Racing Legends. To many in the community, these words will rouse many a mixed emotion. To some, especially those who are younger or relatively new to the community, they will likely mean very little. This perhaps goes some way to reflecting on the fate of Racing Legends; what is was, and what it would never be.
Turn back the clocks, and a small development team (West Racing) were working on the title World Sports Cars. Unveiled at the 2000 E3 convention, WSC began to gather attention within the community. At the time, GPL was but a couple of years old and still very much the sim-benchmark, but WSC seemed to be promising features that previously sim racers could only have dreamed of; hell, some of those features are still missing from some of today’s cutting edge sims. It seemed the real deal; from the fully-modelled suspension, component wear, damage and sophisticated tyre model to the dynamic sound engine, beautiful graphics and acute attention to detail, it looked set to shift sim-racing onto a whole new level of realism. What’s more, Chris and Tony West were clearly passionate, driven individuals, and it was difficult not to get swept up by their enthusiasm. With big-time publisher Empire Interactive backing the project, there seemed no reason why the sim-racing world wouldn’t soon be presented with a very special simulator.
So why is there a good chance you haven’t heard of WSC? GPL, even to this day, still enjoys attention and use, but where is WSC? Let’s just say things went a bit wrong. Exactly what happened has never been openly discussed, but it soon became apparent that a project like WSC, under development by a small team of conscientious perfectionists, was not compatible with the typical developer/publisher model of the day. The net result was that West Racing and Empire went their separate ways, and WSC was never to see the light of day. Or, more specifically, it was reborn in the form of Total Immersion Racing, developed by Razorworks and released in late 2002. I’m not sure if it was ever officially confirmed, but it is widely known (amongst those who know such things anyway!) that some of what was developed for WSC had been reworked into TIR. The game enjoyed mediocre reviews, and both publisher and developer are no more- Razorworks shut down after 12 years on the back of Empire going into administration in 2008.
And what became of the West brothers? Jump forward a few months after the split with Empire, and it became apparent that Chris and Tony were once again working on something, a new project named Racing Legends. Some in the community observed a few changes on the West Racing website, specifically what seemed to be a daily countdown. Upon the site `launching’, it wasn’t long before someone tacked “/forum” on the end of the address and found… I’m sure you can guess. News of this spread quickly, and before they knew it, West Racing had an active forum on their hands. This wasn’t planned. It later transpired that the website was changed in preparation for a trip to the Goodwood Festival of Speed where info’ packs were to be handed out to real world car owners, teams and drivers. The website and forums were simply an extension of this.
With this unexpected and unintended series of events, a community quickly grew over on the West Racing forums. Many had been avid followers of WSC and simply brought their enthusiasm and passion over to this new project. Others, like myself, began their journey with the WR story at this point. Yes, there were the odd troll and the usual forum pricks that plague any site, but on the whole the forums were a happy place with a highly enthusiastic and supportive crowd. This was no doubt helped by Chris and Tony being thoroughly nice guys. Some forums members met them at the GFOS and brought back stories of conversations and observation to the forums, and it all helped to feed a real sense of unity with WR and what they were trying to achieve. And this was the crux of the support and enthusiasm: what they were trying to achieve was so far beyond anything seen at that point in time that it was difficult not to be drawn in. The Wests reciprocated, too. Although a small team and very busy, they posted on the forums and joined in conversations, and news and updates were posted on the homepage. They even went as far as to set up a webcam where you could see them working on RL in real time, where Spooky the cat (R.I.P.) became a kind of unofficial mascot.
