I have been involved with radio control (R/C) airplanes off an on for almost four decades. In the beginning it was all about airplanes for me - everything was powered by nitro-fueled engines and the radio equipment was pretty expensive, so it wasn’t until a few years later that R/C cars started to appear. It took the advent of electric power and cheaper radios for those to become common. I had an interest in them, of course, but there were only so many things I could buy as a teenager with a part time job. Eventually I got into real airplanes, even going so far as to build one of my own, so R/C flying became something of a nostalgic memory.
About two years ago, I tried to get back into R/C flying, mostly because it has become very easy and much more affordable to get an airplane and a radio. Note that “more affordable” does not necessarily equate to “cheap.” While you can get a lot for your money in the Styrofoam airplane era, it is still costly enough that you want to avoid breaking things. Having not flown R/C for years, and recognizing that the ability to fly a full-size plane most certainly does not imbue the skills used in flying models, I invested in a PC-based R/C airplane simulator. It must have worked, because there remains an unbroken P-47 Thunderbolt in my basement just waiting for the good weather to return. I credit the simulator with easing my way back into safely flying a real model.
As we are on the cusp of yet another brutal (defined as temps routinely below freezing and the constant threat of ice/snow storms) Midwest winter, I have been looking for a new indoor pastime that doesn’t involve riding a horse and robbing trains outside of St. Denis. I thought maybe racing R/C cars would be a good thing to try, but the fairly steep monetary investment combined with my memories of just how fast, twitchy, and hard to drive those speedy little cars are had me worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the pack. And then…. I was offered the opportunity to try VRC PRO. Would it be as helpful as the R/C flying sim had been back when I had the same concerns about flying? We shall see.
The product description on Steam was music to my…. eyes, I guess.
VRC PRO is by far the most realistic RC racing simulator available today, with over 14 years of non-stop physics and vehicle dynamics development. This sim is supported by over 40 industry leading RC brands and organizations. Real existing mini race tracks have been modeled in precise detail.
While this was gratifying in the sense that if the realism was as described, it would be the perfect way to get a feel for what I would be getting myself into. This was, however, an example of the proverbial double-edged sword - an ultra-realistic brain surgery simulator, for example, would lead to dozens of dead patients before I ever managed to finish an operation successfully. In other words, my memories of just how hard it is to control a 1/10th scale car doing a scale 200 mph clashed with the promise of more of the same from the sim.
There was another issue as well: I would be playing with an Xbox controller, not an actual car racing R/C transmitter. There’s a pretty big difference between the two, primarily when it comes to steering. A real transmitter is shaped like a pistol. If you’re right-handed, you hold it in your left hand, use your left index finger on the “trigger” (which acts as the throttle) and your right hand on the steering wheel mounted on the side of the transmitter. That steering wheel is not only bigger than the thumb stick on the Xbox controller, it also has a wider range of motion. That’s a huge difference when it comes to controlling a light, fast, and skittish car. I knew that there was going to be a lot of practice required before I could even lap a circuit alone, much less with half a dozen or more competitors fighting over the same piece of track.
Fortunately, a big part of VRC PRO is practicing. There is also online multiplayer racing, but that would have to wait until I believed myself to be ready for it; one of the biggest problems with online racing of any sort is people that enter races well beyond their skill level. I didn’t want to be that guy. There was a problem with practicing, though, and that was the sheer number of ways to do it. When I had first thought about R/C racing, I had exclusively envisioned indoor racing with electric cars. When presented with the list of things I could practice in VRC PRO, my mind was a wee bit boggled.
At the closest thing to being entry level, there were 1:12 scale electric pan cars. I had no idea what a “pan” car is, but I did know that pan fish like Bluegills are the easiest to catch when fishing, so that’s where I started. If that went well, I could advance to 1:10 scale, where I would be able to choose from electric drifter, electric or nitro Nascar truck, and electric/nitro touring car. At the 1:8 scale, the choices were similar, but also included nitro GT3 and electric/nitro buggies.
As it turned out, none of them are easier than the others; they are all hard, but in different ways. The 1:12 pan car was just as skittish and tricky to drive as I expected it to be, and it had the additional difficulty of being hard to see. While you can set the camera to follow behind the car, there’s no training value in doing so. If you really intend to race (the jury is still out on that for me), you owe it to yourself to learn how to do it from the vantage point of an actual racer. Some of the larger tracks make that difficult because of the distances involved and the relative tininess of the 1:12 scale cars.
The bigger nitro cars don’t have that problem to the same degree, but unlike the electric cars, there is a notable lag on the throttle while the engine drags itself up from idle and the clutch engages. Electric provides a veritably instant response in comparison, but that much torque applied too quickly is a recipe for losing the back end and spinning out. After sampling the bunch, I found the 1:8 scale nitro buggy to be the most forgiving to steer, but those are raced on tracks that have a lot of jumps in them. While I could make it around the track without flipping the car over every now and then, I was nowhere near as fast as the AI -driven cars practicing with me and surviving the jumps while still going quickly is a skill that I have yet to develop.
The tracks themselves are based on real world tracks and are fun to drive on. Again, though, driving gets a lot harder when your car is clear over on the back side of the track or your view is blocked by fences and/or other cars. Also again, that is as it should be in a high-fidelity simulator, because those challenges are real.
As much as I enjoyed the sound of the nitro engine, if I were to pursue this as a real hobby I would go with the 1:8 scale electric buggy. I didn’t like the sound of it at all, but having had experience with both nitro and electric airplanes, I know that the logistics of nitro are far more difficult than electric, but they are pretty close when it comes to cost. Fussing around with fuel and getting a temperamental engine started are just nuisances when you have so much else to worry about. I like the 1:8 scale because (yes, this is blindingly obvious) they’re bigger. Not only does that make them easier to see, it also makes them a little less skittish.
I would also want to try it with an actual racing transmitter. While I can blame some measure of my ineptitude on the controller, I doubt if it is entirely at fault. The only way to know for sure is to remove it from the equation. That can be done through the simple expedient of buying a little $25-ish USB dongle that will accept inputs from actual radio equipment. Entry level radios are pretty affordable, and would provide benefit whether or not they ever get used in an actual race. I have a huge backyard if I just want to drive a buggy around in it, or I could just limit my R/C racing in the same way that I limit my flying of an F-18 Hornet: I can just use the simulator.
What I am sharing here today are my experiences as an absolute novice using a sub-par controller in an advanced, high-fidelity simulator. As such, I probably used VRC PRO at a 10-15% level of what it can actually do and found it to be very good. I’m using the Spec model cars, as opposed to tuning them up with the dozens upon dozens of available upgrades. I didn’t touch a single one of the multitudinous things that can be adjusted on the cars. I’m racing against AI cars in practice races, not presumably better experienced human competitors in online races. Within those parameters, I have found it to be very helpful in providing a great practice environment and firmly believe that if I were to continue to practice with it, especially with more appropriate controller, I could get to a point where I could actually enter a local race. I doubt that I would be competitive right out of the gate, of course, but I’m reasonably sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself either.
Sometimes that’s all you can really ask for.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.