Near global shelter-in-place orders put a serious damper on the 2020 track day and racing season. The entire situation unfolded so fast that many of us were only weeks from our first track day of the year before two weeks off turned into an indefinite hiatus. Our cars were in the garage all dressed up with nowhere to dance. What happened in the quiet of social distance lockdowns? A sim racing revolution, an explosion in popularity.
That all brought us here. With the explosion in popularity has come more online opportunities, leagues, and popularity all around so people are scrambling for racing simulator setups. Everyone from Formula 1 drivers to pre-teens are jumping into Sim-Racing in droves.
Below, we focus on 4 major points when considering your own simulator setup:
- Can you create a simulator Rig on a Budget?
- What Game and Platform (PC/Console) should I go with?
- How Much do I need to spend on a wheel and pedals?
- 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.
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 two toddlers. Spoiler: It is possible!
1) Where does this all 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).
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 own 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 Corvette 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, VR, 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 most the night playing around taking turns (mostly because the excellent smack talk opportunity). It was great! But I expected it to be an otherworldly experience verse my simple craigslist wheel and old TV. It wasn’t. $20,000 rig or a few bucks and scrap wood? What wins?
2) What are the easiest ways to get up and running?
If you have a computer with even halfway decent specs you should be able to run Assetto Corsa and iRacing. My brother dug his old Desktop out of his basement for me to use. It was good when built, but is over 10 years old now. Both iRacing and AC call for modest computer requirements but I can attest that they ran fine on that old desktop even though it was 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? The packaging constraints make them generally more expensive for what you get and harder to upgrade parts as needed. However, there are some budget gaming-laptop options. In December 2020 I needed a new laptop anyway, so I “compromised” by getting a Lenovo Legion gaming laptop (That I raced on earlier this evening and am now writing this post with)
*Note: another casualty of the chip shortage is computer prices, if you are shopping for a new computer you will likely be paying a bit more than I mentioned earlier.
No computer? Xbox 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’ve driven in real life. Racing in a sim isn’t equal to an on-track practice day, but I’ve noticed that I can “shake the rust off” way quicker if I was practicing virtually before a race weekend. 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 is the most famous gaming simulator, it has ultra competitive leagues and get a lot of notoriety. It has a decent amount of tracks that I frequent (Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, and NJMP Thunderbolt). The #1 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. Not to mention constant updates mean you’re often stuck watching a download screen for several minutes instead of jumping right on. However, they do have great formats for online leagues from groups of friends to leagues sponsored by big names across the industry.
Assetto Corsa is a game/simulator that I’m surprised isn’t talked about more. It may not be regarded as quite as realistic as iRacing, but it’s certainly close and there are even some aspects of AC that I like better. 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). Like Tracks, there are MASSIVE amounts of free additional car downloads as well.
Did I mention Assetto Corsa only costs $20? (And goes on sale often, it is discounted as cheap as $3.99 a few times a year! “Ultimate Edition” is worth the few extra dollars, as it gets you all the official add-on cars as well).
Note: Assetto Corsa Competizione is a popular “newer” version of Assetto Corsa, but it does not have the mod (adding tracks and car) capability of the original AC.
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 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 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… I ended up running iRacing a handful of times and letting my subscription lapse. Almost two years into Sim-Racing, we have a group of friends who race weekly in Assetto Corsa.
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.
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 game console platform to work on another. Not even between generations, My old 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 previous 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 COVID lockdowns began, prices for used wheels rose dramatically, but they seem to have come back down.
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 biggest advantage of a higher dollar wheel vs a $20 craigslist special is range of rotation. A Logitech G29 has 900 degrees of rotation vs the usual cheap wheel’s 270. That means the G29 can function like a real car’s steering, your real-life inputs on the wheel match the game. However, steering with a cheaper wheel’s 270 degree range, input goes from normal ratio in the first degrees of turning to exceptionally fast as it nears the end of its rotation. You can “tune” how the computer handles the input (including staying 1-1 but just locking when you max out)… but it’s just not “Right”. Really, it’s just a big factor towards realism, and since simulators are geared towards working very realistically… a wheel with ~900 degrees of rotation is pretty much a must have.
Beyond 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. However, the actual improvement in function is very small and doesn’t even come close to justifying a “high end” wheel like a Fantec.
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 more time in online leagues, and the more normal steering has been the single biggest factor in helping me stay competitive. Another helpful feature that surprised me was the brake pedal, the G29 had a much heavier brake pedal that was close to life and helped with pedal modulation.
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As we have now had over 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. The biggest thing I would shop for is a wheel with 900 degree rotation.
*A few months after getting the g29 I upgraded again to buy the added H-Pattern shifter. The added immersion of shifting gears similar to really driving was a HUGE improvement and I highly recommend spending the extra ~$50. These seem pretty much out of stock, at the moment, I’d wait for them to get back to somewhat normal pricing.
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
- 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 my kids’ playroom, in front of a TV, it had to be able to easily move in and out.
- 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 options- 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?).
Since initial writing, I’ve upgraded my computer (Lenovo Legion 5i laptop), wheel (G29), and upgraded the “rig” accordingly, so it fit my new laptop-based system. It’s still all based on my original scrap-wood setup, with a laptop shelf and mount for the shifter.
Are you someone without the tools, material, or skills to build your own? PLENTY of people attach the wheel to a desk and use whatever chair they have to sit in. The largest hurtle with using a desk and chair is stability, but with some creativity you can keep everything from moving.
If you don’t want to build, but absolutely want a rig, you can check out the “Playseat Challenge” Around $250, they are far from “Cheap” but they are by far the most popular rig for people trying to stay on a reasonable budget.
So let’s break down my original – cheapest setup possible:
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.
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.
I needed a new computer for my own 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. Shortly after, I bought the add-on H-Pattern shifter. 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.
The Future: After a year+ of racing, I’m still super happy with my setup. However, battling lifestyle inflation and cost creep is a daily battle. I have no plans to upgrade my mid-tier wheel (the G29), but I did snag a great deal on a Oculus Quest 2 Virtual Reality headset. More to come on that.
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