Sitting here ten years later (Jesus!…) with the Racing Legends website open in front of me, looking at the development images and reading the news posts, it’s difficult to put into words what it felt like when I first saw these things; this isn’t because all those feelings have gone -Racing Legends, after all this time, still stirs my sim-soul- but rather because they are inert, intangible feelings. The best way I can describe the feeling each image and update gave me was similar to what I feel when I see a really fine piece of engineering; that sense you get when you see a meticulously prepared race car, a beautifully formed piece of carbon fibre, or a fine piece of milled billeted aluminium. I’m aware I can be a bit weird so perhaps this isn’t a step forwards in explaining myself … For me, Racing Legends always had an air and aura of perfection about it. It was as though everything was perfectly honed and crafted, and it wasn’t just the screenshots that exuded this quality. Reading plans for the product, and also Chris and Tony’s attitudes and explanations of what they were doing and why, Racing Legends seemed a well- formed and -oiled machine, with every component working in unison, smoothly integrating into the whole to create an unrivalled structure. Little things that sound trivial now and have been ridiculed and mocked repeatedly over the years- those were a big part of what made RL so appealing to me. Special leather bound manuals and brochures for the program; each car coming on its own mini-CD with accompanying documentation; the Team Lotus transporter bus (perhaps the largest single source of derision and piss-taking in sim-racing history) to carefully unload your car from; the barn door garage from which you could wheel your car out and listen to the tyres crunch on the gravel underfoot … little touches that would have made little or no difference to the experience of driving a car on track, but that would have had unknown levels of impact on the immersion of car ownership and all that it entails. Whilst a lot of this might sound fanciful, or self-indulgent and pointless to some, they formed the backdrop for things that could really have had a massive effect on the realism of the product and sim-racing itself.
Whilst it is an open and ultimately endless debate to say which is the most `realistic’ sim available today (inverted commas since even something as seemingly objective as realism is ultimately a highly subjective thing when it comes down to individual opinion), let’s choose iRacing as a case in point. iRacing pitches itself not as a game, not even `just’ a sim, but as a training tool. Its claims to realism, from its New Tyre Model through to laser-scanned tracks, arguably make it an invaluable training and development tool to real world drivers looking for that extra edge. But just how realistic is it?
To begin with, I’ll right away dismiss issues of G-forces, fear, field of view, and anything else related to the physicality and psychology of sitting behind a PC monitor versus heading towards a wall at 200mph in a real car. Multi-monitor setups and motion platforms move things along the realism spectrum, but these `issues’ plague every simulation alike, and RL would have been no different.
The tracks are unquestionably highly accurate and well-conceived (albeit slightly dead and lifeless). The bumps, cambers, layout, elevation changes and trackside scenery are all lovingly and wonderfully recreated. The car models look very much like their real-world versions, and there’s no reason to doubt that information about component weights, geometry and performance are much like their real-world counterparts. Whilst elements like aerodynamic and tyre modelling are always going to be constantly developing with our (or rather, developers’) understanding and the available computational resources, again, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that they are in the right ball park and, perhaps just as importantly, constantly evolving and heading in the right direction. The NTM is not perfect and has its faults, but it also does a pretty good job of simulating the interaction between rubber and the black stuff.
Racing itself, meanwhile, is governed by a sporting code that bears a resemblance to real-world rule books, and incidents and disputes are watched over by a complaints panel. Just how well the latter functions is another discussion for another day, but the point is that, along with the computer code to ensure a realistic driving model, there are also steps in place to (attempt to) ensure a realistic driving/racing experience.
All of this forms a pretty compelling case for saying iRacing is a solid piece of software when it comes to simulating motor vehicles and motorsport. Indeed, these arguments are exactly why iRacing is right up there with the cream of today’s sim crop.
So where am I going with this? iRacing is an abstraction of reality. All PC simulations are to some degree, and iRacing less than most if not all (nK-Pro perhaps earning the Hard(est) Core badge from me). Even any attempts made right now to eschew any semblance of usability or fun in a pursuit of absolute, pure realism in a PC simulation would be such an abstraction by the very nature of the platform. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of room for improvement.
Nearly all of the AutoSimSport staffers run iRacing. Some more than others, but we all have/do run it. What happens when Denton goes and posts a quicker time than Martini, and the mid-life crisis and ego kick in again? Usually Martini declares Denton is mistaken and hasn’t actually run that time. Then it must be that Denton has changed setup whilst Martini is running fixed setup. Then Martini asserts that Denton must be cheating by some means or other. Then after a few angry, profanity strewn emails Martini will either come back saying “Just ran a X.XX.XXX, I am better” or “You’re a cheating ****, **** off!”. Regardless of the time achieved though, there is something that is almost without fail true: Martini will have written off a few million pounds worth of machinery. He’ll have (countless times) binned it into a barrier and reset to the pits. The covers will be taken off of another virtual car and the process started again.
