It's three in the morning and you are still glued to your TV screen with your steering wheel on your lap and headphones firmly attached to your ears. Most likely there is a lukewarm beer to your left that you have neglected in your ambition to beat that Finnish sim-racing maestro named Markku.
When your wife wakes up for her nightly bathroom break she scowls at you and calls you "childish" and "immature." But you don't care. After all, you are perfecting your skills to one day become the next Kimi Raikkonen — right?
As a professional driver and a frequent video gamer I can attest that, yes, video games can absolutely make you faster, but only if you pick the right game.
This scene above is common in my household. The big difference between you and me is that, unless you are a cab driver, I actually earn my living from driving fast, so the argument of "Honestly Honey, it makes me a faster driver. This is my work!" has some relevance to it.
But if the closest you get to harassing a real racetrack is when driving your sky blue Camry around the swooping turn on the off-ramp of I-74, just outside of Peoria, then this argument might not be sufficient to prevent divorce.
The fact is that racing video games are the only avenue most have to express their inner racing desire and compete against others in a competitive environment. They get to drive cars they have had wet dreams about and race them at tracks that are almost as arousing as the person sleeping next to them.
And if one day Sarah (now divorced) decides to splurge the remainder of her life savings to race in real-life, then all these midnight hours of playing computer games will finally pay off. She may now be poor, lonesome and homeless but at least Sarah will be fast.
There is an abundance of racing games out there, varying from the realistic to the plain ridiculous. Most are fun but only some can truly help you drive a racecar faster.
Let's start with the most common of games, such as Forza and Gran Turismo. Honestly, about all you can learn from these are the basics of the racing line and familiarizing yourself with the tracks — and even those are a little tainted.
The physics are just not that realistic and, although to the amateur it may feel rather lifelike, it is not the best representation of driving at speed. Having said that, playing these games will improve some of the basics and at least enable you to think like a racecar driver.
If you want to get the most from your sim-racing experience, however, then you need to venture up the totem pole and immerse yourself in sims like iRacing, rFactor or SimRaceway. The latter is new and well worth checking out. The physics are developed by pro drivers like Dario Franchitti, Alan McNish and the late Dan Wheldon, and as this sim progresses, expect it to be a true rival to the more established names in racing simulators.
I'm not a fan of rFactor but iRacing is fantastic. The physics are spookily lifelike and although the setups and driving styles required to go fast are as grossly misleading as one of Mitt Romney's tax returns, if you chose to stay true to reality and not get carried away trying to beat the hundreds of Markku's out there, then you'll get the most realistic racing experience available.
The tracks even embody the bumps identically and the racing between fellow ‘onliners' is amazingly realistic. Here you can truly develop and hone your skills, like perfecting the racing lines, race craft, braking and throttle techniques and more. As I said, just don't get too carried away memorizing setups in the hope that they will work in real-life — because they won't.
I know this because, during a rainy practice day for the 2011 Indy 500, my engineer and I decided we would fight our boredom by hooking up iRacing, selecting the Dallara IndyCar at Indianapolis and inputting our current car setup. I then hit the computer-generated racetrack to discover if we could make some changes that might correlate with reality. But it felt completely different and totally alien to my IndyCar that was sat just 20 feet away. To make it drive somewhat similar it required an equally alien-like setup.
Still, it is an online racing sim for the masses; you can hardly expect it to be 100% lifelike. If it were, then F1 teams like McLaren would not have invested nearly $40 million to develop their in-house, über realistic simulator that can actually develop racecars.
Racing isn't like golf, where you can head to the range to hit a few balls and swing till your fingers bleed. If you want to practice racing then you need to be prepared to spend a crap-load of money doing so and even then testing will likely be sporadic and limited. This makes racing games one of the only attainable options available, even for the pros. More than anything, they keep your brain in race mode and your reactions sharp and precise.
Of course driving flat-out around a 120 mph blind bend at Sonoma is a lot easier on a game than it is in real-life. That's why I told you how to disengage the part of the brain that advises you to lift off when times get a little scary, and creates images of greeting the barriers in a fiery, burger-roasting ball of flames.
After all, in reality there is no reset button.