The CHEAPEST Racing Simulator (Gaming) setup: What you need and how much you need to spend

Near global shelter-in-place orders put a serious damper on the 2020 track day and racing season. This entire situation evolved so fast that many of us were only weeks from our first track day of the year before this indefinite hiatus began. The car is in the garage all dressed up with nowhere to dance. Some tracks are beginning to open up, but what are the rest of us left to do but play racing games simulators? 

  1. Can you create a simulator Rig on a Budget?
  2. What Game and Platform (PC/Console) should I go with?
  3. How Much do I need to spend on a wheel and pedals?
  4. What type of rig should I buy or Build?

The first thing to do is plan your setup. If you are into Track Days, chances are your Facebook feed contains a mix of pro drivers racing in +$30k simulator setups and some friends with similarly fancy homebuilt setups. If you contract a Race Simulator business some companies offer “basic” rigs near $5,000 but don’t be shocked to hear quotes in the $15,000-$60,000 range.

Josef Newgarden's rig

This may shock you, but as someone who tries quite hard to get through track days with as little waste as possible, I wanted to try and get the cheapest possible functioning setup. Especially since I’ll be sharing space with my toddler.


1) Where does this leave us “Budget” people?

Just like the colossal range of budgets at a track day, racing game simulator setups see a similar range. Sure, we all drool over the posted and constantly shared videos of full cockpits with motion rigs that would make a fighter pilot blush… but there are plenty of people out there in a beach chair using an old xbox wheel. Or an old seat taken from a junked Subaru, Pallet wood (Nails Included), and a 10+ year old wheel with no hint of force feedback like my buddy Dillon at EJ2 Track Rat (IG)(Youtube).

Low-Budget-Racing-Game-Sim-Rig

If I had the kind of disposable income to drop $20k on a racing game setup, I’d be happy to do it… kudos to those who can… but that is very far from my reality… so what do I do?

“Will I be at a disadvantage? Will it be as fun with a cheap setup?”

The amount of money you spend does not directly correlate to the amount of fun you have. Just like with the range of budgets at a track day, the person in the z06 probably isn’t having more fun than me in my Miata. While it may be cool to use a rig with multiple monitors, moving seat, force feedback, full shifter, etc…. It still doesn’t completely transport you to driving a real car. The extra feedback information may help you lap virtual Watkins Glen a hair a bit faster but is it worth spending exponentially more money?

A couple years ago, a professional Simulation company brought a demo rig to a track day I was at. They graciously (foolishly?) left it running all night for us to use. We spent quite a while playing around taking turns (mostly because the excellent smack talk opportunity). It was great, but it wasn’t worlds better than a simple wheel and TV screen setup I was used to. $20,000 rig or a few bucks and scrap wood?


2) What are the easiest ways to get up and running?

If you have a computer with halfway decent specs you should be able to run Assetto Corsa and iRacing. My brother dug his old computer out of his basement for me to use. It was good when built, but is nearly 10 years old now. Both iRacing and AC call for modest computer requirements but I can attest that they run fine on my computer even though it is well below the published minimum specs.

Buying any gaming computer isn’t cheap, name brand units are usually well over a grand. However there are “cheap gaming computers” to be found on eBay for ~$300 refurbished or ~$4-500 new. They should have no problem running these games. If you are handy enough to work on your own car, you can consider pricing out your own build. Do some research for specs and check sites like PCPartPicker.com to help you organize part lists and find the lowest prices. I priced out a very basic build for just under $300

Prefer buying a laptop? Just know the packaging constraints make them much more expensive for what you get, and harder to upgrade parts as needed.

No computer? Xbox One and Playstation also have good options. If you don’t have any platform and you don’t want to piece together a cheap gaming computer, buying a used (or even new) Xbox console a cheap route. Forza Motorsports 7 on Xbox One (And PC) is pretty great and I’ve heard good things about Gran Turismo Sport on Playstation.

What Platform/Game should I choose?