And this brings us back to Racing Legends. One thing that was suggested in RL is that you would have actually owned your car. I don’t just mean you’ll hand over your money and receive a download/CD and there it is for you to race like any other DLC works. No, your car would have come with its very own and unique chassis codes and numbers. You would have painted it, tuned it, even maintained it- it would have been your own car. It would have had a place in your garage where it would have lived- yes, it would have been just a collection of folders sitting on your hard drive, a digital representation made up of vertices and polygons, textures and some physics files like every sim car before and since- but, it would have had a soul because it would, ultimately, have been yours. It would have been different to everyone else’s, it would have been unique. It would have been your car.
Looking back at the renders and shots that were released, it’s hard even now not to be impressed. You can see a few places where the poly’ count is constraining a curve or feature (indeed, I’m quite sure the poly count is nothing like many assumed it was; Tony is not only a brilliant modeller, he’s also a fantastic texture artist), but the level of detail has only relatively recently been surpassed. Well, sort of …
SMS have been releasing increasingly beautiful and detailed renders and shots of their content for pCARS. A quick look at their Lotus 49 shots shows a meticulous attention to detail (and an eye-watering poly’ count to boot), but ultimately it’s a purely aesthetic feature. Look back at the RL updates- particularly the one detailing the work that had continued on the modelling of the Ford DFV unit that is found bolted to the back of the 49 tub- and you discover that this wasn’t just an empty shell, a textured black box with unknown inner workings. When Tony said he had been working on modelling the DFV, he meant modelling practically every single piece of it. All internals were modelled and textured, and linked in a physical system where by each individual piece would wear with use and abuse. The engine could then be dismantled in the aforementioned garage for wannabe mechanics and engineers to inspect the parts and check for fatigue.
If all of this sounds like your worst nightmare, and all you want to do is drive, then it was all planned to be optional. But it was the kind of option I would have loved. The detail and passion displayed and conveyed by the West brothers was infectious, and you could sense many felt a similar level of affinity with the drive for the ultimate that they were pursuing. The simple inclusion of a working odometer in Shift made a car feel so much more personal to me. When today you look at the various sims we regard as being at the pinnacle, and in one or more they don’t properly model transmissions or brake temperatures and wear, allow you to stall or flat spot your tyres, you begin to realise just how much room remains for improvement, and how ambitious and ground breaking RL could have been across the board.
So, as with WSC, the question has to be asked: what happened? Whilst many, like myself, were hugely excited and positive about RL and everything the Wests were trying to achieve, there was a strange air of hostility that was always simmering away, often in the background, but every now and then it came to the fore. It’s a bit difficult to explain now as I never really understood it at the time. Certainly on the WR forums it was a few vocal individuals (some of whom were quite well known in the community for somewhat less than exemplary conduct) who, with every update, aimed derision and animosity towards RL and the Wests themselves. A few rifts brewed away on the forums, often between just a few members, but it regularly permeated further and tainted the mood and the forums as a whole. Some seemed angry at the Wests for posting news. There were accusations of hype building and thunder-stealing from other sims that were actually available or imminent.
But this was how things had been since the beginning. What went wrong from where things were? Initially, it’s quite simple: the updates slowed and the feed of info dried up, and people grew impatient. Some, as is always the case, grew impatient if it had literally been a day over a month since the last update. Others demonstrated more patience, but by the time five months or so had passed since the last update, restlessness reached a peak. Some offered reasonable arguments as to why it would be in the Wests’ interests to improve their communication with the community. Others spouted vitriol and personal insults. The forums I had spent so much time on (I hold the perhaps dubious honour of top poster over on the WR forums), where I had met and chatted with so many people, some of whom I am in contact with to this day (I first met Mr. Denton and Mr. Simmerman over there), fell apart. Many people just drifted away, others decided to vent their anger and frustrations in less than diplomatic ways, whilst some of us tried to keep things calm in the face of growing unrest. But it became increasingly futile, and even the most ardent of followers slowly saw their resolve fade.
