Las Vegas Sun

July 19, 2019

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Ice Ice Billy

320 kph sitting still: F1 simulator is a thrill

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Las Vegas Wrangler's President Billy Johnson's full-sized racing chair for the PlayStation 3 set up for a Formula 1 racing game.

A while back an unexpected delivery arrived on my front porch. It was of good size, and heavy. While blocking my dog — Kimi Räikkönen — from escape with one extended leg, I pulled the box into the house, collecting the mystery package like a Hungry Hungry Hippo.

I opened the box, and then had a clue to a three-day long mystery. I went into my home office to find my missing American Express card near my computer where, apparently, I had done some online shopping a few late-nights before, but only after one or four cocktails. One hour later, my full-sized racing chair for the PlayStation 3 was set up for my Formula 1 racing game.

Yes, I have a racing chair where I live.

The Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix at Monza is Sunday, and though my dog's namesake is going to have a tough time pulling out a F1 championship for Team Lotus this season, I will be tuned in to see if the Monza circuit is in as good of shape as it was when I drove a 1:31 lap there last week — and I don't mean I drove it in my racing chair.

Nestled in a park just outside Milan, Monza is historic. For movie buffs, it was the final stage for James Garner's 1966 movie "Grand Prix" — a movie that showcased a far less creepy Jessica Walter than the one known today as Lucille Bluth in "Arrested Development." It's also Scuderia Ferrari's home race, which is why it makes sense that I drove Monza in a scarlet red car complete with red, white and green racing stripes.

What was unique, however, was that I eclipsed 320 kph down Monza's front straight in the showroom of Towbin Motorcars.

The Evotek Sym 026 Club is not just a racing simulator. It's a sleek object d'art that only after one convinces his wife that it is money well-spent, an impassioned argument could be made that this carbon fiber man-toy would look good in nearly any room of the house. Heck, honey, we could even replace the pool table . . . I'll do the dishes tonight.

Climbing in is challenging enough, and it reminds F1 fans that the sport's drivers have to be triathletes just to get in and out of the thing. It's a tight fit, made tighter by five-point strap system that will squeeze your torso and shoulders to help the machine simulate up to two G's of force. Real F1 cars put over four G's on the drivers, and their necks will grow in diameter by one inch over the course of a season.

My backside – and by this I mean that area below what we call the back — is about four inches from the floor beneath the car. My legs are straight and my feet attach themselves to the pedals as if they've been welded there. There is no give in the brake pedal — it's the second stiffest thing in the car.

The steering column, actually, is the stiffest thing in the simulator. The F1 steering wheel is attached, off the top of which my line of sight skips, then over the seemingly high carbon fiber nose, and onto the vanishing end of the pit lane shown on the monitor ahead. I'm practically lying down now, certainly because if someone opens the doors to the Towbin showroom on Sahara I must reduce any wind drag.

I'm given some good advice as the virtual engine fires and its beautiful, symphonic noise is fed to my ears through invisible speakers throughout the cockpit. "Don't race the car, drive the car," says Jim, as I plan to ignore him. He walks me through the steering wheel functions, primarily the difficulty settings and the DRS button (Drag Reduction System) that puts a virtual slot in the virtual rear wing allowing virtual air to pass through, which allows faster straight line speeds.

On about the third lap many of the driving aids are turned off, and I am immersed. A synchronized dance of chassis hydraulics, steering wheel and seat belt feedback, and the visuals shown on three high-definition plasma screens are telling me I am flying on a razor's edge, and that I am one twitch away from crashing this thing into the Aston Martin sitting in the showroom.

Pre-armed with above-average track knowledge, I am paddle shifting as cued by the sound, feel and sights, and hitting apexes and flooring it on the exits. My times are coming down quickly, and I am keenly aware of the lessons learned on the last time through any turn on the Monza circuit.

But in the end, I forgot to use DRS which would have picked up a second or two. And, I ruined my best lap by not keeping in mind where my rear wheels were when I floored it out of Turn 5 — the result of which was that as I headed nose first towards a wall, the simulator's realism had me think, "This is going to hurt."

It didn't hurt at all. There was no feedback from the impact. After that much immersion, not being jolted was weird — akin to when you get on a moving walkway and speed up even though you know the thing is turned off.

My 10 minute session ended, and I was reminded that I was not a triathlete; I had worked up a sweat and my now wobbly legs made it even more challenging to climb out of the simulator.

I brag to Jim that I could get to the 1:28's, maybe 1:27's. He tells me there will be more chances as three of these simulators will be linked for head-to-head racing at a facility near the Las Vegas Motor Speedway sometime in the very near future.

Or, Jim suggested, I could just get one to take home. Of course, I'd want the model that comes with the wrap-around rear projection screen and custom painted as a Las Vegas Wranglers F1 car. Jim tells me that the starting price is $118,000 and with all the options can be $150,000 — a bargain compared to the $5 million simulators used at F1's Scuderia Ferrari.

Though that would be $4.85 million less than what Fernando Alonso uses, I still muttered something about me being in the wrong tax bracket. And after seemingly doing 20 mph down Sahara, I went home and buried my American Express card in the backyard.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers and author of the novel “If I Die Tell Steve Martin I Found His Journal.”

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