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Driving Pixels

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Driving Pixels

Bill Crittenden
November 6, 2013

Bill Crittenden John Walczak
I've never actually driven a real race car.  Now, normally that would be a disadvantage in, you know, a race against someone with trophies from racing, but one time...just one time...it wasn't.

The setting, 2006 (I recently found the results sheets going through old papers, that's what made me think of this) at Gurnee Mills mall's NASCAR simulators.  My father-in-law, John Walczak, a former USAC stock car driver and Lake Geneva Speedway class champ, is going to race with me.

So, seeing as he's got the experience and all, he tells me that he doesn't think I can "handle" as big a track as Daytona, so we should race Charlotte.

I mean, sure, in real life you have to prove you're not an idiot that's not going to get himself or someone else killed before you take on a major race like a Sprint Cup race on a plate track.  The Indy 500 has its Rookie Orientation Program.

But we were put into a race with a bunch of other guys, and they picked Daytona.  John commented that it didn't seem fair to me, but we'd paid up and we were ready to go, so just do the best I could.  Umm, okay...

As good as the simulators were for the time, they are, essentially, the same video games I'd been playing for a decade but with steering wheels and a seat that rocks with the motion of the car.

Knowing that I was the tech geek of the family and he struggled with computers, I was actually ready to give him a few pointers, but he clearly saw me as the rookie in way too deep.  Sure thing, dude.  You got this, right?

It took me a half a lap where I dropped 16 positions to get a feel for the steering and get up to speed.  I come across the start/finish line happy to be finally chasing down other cars and I started wondering where John was.  I found him, on the apron just at the entrance to turn 1, tires pointed skyward.

I made back most of the positions I'd lost and pulled just ahead of Jeff Burton's car in the last turn for third place.  John recovered to finish 27th.  We exited the simulators, picked up our sheets.  He showed me his and asked how bad I did.  I handed him my sheet.

The lessons learned: a simulator, no matter how well designed, is not a real car.  It's just not going to feel the same.  Until you know how a vehicle handles, simulator or real, it's best not to assume you know where its limits of control are, especially as there is no reset button when you roll a real car.

Realize that the simulator is but a computer program.  Your motions on the controls are inputs, processed not by reality but by as close an approximation of reality as is possible as determined by the skill of the simulator's programmer.

Underneath the hood, figuratively speaking, is a program not all that different, conceptually, than Pong.  You manipulate a control to move pixels on a screen.  You learn from experience how much is too much and how much is not enough input, hopefully figuring out the exact amount of input needed to keep the paddle in front of the ball or maneuver a car through a turn at top speed.

As similar as this is to learning how to drive a real car, the feedback is completely different.  What is expressed in reality as road feel through the components of the car you can touch is dumbed down into the haptic feedback of controller vibration.  A full simulator's pitching body is just not the same as actual inertia acting upon our equilibriums.

There is also the risk.  As Top Gear proved in an NSX at Laguna Seca, there are things you'll do in a car in Gran Turismo 4 that you wouldn't dare attempt given an actual hundred thousand dollar supercar with your own body strapped inside and very real steel guardrails surrounding the track.

Of course I wasn't always on the good end of simulator accuracy foibles...

Not once in all my weeks of Driver's Ed in high school was I able to get a perfect score in the simulator.  It was an older type where a film was played and we worked the controls in accordance to what we saw on the screen.  I never could figure out how much steering I was supposed to give it without actually feeling the car turn based on my actual input on the wheel.

Despite the fact that based on simulator performance I seemed most likely to turn the car right into a tree I had no problems wheeling around anything I drove my first years in the left front seat.  The school's Chevy Caprice, my dad's Ford Ranger, our Hyundai Excel, a Plymouth Neon, and the only time I ever hit anything was when I took my foot off the brake at a stop light and the time I launched a Hyundai Accent into the weeds because it was so much lighter than the Neon I was used to.

And despite all the fun I have getting my real cars sideways when it's slippery enough to do so, I still haven't figured out how to get a decent drift going in Gran Turismo.

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