From Real to Simracing and Back — Interview with TED HOUGH
For many people on the Sim Racing System platform the real essence of the fight stays in the weekly series: one race only, so no second chances, and all the field of opponents at the same time. Take this recipe, add some Golden Age of racing flavor, mix with a cherry-picking of tracks and you’ll have what Chef Ted Hough is serving on his Monday night series so far. But Ted is also a real racer, and in his busy racing schedule is always crossing back and forth the line between real and sim racing, and that makes his background and the conversation we had even more interesting.
Hi, Ted, and thank you for joining this interview. Would you briefly introduce yourself for the readers?
Salutations, I’m Ted. I’m a fairly generic overweight american gentleman who’s been involved in driving slow cars quickly for a decade now! I was the 2011 Minnesota Bandolero Oval Kart Champion for the “Outlaws” age class, the 2013 and 2014 “Semi-Pro” Class champion in Legends Cars for the Asphalt and Dirt Oval Disciplines and I finished 4th in the B-Spec Touring car category of the US Blancpain World Challenge in 2016. I’m currently a Motorsports Safety Foundation certified race driving instructor and licensed driver with the Sports Car Club of America and National Auto Sport Association Sports car clubs and this year I intend to run a Porsche SPEC944 race car in the Great Lakes and Central Region NASA Amateur road racing championships. I also competed in the NASA Spec MX-5 Pro/Am Invitational sim racing scholarship championship back a few years ago. Initially I began racing as a form of immersion therapy for my diagnosed Juvenile Autism Spectrum Disorder, and continue to be involved with many racing clubs and events as an instructor or volunteer Flags & Comms worker, Grid & Pit Marshal or general helper, even when not driving myself.
Have you always loved racing?
Oh absolutely! Automobiles and motorsport are amazing, and even when I was a child, my mother tells me we’d go on camping trips with one of those giant circular containers full of Hot Wheels diecast cars that were shaped like a tire and I’d make race tracks in all the sandboxes at parks.
How did you turn your passion into a profession? Did you have difficulties on the transition?
That’s a really important and far reaching question that has hard implications for many, many younger people in their late teens and early twenties. For me it was a combination of time spent in the sport, skill at my trade and gargantuan spoonfuls of stupid blind luck culminating in me being able to barely scrape out a living. COVID and its effects on racing have been rough, but the move to simulators by drivers in the older age brackets has actually increased my customer base tremendously. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to do what I do remotely on the simulator, even with racing schools and events dwindling down in real life due to operational restrictions. If it weren’t for the fact I was already working for the racing school that I took my own license test at in 2015 before COVID started, I honestly think I’d probably be having a much different discussion about this right now.
Do your racing and teaching skills come along with technic? In other word, can you put your head under the hood and do exactly what you have to do?
The basics, yeah. I’m not the best tech but running a race car means mounting & dismounting tires, doing fluid flushes and regular maintenance items quite frequently. I can’t weld a cage or make custom body pannels or anything fancy. The car gets to the track in okay condition and doesn’t explode, though, which is about all I need.
You are also very active on the Internet. Has it been a natural “extension” of your racing activities?
Natural; absolutely not. I’m awful, awful, awful at remembering to bring my cameras and recording devices to events I’m working at. Despite having been active in racing and coaching since 2011, you’ll notice when browsing through my YouTube channel that there’s a significant and distinct lack of regular uploads – including only a single onboard video from my 12 race Pro season in 2016. That’s partially because when I’m running around at a racing weekend or managing my student schedule for a racing school, I find it impossible to remember to set all of the cameras up with the thousand-and-one moving parts flying around my brain and my task management skills evaporate. I’ve had my GoPro attached to the roll bar for at least 20-30 races and simply forgot to press the record button while doing my tire pressures, pre checks, belt in, etc. Pictures, vlogs/blogs etc. are even worse. If my girlfriend and my mother didn’t insist on being with me at every race weekend I don’t think there would be any evidence I was a racing driver at all!
What are your mid-term and long-term goals in racing?
My current year plan is to actually do my first partial season since I stopped racing in real life competitively back in 2016. I’ve leased my first new truck, purchased a trailer, rented a storage space, mostly finished one race car and bought a second. I was just doing my gear checks today and everything for my personal protection equipment is good and I only need an optional recertification for my HANS (Head-and-neck-restraint system) since its SFI (Racing Safety Foundation, International) grading expires in May. I’m pretty much ready to go. So I’d like to race this year with my SPEC944 car at a few circuits I’ve never been to before. Mid-Ohio, National Corvette Museum Motorsports Park, Autobahn Country Club and the Gateway Roval are the short list for right now! One of the things I’m really keen on doing this year is recording some drivers-eye track guides with an Indycar style visor camera I’ve purchased during the off season, I’m very excited about that. In two years, I’d like to do a full NASA SPEC944 regional championship and ideally win it or qualify for the national championship race. Within 3-5, I’d like for my income to have increased and stabilized to the point where I can run my own car as an Owner-Driver in the Touring Car classes of the US Blancpain World Challenge again, instead of having to rent a seat like I did when racing in 2016.
