Let's be clear. I'm not what you would call an avid sim racer. Sure, I'll occasionally hop on Forza with friends for a few Sunday races around Road Atlanta. But that's a world away from that of competitive sim racing.
So I was surprised as anyone else when I found myself lining up on the grid in an official virtual series run by a real-life racing sanctioning body. And my competitors weren't your average sim racers - They were all pro drivers from the real-life US Touring Car Championship.
Welcome to the USTCC. Virtually.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the name, the US Touring Car Championship is the most affordable Professional Touring Car series in the United States. They are the spiritual successor of the Speed World Challenge Touring Cup series, combining modern production-based cars and talented racers with professional TV coverage to put on an impressive show.
Well, prevailing conditions meant that the series couldn't start their 2020 season as planned. So series organizer Ali Arsham and his son Reza started a virtual series to keep their drivers from going stir crazy during quarantine. This being the USTCC, it wouldn't be a few open lobbies in Forza. These would be proper sanctioned races using Project Cars 2 with live commentary, streaming on Twitch and Facebook Live, and prize money for podium finishers. This was the real deal.
That first 2020 season was immensely popular. 15-20 car fields filled the track at every race, and it was everything you'd expect from touring car racing: Close, aggressive wheel-to-wheel racing in 300+hp sedans, punctuated by spectacular crashes when things went awry. It was great fun for both drivers and spectators. So much so that Ali and Reza decided to bring the series back for the 2021 off-season.
Unfortunately, the 2021 season started with a whimper rather than a bang. Between real-life commitments and technical issues, most of the drivers from the 2020 season couldn't attend the season opener. Just three cars took the green flag at the first race at Long Beach in what looked like it would be a lonely race.
Despite this, the race went on. And it was surprisingly good. Series organizer Reza turned out to be both exceptionally fast and exceptionally crash-prone, resulting in a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game as he tried to escape from the consistent Michael McColligan and animated Ali Arsham, who would close the gap with every incident.
The commentary team at Team Supernova Racing & Designs carried on with professionalism and bravado, delivering a steady stream of racing insights and amplifying the on-track action when it happened.
It looked like genuinely good fun. Enough fun for me to buy a copy of Project Cars 2 on Steam and put down the $50 entry fee to join the season from the next round. And just like that, Team StudioVRM.Racing had made its foray into the world of competitive sim racing.
Project Cars 2, Controller Style
The USTCC Virtual Series' sim of choice is Project Cars 2, a racing sim praised for its realistic handling as well as diverse selections of both cars and tracks. It also happens to have the most epic menu music of any game I've ever played. The USTCC organizers chose it for its solid physics model and the fact that the Touring Cars in the game handled similarly to the cars in the real-life US Touring Car Championship. After doing some practice laps in single player mode, I thought they chose well.
The Touring Car class in Project Cars 2 offers a choice of three cars (with a fourth if you buy the DLC). In traditional StudioVRM style, we opted for the least popular car - the Mercedes-AMG A45 Touring in the blue and white Team Dominum Racing livery. The AMG has a reputation for being a bit of a wooly handler, but that was the least of our concerns. Our big handicap was our hardware.
Due to a basement flood that destroyed our old Logitech racing wheel, I would be racing with an Xbox One controller. Driving a car on track requires the use of very small, precise inputs for things like unwinding the wheel or making small adjustments under hard braking. These types of things tend to be rather difficult on a controller, even with mods like these thumb stick extenders that we bolted on later in the season.
It was probably not the best choice of hardware against a field of experienced racers equipped with Fanatec and Thrustmaster setups. Too late to back down. Before we could do anything about it, it was Thursday night - Race night for rounds 3 and 4 at Watkins Glen. Hopefully we wouldn't be lapped too often.
We Like the Racing
Fortunately for me, the USTCC virtual series turned out to be very friendly to newcomers. The cars are restricted to one of two default setups, all assists are allowed, and qualifying is determined by a random grid to prevent runaway wins from the fastest drivers. Damage is turned up to Authentic to stop drivers from playing bumper cars in their touring cars, and the tracks are announced only 2 hours before the start to prevent drivers from spending their entire day optimizing their line around a particular track.
