virtual world and had drivers compete on that layout to see how it raced. We learned a lot and made a number of changes to real-world courses as a result—some subtle, some not so subtle. After a few races there it’s clear that we’ve hit on something. The racing has been really exciting. A lot of the credit goes to the fact that we were able to go in and test it out before we spent the time and money to start moving the dirt.”
Both Myers and Burch see this approach as a model for future track development, but the potential doesn’t stop there. “Another project we’re working on is something that actually started out as a tool for our vehicle dynamics engineers to use,” Myers said. “We’ve been developing this as a way for them to take measurements of the cars and plug them into the tool to generate these car models for the simulator. What I realized as we were building this was that it has a practical real-world use for race teams and manufacturers who might want to build their own cars within iRacing and test various concepts privately within the simulation. This will allow the teams to literally build out the entire car. All of it can be custom built by them to match the specifications of their equipment. So it is not about just having to rely on what we have already built; it provides them with the tools they need to build it themselves.”
Meanwhile, Burch pointed out that these new abilities could have a profound effect on motorsports development down the road. “It really comes down to the accuracy of the data,” he said. “When we started licensing our facilities with iRacing for the sim, it used to be a matter of inches. Now it’s a matter of millimeters, and it’s only going to get better. At this point we can virtually build the cars, and it’s not like, ‘OK—let’s scan the outside and give it these characteristics.’ It’s, ‘Let’s build a virtual engine out of virtual parts.’ It’s not a ‘mass’ of a car anymore, it’s actually made up of thousands of individually simulated components, and you change the individual aspects of those components to see how it affects the behavior of the car, and how multiple cars of that configuration race together.”
He added that the ability to develop both the track and the car in simulation offers many new possibilities. “It’s something where you could also kind of reverse-engineer it,” Burch continued. “We could say, ‘OK—we’ve got this track, but what’s the optimum car to race on this physical layout? What other types of racing might be interesting on the Roval at Charlotte, or at Sonoma, or on the half-mile at Bristol?’”
As the technology continues to mature and becomes more accessible over time, Burch expects it to find its way into increasingly affordable levels of motorsports. “Eventually this stuff will get down to the hobbyist racer.”