Although many people associate sim-racing to real racing, can simulators make you a better everyday driver?

Although many people associate sim-racing with real racing, can simulators make you a better everyday driver?

Wyatt Gooden, Glen McGee, Ty Majeski…

These are just a few sim-racers who took the experience they gained from the Motorsports Simulation software and successfully translated it to real-life racing. As a result, their names were catapulted to stardom in the sim-racing world and rightfully so as they’ve been able to do what few of us will ever accomplish.

Sim-racers transitioning from virtual to real-life . . . it’s a story which has been told time and time again in that sim-racing prepares you for real-world racing. But where does that leave the rest of us who may never sit inside a real car?

Although the vast majority of sim-racers will never become real-life championship-winning (or even race-winning) drivers, are we still able to take anything away from a simulator other than being able to school a few pimple-faced teenagers at the local go-kart track who drive Walmart-accessorized Hondas?

A little bit of backstory…

It was a typical but unremarkable evening when I found myself racing in one of iRacing’s Blancpain Sprint Series races at Bathurst several months ago. As I raced my virtual McLaren MP4 through the twists and bendy bits of Mount Panorama, I was doing fairly well and in contention for a solid top-five finish.

With only a few minutes remaining, however, I got held up by an on-track incident which cost me several seconds. As a result, the car behind made up quite a bit of ground and was now within a second of me. I now had a battle on my hands if I hoped to maintain my position.

On-track incidents can happen at any moment. Situational awareness is one of the many skills that sim-racing teaches.

Incidents can happen at any moment. Situational awareness is one of the many skills that sim-racing teaches.

By my estimation, there were only about two laps remaining in the timed race as my pursuer and I raced flat-out down Conrod Straight. Leading up to that point, I had been able to extend the gap over my challenger to a little under two seconds.

As we raced into the braking zone leading into The Chase, however, I took one last look in the mirrors. In doing so, I noticed that my pursuer had braked way too late and was now barreling towards the back of my McLaren.

At first, I thought it was some ill-fated attempt at a dive bomb down the inside. However, the driver made no attempt to change course and was headed straight for my back bumper. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the turn in time to avoid the contact and impact was now imminent.

In an attempt to soften the blow, I simply straightened the wheel and took my foot off the brake and decided to abandon the turn. By doing so, my car didn’t absorb the brunt of the impact (which would’ve caused more damage) and I was simply pushed forward into the sand with only minor damage to the rear. Although disappointed, I was able to get back onto the racing surface and finish the race.

A Real-Life 4x

As unremarkable (and in some regards, typical) an event which that was, that incident stuck with me for a while. As I recall what happened during that split-second from when I first noticed that the car behind wasn’t going to stop in time to the point of the actual impact, I had made an instinctual decision which I had never practiced or planned before. Although I had been in similar situations in the past on iRacing, I never walked away telling myself “Next time I’ll just lift off the brake.” It was instinct – forged by countless experiences – which had taken over in the blink of an eye.

Fast forward several months.

I was driving to work on what was just another weekday in downtown Dallas, TX. As I entered the city, I approached a stop-light where I was at the front-row of a three-lane road. As I brought my trusty Ford Focus to a stop, I just happened to glance up into my rear-view mirror to notice a car barreling towards me. The speed limit on that road was 40 mph and the fast approaching car was showing no signs of slowing down.

Although I was hoping the driver would somehow stop in time, I knew the car was traveling too fast and closing in too quickly for that to happen.

At the last second, I lifted my foot off the brake just a moment before the heavy impact propelled my car forward. The impacting car burst into flames behind me.

Inside my car, the force of the impact had pushed my head hard against the headrest. Due to my foot being off the brake, however, my head and neck didn’t lurch forward which is often the case when a car comes to a sudden stop.

The driver of the other car (whom I later found out was a 17-year old with no license or insurance) bailed-out even though the blazing inferno of a car was still rolling.

As both cars came to a stop moments later, I finally breathed.

The impact and subsequent fire left the other car a charred remnant of what once was a Toyota Camry. As the fire department arrived and extinguished the flames, the true force of the impact could be seen on the crunched body of what remained of the impacting vehicle.

Unable to stop, this is all that remains of the Camry which plowed into the back of my car.

This is all that remains of the Camry which burst into flames after plowing into the back of my car.

Although pictures show only minor damage to my car, a look underneath proved otherwise. As a result of the extensive under-body damage, my car was deemed a total loss.

Although I did suffer from a minor case of whiplash, my doctor later told me that given the speed which the other car was traveling, the fact that I was at a complete stop and from similar cases their office had dealt with previously, if I hadn’t lifted my foot off the brake, the injury and strain to my neck would’ve been significantly more severe with possible permanent damage. I can without a doubt credit that to my experience in the simulator.