In practice, this formula worked well. Despite having never turned a competitive lap around Watkins Glen, I was able to settle in quickly and get comfortable going side by side with the USTCC regulars. By the end of the 20-minute official practice, the #8 AMG A45 was lapping at a solid mid-pack pace. Not bad.
The race was even better. Our fears of being left behind at the start proved completely unfounded, as the random grid thrust us into a tight three-way battle with the Renaults of Brad Austin and Ali Arsham. And it was a good, close fight.
Run a little too wide and a brightly colored racecar would go flying past. Defend well or risk going two-wide through the next three corners. The first race was 30 minutes of nonstop position changes punctuated by an occasional incident to mix up the running order. It's a good thing that both the cars and drivers were as tough as tanks.
Halfway through the first race, I misjudged my closing distance to Ali's yellow Renault and inadvertently put both of us into the Armco at the end of the boot. We immediately pointed our cars down the track and kept fighting as if nothing had happened. There was no time for anger, no time for apologies. Another moment of hesitation and Michael McColligan's green BMW would have snatched 3rd place away from both of us. It that close.
Before I knew it, the 30-minute race was over. I crossed the line 4th, just half a car's length behind Ali. My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding. It was the most fun I ever had in a racing game. Even though I knew all well that it was just 3D models circulating around a rendered track, I felt the same rush as what I feel after a strong race in our Prelude. The racing felt real.
The commentary team invited Ali and me to the broadcast group on Discord to give live interviews. Ali gave cool, professional answers to Team Supernova's questions, while I babbled out some mindless adrenalin-fueled responses about how much I enjoyed my first USTCC virtual race.
Before long it was time for the second race of the night, a wet-weather thriller that included moments like this 3-wide entry into the bus-stop chicane. It was insane. I was hooked. The next round couldn't come soon enough.
Cars, Competition, Camaraderie
While the series organizers chose a good sim and put on a good event, it's the people that makes the USTCC virtual series as good as it is. As it turns out, the USTCC grid contains a wide variety of personalities, driving styles, and sim racing skill levels.
Running up front are the serious sim racers like drift king Reza and lightning-quick Nik Romano. Mixing it with them are the ultra-consistent Dave Brown that punches in fast laps with metronomic consistency and the affable Andy Chittum who shrugs off shunts with a smile before charging through the field without batting an eye.
Red Panther Motorsports team boss Reto Baumann proved to be blindingly fast over one lap but a bit of a magnet for incidents, allowing hard charger James Gouveia and the comradely Brad Austin to draw him into battles for position. High-energy driving from real-life series founder Ali Arsham and assertive attacker Michael McColligan kept us on our toes through the full length of every race. And towards the back, we had the super-friendly Mark McManus who filled the in-race Discord chat with friendly banter while proving that you don't need to win to enjoy competitive sim racing.
While I suspect the running order of the drivers is a little different from that in real-life USTCC races, it was a good field all the same.
While the drivers ran the races, it was the commentary team that turned it into a show worth watching. Team Supernova proved to be naturals at commentating races. Talented sim racer Brandon Hodges, up and coming car livery designer Austin Rahn, and touring car racer Thomas "TJ" Pitre showed off their natural chemistry while toggling effortlessly between sim racing banter and astute observations on the on-track action.
It didn't take much to convince my fellow east coast racers to join the grid. ProjectCRX's Andrew Yoon was the first to register out of our local group, buying a secondhand Thrustmaster setup to dive head first into the next few rounds at Zolder. He instantly made his mark by putting a black and white Megane on the podium in his first race. One round and one Steam Sale later, bombastic SCCA racer Martin Szwarc and time trial whiz kid Firoze Mehta joined the grid to add some serious heat to the races at the Dubai Autodrome.
The new racers added so much excitement that the organizers decided to extend the series by an extra three races. But not before Midwest-based rallycross driver Alton B. Worthington crashed the party with an elbows-out style of racing that he himself describes best as "rowdy." And boy was it rowdy. There were so many close races at the Algarve rounds that the commentary team went dead silent while trying to figure out which cars to commentate on.
Thursday night quickly became the highlight of our week, and no wonder. The USTCC Virtual Series wasn't about racing online. It was racing online with a friendly group of talented people that knew how to race hard and still have fun. It was fantastic.
Crescendo to a Grand Finale
The weeks and races flew by in a flurry of bumps, scrapes, and spraying of virtual champagne. Before long it was time for the series finale.
