SportsCar Feature: Brave New World

This article first appeared in the June, 2020 edition of SportsCar Magazine. Everyone can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.

Words by Steve Nickless
Photo Courtesy of Tom O'Gorman & Dani Koch

SCCA champions tackle virtual racing in what could be a turning point in motorsports history

Tom O’Gorman and Kenton Koch are no strangers to the SCCA. O’Gorman’s record boasts multiple SCCA Solo National Championship titles and a World Challenge championship from when the series was sanctioned by SCCA Pro Racing. Koch, meanwhile, came through the motorsports ranks during a then-SCCA Pro Racing-sanctioned MX-5 Cup series, and he now owns a Rolex courtesy of winning a rather famous 24-hour race in Daytona. Both still actively autocross with the SCCA, both are professional race drivers in a variety of series, and both – thanks to COVID-19 pausing motorsports – are stepping into the world of virtual racing.

Actually, that last one is a rather misleading statement. Hold on and I’ll tell you why.

Koch and O’Gorman were thrown together as co-drivers of the eEuroparts.com ROWE Racing Audi in 2018 and became fast friends who stayed in regular contact even as rides with different teams in different professional racing series took them down separate roads. Still, both of them ending up in a 46-car field at Sebring in late March 2020 was no surprise — North Carolina resident Kenton Koch aboard a Porsche and O’Gorman a few rows behind in a BMW.

Had this been the famed Mobil 1 Sebring 12 Hours, SCCA champions Koch and O’Gorman so well placed on the grid in the GT Le Mans-class field would have been big news. As it was, the news was big, but the news was also virtual: the COVID-19 outbreak had pushed the fabled 12-hour race back to November 2020; in its place, on Saturday, March 21, a 90-minute iRacing event, the first in what would become an Esports feeding frenzy over the next few weeks as all the major sanctioning bodies – including the SCCA – grabbed ahold of “virtual racing.”

The iRacing Sebring SuperSaturday IMSA event, though, served to kick things off – a strong 50-driver entry featuring Koch and O’Gorman who, several weeks prior, had accepted their invitations, selected their virtual racecars, and worked diligently on setup through qualifying on the notoriously bumpy Sebring airport course captured so well on the iRacing platform.

Koch finished the race an impressive sixth. The transplanted Californian lost time on the first lap, forced to drive off course to avoid a spinning car, triggering an automatic time penalty. He then had to claw his way back through the quality field. O’Gorman, meanwhile, was 12th in the end.

“Yeah, I finished 12th — about where I expected,” said Solo National Champ and Michelin Pilot Challenge race winner O’Gorman. "I could have done better; without some mistakes, I could have been in the top 10. But I was honestly just praying for a top-15 in the race after a couple days of practice.

“I was really intrigued to see who else from the IMSA community spends time on iRacing,” says O’Gorman. “It was fascinating to see who spends plenty of time on there, and it was kind of intimidating, especially the first day of practice. There were some big names, and I was like, ‘OMG, these guys are really fast!’”

Not Their First (Online) Rodeo

Both of these young drivers can actually claim a wealth of previous Esports experience. O’Gorman’s goes back almost 20 years, ironically getting started with the Papyrus MS-DOS NASCAR game when he was just 7- or 8-years old – ironic, because Papyrus morphed into today’s premium iRacing platform.

Later, on PlayStation, O’Gorman had Need for Speed and Gran Turismo. “And then, as those console games started to get better, I engaged with the online community,” he says. “There were a couple of games that had a really big online following.

“The first one was TOCA Race Driver 2, then 3,” O’Gorman continues. "Those are where I really got involved playing with clubs and racing with groups of people, all organized through forums. It was all very grassroots because none of those games were really designed for you to play with other people in a formal way. It was just, you go online, you find a room full of people that race with you, and you have a good time.”

That led to simulators, the point where O’Gorman got a steering wheel. "I found this game called GTR 2, which was only for PC and it had a bunch of real racecars and real racetracks in it, and figured out that I couldn't just play with the keyboard; I had to get a steering wheel. So, I bought that and bolted it to my desk.

“Then I found out that there was this whole big group of PC simulators – this is all still pre iRacing – GTR 2 and GT Legends and R Factor 2, a bunch of games that each had its own following.

“Finally, I stumbled onto the first, I think, really formalized community of online racing: Race2Play,” he recalls. “You had to register for the series, and it was all run through a website. It was very formalized and some of it was streamed.

“iRacing came into play a couple of years later,” O’Gorman continues. “All that spanned the years 1995 to 2008-ish. In 2007, I started autocrossing, and when I finally got into a real car, my butt hit the seat and I took my first autocross run, it was very inherent – kind of built in – of what to do. I had to get used to the sensations of the car underneath me, but the fundamentals of how a car works – well, I think all the years [with games and simulators] allowed me to get up to speed in real cars quickly.”

As for Koch, racing sims clearly aided in his rapid rise through the ranks from karting to MX-5 champion and many-time IMSA race winner over the last decade.

“I’ve been on iRacing for nine or 10 years,” Koch explains. "But what I used it for was helping to make the transition from karts to cars – to learn new tracks and use it as a learning tool to get up to speed quicker. When I go to a racetrack I haven't been to, I've got that knowledge of the layout, what bumps are where, things like that.

“But currently, well, I still use it for things of that nature, as a tool; but more now because it's fun,” Koch admits. “It’s fun to be with peers and race each other on level playing fields. I still use it as a tool, though, to get reacquainted with places.”

