Summary: Today on FiringSquad we present our interview with professional race car driver and race instructor Bob Earl. Many of you may know that the military often uses shooter games to simulate situations for soldiers to practice. But you may not realize that professional race drivers practice on games like Gran Turismo 3 to hone their real life driving skills. Read our interview with Bob Earl and learn how he uses GT3 to teach his students and how you can learn at home the same skills that professional drivers learn in expensive schools!
FiringSquad: Hi Bob! First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk with us to answer a few questions about yourself, your interest in Gran Turismo 3, and your new Virtual Racing Chassis. Letís start with the basics since some of our readers may not know who you are. Can you tell us a little bit about your racing history?
Bob: Sure, 1972 was when I started racing Formula Ford and won the National Championship in 1973 continued in Formula Ford for 2 years and then to Atlantic, Super Vee, Formula 3 at Macau etc. I was actually a mechanical engineer so I understood what went into making a car perform the way it does, and I became a very good test driver with the help of Carroll Smith.
In í72, I decided that I would try racing and I realized that I could probably be a better driver with practice than an engineer. Now, Iím not one of those people who are somehow born with a talent for driving; I had to learn and practice. But I could make my car quicker and more competitive than most of the other guys, and that helped me early on. Anyhow, in Ď85 or Ď86, I started driving for Pontiac in IMSA and ended up doing all the classes (GTU, GTO, Lights and GTP) with them. I then drove for Nissan in GTP in the early 90s and ultimately retired in 1994. You can read more details on my website.
FiringSquad: How did you get started with Gran Turismo 3? Were you at a video game player at all before then?
Bob: Well, this is actually a funny story. About two years ago, I bought my six-year old son the PlayStation 2. Since he was a big fan of Michael Schumacher and his antics on the podium, I got him both of the Formula 1 games - and he beat me!
Iím a professional race driver and my six-year old son was beating me. I knew that wasnít right, so I decided I had to get a steering wheel. Of course, once I got the wheel, I had no problems winning at all. [laughs] You have to understand that before this, the only game I played was Pong -- that tells you how old I am, but the F1 game felt great. The only thing that bothered me was that the brake pedal was way soft and it was hard to really get the full feeling out of it, but I was impressed with the game and that got me interested in all the others.
When I tried Gran Turismo 3, I was amazed. For some reason, the brake pedal problem I told you about with the F1 games wasnít so noticeable in GT3 although it could be stiffer. I donít know what they did or how theyíre doing it, but it felt like the real thing. The car dynamics as I trail braked into the turns and power slid around the turns was spot on. I think one thing that makes a big difference is how the car leans a bit as your turn. Other games do it too, but they donít do it the same way GT3 does.
FiringSquad: Yeah, in our first review of the game, one of the details that really struck us was how natural the cars looked in the replays as they tilted during a turns.
Bob: With GT3, it really does feel like youíre driving. Anyhow, Iíve looked into most of the racing games on the PlayStation and on the PC. Another game I like is Grand Prix Legends, which is what all the PC enthusiasts talk about. I actually have the ACT LABS setup with the shifter. GPL has awesome car dynamics, but itís still not as good as GT3.
SIDEBAR: NASCAR just had a Winston Cup race at Sears Point this past June 23rd. Ricky Rudd won after Jerry Nadeau, who was leading with a large margin with two laps to go, lost control of his car.
Bob: Itís really good. One of the hardest things about racing games is that you donít have the G-forces to give you feedback, but the acceleration and turning in GT3 are both very good. Little things such as your car leaning backward when you accelerate, which you donít consciously notice, make it work. In general, when youíre driving the game itís very realistic.
FiringSquad: Where do you think GT3ís realism fails? The tire wear model is something a lot of gamers have noticed seems awkward.
Bob: Well, there are certainly limitations to the realism. The lack of real collision, let alone the fact that you canít hurt yourself automatically makes people drive sloppier.
Iím a picky racer but I understand what theyíve done with the tire wear. Since you asked, the tires do go out way too fast. Normally, itíll be 30 minutes or so before you really start to notice it and even then, your tires donít get so bad after the initial drop, maybe 1 to 2 seconds a lap. In the game, when your tires do go, they keep going too far so itís as if youíre driving with slicks in the rain. I think the reason they did that is to keep people from getting bored (just a guess). In the real race, you really have to keep track of your tire wear and it keeps you thinking.
When you race, you donít want to be simply thinking about what youíre doing right then at that moment. You have to be thinking about what you will be doing 5 minutes from now, 5 laps from now. In the case of something like 24 hours of Daytona, I was thinking about what I would be doing 12 hours from now. As a race driver, you always have the natural urge to go as fast as possible, but you need to plan to make sure the car will be running well throughout the race. By making the tire damage faster, the game forces you to constantly think about your driving. Iíve also noticed that your tires wear out faster if you bump into a curb or hit other cars.