In hindsight, it was all a bit of a shambles. Chris and Tony (joined by physics guru Dr Gregor Vebles) were a small team working on a highly ambitious project. They had invested a lot of time, money, and energy into RL, going so far as to sell their house and cars. They really did put everything on the line to pursue the dream that WSC sadly hadn’t turned in to. As with probably every software release in history, but especially in this case, no one had more reason to want to see the product ship and be successful than the devs themselves (sounds an obvious thing to say, but you see the comments some people make and you have to wonder sometimes …). They were also perhaps somewhat naïve. The website and forums broke cover prematurely and unplanned. To their credit- though ultimately probably to their own detriment- instead of just shutting it all down, they let it remain up and running. The problem was that as soon as a community had formed, it demanded info, content and news for sustenance to survive and maintain itself.
The RL forums were a place where people hung out and discussed much more beyond just RL itself (I guess we kind of had to!); it was here where I first learned of NetKar, for example, and we talked about all other sims, real racing, irreverent subjects … It really was a mini motorsport and sim forum and community, not just a RL forum. However, RL was the reason that everyone was there, and it wasn’t going to sustain itself without RL info. Whilst some of us said we were happy for there to be no/fewer updates as long as we just had a little heads up to say all was well and there would be news when they were ready to share something, we were met, instead, with resolute silence. At the same time, others were getting increasingly irate and angry. The forums descended from a largely peaceful, friendly arena for like-minded individuals to discuss all and sundry into an aggressive, hostile place. The irony was that, apart from the odd dicktard, this was borne almost exclusively from a desire and passion for RL. Ultimately though, it must have just made the forums an increasingly unwelcoming place, and the desire for Chris and Tony to enter the discussion, regardless of intentions, must have dwindled quickly.
The community, and its desperation in the clamour for news and info, effectively destroyed itself. The last official news from the Wests on RL is the now infamous `Sorry’ thread posted on the forums. Pinned at the top of the `General’ forum board, it has now had the best part of 20,000 views. In it, Chris posted a lengthy, thoughtful apology and explanation for why the info had dried up. It addressed some of the issues that were becoming prominent in the forum, and generally tried to calm things down a bit. It reiterated the unplanned beginning to the forum’s life, the decision to leave them open, and also the lose-lose situation reactions to updates had put them in.
For many, this was absolutely fine. They read, understood, and accepted what was being said, and there wasn’t really an issue any more. For others, it was too little too late. They had either already burnt their bridges and walked away, or seemed somewhat insulted by the post. Whilst Chris’ words went some way to diffusing the situation and dissipating some of the ill-feeling, it ultimately was the end of the story. Had it come earlier … I don’t know, and no one can say, if it would have made any difference. After that, nothing else was heard from WR on RL. Nothing official anyway. A couple of times I caught Chris on MSN and asked how things were; genuinely meaning that, and not just asking about RL. I always got a positive reply, and I always just assumed things were ticking away behind the scenes. Given everything that had happened up until that point, asking `So, are you still working on Racing Legends?’ seemed a little crass, and accordingly I declined to do so.
But these events were a long time ago now. It has been nearly ten years since the site went live, and the `Sorry’ thread, the last official word on RL, was posted over eight years ago! So is Racing Legends quite obviously dead and buried? Is anyone who still holds onto a hope that RL will one day see the light of day a deluded fool who needs to wake up and familiarise themselves with reality? Whilst there has been no official news on RL since January 2004, there have been the odd tidbits, tiny slivers of info to hold onto. Both Chris and Tony have worked on numerous projects in the years since all went quiet with RL. Tony’s modelling and art work has found its way into a number of other projects, and similarly Chris has been busy and seems to be making good progress and enjoying success these days on a set of Unity plugins. Whilst that confirms they are alive and kicking, it doesn’t clarify anything about RL’s development. But amongst this other stuff, there are a few hints that appear. The odd bit of art work that unmistakably has its origins in RL cropping up in YouTube videos, little hints that certain things might be destined for implication within a sim environment. The problem is, when you have so much passion and hope riding on something, it’s easy to join the dots and draw whatever picture you want.
The fact that the RL forums and website are still up in place and the odd glimpse of some RL related artwork do not provide a particularly convincing or compelling argument that development is on-going. It’s the desperate speculation of someone who would love for it to be true. But what about a reliable source repeatedly confirming, year after year, that it is still in development? Todd Wasson (physics genius, all-round sim community nice guy and fountain of knowledge) has repeatedly said, quite openly on forums, that RL is still being worked on. Not only is he trustworthy, but Todd is about as well placed as anyone to know seeing as his VRC/VRC-Pro project is one of those which the Wests have, between them, contributed towards, with Tony’s typically rich graphics work providing the visual content for VRC.
