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Published: Monday, 7/14/2003

Racers, start your computers

`Anybody can be good at it,' says Rob Schroyer, at the controls in his backyard workshop on Brock Drive in Toledo. `Anybody can be good at it,' says Rob Schroyer, at the controls in his backyard workshop on Brock Drive in Toledo.

One white-knuckled hand on the steering wheel, one on the four-speed shifter, Toledo house painter-turned-NASCAR driver Rob Schroyer settles deep into his seat and the first turn at Michigan Speedway.

His ears are full of the deep rumble of an 800-horsepower engine. His knees jiggle with tension. He's ahead, leading a 20-car field - but a guy from Indianapolis is right on his bumper.

It looks and feels really real, there in the driver's seat. But the guy “on his tail” is sitting at the next table, absorbed in the computer screen in front of him. His foot hits the faux clutch pedal on the floor. His hand gears down on a table-mounted shifter.

Mr. Schroyer's eyes are glued to his own screen. The guy's making his move, and Mr. Schroyer isn't about to let him pass without a fight. He floors it. The speedometer reaches up to 170 mph. The men grimace, but don't make a sound. But from the room below come the shouts and cheers of those watching the action on a huge video monitor.

Welcome to Pro-Stock Weekend at Toledo Sim (short for “simulated”) Racing, a virtual-reality NASCAR league that meets about once a month at Mr. Schroyer's two-story back-yard workshop on Brock Drive.

It's one of only four or five such regional gatherings in the United States, Mr. Schroyer said, and the only one he knows that has a home base.

Similar groups of computer-savvy racing fans gather at hotels or convention centers in Albany, Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Midland, Mich., to hook their computers together into a “LAN,” or “local area network,” a sort of high-speed, closed-circuit internet. They then run identical software in each machine, enabling them to “race” one another at a pre-selected virtual model of any of 21 Winston Cup racetracks.

Mr. Schroyer's back-yard raceway, cobbled together from several years' worth of computer parts, can handle up to 30 “cars.” The weekend events he holds there often draw drivers from as far away as California, Canada, and Florida.

Participants can bring their own computers, headphones, steering wheels, pedals and shifters, or they can rent a rig from Mr. Schroyer for $20 for the duration of the event. They pony up $50 entry fees for six 90-minute races stretched over a two-day tournament. Prize purses can reach $1,000.

Racers must follow a set of commandments that would suit a Sunday school: no vulgar language, sloppy clothing, alcohol, drug use, fighting, cheating, or shouting. “It's the same rules as Winston Cup racing, but over a shorter distance. And we keep it clean. My grandparents stop in here sometimes,” he said.

Downstairs, spectators can shout all they like, buy snacks and drinks, and watch the racing action on a big-screen TV. Since the place opened in 2001, the women cheer downstairs while the men “drive” upstairs. Women aren't barred from racing, Mr. Schroyer said, but they don't seem so keen as their husbands or boyfriends.

Sim racing uses the same skills as regular driving, he said, with the added thrill of speed, strategy, and head-to-head competition and an occasional appearance by a real NASCAR personality - Mr. Schroyer has raced legend Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on the virtual track. At any given moment, about 2,000 people are logged on and racing at several Internet sites, he said, but LAN racing eliminates the time lags, “warps,” and less-than-optimal performance of so many systems sharing the same servers.

Maybe it all is a little nerdy, he admits. But real NASCAR racing is costly and dangerous. With cars costing $200,000 and up, participating anywhere but in the stands is simply beyond the reach of the average Joe. Sim racing provides all the thrills without the risks. And he believes it's a new wave of entertainment, “the bowling league of tomorrow.”

“We'd love to see more novice-league action here, guys bringing their friends in to see what NASCAR drivers really feel like. Anybody can be good at it.”

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