If you’re a gearhead of a certain age, you might remember playing Cruis’n USA at the arcade, racing a pixelated Porsche or pixelated Ferrari F50 to the finish line where there’d be a pixelated woman in a bikini waving the checkered flag.
If that was too tacky for you, there was Sega Rally, a more serious kind of arcade game, were you could steer the Castrol Toyota Celica or 555 Subaru Impreza through the trees.
Or maybe you just played Mario Kart at home on your Nintendo 64 with three of your best friends, firing off red shells in every direction.
Well, now you can relive those glory days as a semi-respectable adult.
RaceSim1 is a new arcade in Toronto dedicated to racing simulation games. You won’t find Street Fighter or Cruis’n USA here. There are no neon signs, and you won’t need to constantly feed the machines with quarters.
This state-of-the-art arcade is instead the place to go if you want to perfect your line at Lime Rock (though, yes, you can still crash into your friends).
“Here in Ontario, it’s really the only centre built purposefully for social racing,” says Max Jacques, the owner and founder of RaceSim1. “We could all do this at home. But the idea is to bring people together, to socialize.”
RaceSim1 is behind a bar in Toronto’s west end – you have to know what you’re looking for, you could miss it – behind a heavy steel door and down a flight of stairs.
I’m half-expecting to be greeted by a bouncer, demanding a secret password. (Apparently this space was once a strip club.) There are no windows, but it’s cleaner and classier than any arcade you’ve ever seen.
There are five racing pods arranged in a row, behind which are a few lounge chairs for spectators. Each pod has a force-feedback steering wheel, pedals, manual gearshift, and adjustable seat.
Sliding into one is much like getting behind the wheel of a car. You adjust your seat, get the steering wheel just where you want it, but instead of looking out a front windscreen, you’re looking at a high-def TV screen. Each pod has its own Xbox One, running either Project CARS or Forza Motorsport 6. Combined they offer a choice of hundreds of cars and dozens of tracks.
“Any sort of racing game was the only sort of game I played as a kid,” says Kyle Marcelli. “I remember Pro Race Driver was a common one for Xbox. Before that, with the N64, you’re dealing with Mario Kart and of course the Formula 1 games.”
All that time spent at the controller has paid off: now Marcelli is living the dream. At 26, he has a successful professional racing career, and this past year drove an Audi R8 GT3 in the Pirelli World Challenge series.
He’s come to RaceSim1 to provide some expert feedback, and also to remind me I suck at racing, even in the virtual world.
Max Jacques sets up a race for the three of us, plus Nico Fera, a customer already at RaceSim1 when we arrived.
Being competitive is an essential trait for racers. “I can already feel my heart beat escalating,” says Marcelli before our race.“The pressure here! When you can see your competitors without helmets on, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
It’s certainly more exciting than racing alone in your basement against random people on the internet.
Marcelli in one of the sim rigs
We’re racing Audi R8s, just like Marcelli’s racecar, on Road America, a track he knows well. In the virtual world, as in the real one, you can customize every parameter of the race and the car.
We agree to ignore the shifter and clutch and use paddles instead; and each select our own level of ABS and stability control. You can even choose if your car gets damaged if you smash it into the barriers at 200 km/h. In the real world, you couldn’t bounce back and keep racing after a crash like that. This is perhaps the single biggest benefit of virtual racing: you can’t die.
I use a cheat sheet, a racing line that tells me roughly when to turn and brake. The others don’t need it. The start lights tick down and then—we’re off. I use way too much throttle and get wheelspin off the line. I’m dead last after the first corner.
The steering wheel shudders violently as I understeer into a gravel trap. The pressure you have to put into the brake pedal is immense. It’s surprisingly physical.
Marcelli runs wide on a turn early in our three-lap race. I can confirm it’s scary to see a professional driver closing quickly in your rearview, even in a virtual race. Marcelli quickly sped past Jacques and I like we were standing still.
He then glued himself to the bumper of Nico Fera’s car, waiting for him to make a mistake, which he did, and just like that Marcelli showed us why he’s a professional.
I instantly wanted a re-match. The thing about sim racing against other people is that it’s utterly addictive. Double or nothing! Maybe I could finish second-last this time? With each lap, each corner, you get a little better.
“The track detail and reference points, where you place the car on the track: identical,” says Marcelli. He says it takes more conscious mental focus in a virtual race because you don’t feel the G-forces and other sensations. “Maybe because we’re all in the same room and it’s that competitiveness in me. There’s more pressure to not make mistakes.”
Everything else has changed and improved, but that competitiveness felt racing against friends is just as I remember from my Sega Rally and Mario Kart days. The fancy graphics and force-feedback and hyper-real tracks only enhance the sensation.
Jacques says the people who come in run the gamut from serious sim-racers who want everything as real as possible; to people simply looking for an alternative to the bar. Recently a group of friends came in to celebrate a 40th birthday. The Toronto Raptors had Jacques bring his sim-racing pods to their Christmas party. Prices start at $30 per hour and go down from there.
In the beginning, sitting alone in this basement, Jacques worried RaceSim1 couldn’t survive. Maybe he’d made a big mistake pouring everything he had into the business. Maybe nobody wanted to leave home to go to a sim racing arcade.
But then word got out. Customers started coming in. Stories appeared in magazines, and online. And now Jacques is talking about opening a second location. The racing arcade is alive and well, and so much better than you remember.
Special thanks to Kyle Marcelli for coming out to race. Follow his progress next season at KyleMarcelli.com