Some of us had made a bit of a game of trying to guess the event venue before the Thursday evening announcement and we were thrilled to discover that our guess of the Circuit de Catalunya was completely incorrect. The grand finale of the 2021 virtual series would be a three-race triple header at the traditional home of British touring car racing, Brands Hatch Circuit.
None of us were particularly comfortable racing on the Grand Prix layout of Brands Hatch. The sweeping downhill turn one through Paddock Hill will unsettle even the most experienced driver, and as expected, multiple racers found themselves riding into the gravel runoff during the pre-race open practice session. It was a similar story with the uphill left known as Surtees Corner, with multiple front wheel drive racecars finding the outside wall before the race even started. These 20-minute races would be fights for survival. The winners would be the ones that made the fewest mistakes.
I focused on getting a handle on the rhythm of the track during the short open practice. Ignore the lap times, don't worry about being a second off the pace. One-lap pace was secondary to consistency. If I could drive a clean race, run consistently, and maybe get a little lucky with our randomly chosen starting position, I could put the #8 Mercedes AMG A45 Touring in the top 5.
Luckily for us, the RND gods were merciful, and we started 6th on the grid. Unluckily for the Team Supernova commentators, connectivity issues prevented the chaotic first race from being broadcast live. But believe me when I say it was chaotic. We made it through three turns before a multi-car incident took out a third of the field. With generous use of defensive driving, we avoided the calamity and got the Merc in fourth behind the red, yellow, and white BMW of Dave Brown and the Renault of Reto Baumann. Dave and Reto were both too fast for me or my XBox One controller, so I made it my mission to keep them within striking distance. If either of them made a mistake, I wanted to be there to take their place.
It took all of 7 minutes before the first incident happened. Nik Romano and Firoze Mehta had charged up from the back of the grid locked in a dead heat. I briefly considered joining them in that fight but decided it would be wiser to stick with the original plan. That decision proved correct. Reto joined their battle only for the three of them to come together on Hawthorn Hill and plummet back down the order. I latched onto the back of Dave Brown intent on keeping him in sight. All the while, I could hear screams over the Discord-powered in-car radio as cars bumped, rubbed, and flew off track behind me. Don't get distracted. Stay focused. Stick to the plan.
I managed to maintain a consistent pace for 18 minutes before Nik and Firoze recovered from their earlier clash and caught back up. Despite the damage to their cars, I was powerless to defend as they swept past in the third sector. As they did, Dave took a little too much curb through Westfield and spun into the wall on the inside. Although the podium had slipped out of reach, the strategy worked. The #8 AMG A45 finished 4th on the road behind the lightning-fast trio of Reza, Nik, and Firoze.
Then came 2nd practice. And the rain. Lots of rain. The rear-drive BMWs started drifting wildly through every turn as the front wheel drive Renaults and AMGs drove squiggly lines down the straights to avoid the huge puddles that started forming on the edges of the track. These last two races were going to be something else.
The start was something else indeed. The random grid put our #8 Mercedes-AMG A45 on pole ahead of the BMWs of James Gouveia and Mark McManus. James ran similar times to us in the dry and Mark was a few seconds off our pace. If we got a clean start, maybe we could pull a gap on the field and snatch a podium spot before the faster cars could catch up.
Green light, and away we went. James sprinted ahead with a wild, tail-wagging start, snatching the lead. I tucked in behind James, trying to stay as close as possible while keeping the front end clean. Dave Brown and Nik Romano leapt up the order to take 3rd and 4th while Reza found himself going into turn 3 backwards, facing Alton Worthington who had a big moment in the first three turns of the race.
As we went down the Hawthorn Hill and into the first sweeping right known as Westfield, James lost the rear end of his purple BMW and speared straight into the inside wall. And just like that, Team StudioVRM.Racing was leading the race... If only for a few corners. Dave and Nik were all over the rear bumper of our AMG and itching for a fight. As much as it pained us, we knew that getting involved in a 3-way brawl on Lap 2 would only end in tears. So I made the decision to take the conservative strategy and let the two of them by. Maybe they would tangle and open up an opportunity for us to get out in front.
