Monday, July 2, 2007

Simulations On the Nascar Circuit

The first time Regan Smith raced around Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, the Mexico City road course for Nascar's second-tier Busch Series race today, he knew every bump and turn on the 2.5-mile circuit. He knew the line he wanted to drive and knew where to shift and when to push it even before his first practice lap.

How did he know? He had raced an exact model of the track on a video game. But for Smith, it was not merely a game. The rookie Nextel Cup driver is one of several young competitors who are turning to simulated racing for practice and preparation for real races.

"Everybody's doing everything we can to be better," Smith said at his office before the season. "It's so competitive now that those extra laps might be the difference in qualifying 35th or qualifying 10th."

Denny Hamlin, the 2006 Nextel Cup rookie of the year, credited Sim racing at least partly for his first victory, at Pocono Raceway last June.

"Obviously, it helped him and he put a lot of weight on it," said Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief. "I like videogames as well. I think the biggest thing in the videogames, you learn patience. Because the videogames - you can get in trouble a lot quicker than you can on the racetrack." Of course, crashing in a sim is not nearly as costly as in a real race.

Many drivers own sophisticated Sim racing units that cost thousands of dollars and are designed to mimic the feel of real racecars. The setup in Smith's office is surrounded by a metal frame. It contains a racecar seat that faces a 42-inch flat-screen computer monitor. The steering wheel pops in and out, as it does in a real racecar. The unit also has a stick shift and gas, clutch and brake pedals that can be adjusted to match the tension of those in Smith's racecar.

Other Sim racing units feature three-panel displays that offer a three-dimensional 90-degree view.

No matter how sophisticated the unit, all agree that there is only one computer program that is accurate and realistic enough to use for real race practice. The Nascar Racing 2003 computer game by Papyrus has every Cup racetrack from that season and allows players to make detailed adjustments in tire pressure, camber, shocks, and springs. The program simulates such realistic concerns as tire wear and the loose and tight handling of a racecar.

For the full story, please see The New York Times.

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