Oh, another thing thatís not realistic is how the computer cars can sometimes pass you on the outside, run over dirt, and still end up with a faster speed out of the turn. Thatís just impossible. [laughs] For the most part, the cars are really good, but there are some things that donít make sense to me such as a having a Lotus Elise beat a Corvette (could be the driver huh). My favorite part of the game is later on, when you have the F1 cars since itís pretty close to what I used to do. Some of the passing maneuvers the AI makes arenít very real though.
When I first played the game, I was really impressed at how good the game feels, and with time thatís when you start noticing the little things. Laguna Seca, for example, is spot onÖexcept for turn #10.
FiringSquad: What do you mean by spot on? Do you mean the track is accurate or that actually feels realistic?
Bob: Professional drivers have been using PC simulators for some time to learn the tracks before they go do the real thing. The only thing is that car dynamics on the PC arenít as good. Racing Laguna Seca in GT3 is almost identical to racing the real Laguna Seca. I remember going through turn #2 the first time I played the game, and since Laguna Seca is a track I regularly did, I kept thinking to myself how this felt just like the real thing as I trail braked through the turn (you need to be really good with the brakes at Laguna) and the line you need was very close.
When I had my student try out Laguna Seca on GT3 I noticed that the mistakes he was making on the real track were the same mistakes he was making in the game. Thatís when I really knew that the game was good. You have to understand that Laguna Seca is one of the hardest tracks in the nation besides Sears Point and so the more times you can practice the better. The problem is that itís expensive and difficult to get as much time on the track as you want to practice, and some cases testing on the real course is actually illegal due to testing limits for some classes. Thatís what makes GT3 so useful. Once we had set up the in-game cars to mirror whatís really being driven, he and I spent the whole day playing the game. The difference between my studentís real lap time and game time on Laguna Seca was less than a second.
FiringSquad: So whatís specifically wrong about turn #10?
Bob: Iím not sure, but thereís something about the game that forces you to go slower in the game than you do in real life. This is the second to last downhill turn in the track. If I studied it more I could probably figure out whatís wrong, but Iím pretty sure itís just some small difference in the geometry, mostly on the exit.
SIDEBAR: Arenít you glad all the time you spent on GT3 isnít wasted? Itís training you in a useful skill!
Bob: I think itís a great game and thereís nothing else that matches GT3 right now. Iíd want to add more real tracks, and more cars to the mix especially the GTP or F1 cars since there will be people who want to see what those cars feel like. I might make it a bit easier to earn money at first since some people get tired of driving a low horsepower car over and over just to get enough money to buy a nice car, and so never get into the game.
FiringSquad: Do you have any specific tracks in mind that you would want to add?
Bob: Iíd love to see Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake-Wisconsin, Portland, Long Beach - thereís just so many great tracks out there. The more there are, the better.
FiringSquad: And the cars?
Bob: Iíd love to see GTP, Atlantic, American LeMans and IRL cars in the game.
FiringSquad: You seem to be pretty excited about GT3 and racing sims in general. Do you think that videogame simulations will one day be standard training?
Bob: Whatís limiting them now is the lack of real courses, and I understand that since Sony really has no competitors to GT3, they wonít be that eager to pay the money to get the real tracks right now but thatís whatís missing. To answer your question though, I think the future will have these simulators in the trailers, so drivers can practice as often as they can.
FiringSquad: So letís talk a little bit about your Virtual Racing Chassis. How did that get started?
Bob: Well, I was quickly hooked on GT3 after I started playing. I became a fan and played a few hours a day. The problem was that Iíd find my back aching after an hour or so of play. The game is great, the Logitech steering wheel is great, but using a desk or coffee table isnít. So I decided to look on the Internet to see if there was anything I could buy to mirror what it was like to really drive a car. I found products that were $600 to $3000 and I thought that was ridiculous. I built the VRC prototype out of wood and made it adjustable so that it would feel just like the real thing. I spent a lot of time designing the VRC and I actually applied for a patent for the adjustable steering wheel mechanism geometry ďjust in case.Ē As friends came by and played on the VRC, they suggested that I consider selling it to the public. Thatís a completely different challenge since I now had to design something that would be adjustable for kids and adults of all sizes and make sure it worked with both PCs and consoles. Thatís when I turned to my friends at Huffaker Engineering, who build competitive race engines and cars. Joe [Huffaker] and I together came up with the VRC-1.
FiringSquad: That sounds really interesting, but what makes your chassis different from the competition?
