I love racing simulators. When I moved into my first apartment with two of my closest college friends, we built our own simulator rig to supplement what little track time we could get in DE events. It was a hilariously crude rig, fashioned together from a Sparco Speed tube frame seat, a wooden coffee table, a sturdy 28" CRT TV and the original Logitech Driving Force Pro.
The whole setup was a clunky mass of parts but we spent many a night in front of it working out setups and driving different types of cars in Gran Turismo 4 and Enthusia to hone our skills as much as we could. It was good training and it was cheap. An average HPDE weekend came with an end-to-end cost of $500+ while we could run the Playstation 3 as much as we wanted for an extra few pennies on the electric bill. My two roommates and I were convinced that this was the driver training tool of the future and it would be the only way that we could ever get good enough to compete with the fastest racers out there.
Fast forward 12 years. As of last year I've built five generations of driver training simulators for my PC using at least ten different racing games. In the commercial realm, full-motion simulators have escaped from their traditional confines of the trade show floor and are now making their way into race shops and even some (rich) people's homes. They say that the current generation of full feedback simulators running iRacing or rFactor Pro are as close as you can get to actually driving a car on track. Having had the opportunity to try some of them myself, I can say that they are very, very good. But despite offering full floating cockpits and 3 degrees of freedom of seat-of-the-pants feedback, I still find myself passing on them in lieu of the latest version of my DIY driver training simulator. Unlike these high-dollar simulators, mine cost only $12 in hardware.
The Hardware and Software
So here's the hardware:
It's a 65cm heavy duty Swiss ball. I sit on it. It has a bit of sand in it to keep it from rolling away while I'm focusing on driving.
And here's the software:
I wanted to post an actual CT scan of my brain, but I seem to have misplaced the one I took a few years ago*. This stock photo would have to do. Point is, my brain contains the software.
You've probably figured out by now that my favorite driver training simulator is actually a dedicated place where I do mental imagery training. Yes, the tech-loving programmer would rather spend time in his own head rather than geeking out on the most advanced simulators money can buy. Ironic, maybe, but in many cases this works a lot better than even the best sim rigs.
How does this even work?
Mental imagery is an age-old training mechanism popularized by athletes in many sports, from tennis to basketball to cycling to swimming.
The idea is that every time you come off the track after a clean set of laps or you set a new personal best lap time, you take some time to soak up the sensations that you felt while you were on track and burn them into your memory. Essentially, you're building a mental model of how your car behaves on a real racetrack. Then, when you're relaxed in a quiet space at home, you play back the sensation of driving on a track using the mental model that you programmed in your head and "drive" the track.
By doing this over and over, you build get your body so attuned to the feeling of driving a car that you can trick your brain into thinking that you are actually driving on track even when you aren't. It's like having a portable driving simulator in your head for you to pull out any time you want. Pretty cool, right?
Here's how you do it, in broad strokes:
Step 1. Programming the Mental Model
The hardest part about all of this is building a good mental model of a real car on a real racetrack. And the best way to do this is to actually go out and spend some time putting in quality laps at a regular non-competitive track day. Mount your smartphone to your windshield or bolt your action cam to your roll cage and spend the entire day putting in moderately fast, mistake-free laps.
While you're in the car, spend extra care feeling the sensation of everything in the car while it's in motion. Look around and take in the scenery that's coming at you through the front windscreen. Concentrate on what vibrations and forces come through the steering wheel versus the pedals versus the seat. Take in the smell of burning rubber and the thunderous roar blasting out of the tailpipe when you mash the right pedal.
When you get back into your space in the paddock, shut the car off and close your eyes. Try to recall the sensation of what you felt through your hands in feet, what you saw through the windows and the sounds you heard. It should be very easy since you just came off track.
After the day is done, go to a quiet space in your home and try the same exercise again to see how many of those sights, sounds, smells and tactile feelings you can reproduce while you replay a lap in your mind. If you focused on the right things at the track day, you should be able to produce a vividly visual replay of how you gently guided the car through one or two corners. Maybe you'll recall the smell of the brakes under hard braking or the feel of the accelerator pedal as you feather the throttle through a fast right hander. Keep focusing and try to stay zoned into that mental image for as long as possible. When you feel like you can't keep a good steady image, stop.
A day or two later, do the same exercise again - Find a quiet space in your home, close your eyes and try to remember what it's like to drive a clean line through the track you were at the other day. If you're having trouble recalling the feeling of the car, sit in your track car with the engine off and go through the motions with your hands and feet. If you're having trouble remembering how the track looked, go take a look at your in-car video from the track day. Can't seem to get into the zone? Put your helmet and gloves on. I'm not kidding. As gross as it sounds, the smell of weather-beaten helmet padding is often enough to get me into the right mental space for a productive mental simulation.
