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Zen and the art of motorsports setups, in video games

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‘Don’t be such a perfectionist that you’re afraid,’ says my guru

Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer leading the pack in NASCAR Heat 4
Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer leading the pack in NASCAR Heat 4
Monster Games/704Games

It felt like a pilgrimage. Really. This week I went down to “the NASCAR tower,” a gleaming citadel in downtown Charlotte, N.C. I was told to find my guru there, at a conclave of stock car racing’s greatest esports minds. And he would tell me, at last, how to Set Up My Car.

The “setup,” a mystical mathematical concoction of things like camber, track bar, tire pressure, springs and what have you, is integral to motorsports both real life and virtual. You can have a good time without a setup, and video games such as NASCAR Heat 4 and F1 2019 both have pick-up-and-play settings to appeal to a larger crowd, and offer wide latitude in the difficulty settings to give everyone a thrill.

But if you’re serious about online competition, or racing against a challenging AI, or role-playing a hot-shot driver in the career mode, you are leaving out more than half of the game if you neglect the setup. It would be like playing Madden NFL 20 without a playbook — doable, but inauthentic.

Kyle Arnold, who drives as RED4424 for Germain Gaming, was the guy to talk to, I was told. Earlier this week, he even published a series of YouTube videos to assist virtual drivers in this task. On Wednesday, he came up from his home in northeast Georgia to compete in the field of the eNASCAR Heat Pro League finals on Wednesday, which crowned their first-ever champions on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. (Arnold, eliminated from championship contention, still finished fourth on PlayStation 4).

But as much as I begged Arnold to help me boil setup-making down to just one, two, three solid principles that would guide me to unlocking my car’s true potential, he just had to shake his head and say he was sorry.

“It is going to be a trial and error process,” said Arnold. “It’s supposed to be. But if you’re not willing to put in that kind of work and perception, that’s OK, don’t go through that, and get setup tips from somebody else. But the process I use is work intensive.”

How work intensive?

“I probably have, honestly, in the setup that I’ll be running tonight,” Arnold said Wednesday “easily 60 to 80 hours.” Arnold said.

I, uh, I put like … 80 hours into Assassin’s Creed Origins? Didn’t come close to finishing that, either.

Every track and every driver is different

Let’s back up a bit. What Arnold, a sheriff’s office investigator in real life, is describing here is building a setup that is truly custom-fit to its driver’s preference. NASCAR is commonly belittled as turning left four times for 500 miles. But if a track really is that standardized, then it should stand to reason that making real gains in speed wouldn’t be in on-the-sticks skills. It’s in adjusting the car such that its handling can more easily follow the course’s ideal race line, and its aerodynamics do not slow the car in long straights or make overtaking impossible in the corners.

Well, that optimization is going to be unique to Atlanta — which has a washboard-like surface exiting its corners, necessitating a softer suspension so that the body’s center of gravity does not over-rotate and send you into a spin. It’ll be unique at Pocono International Raceway, whose three corners have three different angles and three different banking inclines (as an homage to three different raceways; great idea, whoever thought of that.) And it’ll be unique at Texas Motor Speedway, where the goal isn’t to build a car for the fastest possible lap, but to build one whose tires can survive long runs under green-flag conditions.

That’s why there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to setting up a vehicle, much as I wish there was. Last month I pointed to Wreckfest, of all things, as a shining example of how to guide users into tuning an automobile. And it does give great advice on what the car’s systems do — generally. But it’s also a game where it doesn’t mean a damn if you blast four other drivers into the wall. That’s the point, actually.

Also working against any set-it-and-forget-it setup approach is the fact NASCAR Heat 4 is still a simulation of driving. “At the end of the day, nothing will ever mimic real life,” said Arnold, who raced go-karts at age eight up to late models as a teenager. “The sense of speed, the rotation of the car, there’s only so much you can get from a force-feedback wheel.”

Don’t be a perfectionist

That means you have to tolerate trial and error, an attitude that may be anathema to a sports video gaming perfectionist. NASCAR Heat 4 does include a practice mode, and drivers will get an hour of real time to mess around with their rides before qualification. F1 2019 can offer three qualifying sessions totaling 210 minutes. Dirt Rally 2.0 has shakedown runs. Use it all, says Arnold.

“The easiest way to learn how to build a setup is to just take a default five [meaning the midpoint on NASCAR Heat 4’s presets] and then, take the left spring all the way up; see what it does to your car. OK. Now put it back to normal,” Arnold says. “Now take your right rear spring, take it all the way up, take it all the way down, and see what that does for you. If you’re wondering how track bars actually work on entrance and exit of corners, jack them up to 15 and see what happens. Go to the extremes and then you will understand what it’s going to do.”

Google the terms, even, like “wedge,” and learn what they influence. Tire pressure and springs settings in NASCAR will both affect the same thing, Arnold notes (looseness or tightness — the ability to turn at speed versus maintaining traction on the exit, basically) but a springs setting is a major adjustment where tire pressure is more subtle.

Overall, “Don’t be such a perfectionist that you’re afraid of just going in there indiscriminately changing settings just to see what they do,” Arnold said.

And also, allow for failure within your career’s emergent narrative. Seriously. Brad Keselowski — an investor in NASCAR Heat 4 publisher 704Games and a serious player himself — faded out of playoff contention last weekend at Kansas Speedway thanks to a bad setup. “They did something to the car that the car didn’t like,” Arnold said with an it-happens shrug. Keselowski still went out there anyway, and battled his ride, and brought it home.

But for those who need answers now, see Arnold’s YouTube channel to study up and learn. F1 drivers, I highly recommend RealSport101’s setup and track guides, by Toby Durant and George Howson. Don’t take these as gospel, but as a starting point. There still is an element of player skill involved in these games, after all, and what works for an elite racer may not work for you.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.