Racing, track days, and other forms of four-wheeled motorsports are tremendous fun; that's something many of us understand first-hand. But some of us don't have the time or the budget to dedicate to getting a real car on a real track. For some, simulators are as close as they can get on a regular basis. Fortunately for them, simulators have come a long way in the last several years.

But in the serious sim community, particularly among those who also race in the real world, there's one brand that has risen to the top: iRacing. It has done so through a combination of marketing, building a solid product, and a subscription service model that allows a high degree of realism to be had for not too much money--up front, anyway. The ongoing monthly fee is still cheap compared to race tires, brake pads, and engine rebuilds, but when you throw in a dozen cars and tracks, the amount of money invested in the sim can quickly rise into the hundreds of dollars.

Enter Simraceway, the first racing game with a real-world driving facility. Partnered from the start with the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School (which now shares its name with the sim: Simraceway Performance Driving Center), it aims to take on the needs and desires of real racers, aspiring racers, and hardcore sim drivers in addition to more casual gamers by providing even more realism. How does it do this? By involving real racing drivers, instructors, and car manufacturers in the very structure of the sim, and bringing it all together in a convenient, subscription-free online racing environment.

Building custom models of the cars, tires, and physics to replicate the experience of really driving a huge range of cars and tracks, the Simraceway team is adding content almost daily. Just this week, the Dodge Viper ACR-X joined a roster of cars over a dozen deep. The 2011 McLaren F1 car will be joining the list soon. Other cars already available include:

  • Maserati MC12
  • McLaren M6 GT
  • Alfa Romeo 8C
  • BMW 1-Series M Coupe
  • Bentley Continental Supersports
  • Morgan 3 Wheeler
  • BMW E92 M3 GT2
  • Simraceway Formula 3 (the same car used at the school)
  • Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X (also used at the school)
  • BMW Z4 GT3
  • Dodge Charger R/T

Dozens more cars are on their way, including an exclusive batch of McLarens and many cars yet to be announced.

In other words, whether you're into lapping the latest sedans, formula cars, and track-bred production vehicles or some of history's most impressive vintage hardware, or even hyper-luxury sports tourers, Simraceway has something for everyone, or will have it soon.

The core of the game may appear familiar to some, though Simraceway has built an entirely custom interface in addition to the custom models, physics, and tracks. That's because the game's engine is the same as that used in rFactor, one of the ground-breakers in realism among modern simulators, and well-known for its openness to community customization and modification.

To start racing, you just download the game and install it, then sign up with the website. Once you have an account, you'll get the Mitsubishi Evolution X included with the game and a handful of tracks to drive on. While the web interface isn't as polished as iRacing's, a nice feature is that you can opt to join races from either the browser-based account management page, or from within the sim itself.

For that matter, once you've added some credits or cash to your account, you can buy cars from either portal as well.

But lets get down to what really matters: how does it drive?

Very well, actually. It seems as if the track maps aren't quite as detailed as iRacing's, in terms of surface conditions and anomalies, though they are more than simple billiard-smooth paths along a course map; there are undulations, bumps, ripples, and rubbered-in lines, all of which affect grip, the car's attitude, and the line you'll have to take. The cars feel noticeably different from one to the next. We've driven many of the available cars in real life, and we can confirm they behave much like their real-world counterparts, insofar as any 2D screen and controller can replicate the feel of driving an actual car.

Off-track items aren't quite as detailed as most iRacing tracks, but if you're looking at the scenery, you're missing the point anyway, and the tracks themselves offer plenty of visual cues, character, and detail. At the same time, having more detailed items in your peripheral vision can add to the sense of immersion, which can enhance the sim experience. Here, Simraceway comes up a bit short, even with all settings turned to maximum, but not so much as to bring the overall driving value down meaningfully.

Check out some footage of the gameplay below, then hit page two for some of the coolest features of the sim.


Simraceway SRW-S1 steering wheel

Simraceway SRW-S1 steering wheel

Unique steering wheel controller

One area where Simraceway shines, particularly in comparison to just about any other sim or game on the market, is with its available SRW-S1 steering wheel, built especially for the sim by SteelSeries. One was provided to us by Simraceway for evaluation purposes.

This piece of hardware looks and feels like high-quality gaming gear, with a formula-car layout that includes a host of buttons, toggles and manettino-style switches to control the sim's key features, including car assists, driver views, brake bias, and much more.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the wheel is that it's accelerometer-based, meaning it doesn't have to be mounted to a desk, gaming platform, or any other surface (though an optional desk mount is available). On top of that, you don't need a separate pedal set; on the back of the wheel, below the small F1-style paddle shifters are a set of brake and throttle paddles.

These paddles allow analog brake and throttle inputs that are surprisingly natural, even though we're all used to doing both with our feet. The spring-loaded paddles offer a very good degree of control over inputs, making it easy to progressively open the throttle or trail off the brake--provided you're aware of what you're doing. It's still entirely possible to whack either one to 10 too suddenly and end up backwards.

More to come, including real-world action

While we've only spent a little over a dozen hours getting acquainted with the sim, its features, and the cars and tracks, we've rapidly come to enjoy it, particularly for the ease of just grabbing the SRW-S1 wheel and firing up a quick 20-minute session without having to rearrange the desk, secure the pedals and wheel, and turn our workspace into a temporary driving environment.

We'll be following up with more on the Simraceway sim, including how the Simraceway team ties it in to the real-world training at Simraceway Performance Driving School, in the near future.

For now, however, we'll leave the (virtual) racing to you. Download it for yourself and check it out. But be sure to stay tuned as we dig deeper into this game/sim/training tool, the science and research behind it, and how the virtual experience translates to the real world, and how you can make the transition, too.