It was instinct – forged by countless experiences – which had taken over in the blink of an eye.

Although it doesn't look like much damage, a look underneath told a different story.

Although it doesn’t look like much damage, a look underneath told a different story.

Other Situations

Sim-racing experience certainly helped me in a real-life incident, but it also helps people on a daily basis all over the world.

Heavy rain, fog, dusty roads, off-road, limited visibility, incidents which happen around you: These are just a few conditions which simulators such as iRacing, Assetto Corsa, Project Cars, rFactor and several others allow sim-racers to experience in varying degrees. These experiences, although simulated, allow sim-racers to learn car control techniques of which we otherwise would be ignorant.

The bottom line is that sim-racing makes you a better driver not only on a race track, but also on the roads you travel daily.

Although many of us will never experience what it’s like to translate the skills from sim-racing to driving a race car in real-life, I can now say from personal experiences that the lessons learned from racing simulators are invaluable and may end up saving your life.

Remember that the next time someone plows into the back of your virtual car.

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Nice Paul!

Sean Braganza
February 12th, 2016 at 11:46 am

Great article! Thanks for sharing, and glad to hear you’re well after the accident!

Scott U’Ren
February 12th, 2016 at 6:05 pm

I guess being a Sim-Racer from being 8 years to now has kept me from doing silly stuff on public roads in my youth. Its like this article says: you train your reflexes and instinct that might help in real life situations.

Sim-Racing was the reason to now be an internal driving instructor for a big automotive company. My skills surprised collegues as I am a software engineer and had no previous racing experience. Its all to Sim-Racing and a few fun snow rides to have the car control at or even over the limit while spinning, which I guess even some real life drivers could gain from Sim-Racing in crash avoidance during a spin.

February 12th, 2016 at 8:00 pm

Once, on one of our Autobahns, there was a full-stop traffic jam behind a corner.

I was driving at about 100 mph, everything was cool and I was thinking of soon arriving home after a hard work day. From one split-second to the other, I realised a hazard-flasher in my peripheral view, no one else had his warning lights on. I instantly knew this can become deadly, but I did not hammer down my ABS-brakes, because I knew the tailgaters on my back would not have the required reactions.

Instead, I just lifted my throttle and turned on my hazard-flashers.

Now I could see the end of the traffic jam coming nearer and nearer. I knew that stopping will be very critical now.

I checked in my mirrors, tailgaters now far enough away that I could finally start breaking on treshold (ABS would be dangerous now, so I kept my breaking just so hard that ABS would not fire). I somehow knew that I will stand still just 1 or 3 meters before the end of the traffic jam.

Suddenly, some foul soul decided to change line without sanity, from right to left, right in front of me, while I was treshold braking already. This was going to be very critical. Why the f*** did he do that?

So, while I was treshold braking, hazard flasher enabled, having my peripheral vision full of stuff, I additionally started to flash lights and use my signal-horn. I don’t know if the foul soul realized if I was in trouble. However, 20 meters away, my instinct told me there was just enough space on the left.

Tires on the limit of traction. Squealing, just so that ABS did not trigger. 10 meters, 5 meters. And suddenly I was there.

I stopped at the point I visioned already 100 meters ago. Only displaced half of a meter to the left. The quard railing just 2 centimeters of my left mirror, and that car that changed line just two seconds ago about 10 centimeters, perfectly on my right, and we looked into each other’s eyes.

I think that nobody learned a lesson about hazard flashers that day. But at least that guy who looked me in my eyes learned to not change line in such situation anymore.

All those were not conscious decisions, but exactly the kind of instinc you describe and practiced in simulation.

(I am going to share this story on my blog at

February 14th, 2016 at 3:50 am

@Max: That’s funny. I am a Software Engineer / Developer, too. People driving with me are sometimes nervous when I am almost touching road borders or obstacles on the road, when in fact it’s just situation aware driving and slow-hands 🙂

It’s interesting how the smooth driving from simulation racing translates into real-world driving. And, another thing I observed, safe pit exit. I always use the full acceleration lane on our Autobahns, whereas many others don’t, therefore basically being too slow to enter the Bahn.

Likewise line changing. Or, one of my favourites, starting from a red traffic light. I can proudly say that I am the fastest starter in town; often, I have an advance of 50 meters or so, when the following car is just starting to accelerate.

Hmm, maybe I should consider driving instructor, too …

February 17th, 2016 at 1:33 am

Keep up the amazing work !! Lovin’ it!
Michael Owen

Michael Owen
September 25th, 2016 at 8:15 pm

You can definitely practice driving using sims, but you wanna make sure you’re using the right equipment. There’s a lot of good wheels out there ( with the right wheel and the right sim you can certainly “practice” driving at home. Nothing beats the real thing, but it can come close!

James R
September 27th, 2016 at 10:09 am

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