For me, the biggest deciding factor for choosing a platform/games was the available tracks. I enjoy racing games 10x more when I can drive tracks that I drive in real life. I tried using Xbox 360 and Forza Motorsport 4, but it didn’t have any tracks from the Northeast so I got bored pretty quickly. There were no other race sim options for the aging ancient Xbox 360, so that’s out. When I was planning my new setup, availability of tracks was paramount, below are a few Games Simulators I considered:

iracing-racing-simulator

iRacing has a decent amount of tracks that I frequent (Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, and NJMP Thunderbolt). An issue with iRacing is it seems cheap to buy in, there is always some sort of promo running for new customers, but it’s still not cheap. Full price membership is $110 a year. Then you see things like $15 cost to “Buy” a track like Watkins Glen and it continues to add up very quickly.

Assetto-Corsa-Simulator

Assetto Corsa is a game/simulator that I’m surprised isn’t talked about more. It may not be quite as realistic as iRacing, but it’s certainly close and there are things I like better in AC. It comes with a decent track list but has a HUGE library of [free] user-generated tracks. These tracks range from “very good” quality to exceptional. For my region it currently has Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, Palmer Motorsports Park, and NJMP Lightning. All that is missing from my regular racing schedule is NJMP Thunderbolt, but it is currently “under development” (Though it seems to be on the back burner). Did I mention it only costs $20? (And goes on sale often, it was $3.99 around Christmas!).

If you run Assetto Corsa, look up Content Manager for a simpler interface and an easier time downloading and installing new tracks/cars.

Forza-Motorsport-7-Racing-Simulator

Forza Motorsport 7 has two local tracks (Lime Rock and Watkins Glen), plus a thriving league of local racers who compete regularly. If you are playing on an Xbox you do need to pay for Xbox live (about $10 a month, or $5 a month if you buy a year).

gran-turismo-sport-racing-simulator-game

Gran Turismo Sport doesn’t have any local tracks to me, so that (and Playstation) was out for me.

My Decision? I purchased Assetto Corsa and downloaded my local tracks. I also purchased a few months on iRacing with a promo, mostly so I can mess around on NJMP Thunderbolt and jump into a friend’s league… but I likely won’t be renewing.


3) Controls: Console Controllers,Basic Wheels, or Full on Simulator wheels?

Some people are fine playing racing games with a console controller. My brain is not wired for console controlling, with Mario Kart as the sole exception. So whether I was on PC or Console, I needed a wheel.

video-game-controller-racing

The issue with getting a steering wheel for a console is cross platform compatibility. Whether it’s because of actual software improvements or greedy planned obsolescence, don’t expect a wheel for one platform to work on another. Not even between generations, My Xbox 360 wheel will not work with an Xbox One… The good news, PC’s can run almost everything. Whether your wheel is made just for PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, or Playstation, they all will work on your PC.

I bought my current wheel when I was using the Xbox 360. Someone on Craigslist was selling it because their kid never used it (or maybe was grounded?) Took a 20 minute drive, paid them $25, and had a pretty capable setup. When the lockdown began, prices for used wheels rose dramatically, but the seem to have come back down.

racing-wheel-thrustmaster-ferrari-xbox

Do you need a fancy simulator wheel with all the bells and whistles?

Need is relative. Force feedback helps give you useful information about how much grip the tires currently have. It won’t change the whole world, but it will be a big factor in repeatedly laying down consistent laps.

The bigger advantage of a higher dollar wheel vs a $20 craigslist special is range of rotation. A Logitech G29 has 900 degrees of rotation vs a cheap wheel’s 270. That means the G29 can function like a real car’s steering, your inputs on the wheel match the game. However, steering on a 270 degree wheel goes from normal ratio in the first degrees of turning to exceptionally fast as it nears the end of its rotation. It can be tuned for various things (including staying 1-1 but just locking when you max out)… but it’s just not “Right”. The variable ratio steering can help with some “ultra fast hands” saves, but isn’t realistic and can just be confusing, especially if you are on a real track often and have certain inputs as “muscle memory”.

Over the $250-350 price threshold of 900 degree steering, wheel and petal setups continue to add more features. “better” feedback, dynamic pedal force (and feedback), and more are all attainable, if you pay for it.

