Computer racing sim software is at an incredible pinnacle today. The computer hardware we have for simulated physics and photo-realistic graphics are, quite frankly, astonishing. Look at a game like F1 2019 or iRacing running on high-end hardware: you have to do a double-take to make sure it’s not footage of a real car and track.

The thing is, no matter how good the software, if you’re playing it sitting in an office chair using a gamepad, there’s only so much immersion and realism that’s possible. If you’re a casual racing gamer, then that’s probably enough for you. If, on the other hand, you spend all day wishing you could get home to set a new lap record on Laguna Seca, it may be time to consider something more ambitious.

Budget Considerations

Before you can even think about any part of your sim rig, you have to establish what your budget is. There are solutions for sim racing at almost every price point, so setting a specific amount of money that you are willing to spend on the experience helps in deciding which one is for you.

You should also take into consideration that you already own things that can be part of your rig. If you already have a gaming console, a gaming PC, or a basic wheel and pedals, you might want to spend more money getting good quality versions of the components you don’t have right now and then upgrade the rest at a later time.

Barebones Racing Frames

If you already have a chair, all you really need is a frame to securely bolt your wheel and pedals to. The most barebones solutions in this category are not expensive at all. It’s just a basic metal frame that does not hold a monitor. This is actually a great solution for console racing sim fans. You can simply place the stand in front of your current gaming chair and TV, run the USB cables to your console, and boot up your favorite game. Honestly, for console race sim people this is the only viable option in a living room scenario unless you have your console on a desk, which some people do and is a totally valid approach. For PC sim racing, these basic frames can still work pretty well – you just have to make sure the dimensions will work for your setup.

Full Frames with Integrated Chairs

Unlike basic racing stands, these products are pretty much a cockpit framework. The chair and frame that holds the wheel, pedals, and shifter are all one unit. Some models might have more stuff, such as surround speakers in the seat.

This is obviously more immersive, but also more expensive. You also have to keep in mind that this is not the sort of rig that you can just pack up and move out of the way. It needs its own dedicated space.

Force Feedback and Motion Systems

If you’ve used a modern gamepad recently, you’ll know that the vibration technology of the day is insanely good. Playing something like F1 2019 with an Xbox One controller blew my mind. You can feel every bump and rattle. High-end force feedback wheels take this up a big step, although they are, of course, more costly. The ultimate motion experience is, however, one applied to the entire cockpit. These systems still cost thousands of dollars, but can really sell the experience in a way nothing else does. Mounted on a motion simulator, your entire rig can buck, turn, and rattle just as if it were a real car on a real road. Thankfully, you can’t simulate a real crash, but sadly there’s also no way to simulate acceleration, at least not with consumer grade systems.

DIY Frames

Have you been looking at the various racing stands and frames you can buy and thought: “I could build one myself”? Well, you’re not the only one. There’s a vibrant online community of people who do just that. Sometimes it’s a cost issue, although building your own solution isn’t guaranteed to be cheaper than a mass-produced product. More often than not the DIY solution is chosen because of the custom nature of these solutions.

Either way, there are plenty of people who have shared plans and built videos online for others to copy or modify their work. The DIY option is probably better for people who have looked for a commercial solution and failed to find an adequate one. Unless you’re already an experienced builder, or know someone who is, don’t make this your number one choice.

PC or Console?

This is a pretty tough question, because there are some massive cost implications. The ultimate racing sim experience is undoubtedly on the PC. You can build something truly powerful with simulation hardware if you go the PC route. On the other hand, if you go the console route you avoid many of the technical complexities and pitfalls that come from the PC route. Not to mention the strong cost control that a console offers. In the current console generation, “pro” consoles such as the Xbox One X offer more than enough graphical horsepower to provide striking, realistic visuals, although their relatively weak processors limit the fidelity of physics simulations.

The most important issue here is what simulations are actually available. The PC has plenty of niche, ultra-realistic racing sims, while on console you may have to settle for something a little less hardcore. That being said, games like Gran Turismo Sport and Project CARS are plenty of sim even for more serious racers. They also benefit plenty from a proper sim rig.

I would say to let the sims you want to play and the fidelity you want to play them at dictate if you shoot for a PC rig or a console system, assuming you have the budget to go either way. In general, however, if money is no object the PC is the platform of choice for racing simulations.