On occasion, I will do my mental programming in the driver's seat of my race car while it's sitting in the garage. It probably looks like a bizarre spectacle to anyone who doesn't know what I'm doing. Fortunately the garage doesn't have too many windows.
Make this a regular part of your routine. At first it will all feel a bit silly, but keep at it. Before long, you will have calibrated your mental image of the car to the point where you will be able to play back an entire lap of your local track in your head in real time.
How do you know when you have a really accurate model? Take a stop watch and time yourself doing a clean lap of the track in your head. Then compare that time to an actual lap from you on track. If you can consistently get your metal lap to come within a second of your fastest laps on track, you have a pretty accurate mental model programmed into your head.
Step 2. Putting your Mental Model to Good Use
So now that you have an accurate mental image of how the car behaves, what do you do with it? My answer is: The same thing that you do on any driving simulator - Practice.
For example, here's what I will often do during a mental playback session:
First I'll visualize myself putting in clean, fast laps on NJMP Lightning or Summit Point Main. And when I say fast, I mean qualifying pace. I'll visualize myself pushing it right to the limit, kissing kerbs and taking the car to the brink of lockup, all without making a single mistake. During this process, I will actually move my hands and feet as if I was sitting in the car and recall the feedback from the steering wheel and the G-forces from the seat supports as I go through the tightest corners. I'll focus on putting in fast lap after fast lap, just like I would if I was actually behind the wheel in my race car.
Your mental image may look a little grainy and a bit surreal, like watching film footage on an old projector. This is roughly how things look when I replay laps in my head. Fortunately, you get a lot more than just visual feedback when you do this exercise.
Then I'll experiment a little, one corner at a time to see if there's any place where I could potentially find that additional bit of time. Maybe I'll try braking a bit later for turn 1 or take a slightly different line through the carousel. What's interesting is that when I visualize myself taking the turn later than I've ever actually taken it, the mental model in my head will adjust to give me an estimate of what would happen if I tried that in real life.
Sometimes this means I get a mental image of me sliding off the track into the grass. When that happens, I immediately open my eyes and start the lap again in my head. After all, there's no point in visualizing a massive car crash.
Sometimes I'll get the sensation that the car will grip through the extra-hard braking effort and I'll rocket out of the corner with two tenths shaved off my fast lap. When this happens, I take note of it and actually try it out during my next test day or practice session.
I distinctly remember the first time this actually worked. I found a half second of time in the carousel at Summit Point doing nothing but trial and error simulations in my head. Imagine how good it felt to have discovered that much time in one corner without spending a single cent on 93 octane. It was a big confidence booster that put a huge grin on my face.
Mental Imagery vs Driving Simulator - Pros and Cons
Of course, every approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and mental imagery is no exception.
The biggest pro of using mental imagery over a computerized simulation is that you get to simulate miniscule sensations that even the best full motion sim rigs can't produce. You can also practice the sensation of driving your car with its unique handling characteristics and behavioral quirks. It takes a lot of work to get a computerized simulation calibrated to behave anything like your individual car. While you can practice driving a Spec Miata in iRacing, you can't really practice driving your spec Miata in iRacing. That makes a big difference when translating your training to actual on-track improvement.
The cons of using mental imagery is that your images won't work without prior programming. Want to practice driving an ARCA stocker around the Pocono Tri-Oval? You'll need some time in an actual ARCA stock car and a fair number of laps around Pocono before you can even start using mental imagery to train for it. Curious about a new setting change you've never attempted before? Unless you have an exceedingly accurate mental model around the mechanical setup of your car, it will be very difficult to accurately experiment with things like car setup changes with mental imagery alone.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Mental imagery is a powerful and convenient tool to help you train your track driving skills even when you can't get to a racetrack. Even though it doesn't require a lot of equipment, it's far from free - You need to invest a good deal of your time and effort to build up a mental model to do this and this means putting in real work to do it. While it can help simulate some what-if scenarios, it can't simulate a situation you've never been in before. If you're preparing for your first outing in a 800hp stock car, break out that Logitech steering wheel and start up iRacing. It's the better tool for that job.
When it comes to finding lap time in my own car, I've found that the organic computer in my skull still does a better job than any computerized racing simulator that's available today. If you've never tried it before, I would recommend doing some research for yourself in a good sports psychology book. My personal favorite is the near-ubiquitous Speed Secrets 3: Inner Speed Secrets by Ross Bentley. He does the best job of covering mental programming in practical terms in a small number of pages.
The best thing about doing all this mental imagery training? When I get bored, I'll use my mental model to just do some gentle laps around my favorite track from the comfort of my own home. Regardless of whether it makes me faster or not, the sensation of driving on a track it puts a smile on my face. And sometimes that's all I need to get through a tough day.
*And no, I don't have a brain tumor. Thanks for thinking about me though.