In the world of motorsports, autocross is to Formula One as your local soccer league is to the World Cup; there might be a few sponsored players out there who earn a little money, but most everyone buys their own shorts and cleats. Likewise, most autocrossers bring their own cars and tires. Hardcore competitors regularly drop $1,200 a month on tires that might survive a month’s worth of abuse, racing after a prize that’s often little more than a $5 plastic trophy.

But, for every speed racer blowing the price of a small car each year on tires, wheels, sway-bars, dampers, trailers, lodging, race schools and who knows what else to squeeze a few hundredths of a second off their time, there are dozens more who autocross just for kicks. I fall somewhere in-between, not hardcore enough to spend thousands of dollars on go-fast bits, but competitive enough to want to win. What I needed was an edge. Something to offset the advantage gained by those with the resources to dump wads of cash into their hobby. One winter I found it; the perfect training regimen for cheapskate racers like me: videogames.

Not just any videogame, of course. Real training requires some sort of simulation. In the world of flight training, it’s typical for a new pilot’s first non-simulated flight in a new jet to occur with passengers in the rear. That seems a little disconcerting, but the benefits of sim training over real-world training are straightforward: A sim can throw a pilot into just about any problematic situation imaginable and do it safely, enabling him to repeat the exercise until he gets it right. All this without having to worry about investing in any farmland.

Where flight sims have been pretty serious business for a number of years, it’s taken longer for the racing genre to mature into something more than idle entertainment. It was Papyrus’ 1998 Grand Prix Legends that broke the mold. Still an obscure game by most standards, it perfectly combined realism, challenge, fun and, perhaps most importantly, timing. GPL’s innovative (at the time) internet connectivity also enabled gamers to share setups, lap times, cars, tracks and eventually full mods that changed everything but the game’s core physics. Now, eight years after the game launched, players are still adding new content every week.

I’ve been playing racing games since the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 days, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 2003 that I finally got serious. That holiday season, I received F1 2002 for the PC as a gift – one of the most hardcore sims of its day. Before I even turned a polygonal wheel, I installed a mod called GTR 2002, replacing the twitchy but furiously fast F1 machines with a series of slower but far more enjoyable sports cars. While I was having a great time getting a feel for the game, I soon realized I was absolutely terrible. I spent hours and hours practicing before my first online league race, qualified on the back of the grid, then, after just a few laps of chasing the pack, I spun onto the grass. My car stalled and my race ended; a modest start to my sim racing career.

I didn’t give up. Fueled by competitive spirit and aided by the fact that I could practice whenever I wanted without paying track fees or buying new tires, I kept at it. Soon, I was able to actually finish races. Eventually, I landed on the podium. I even won once or twice.

I didn’t realize it, but I was learning the instincts a racer needs in real life in the process: How to counter-steer; how to find and hit the apex of a turn; how to focus for 45 minutes straight and, most importantly, how to push myself to find the extra tenths of a second hiding in every corner. Comparing my race telemetry to others’ showed me exactly where I wasn’t using all of the simulated grip and power available to me. With my racing sim in-hand, I now had the technology; I could rebuild my confidence and improve my skills. And it worked. The harder I worked, the faster I went. I was learning.

When the spring thaw came and the autocross season heated up, I discovered something wonderful: I now had a better feel for my car than I’d had in the fall, in spite of the fact that I hadn’t taken it out of the garage in months. I could drive it harder, feel the tires braking away earlier and make corrections sooner. I was fast, and that summer, I won my class twice, and never finished lower than second place.

The ability to log hundreds or thousands of hours of seat time at just about any track in the world from the comfort of your own home is a huge advantage to a racer on a modest budget. But even the racers with corporate benefactors buying their tires for them are warming up to the idea or racing sims. These days, it’s common to find a variety of professional racers online, even big names like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who runs his own online league.

Me, I’m still not the most consistent autocrosser, and I still haven’t bought those sticky tires, but nowadays, I do most of my racing online anyway and leave the car in the garage. When the track time is free, the competition is intense and the safety is unparalleled, sim racing ceases to be just good practice and starts to become a good alternative.

Tim Stevens is a freelance writer who autocrosses in a 1991 Toyota MR2. He also does the occasional ice race and rallycross in a 2002 Subaru WRX. He blogs about racers and racing games at DigitalDisplacement.com.

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