Simulators have become an integral part of racing today. In the top levels, including Formula One and IndyCar, because of limited tests and seat time in the actual car, drivers have honed their skills and muscle memory on sophisticated digital replications of car physics and tracks. But can this too work in reverse? Can a well-played “gamer” who has proven to be one of the world’s best simulator drivers get in the car and adapt to the real world? For Glenn McGee, now entering his second year in the Mazda MX-5 Cup series, simulator to real racecar has been a “Cinderella Story.”
McGee, a top gamer and sim driver from Tampa, Florida, won a $100,000 scholarship, and the first step on the development ladder, to drive in the professional series through a major competition, The Mazda Road to 24 Shootout, sponsored by Mazda on the global online sim-racing platform, iRacing. He impressed many with his crossover from the virtual to reality in the finals at Carolina Motorsports Park in late-2015. McGee posted some of the fastest times on track and was evaluated for business and marketing skills. The panel of judges chose McGee for the top prize over three other finalists.
When the rubber hit the road, McGee proved his abilities in the real world, scoring an eleventh in standings of 56 entrants across a 12 round, 2016 Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup season. McGee was fortunate too, that his team, Sick Sideways Racing is undoubtedly the top group racing in the MX-5 series — producing champions John Dean II and Nathaniel “Sparky” Sparks.
Glenn McGee’s foray into the world of motorsports was just as uncommon. “Racing was not on my radar,” explains McGee. “I never really had a passion for cars. My passion came from video game driving. I was actually one of the best in the world at (first person) shooting games. These are the types of games you find on Xbox. Like any kid, I was just playing games, but as it turned out I was pretty good at it so I began entering competitions. Then my repertoire expanded into racing games. Racing was an avenue that has realism and has a real counterpart to it.”
Which leads to an interesting observation: rather than the traditional methods of catching the bug for motorsports, by going to a race, people today are hooked through the excitement of gaming. McGee said, “There seems to be a high barrier to enter when it comes to racing and even seeing a race. But for most people, they can experience racing on something as simple as their iPad and have all their virtual cars there. I think my generation are interested and getting more involved in racing because of video games.”
He began playing Grand Tourismo on the Playstation console. “It’s what we call ‘the gateway drug’ to simulators,” McGee laughs. The physics aren’t as good on the consoles and the competitions are not as organized and there is no professional series. I won a number of contests on the consoles. I really like competition, and am a very competitive person, motivated by challenge, so I joined iRacing, where the best sim drivers in the world compete.”
iRacing has several series online where top drivers compete for thousands in REAL prize money. McGee likes iRacing as “they have a great corporate philosophy in producing the most realistic simulator they can.” He is not alone. Recognized and best sim racer in the world, Gregor Huttu from Finland, is also a professional iRacing driver. Huttu, recently did a real world test with Skip Barber in an open-wheel F2000 at Road Atlanta and was surprisingly within two seconds of seasoned professional drivers around the Georgia track over the course of a couple of days. In the virtual world, guys like Glenn and Gregor are referred to as “Aliens.” This is a term that other racers use for those at the top who are “inhumanly fast.” Glenn has also begun doing private race-driving instruction, like many of his pro-race driver peers, and does both one-on-one and virtual instruction, using simulators for his students.
Realty can hurt! McGee found that out the hard way as there is no reset button in real life. “I had a big hit at Watkins Glen. A guy spun out in a blind area while I was making a pass on another car. It was a 100 mph corner, and while I got my car slowed to about 70, it was a huge hit! My (seat) belts had nowhere to go and it compressed my spine. (The injury) bothered me throughout the season. That really told me it’s real and it gave me a scare factor.” Ultimately in his next race at Road America, he managed to make several aggressive passes and briefly lead the race. McGee said, “You just really want to win, and getting hurt leaves your mind.”
So can these SIM racers really drive? If you are Glenn McGee, the answer is “yes” for sure! It also really shows that there are a number of emerging unconventional careers in professional gaming — and unconventional ways to the reality counterpart of gaming.