For me, video games like Forza are an easy way to lose hours in front of a TV screen and ceremoniously lighten my colleague Henry Phillips’s wallet after hours at the office. For Glenn McGee, racing games were an innocent keystone of friendly hangouts, then an obsession, and are now the bedrock of his professional career. McGee worked up the ranks of iRacing, the online simulator, and its racing league, competing in and winning regional and national championships, sometimes with more than $30,000 on the line. He eventually earned himself the iRacing MX-5 Cup world championship, and with it an invite from Mazda to go head-to-head with other sim racers — in a real race car — in the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup.
But don’t think for a minute that McGee took the easy road to a pro race seat. Since getting into online racing is significantly more affordable and accessible than real racing, the talent pool is much bigger and it’s that much harder to excel. Though he had never participated in a real-world race before, online racing earned him a pro racing license. Now, on any given race day, McGee considers himself “the most experienced guy on track,” purely because he’s completed more races, albeit virtually. We sat down and asked him what it’s like to become the first person ever to go from professional sim racing to professional racing in real life.
Q: We’ll jump right in. How did you get into sim racing?
A: I started on consoles first, like most anybody who’s made it up to simulators. Eventually you kind of want something more serious, so in 2010 I went to iRacing, which is an online advanced simulator.
Q: And how does iRacing compare to, say, Gran Turismo?
A: It’s on another level, physics-wise, and certainly on another level, competition-wise — the races themselves are run in a more professional way. For instance, in the simulator you can’t go ramming into people, where on the console games you can kind of bang into people. In the simulator, your car gets dented and the suspension can get out of alignment, and there’s realistic weather, tire wear and tire physics.
In iRacing they model every single suspension aspect. It’s actually kind of crazy how they do it. So they have a computer model just for the tire, and that’s linked to a computer model that’s just for the suspension, and that all connects to the car itself, which also has its own computer model that controls chassis physics.
Q: When was that moment when you realized you were good enough to start sim racing professionally?
A: When I was playing on console games I started seeing that I was topping the lap-time charts online, and I used to beat up on my friends and thought, “Oh, I’m pretty good at this.” But it wasn’t until I started playing online, comparing my times, and realized I was doing better than most. I met a few of the really fast guys I was racing against, and they made the move to iRacing — all the best drivers went to iRacing — and I really liked the challenge, so that’s what made me follow along.
Q: So you’ve raced at the same circuits virtually and in reality. What are the differences?
A: Well, recently, at Watkins Glen, I had never seen the track in person, and on the first day I was the quickest guy out there. But I did about 1,000 laps on the simulator before going there. And it was the same situation at Road America. I’d never seen the track, but I did a week’s worth of training in the simulator and I was immediately one of the fastest guys when we first got on the track. And this is going up against pro drivers aged 40 or more.
The similarities are, when I get to the track, my mind doesn’t know the difference, since you’re racing on a subconscious level. When it comes to the operations of driving a car, your brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual. It’s crazy though, because I’ll do a warm-up lap, and within a couple laps I’ll be close to the optimal lap time. My braking points are exactly the same, my turn-in points are the same, my lines through the corners are the same — there’s very little adjustment that I need to make.
Then, obviously, the things you don’t get in the simulator are the g-forces. In the simulator you’re developing your visual skills and talents, so when you get on the real track it actually becomes extra easy because you now have more data coming to you — g-forces, feedback from the tires, feeling when they lose grip, gain grip or if the car is getting out of shape. And, you know, obviously you can die in real life. There’s no reset button.
Q: So, are you faster in the simulator because there isn’t that fear factor, or are you faster in the real world, because of all the extra sensory inputs?
A: At Road America, when I first got in the car, I was a little more nervous. But at this level, when you get in the car, your willpower sort of takes over any fears. So your fear of losing becomes greater than your fear of dying. I thought I was going to be scared, but then after five laps I was flat out through the fastest turns.
Q: Since you got your start racing in video games and simulators, do you have a different driving style than someone who’s come up the more conventional way?
A: I have seven guys on my team and they all came up the conventional way, through karting. I’m the first pro sim driver in the world to become a pro racer, so there’s nobody I can compare that experience to.
As far as driving style goes, the sim teaches you to be very smooth, and you have to drive “ahead of the car” more so in real life. You have to predict what the car’s going to do before it actually does it. But the approach to racing is the same.
Q: Racing is notoriously expensive; even to go karting, for one race, is around $450, and that’s as basic as racing gets. Do you think sims will replace karting at some point?
A: Mazda always jokes about this because their aim is to get people into racing in the most affordable way, but they always say I’m the cheapest talent they have ever brought up. Normally people come up through Formula Ford, and unfortunately that costs a fortune. But I spent — on my home computer — $200 on a year-old graphics card, $60 on a power unit, bought a Logitech G27 steering wheel for $250 — which has a gear box, pedals, clutch — and then I got my iRacing membership for $50. So it was all around $500 (if you don’t count the cost of the original PC) to race at a world championship level.
From a cost point of view, for the same amount of money you can do one karting race — and yeah, you learn a lot, but as far as development goes, you can spend that same money on a sim and do 1,000 races a year. So if you do eventually get the money to go racing, you have a wealth of knowledge behind you. So yeah, I think it will replace karting. You just get way more seat time.
Q: When you were playing consoles, were your parents ever skeptical? Did they say, “Time to put down the controller, stop playing video games,” without thinking anything of it?
A: (Laughs.) Oh, totally. It’s funny, because I have this deep-down belief in myself that I have to be one of the fastest guys in the world — part of that was me just telling myself that — and that this is what I was meant to do. It’s kind of ridiculous, because when it comes down to it, it is just a video game, and certainly my parents saw it as that. They just thought I was playing video games and never thought anything of it. Now that I’m a pro diver, my dad is like one of those soccer dads that go crazy on official, yelling at other competitors. They’re proud of me, though.