Wheels and Pedals

You should definitely go check out my racing wheel and pedal reviews, but obviously we have to talk about this key hardware here as well, since these are a core part of any racing sim rig.

Even if you buy casual, bottom-end wheel and pedal kits, you can still massively improve the experience of using them by getting a simple racing stand. Believe me, I’ve tried clamping the wheel to a TV dinner table and hoping the carpet holds the pedals in place. It’s no fun. Even on a PC, I abhor using the desk-clamp feature. It’s better just to have a small stand that you can slide under the desk when in use.

As for the wheels themselves, you have so much to choose from. The pinnacle wheels cost hundreds (even thousands) of dollars. They use real metal and leather and have a 540-degree turning circle, clutch pedals, and even a real shifter. Add advanced force feedback into higher-end models and you have the makings of a pretty realistic sim.

Of course, you have to make sure that the wheel set in question works with your chosen platform and works with the specific sims you want to play. If you want a set that includes a shifter, your sim rig needs a place to mount that as well. Many cheaper setups only have a place for the wheel and pedals, which means you’ll have to use the paddle shifters. Of course, if you like F1 sims and don’t mind paddle shifters, that’s not a big issue.

Race Simulator

Display Options

Since you aren’t sitting in a real car, looking at the world outside, you need some way to see the virtual racing simulation. For most people that’s going to mean a screen of some sort. If you’re using a basic stand in your living room, then the TV you already have is the most sensible option. If you want to build a dedicated, standalone console or PC-based sim rig, on the other hand, a computer monitor is probably the better option. If you buy a good gaming monitor then you’ll enjoy better resolutions and lower input lag. In rigs that also include display mounts, the screens will be mounted close enough to your face that the relatively smaller size is really irrelevant.

That being said, there is one issue rather unique to both racing and flight sim rigs – peripheral vision.

A normal widescreen monitor isn’t really wide enough to give you the sort of view a real racer would need. Playing on a gamepad, you can turn the virtual driver’s head to look around. But sitting in a simulated cockpit, your hands are going to be busy with something else entirely.

This is why multi-monitor setups on high-end rigs are becoming more popular. Almost all mid- to high-end graphics cards support multiple monitor rendering. Just about every PC racing sim also supports rendering to multiple monitors. So you could have a triple-monitor setup with one main monitor at the front and two at an angle to it, showing you the view from the sides of the car.

Yes, this does mean having monitor bezels cut through the picture, but in action they become invisible quickly. Of course, you can always pick up a large, high-res curved monitor if you can’t stand those bezels. The 49” curved QHD monitor Samsung makes fits the bill nicely. Even with umpteen monitors, you may still need to turn your head. Luckily, there are some inexpensive head tracking solutions available that leave your hands free for driving. Clearly there are lots of tradeoffs when choosing display solutions.

VR Racing!

While it might not yet be the huge, mainstream technology some people have hoped for, VR is a major deal in the racing sim world. No matter how many monitors you put up around you, it never really becomes a proper illusion. Strap on a VR headset on the other hand, and you can completely forget that you’re in a sim.

The big problem with this solution is that VR is still pretty expensive and you need a really powerful PC to do it justice. The good news is that you can offset that by foregoing the expensive screens and stand they would have needed. Also, frankly, the top-end rigs that racing sims require are generally enough to transition to VR without too much issue.

VR is getting cheaper and better all the time, so even if your current rig plans don’t include it, you can always add it later.

Sounds Good?

Sound design in modern racing sims and games is overlooked, but essential to the experience. Slap on a good gaming headset and you’ll hear the roaring engine, realistic wind rush, and every rattle and pop of the virtual car as it tears around the track.

With this in mind, how do you want to experience the audio from your racing sim? First of all, if you live somewhere with noise regulations, such as in an apartment with thin walls, a headset is your only real choice. So spending money on a rig that has built-in speakers would be a waste of money. If you can crank the volume, you can choose an external solution; that is, speakers that aren’t mounted on the rig but set up around it. Going for an integrated system has its advantages too, though, especially if you have a subwoofer in the seat and powerful surround speakers in the headrest. Either way, think carefully about what is possible for you in terms of noise level and budget. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a high-quality wireless Bluetooth headphone set, and you can use it for other things too.