Koch is enthusiastic about the iRacing platform: “There are official races, series with different cars – a lot of different cars. You start off as a rookie and then you can [upgrade your license] from D to C to B to A, driving different cars along the way. You can test, but it's more beneficial to be out there with others, go car-to-car and learn racecraft. You can really get the whole picture, build a whole skillset on that.

"And, it’s funny, the people you race in real life are online, and in the sim you're like, 'I'm literally driving behind the same guy doing the same things!’”

Their Setups

Unlike the multi-million-dollar simulators used by Formula 1 teams or even the $50,000-$100,000 sims commercially available, both Koch and O’Gorman are able to compete in the major sports leagues with setups that seem, in comparison, quite primitive. Both have added pieces as they’ve gone along, though neither added anything new for the “major league” virtual Sebring event in March.

"I didn’t get everything all at once like some people do,” says Koch. "I have the same shifter from 10 years ago, the same pedals from eight years ago; you update things as you go and as you need to. All in all, to put a number on my setup, probably in the neighborhood of four grand. But it's been over a long period of time; I certainly didn’t drop four grand yesterday.”

O’Gorman’s sim setup is even more basic. “Yeah, mine is even more 'ghetto fab’ than Kenton’s,” O’Gorman laughs. “A metal frame and wood from Home Depot that my dad helped me build probably 12 or 13 years ago, with a TV set on top.

“I have a Logitech steering wheel from about 10 years ago,” he continues. “I don't have a shifter, so it's all paddle shifters – even if I have to use a clutch. But the Sebring race was the first time in a long time that I've really wished I had better equipment, because I really put a lot of effort into that race.”

What’s Needed

As the equipment goes up in cost, so does the realism, although not as exponentially as one might expect. Experience, coupled with quality basic equipment, makes a difference – just like real racing.

“You are removed from reality, so you have to make the best of what you’ve got,” Koch explains. “You get your ‘feel' through different things. Your steering wheel – it’s super important to have force feedback back through that and be able to feel what's going on through the wheel. Then visually: It’s important to have a very good screen or a virtual reality headset, and the frame-rate needs to be smooth."

“Which requires a really good internet connection and a fast computer?” I ask. “Right, a good computer,” Koch continues. “And it's good to have headphones because then you can hear the tire noise. You have to use all of your senses, rely on your ears and your eyes and your hands.”

"I experienced something similar as I was kind of getting back into simulators about a year ago,” O’Gorman agrees. "I was playing on a 25-inch monitor with the audio coming through the speakers, but when I changed to a headset, I could hear the car and the tires much better, and I got faster. Then I upgraded to a 50-inch TV instead and got much faster as well.

"As the scale changed, it felt more realistic,” O’Gorman notes. “But still, there's only so much you can do. No matter how much you simulate the realistic aspects of all of these cars, no matter how many computer scans and models you take and make off of the real parts, there's only so much you can do with a stimulator. Going back to the Gran Turismo and Forza games, all of those games do a good job of representing reality up to about 80 percent. The last 20 percent is always some aspect of the physics of those games that you have to learn how to exploit, both how to drive the game and how to set the cars up for the game.

"That's where some drivers really excel [in the different games]. So, for example, in Gran Turismo 6, the cars had, I believe, zero camber and you could do some tricks with the diff; and then there was a driving style that was very specific to that game. You could get pretty good, but until you learned how to exploit those unique characteristics, you were never going to be one of the fastest.”

An Online Pro?

Is online sim racing something that either O’Gorman or Koch would consider doing professionally? “Heck yeah, of course I would if it turns into something where I could make a living,” Koch is quick to say, humbly adding, “I would have to get better first. I think I'm all right, but there are people out there who are really good at this. There are things in the sim world you have to learn to be able to go quickly – not everything translates [from the real world to the virtual world] one-to-one.”

And, just as in real life, teams and car setup are crucial. “There are teams online, and you kind of have to be a part of a good team to be able to get [the cars] set up,” says Koch. “If you’re not on a team, you have to be good at setting cars up yourself. I found out during the Sebring SuperSaturday iRacing event that if I was two clicks off on [shock] rebound, one way or the other, front or rear, I could lose two to three tenths or gain two or three tenths. I was like, 'I could really screw this thing up.’”

In that race, Koch served as his own crew chief and race strategist. "Yeah, I was my own,” he admits. “I had a fuel calculation spreadsheet on my laptop, and I would scream to my wife in the other room while racing, 'Hey, put this number in!’ She did, and she’d tell me how much fuel I needed to take it to the next pit stop. And, you know, my pit stop was among the best of all the Porsches, so I was pretty happy with that.”

“Another aspect of the simulator is that you can actually access way more information than in a real car,” O’Gorman adds. "You can grab the mouse and scroll through your head-up display, and you have a lot of data available. It takes some practice, though.”

When Racing Returns

At the time this was written, racing worldwide was at a standstill – and it probably still is. When racing resumes, O’Gorman and Koch will be back at the real-life racetrack. But that doesn’t mean Esports will go away. Rather, this moment could become a turning point for the entire motorsports industry, opening more real and virtual doors than anyone ever thought possible – and regardless of the opportunity, both of these drivers will be ready.

It should also be noted that if you’re interested in either online or real racing, Koch and O’Gorman are both enthusiastically available as Esports and real-world driver coaches, or even to help in the development of larger motorsports or performance programs. Koch can be found at kentonkochracing.com, while O’Gorman is at tomo.racing@yahoo.com.

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