What a difference a week makes. When I first posted a story last week announcing my big move from real-world professional racing (not happening, thanks to coronavirus) to professional sim racing (actually happening), I thought I was being clever. I thought I was getting into this before a lot of my fellow pro drivers figured out how to do the same.
Well, that didn’t last long.
Fox Sports 1’s broadcast of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational race at Homestead was a huge success. The race, which featured hugely popular NASCAR drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin duking it out for the win, has opened the floodgates to a huge number of real-life professional drivers to make the switch to the virtual world.
In addition to a huge host of NASCAR aces, you have names like Jenson Button, Juan Pablo Montoya, and fan fave Robert Wickens (who’s jumping behind the wheel for the first time since his massive wreck at Pocono a few years back) all dipping their toes into the virtual waters.
So even if my timing was a bit tardy, at least I’m in good company in making the move to virtual racing. In case you don’t recall, I aim to compete in several iRacing Road Race events and the Forza Motorsport series as well.
The great thing about this situation is that all these pros bring a new level of credibility to sim racing. They have been magnanimous in their praise of how far virtual racing’s come and how close it is to racing in the real world—even after the coronavirus pandemic subsides and real-life racing resumes in some way.
So now with all of these guys jumping on board, the urgency to get my system up and running has now gone through the roof. Based on everything I learned about the most important factors to focus on in building a high-level sim racing system, I got to work building my own. And when I say building, I literally mean building. I decided to attempt to build my own PC from scratch.
Yeah, I’m kind of a glutton for punishment.
There were a couple of reasons I wanted to attempt to build my own PC. It allowed me to pick and choose the parts I felt were going to perform best for sim racing and get an understanding on how they all worked together. Since this setup was going to be focused exclusively on sim racing, and not so much on other games, business software or Facebook, I could focus specifically on parts that would make the system run best with sims like iRacing, rFactor, Asseto Corsa, and racing games like Forza.
The second reason was the timing. Of the half-dozen or so companies I spoke with that specialize in building custom gaming PCs, every single one was four to six weeks out on a custom build due to the current pandemic. All of their PC techs were having to work from home, creating a fairly large backlog of orders. This was to be a common theme throughout my build, not just with the PC but also every other component that was going to make up the system.
As most of the companies that specialize in sim racing are small companies, they don’t have the ability to carry a huge amount of inventory. With the global demand for sim racing now going through the roof, a lot of these companies (manufacturers and retailers alike) have little to no inventory left. With those constraints in mind, I made my choice to forge ahead and build my own PC. And try not to electrocute myself in the process.
So taking into account all of the advice that I got from iRacing, and my own research, let me present to you all the bits that will go into my sim racing PC.
For my motherboard, I chose the ASUS RoG Maximus XI Hero ($278.99 on Amazon). The Maximus Hero XI was designed for high-end gaming and has a feature set with things like overclocking optimizations and space for dual graphics cards that I might not need immediately but could come in handy down the road.
Speaking of graphics cards, after learning from the iRacing folks how important they were to making a sim run well I chose the big, bad (and very pricey) EVGA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Ultra Hybrid Gaming GPU ($1,299.99 on Amazon). This was a big hit to the budget but one I believe will be worth every penny once we get up and running. With 11GB GDDR6 memory onboard the RTX 2080 Ti should be able to handle anything that I throw at it with ease. The main selling point of this card for me though was the fact that it is what they call a hybrid card which uses both air and liquid cooling to keep the temps under control.
Cooling is massively important, as one of the biggest issues with running a gaming PC hard is the heat buildup. As that happens the PC will throttle performance in order to manage it, which obviously is not helpful when you’re in the middle of a race. But more importantly, in the long run, consistently high temperatures will shorten the life of components.
For my CPU I chose Intel’s Core i9 9900 K processor ($549.99 on Amazon). With eight processor cores running at 5.0 GHz, the Intel chip is pretty much at the top for sim racing at the moment. I matched that with a Dark Rock Pro 4 CPU cooler ($89.99 on Amazon) from a company called be quiet!, for the same heat management benefits I just discussed.
Next up is 32GB of G.SKILL TridentZ RGB Series memory ($164.99 on Amazon). While 32GB is sure to be plenty, it is only running at 3200Mhz so I have room to step that up to 3600 or even 4000 Mhz if things get a little sluggish down the road.
For hard drives, I decided to go with speedy solid-state drives (SSD) from Samsung using their 970 EVO in 1TB ($194.99 on Amazon) and 250GB ($79.99 from Best Buy) capacities. These are both internal drives that mount directly to the motherboard and should help load everything fairly quickly.
I plan on putting Windows 10 on the smaller of the two drives and using the big 1TB drive to hold all of the applications and data. That way if I ever have an issue with Windows (like that would ever happen…) I can just reformat the main drive and all of my information will be safe on the second drive.
Finally, I need a place to put all these parts. Space was not a concern for me so I chose the massive, be quiet! Dark Base PRO 900 ($252.92 from Amazon). The Dark Base Pro is a Full Tower case, with excellent airflow, that has a bunch of nifty bells and whistles like a Qi wireless phone charger, tempered glass panel, and really cool LED lights.
LED lights will make you a better gamer. It’s science.
So after dropping a grand total of $2,911.00—plus a few bucks extra for things like Windows 10 OS and a mouse and keyboard, etc.—on my credit cards, Amazon and Best Buy had all of these bits delivered to my front door in short order. By the way, this was all done and dusted before the call went out to only order essential items from Amazon. (I may be an asshole, but not that much of an asshole.)