Bob: One of things I noticed with the competition is that some things are sometimes so grotesque that it probably wouldnít meet the ďMom-acceptanceĒ factor or ďWife-acceptanceĒ factor. Remember, I wanted to make this product work for everyone. My four-and-half feet son is comfortable in it as is a 6í6Ē adult Joe Huffaker! Besides the higher price, the other products arenít as easy to move around, and itís not something some people would want to leave in the living room.
Some friends have suggested that I make the VRC-1 in a finish and look just like a real Formula 1 car. I could do that, but my designing principle was to make sure that the VRC-1 was comfortable and feels like the real thing, yet is practical and affordable. With the VRC-1, you can compress it down and store in a closet, and itís light enough for my son to move around since itís made of 16-gauge steel. Each VRC is hand-built and welded in the USA. Comfort is actually a very important part of the design.
The secret to winning a race like Daytona 24 hours is being able to stay calm and relaxed, so the seat is probably more comfortable than a street car. You see, when youíre racing, you want the hardest seat possible so that you can feel the car. The difference is that your body really does interact with the car and so when you turn, you end up moving around and you get some circulation. When youíre gaming, youíre sitting still for hours and if the seats were too hard, you wouldnít get regular blood flow and probably get cramps or whatever.
SIDEBAR: VRC-1 features list
Bob: Iíve looked into that, and youíre right that it costs more to have it built in the USA. What Iíve found is that the welding really makes a difference in the feel of the chassis, even though you might expect it to be overkill. The bolted prototype just didn't feel right. I decided that I wanted to build a good product, and a welded design is the best way to do that. I also really like the idea of a product that doesnít require any assembly. When you buy the VRC-1, itís ready to go right out of the box. What also makes the VRC-1 special is that itís not just a racing chassis for gaming, but itís one key component of the home curriculum I am planning.
FiringSquad: What do you mean by home curriculum?
Bob: About twenty years ago, I made a tape that taught professionals how to modify and engineer cars for the best performance. Youíve never heard of it because it was never sold to the public. However, I learned then that thereís only so much you can teach through a video without actually going behind the wheel. Take for example the Skip Barber section from the GT3 manual. Whatís there is actually very good, but theyíve left out a lot of material because itís too hard to explain on paper alone. The license tests in the game on the other hand are much better at helping you learn.
The DVD I have in the early planning stages will teach you how to drive competitively just as if you had paid a few thousand dollars for a professional course. Only when you learn the proper technique can you appreciate the nuances of each course. After you watch the lesson on the DVD, you could try it out on the real track. I would of course also go through every track in the game, and also teach you how to modify your car appropriately.
FiringSquad: Are you planning to make strategy guides for games other than GT3?
Bob: The DVD really isnít designed as a strategy guide. What I want to do is bring the education you get at professional racing schools to the home. These racing classes cost a lot of money, and not everyone lives close to a racetrack. Yet, the hands-on experience and feel is a very important part of learning how to drive a car fast. This time, instead of going to the track after the lecture, you will fire up Gran Turismo 3. The game is good enough to be used this way, itís cheaper, and of course, you donít have to worry about hurting yourself. The VRC-1 and GT3 combo is actually so good that an upcoming young driver talent search for a major racing team will actually be using that setup to screen and select candidates.
FiringSquad: Wow, that is impressive. This DVD sounds really exciting. How much do you expect it to cost?
Bob: The DVD wouldnít be very useful if you didnít have a VRC to get the physical element of the sport. So for that reason, I donít plan on selling the disc alone. Since Iíve tried to make the VRC-1 as affordable as possible without sacrificing the quality, the DVD will be one part of the value. When itís ready, Iíll bundle the DVD with the chassis, and existing owners of the VRC will get a free copy.
FiringSquad: So with the VRC-1, itís more like buying into a system as opposed to just a product?
Bob: I guess you could say that. Iím a race car driver, not a businessman, but I do know that keeping customers happy is important. When I discover even a small improvement, Iíll send an email out to my existing customers, and often I can give them the upgrade parts for free. The DVD is just one part of that.
FiringSquad: That sounds great. Weíre definitely looking forward to the DVD and weíre eager to try out the VRC-1 in our systems. Weíll point our readers to www.bobearlracing.com if they want to learn more about the VRC-1 or your racing background, but is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
Bob: Just that I hope the VRC will help them enjoy the games more, and as we drivers joke, keep it on black part!
But most of all, Have fun!
FiringSquad: Well thanks a lot for your time today Bob.
Be sure to check back in a couple of weeks when we take the VRC out for a test drive!
SIDEBAR: What do you think of GT3 and the VRC-1? Has your opinion of the game changed or been improved knowing that a real pro race driver considers it so realistic? Sound off in the comments section
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