Whatever is or isn’t happening with RL behind the scenes, many might ask: until it is released, does Racing Legends matter? To many, the answer is `no’. To me, even if RL never developed beyond whatever state it was in eight years ago, the answer is a very big `yes’. RL has had a massive impact on me. In many ways it has made and conversely destroyed sim racing for me. It stoked my passion for simming in a way which no other title has before or since. It made me see simming in a different light. For all the developments that have happened over the years, and for all the effort by the likes of iRacing to turn simming from a dark-bedroom hobby into a respected, serious pursuit, for me it was RL that really shifted my attitude. I was already highly passionate about simming and very much hooked, but RL changed my perceptions of sims from simply being realistic computer games to something much more. It provided me with the drive and desire to be totally submerged in the virtual world, to really allow the boundaries between the virtual and real worlds to be blurred.
The problem was it didn’t come! And nothing else since has lived up to the expectations that RL allowed me to set. When you look at the hyper realism, detail and immersion that WR were aiming for with RL, and then you look at today’s sims, there is a massive, massive disparity. In iRacing you can’t stall and there is no dirt build up on the screen?!? Today’s sims do a lot of things very well, but it’s sometimes hard to not find everything a little … disappointing. Of course there is a huge difference between any of the other titles mentioned above and RL: they exist, they are available, and for any faults they have, you can actually use them and enjoy the things they do well. The RL I am comparing them to is not a real, usable product; it is an idea, a fantasy.
It is worth stressing Chris and Tony never made claims like `RL will blow everything out of the water’, they never blew their own trumpets. Similarly, they never slagged off or dismissed other titles; quite the opposite, a number of times I saw them speak very favourably of others’ work, and even put links to other projects on the main page. They were also modest, and seemingly quite uncomfortable at times with the stature they seemed to hold among a good chunk of their followers. They were just two guys with a lot of passion who aimed big and risked a lot to pursue their dream. Whilst they are undoubtedly highly talented individuals (Tony’s work speaks for itself, and a number of others have attested to Chris’s abilities), I think it was this uncompromising approach to their work that really snagged others and myself on the idea, the philosophy of RL.
Whilst some aimed animosity at them tied to the accusation they were simply hyping themselves and their work with little to back it up, I really think this is wide of the mark. It wasn’t they who provided the hype. They simply explained what they were working on and planning, and what they were hoping to achieve. The hype was provided by the community. People saw something special in WSC, and even more so in RL. It was a new and fresh approach. It oozed passion, love, and attention to detail. Just like each of those individually numbered cars and their leather bound packs, Racing Legends had soul.
It is arguably a stupid and pointless exercise to compare a piece of software that potentially doesn’t even exist with others that do, but it is an exercise I simply can’t help but indulge in. Every time a new title is announced, or whenever there is a `feature request’ or a `describe your dream sim’ discussion, the simple fact is that it is always RL that comes to mind. This is fruitless for many reasons. Ultimately I’m comparing real, tangible, usable products to an idea of perfection that RL itself, let alone any other sim, could probably never live up to. I’m quite aware of this. It just always was, and continues to be, hard to shake the feeling that if anyone or anything were going to get close, it was West Racing and Racing Legends.
So there you have it: a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. Seeing the community once again whip itself up into frenzy as patience began to wear over the rF2 beta release reminded me of the journey that was Racing Legends and the West Racing forums. And quite a journey it’s been. To those unfamiliar with Racing Legends and its story, get yourself on Google, dig out the site and have a little look around. I don’t know whether new eyes will be pleasantly surprised or underwhelmed, but either way it’s worth a ten minute look. And to those who get their knickers in a twist because it has been three minutes since a dev’ last personally responded to your Tweet, or you’ve had to wait half an hour to get a download link: get a grip. You don’t know how good you’ve got it and, believe me, if the tides turn and the updates and interaction dry up, you’ll soon realise what you’ve lost.
So call me deluded and out of touch, but still I hold on to hope. Racing Legends remains my dream sim because, for me, it is just that: a dream.
In short: I wait it!