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Project Sim Racer: Part 1 - Building the Rig

by Erik Jacobs

 

The beaten to death cliche goes something like, “speed costs money- how fast can you afford to go?” When people think about fast cars, they usually think about all the cash that gets dropped on the trick parts and the cool gadgets. When it comes to actually driving though, sometimes the investment in the driver makes far more difference.

Event entry fees are not cheap. These days, with $3/gallon or higher fuel prices in much of the US, and even higher prices in other parts of the world, just running the car at the track is an expensive proposition. For some, even getting the car to the track is expensive! So what’s a wannabe racing driver to do? Enter the modern-day racing simulator. But first, some history.

While some of MotoIQ’s readers weren’t even alive in the 1970s, the first driving video games started to appear at this time, growing in popularity and number along with the rest of the nascent arcade industry. It wasn’t until 1982 with Namco/Atari’s “Pole Position” that things really started to take off. From there it was simply a matter of continually evolving and stressing the available hardware of the day to the max to provide a more exciting driving experience. At some point, the industry diverged, with simulation and arcade/game experiences going in different trajectories.

Today’s racing simulators are far from arcade games. They are extremely accurate representations of real world physics that can be paired with realistic controls to drive on real-world circuits that have been scanned with lasers, lidar and other cutting-edge technology- all in an effort to provide an extremely faithful representation of the real world. Even 2- and 3-dimensional motion simulators are “affordable", depending on your budget.

So what does it take to get started, and where can you go for a reasonable sum? We decided to find out.

 

Your author's "man cave".

I’m a little bit of a gamer and computer nerd, if you haven’t yet figured that out by reading my articles. I also work with computers in my day job. Here’s my office. Those are some ancient Pioneer CDJ-800s on the desk because I’m also a wannabe DJ. But, you’ll notice that- no, not the standing desk- I have a computer! And, it’s a decent gaming computer! It’s the computer on the left. The computer in the back corner is actually my file server for the house. Then, there’s another computer I used to use for work. You can’t see the other OTHER computer, I think I have gotten rid of another computer and there’s a pile of laptops… wow I have a lot of computer stuff! And, a Tamagotchi and a Digimon and a pile of… don’t all of you have this kind of stuff in your office!? OK stop judging me! Let’s get back to it.

I generally upgrade once every five years or so and buy just-not-quite-the-newest technology when I do so. You could get a decent motherboard, CPU and video card and other things for less than $1000, and many of you might already have a nice gaming setup. I’m not going to spend time detailing the intricacies of building a PC in this article series. There are plenty of websites and resources to find that stuff out, or you can just buy a pre-made gaming PC from any one of a gazillion places on the internet. Yes, a gazillion. I looked. The key here is that I do not have the latest cutting edge equipment when it comes to the PC part, and you’ll see that the experience is pretty darned good.

Also, you’ll notice that I am talking about a PC here- not a Mac, not a Linux computer (although I wish I was talking about open source!), not a Playstation or Xbox. I'm definitely not a Nintendo...thing. That’s not to say that there are not good racing games for consoles. Gran Turismo and Forza are actually really good titles that, when paired with good controls, are simulator-like. But they’re still focused on the gamer first, as opposed to the hardcore racing enthusiast looking for a training tool.

 

The Xbox 360 controller makes simulations "playable", at best.

While we’re on the topic of consoles, here’s an Xbox 360 controller. If you buy a dongle, or have a wired controller, you can actually use it with a PC. For those who have been around gaming for a long time, you know that the triggers on a game pad do provide quite a bit more control than pressure-sensitive buttons. However, the experience of using a realistic driving simulator with a gaming pad leaves much to be desired.

Don’t get me wrong. If you spend a good bit of time diddling the calibrations, you can make some of the titles we tested very playable with a game pad. But the key word is “playable”. They’re not really fun using a game pad, and you certainly aren’t improving your skills much as a driver in the real world by using one.

The best simulator experiences are had on the PC, so that’s what we’re focused on. We’ve very roughly covered the PC part (“I have one that’s good enough”), so the next step is to look for a cockpit. Enter GTR Simulator.

 

It's like Christmas! Wait, it actually all did show up around Christmas...
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Comments
MDR
MDRlink
Monday, February 20, 2017 9:53 AM
What video card(s) are you going to be using?

The full simulator rig has always interested me until I start looking at pricing... paraphrasing your article "If $3 for a gallon of gas is expensive for you, consider a $5000+ racing simulator!" I'm joking, but the prices of the various components adds up quick
thoraxe
thoraxelink
Monday, February 20, 2017 1:54 PM
I totally get your point, @MDR. Well taken. I did try to bang on the fact that I do not have the latest and greatest in PC equipment. www.pcpartpicker.com is a great site for builds. Here is a link they have to a moderate gaming build:

http://pcpartpicker.com/guide/zQNnTW/entry-level-gaming-build ($536)

Here are some quick specs for you on the PC that I have, to compare with the one above:

Intel i7-4790S ($336, but kinda overkill)
Asus H97M-E/CSM ($130)
16 GB of RAM
Nvidia GeForce 660 Ti (pretty old)
Slow hard drives

I think the pcpartpicker build would work just as well as my setup if you added a bunch more RAM.