While all this was happening, the black, red, and white Renaults of Reto Baumann and Andrew Yoon had quietly made their way up from the back of the grid and were now knocking on our door. A small mistake in the second sector allowed Reto through, while Andrew Yoon streamed up the inside going into Hawthorns a few laps later to push us down to 5th place. And even that wouldn't be for long. A few laps later, Reza got past in his battle-damaged yellow BMW. Our conservative strategy was not paying off.
Reto and Reza endured a few off-track moments which resulted in us getting back one position before the checkered flag. I crossed the line fifth behind Nik, Dave, Andrew Yoon, and Reto. I was disappointed. I suspect most racers would be. No racer wants to finish off the podium after starting on pole.
There was one race left - One last 20-minute sprint in monsoon-level conditions. Damn the strategy. For this last race, we would be giving it everything we had... and then some.
Finishing Flat Out
So the curtain lifted on the very last race of the 2021 USTCC Virtual Series. Brandon, Thomas, and Austin in the commentary booth could only laugh when they got their first glimpse of the torrential downpour that we would be racing in. It was raining so hard at this point that puddles were forming on the grid. These would be nightmare conditions for most. For us and our seventh-place grid slot, it was game time.
One last green light, and 13 racecars scrambled off the grid. As expected, conditions were treacherous. Mark McManus caught a puddle on the grid and speared off into the wall before he even crossed the start-finish line, nearly taking Alton's blue and white Opel with him. I took an aggressive line through the middle of turn one, taking 6th from Andrew Yoon and getting in position to attack Dave Brown and Nik Romano ahead. Before I could attempt an overtake, Dave and Nik suffered synchronized spins on the exit of Graham Hill. Andy Yoon and I got past with four wheels on the outside kerb and were now running 3rd and 4th.
James Gouveia had emerged from the early chaos to take the lead ahead of Andy Chittum's white AMG, with Firoze Mehta, Andrew Yoon, and me hot on their heels. That running order only lasted for a few corners as James and Andy Chittum hit a big puddle on Hawthorn Hill and hydroplaned into the wall. In the blink of an eye, the east coast trio of Firoze Mehta, Andrew Yoon, and Roger Maeda were running 1-2-3.
Getting past Firoze and Andrew Yoon would be tough. When we were running time trials together, Andy and Firoze were consistently amongst the fastest drivers in their classes. But I wasn't about to waste this opportunity to end the season on a high. So I dialed the brake bias rearwards, slid the rear into every corner, and hung on as my AMG strained every mechanical sinew in its blue and white body to keep up with the leaders.
Reto, Reza, Dave, and Andy Chittum did their best to close the gap in their damaged cars, with little success. I watched the clock ticked down as we pulled away from the pack. Firoze and Andrew Yoon were running within a few tenths of each other, with me just a few seconds behind. If we could keep up this pace, we would all finish on the podium.
But then, with just under 3 minutes left on the clock, I saw headlights in my rear-view mirror. Nik Romano had clawed back the losses from his first lap spin and was closing fast. Nik caught up on the penultimate lap at Graham Hill. I wasn't going to just let him through this time. He made a move into Westfield, I held my ground. We went through the last three turns side-by-side, leaving just enough room for each other. Once again, I could feel my heart trying to pound itself out of my chest. It was one last wheel to wheel battle to sign off a month and a half of hardcore competition.
In the end, Nik got the upper hand through Stirlings and claimed the last podium spot for himself. I crossed the line fourth, with my head held high. it was a fine race to cap off a brilliant series.
I never thought I would enjoy sim racing as much as I had in these past five weeks. This wasn't just a random online race series with nameless, faceless strangers from the internet. It was real racing with drivers of real cars who understood the thrill of close racing as well as the consequences of getting it wrong. It's a shame I won't get to race with these guys in real life when the actual race season starts.
Oh well. Thanks to my two podium finishes and series sponsor The Speed Traveler, I now have an extra $20 that I didn't have before. Maybe I'll put it towards a wheel and pedal set for next season.
Watch the Races
Here's where you can watch all the race replays from the 2021 USTCC Virtual Series, with commentary from Team Supernova:
The drivers and organizers all expressed interest in doing this again. We don't know yet if it will be a 2021 summer series or if we will have to wait until 2022. Look for the announcement here so you can join us:
Lastly, here's where you can watch the full, commentated replays of every real-life USTCC race:
In the meantime, I'll see you at the track.