Now all that was left is for me to put it all together. Just that last, little step.
I’ll admit physically building a PC is not as bad as my recurring nightmares had shown me it would be. For the most part, everything has its place and if you do a good job reading through the instructions it shouldn’t take a huge amount of time or skill to put it all together. However, there are some fairly major caveats to that.
In order to prevent basic conflicts with my parts, I used the popular site pcpartpicker.com. This allows you to virtually build your PC and make sure that all of the parts that you are choosing are compatible. However, even though all of the parts I ordered are popular off-the-shelf parts that are usually deemed compatible, there are an infinite number of ways to assemble them.
For people who build a bunch of these PCs, that is a non-issue, but for a PC moron like myself (I’m a die-hard Mac guy) this requires more than a fair bit of “creative thinking”. And race car drivers are not known for having an abundance of creative thinking. If we did, we probably wouldn’t be race car drivers. This deficit meant that I had to build and then unbuild my PC several times to get everything to fit just right.
However, that was not as big a deal as my next caveat. Once you have all of the parts bolted together and get your newly built PC fired up the infuriatingly hard part begins: debugging your system.
I won’t bore you with all the gory details but I will say this, I would make a really shitty IT guy. Once again the problem lies in the custom nature of the build. Each component has its own settings and drivers to make it work. The problem is that more than a few of these drivers are incompatible with other drivers or even the operating system itself and there is no way to know what is causing the issues without doing a huge amount of research.
A big thank you goes out to my “personal” IT guy Mike Hall who managed to sneak away from his wife and three kids for long enough to take my multiple FaceTime calls and help me sort through all of my issues. (Actually, he probably owes me one because I got him out from being quarantined for the better part of a day.)
The debugging process was no small task and took substantially longer than the initial build itself. In fact, there are still a few small bugs that I am working through but nothing that should stop me from being able to run the system at full steam once the rest of my sim rig goes together.
On that note, there are a few other components that I need in order to finish out my rig. Next on my list is a monitor. As I said last time, I could go single monitor, triple monitor or VR headset.
From everything I have read VR headsets are a bit of a pain in the ass to set up properly and as I’ve just gone through debugging hell, they were a nonstarter. I really liked the wider field that a triple monitor setup gives, but I’ve always hated having my view broken up by the monitor frames.
I decided to go with a single monitor but not the standard 16:9 aspect ratio one but instead, I went with the new 49” Samsung CRG9 ultra-wide gaming monitor ($1,300 on Amazon). With a resolution of 5120 x 1440, the CRG9 is literally like having two 27-inch monitors side by side without that annoying frame in the middle.
However, resolution and screen real estate are not the most important thing this monitor has to offer. This monitor was designed from the ground up for gaming and offers an ultra-fast refresh rate of 1 ms, which, according to pro driver and former Sim Raceway honcho Nico Rondet, is a priority.
Nico, in a Facebook post with fellow real-world pro Guy Cosmo, said “1 ms refresh rate is the key. Most monitors are 5 ms. Gaming super-fast ones are 2 ms… A plasma tv will be 16 ms… This all results in input lag.” The longer the lag the more disconnect there is between the driver inputs and what is happening on screen.
Speaking of steering (and pedals) my decision here was a fairly easy one as I already had a Fanatec Clubsport V2.5 wheel base ($549.95), wheel ($399.95) and pedals ($359.95 Fanatec for the V3). This was a setup I used when I was testing the development model of the Nürburgring sim for iRacing and it is pretty much the de facto standard in sim racing wheels.
However, as good as this wheel has been for me, I have decided to up my game and go with one of the new direct drive wheel bases. So I have ordered an Augury H (OSW) wheel base ($1,375 USD) and Huesinkveld Sprint pedals ($795 USD) from Teddy O. and the sim experts at Simulation1 in Canada. These guys have supplied sim racing gear to everyone from local amateurs all the way up to F1 drivers.
Additionally, Teddy has been a huge source of info on the equipment side of things. My plan is to mount up the Fanatec wheel and pedals to start and then once the other equipment comes in I’ll switch everything across.
Last but certainly not least is the sim rig itself. There is a huge amount of selection available on the market for sim rigs right now. However, like almost everything else, a lot of these are on backorder. Thankfully, Sim Seats in Virginia hand-build all of their setups ($875) and were able to get one shipped to me without too much delay.
It’s a pretty sturdy tube steel frame with a fair amount of adjustability build in. It arrived in three pieces that were super easy to put together. The whole thing was assembled (including wheel and pedal mounting) within 30 minutes, making this the easiest part of my Sim racing build to date. The only thing I had to add to the rig was a WRC R race seat ($829 various retailers) from my guys at OMP.
When you add it all up—which you should never do in front of your significant other, ask me how I know this—the final damage comes to $8,085, not including shipping for what is basically a medium-to-high-end sim system.
OK. The PC is built. The rig is built. And everything has been plugged in and seems to be working. Boogity, boogity boogity! Let’s go racing! Next time out, I’ll load up iRacing and take to the track.
And most likely get my ass kicked by some teenager on a hand-me-down Chromebook. Who knows.
Robb Holland is a professional racing driver and journalist who splits his time between Germany, Colorado and now the virtual world. His work has appeared on Autoblog, The Drive, Jalopnik and more.