One thing of note -- this video card struggles to run the 4k Acer display at full graphic detail settings in the titles I tried. I'll detail this more in future segments. The Acer Predator X34 is a stunning and amazing monitor, but it has a LOT of pixels to drive. A more inexpensive option that still provides a ton of screen real estate is a 40" LCD TV from somewhere like Costco for $289. Sure, it's not an ultra-wide. It can be 4k. If your goal is to escape reality, then by all means get the Predator X34 and a GeForce 1080 GTX (total street price of $1700). But if the shadows that the birds in the trees around the track cast are not so important to you, you can spend a ton less but still have a very good experience.

One final note -- let's say that you do spend $5000 on a racing simulator. You can run that simulator EVERY NIGHT for essentially zero incremental cost. If you have to spend $500 total for a day at the track (conservative estimate for a low-end car), it wouldn't take you long in simulator hours to recoup that $5000.

In the approximately six weeks of late December and January alone I essentially competed in a dozen events and had hours and hours and hours of track time for just the cost of electricity (and my wife's sanity, sort of).
engineered
engineeredlink
Monday, February 20, 2017 7:53 PM
Nice build. Been looking for setup to replace my ghetto rig. Why did you go for one very nice screen instead of the triple monitor setup? Video card limitations?
engineered
engineeredlink
Monday, February 20, 2017 7:53 PM
subbing
Matt
Mattlink
Monday, February 20, 2017 8:15 PM
load cell pedals would be a HHHUUUGGGGEEEEE upgrade... I've been on iRacing since 2010. load cell pedals like fanatec clubsport V3's (with the damper on the brake upgrade if you can swing it) have a ton of customization in feel to match whatever you're used to (pedal travel, pedal stiffness, hydraulic feel, etc.) set the pedals up right and using them is truly training, position/poteniometer based pedals like what comes with the G29 don't feel natural once you've experienced a nice load cell set up
ginsu
ginsulink
Monday, February 20, 2017 11:14 PM
You can't route the wires through the tubes? It would look much cleaner.
thoraxe
thoraxelink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 7:30 AM
@engineerd - Because I could only get one for free =) Just kidding. I was interested in seeing what an ultra-wide curved display had to offer. I'd love to try out three of them but I have enough trouble with this old video card to drive one of them. I'm going to try running the games at lower resolution this week (eg: not the full 4k) to see how that works out. However in the future we'll be reviewing a triple monitor setup using Samsung LCD TVs from Costco.

@matt There's a Fanatec review in the works. Don't worry! There are also aftermarket mod kits for the Logitech pedals to convert them to load cell. The G920 has a progressive rubber stop behind the brake pedal so it does feel pretty normal, but, as you suggest, it is not as tune-able as the Fanatec or other pedal setups.

@ginsu Routing through the tubes would be hard-ish as there are not really any clean entry/exit points. I would have had to drill holes in them and use a fish tape in order to get them to snake through the way I wanted. Possible for sure. Worth the time and effort? Meh...
Crousti
Croustilink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 9:43 AM
Hey there! Some comments as i also have a sim rig for when my race car is not ready (aka most of the time).

My setup consists in a homemade playseat, a 1080p video projector, fanatec CSR steering wheel, csr elite pedals, and thrustmaster th800 gearbox (that last one is not mine i borrowed it). I use it to play asseto corsa and dirt rally.

Son first thought goes to the display.
In this day and age, buying this is kind of a mistake. 4k screen is going to cost at least a gtx1080 in terms of GFX power. I'd wager it might not be enough for highest settings.
You could have got a good VR headset for less than that price tag, and nothing can beat them as far as simulation goes (it would require a gtx1080 too anyway).

Another option is the video projector. I went this route a long time ago, it has drawbacks, but i'd do it again any time as it is not just used for the sim rig. I am tempted to get a vive though.

My point is, you do not need a 4K display, and you should not get one unless you plan on spending 1600$ on a couple of high end GFX cards.
I get a 120" display display with the videoprojector. It does 1080p. Unless you get within 1 meter of the screen on a static display, you will not see pixels. Good luck seeing them while playing. And that setup is going to need only 25% of the processing needed for a 4K display.

Seriously, send back that screen and buy an htc vive, a video projector with low latency, or 3 27" 1080p displays. Or all of them. You WILL thank me :D

Second, the wheel and pedals. There are discussion around which is better, but logitech is not one of the contenders. Basically, you got fanatec and thrustmaster.

Fanatec has the csr elite and clubman lineups for both pedals and wheels. Pedals feature a feedback and load cell brake pedal. Its clubsport version actually has a real BMC with hydraulics. Granted, the CSR elite wheel and clubsport pedals are very expensive and maybe overkill. Depends on your budget.
You can get the tuner kit for extra tuning of pedal distance, travel, resistance and feedback. It can also be installed as suspended. And it is *all* metal.

Logitech is way out of league here.

Now if you are still not satisfied, a thrustmaster T500RS setup is the only answer you can get, before going all out with a custom cabin mounted on hydraulic actuators.