Software Compatibility

All this talk of racing sim hardware has left out one critically-important component – the sim software itself!

We all have different specific sims that we want to play. So when deciding which sort of rig you want to build, it’s important to know which sims you want to play. Why? There are many reasons, but we’ll go over the more important ones.

I’ve already mentioned the relative lack of racing sims on console, but if your sim of choice simply isn’t on console then you’ll have to build a PC-based system. Likewise, if you buy a fancy rig that isn’t compatible with your sim of choice, you’ve wasted your money. It’s amazing how much homework actually goes into picking the right sim!

Example Products to Get You Started

That covers the main considerations you need to make when designing your rig, but what about actual options? Here are some examples covering different budget segments. This isn’t a complete roundup, just a set of products that demonstrate the span of options.

CINGO Racing Wheel Stand

The Cingo stand is a perfect example of the entry-level for racing sim rigs. It provides a solid place to mount your wheel, pedals, and shifter. It’s compatible with the high-end models from Logitech, so if you also need a new wheel any of those are a good choice. If I were starting out, buying this with something like the G25 or G27 would be an affordable choice. Combine it with your existing chair, PC, or console and TV setup and you’re already set for a good time.

You can also use it with common Thrustmaster gear and really high-end wheels from Fanatec. Even if you end up buying a complete cockpit rig one day, this stand won’t have to gather dust, since it’s something you can take on holiday with you or use as a secondary rig.

OpenWheeler GEN2 Racing Wheel Stand Cockpit

The OpenWheeler is the next step up. This is not a big and bulky cockpit simulator, but includes the main features of one. It’s a full chair and mount system that fits all the wheel brands worth having. It’s also usable as a flight sim seat and works well with VR. I think for most people this is going to be the pinnacle of what they need in a home rig. It’s clearly a serious setup, but not yet where we need dedicated screens and a whole room to itself. You can actually fold this up and stow it. It all comes in at a very reasonable price, considering that you also get a general gaming chair out of the deal, which even reclines.

Next Level Racing F-GT Simulator Cockpit

Now let’s go up another notch. The F-GT setup is more comfortable but less portable. Its ergonomics are based more closely on Formula racing cars and your driving position is very focused. If you buy this sim cockpit now, you can add an integrated monitor stand later, which provides a decent upgrade path. It’s a great product to bridge the gap between semi-serious and really serious sim racing. This is entry-level at the high end.

Volair Sim Universal Flight or Racing Simulation Cockpit Chassis with Triple Monitor Mounts

Finally, we move a few hundred dollars up in budget to this universal cockpit simulator from Volair. It allows you to set up a rig for either flight or racing. The frame is already set up for a triple monitor configuration, or a single 50” monitor if you don’t want to live that bezel life.

Of course, you can’t permanently set it for both at the same time. For one thing, the shifter mounts are also where you mount the throttle and sticks. You’d also have to swap out the car pedals for aircraft pedals. Still, if you only want to use a throttle and stick and don’t mind paddle shifters, you could have a hybrid setup for both types of sim without having to touch anything when changing over.

The best thing about this setup is that you can also just use it as a workstation. It has a keyboard and mouse tray so in just a few seconds you can switch to other kinds of games or work. If you take that into consideration, the price isn’t all that bad. I just don’t see any way to add a motion system to a rig like this, so if you care about that you may have to go down a different route. To me, this is the best mid-range jack-of-all-trades. If you stick this where your PC gaming rig would have been anyway, it won’t even have to disrupt your space.

The only real bummer is that the armrests are sold separately. So, another additional cost. I think they should have thrown them in at the current price, but I really can’t complain too much.

Living the Dream

Most of us aren’t rich or talented enough to brave the world of motorsport. It’s one of those things that computer simulations are perfect for; an activity that plenty of people like and would enjoy, but is out of reach of most of the population. Building a racing sim rig is, of course, not a casual enterprise, but the leap you get in the quality of the experience is definitely worth the investment. If you love racing, real or virtual, you can do yourself no bigger favor than to make the experience one that feels as close to the real deal as possible. Hopefully, armed with a little more information, you can start taking the first steps down that road. Or, ah heck – just burn rubber down that road instead.