For me? After playing on that cheap Ferrari Replica wheel, I broke down in December 2020 and bought a G29 on sale from Amazon. The wheel is marketed for Play Station, but also completely PC compatible. I have been putting some more time in online leagues, and the more normal steering has been huge factor in helping me stay competitive. Another helpful feature that surprised me was the brake pedal, the better wheel had a much heavier brake pedal that was close to life and helped with pedal modulation.

g29-sim-racing-wheel-pc-ps4-ps5-budget

(Amazon Affiliate Notice: If you click the above link to Amazon I will earn a small percentage, support the blog and click away!)

As we have now had nearly a full year since the “Sim Racing revolution” began, some more decent quality wheels are coming up for sale in the used market at good prices. At the same time, many used wheels are coming up for the same price/more than they cost at today’s sale prices… so don’t jump on the first for sale ad you see.


4) “The Rig”

There are SO many different ways you can “design” a gaming rig. To simplify the process I’ll say there are 4 options. You can 1) Buy an expensive rig. 2) Buy a cheap basic rig. 3) Build a crazy setup. 4) Build a simple setup.

Two Main Considerations

  1. How much space do you have – I didn’t want to dedicate an entire wing of my house to a racing sim. Since I would be setting up in a playroom infront of a TV, it had to be able to easily move in and out.
  2. What’s your budget – If you’re reading this blog, you know my budget is usually 0 or close to it.

These left me with the obvious choice of 4 – Build a simple setup. I grabbed some scrap wood and a beach chair, and build a simple rig to mount the wheel and pedals. I even had some extra stain lying around so I gave the “woodwork” a bit of a final detail (and hid some of the old stain marks). The only issue I had with the initial design was the pedals pushing away from the seat while driving. It was easily resolved by running a cable with carabiner clip on between the chair and wheel stand on either side. Is my rig pretty? No way. Does it work? Absolutely. It is also very light and compact and can be quickly tucked away in a corner.

The construction is very simple. A stand for the wheel that has a “Footbox” for mounting the pedals. Because the seat is so low, I angled the pedals slightly to be comfortable. The added detail of my daughter’s toy cars scattered around make you feel like you’re at a real racetrack (right?).

Cheap-Racing-Simulator-Rig-iRacing-Assetto-Forza


So let’s break it down:

Wheel & Pedals: $25 – Bought on Craigslist a few years ago

“The Rig”: $ Free – Chair, Wood, Hardware, metal cable – All scrap I had lying around

Computer: $ Free(ish) Traded some random hardware and beer with my brother for his old computer (I lucked out here!)

Computer Misc: $50  – I needed a mouse and bought more RAM for the computer (though it was running pretty well before, for $40 it was affordable insurance)

Monitor: $ Free (Using an old TV)

Software: $35 – Assetto Corsa $20, 3 months of Iracing and NJMP Thunderbolt $15.

Total: $110

So, if you already have a moderately powerful computer that can run the games, it is very possible to be up and running under $100. If you want a Decent PC and decent wheel, you can get up to $500 pretty quickly. If you have an Xbox One already, you can also be up and running without spending much. The #1 Takeaway: whatever your budget, you can usually piece together a decent sim setup.

2021 Update: I needed a new computer for general use and I was able to snag a Black Friday deal on a Lenovo Legion 5i for about what I was budgeting for a standard “home” computer. I also had a few moments of “Budget” weakness and upgraded to a new G29 wheel. I’m much deeper than the $110 I started off last winter, but it has already gotten a lot of very good use and I don’t regret the extra spending.

racing-sim-assetto-corsa-watkins-glen
Don’t forget to use ALL of the curb at the WGI Bus Stop


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3 Comments

  1. Great post here, inspired me to update the PC to run more sims on my existing rig. I knew about AC prior but never put together how accessible the tracks were (I’m local to the area, too). I dug up most of the tracks I was interested in… except for Thompson. Can only find a truncated, drift course version.. not the whole track. Were you able to find the full one?

    1. I wasn’t able to find a Thompson either, admittedly I didn’t look much since I the club I run with the most doesn’t go often. But, If you do find one that works, let me know!

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