Thrustmaster has supposedly a better steering wheel. I did not test it, so i do not know. It is said to be more reliable and better at feedback than the fanatec though. Their pedals are also very good and well made. And ... it shows in its price.

They also sell a nice gearbox with 8 speed H pattern, that can be turned into a sequential mode or an analog handbrake. I am using that on dirt rally, although i am going to build a hydraulic handbrake setup. Cost is ~100€ (for the homemade hydraulic handbrake. The gearbox is also in the same price range).

Anyway.

I really hope the "get a 4K display and logitech hardware" are just what you could think by being new to driving rigs, and not product placement.

Because this:
"When it comes to driving simulator hardware, Logitech really does provide the gold standard experience."

Is seriously wrong.

And so is a 1100$ single 4k display that is going to require a 2000$ computer to run things smoothly.

I mean, if you can spend 2000$ in a computer that can drive this 1100$ display, i do not understand why you'd get some logitech plastic wheel to drive. Nor why you would not pick a vive VR set instead.
Crousti
Croustilink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 9:50 AM
Just read that again. sorry for the wall of text and the seemingly agressive tone, it was not meant to (not a natural english user here :o )
Hap
Haplink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 10:10 AM
I got to the comment about the Logitech being the gold standard and had to sign off there. Logitech is sort of entry level at best, it's a good starting point, but Thrustmaster, Fanatec and the really expensive custom wheel builders are at a different level altogether. You really do need triples to get the most out of your rig for sim racing, you'll be blowing apexes on tight circuits left and right without them.
thoraxe
thoraxelink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 10:40 AM
@Crousti I am really appreciating your commentary. I'm not going to go into it point by point, so forgive me if I'm paraphrasing you a little bit. Let's address the Logitech first:

"gold standard" potentially has a lot of meanings. The phrase doesn't always mean best or greatest. The implication here is that if you're looking for a great experience at a reasonable price, the G920 is an excellent choice. A Fanatec setup is going to provide the next level of realism, and so would Thrustmaster, but you are looking at 2X the price. But if you ask the average person, or anyone who's been around driving games for a while, who makes a steering wheel setup, you will probably hear Logitech before TM or Fanatec. That's not to be dismissive of the TM or Fanatec product (Fanatec review is coming up).

If you had the choice between having a driving rig with a Logitech G920 and not having a driving rig, the Logitech is a great option.

You are absolutely right about the 4k ultrawide. It's not a permanent fixture on this rig. It just happens to be what we have worked out on the first round of testing. As I suggested in previous comments, and will note in the actual software reviews, the 660Ti has a really hard time driving 4k at high detail settings.

That being said, I am basically gaming at 4k (with moderate detail settings) with a $500 computer. Yes, it is a $1100 display, but you don't need it. Again, a $300 40" LCD TV would work great, too (and is what we'll be switching to in the future).

I don't take any offense at your comments, and I appreciate them greatly. Every MotoIQ project is a learning opportunity for both our readers and the authors, and I always am eager to see who comments and what they say -- it's often a chance for me to improve myself and my knowledge.

@hap -- see my above comment about "gold standard". Fanatec, TM and various other companies provide much more realistic experiences. They are also 2-5x the price.
Tomo
Tomolink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 12:30 PM
I get what you are saying Thoraxe, but I think here your choice of wording is a bit misleading.

Gold standard, to me, and I think a lot of others. Implies rather a Gold. meaning "top of the line no matter the cost" and Standard, being "by which all others should be compared". This is solved by simply stating that it is the right 'entry level choice' by offering some of the best price-to-performance, and even some ambitious upgrade options once out grow the controls.

You wouldn't for instance, call koni AGX shocks with eibach springs, the "Gold Standard" for spring and shock upgrade. When Moton's, KW Variant 3's, and MCA reds and Golds exist (to bring it back to cars). There are clearly better products, and in order to talk about those products appropriately its necessary to talk about the expectations. To me. a 'gold standard' in an industry is something established price not considered.

Otherwise, you've already said as much about the 4k display and the idea of sitting inside the 'budget' to run a rig on the lower cost ends.
thoraxe
thoraxelink
Tuesday, February 21, 2017 6:44 PM
Point taken -- I'll go back and tweak it in a day or two. I can see how it is being misconstrued.
Mike Kojima
Mike Kojimalink
Wednesday, February 22, 2017 10:50 AM
My cat ate the seat of my sim. Something about it compels him to sink his teeth into it. I am super pissed about that. I am probably going to redo it with an old out of date Sparco or something.
thoraxe
thoraxelink
Saturday, February 25, 2017 1:59 PM
Took me a few days longer than expected, but I have edited the introduction to the G920 and made a note that it was, in fact, edited. Thank you all for the very good feedback.
thoraxe
thoraxelink
Saturday, February 25, 2017 2:00 PM
@mike I bet that you could easily adapt some seat sliders and side mount brackets to work on this GTR Simulator. I might do that in the future once my race car seats time out... which they kind of already are.
Anonymous User
Anonymous Userlink
Wednesday, March 29, 2017 1:57 AM
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