With this background, one can hardly believe you have time to sit on a simracing rig… How did you get into it? Was it before or after real racing?
Oh man. Way before I had even thought about driving a Kart in real life I think my first “Simulator” (I know it’s a spectrum, don’t hurt me if it isn’t realistic enough!) was Gran Turismo 4 for the PS2 back when I was a little boy. I probably played 1000 or more hours on that using a controller, even long after the PS3 and next generation gaming consoles had come out! After that I moved onto GTR Evolution and iRacing on a computer I saved up to buy myself back in 2008 or 2009.
Do you think that simracing can also be useful in improving real racing skills – and vice versa? And conversely, is there something that can have a negative impact when you get on a real track or at your simracing rig?
Absolutely! Some of my most gifted students are real racing drivers who are using the simulation software to learn a car or track before an event. A few months ago I had a student spend 10-20 hours with me learning High Plains Raceway before going out to a ChampCar amateur endurance race there. Since some amateur entry-level endurance racing series have less stringent driving and licensing standards than the SCCA or NASA Sprint racing bodies, I believe he hadn’t done any wheel-to-wheel racing before in his life. He started blowing my phone up after his first race run because he already knew the circuit, and was easily able to consistently do the target lap times the team set for him even after they lost a few gears in his gearbox – luckily he knew how to do that because I took time to coach him on the circuit while only using a single gear ratio. Mazda Miatas have notoriously crappy gearboxes, so I’m glad we trained on that! For situations like those, a prerequisite knowledge of the circuit is extremely helpful. Laser/LIDAR data racing circuits in simulators are absolutely perfect tools for being able to learn a circuit on the simulator before arriving in real life, and this student certainly benefited from that, he claimed that everything at the circuit was close enough to the sim that he didn’t need to learn the track, just the car, and that reduced the mental strain and load of new things for him to manage over the weekend. I’ve experienced this myself when training for new circuits I’ve never arrived at before for real life racing weekends, and definitely think it’s the main advantage of the sim as a training tool. One of the things I would caution against as a negative aspect of simulation software is the availability to have unlimited free practice time. The #1 differentiator between real-life only students and simracing only students that I’ve noticed in my time as a driving coach has been learning speed. Real life racing drivers may arrive at a circuit and only have one or two 30 minute practice sessions to learn a circuit; then it’s hammer time for qualifying and the race! On the simulator, tires don’t cost money, fuel is infinite, and the reset button is always just a space bar or hot key press away. Don’t get drawn into the temptation of putting 3, 5, 10, 20 or 100 hours in for a 20 or 30 minute sprint race on SRS. You could potentially be ingraining your worst habits into your driving style further and only slowing yourself down. Ideally, effective practice should only take 20-30 minutes of extreme concentration and then you need to remember to take a break immediately afterwards in order for your brain to make the synapse and chemical connections to memorize the learning. If possible, sleep after practicing – you might wake up the next morning and find that last half of a second magically in hand on your delta timer because the human brain solves mental problems while you’re asleep!
What is your favourite simulation software? Do you indulge in playing arcades games too?
Personally I love Assetto Corsa, it’s my go to “for fun” sim when I just want to drive something. I also quite like Race Room Racing Experience and rFactor2 from time to time. I’ve recently installed a PS2 emulator on my PC and I’ve been going through replaying arcade racing games from that era such as Burnout: Takedown, NFSU 2 and Crash Team Racing. Pretty great!
What are your favourite tracks and cars?
I really enjoy using the simulator as either a training tool for a real life event or to experience cars and tracks that I know I’d never have the chance to race in real life. Vintage circuits and cars that don’t exist anymore are really enjoyable for me, especially in VR when I can feel like I’m “there”, you know? Specifically I quite enjoy public road circuits – as they no longer exist in real life and have a unique flow to them. Sergio Loro/F3 Classic Tracks Südschleife, the Nürburgring 1967 available off racedepartment.com and the Charade 8K layout are probably my top three for driving on alone just for fun. The Feldbergring and Deutschlandring are up there for me, as well. And Zandvort ‘67 isn’t bad, either!
Have you ever driven in real life at some of the tracks available in Assetto Corsa?
Yes, absolutely! Homestead Miami Speedway’s Roval, Road America, UMC/Miller Motorsports Park, Laguna Seca, Mosport/CTMP and COTA all have mods or Kunos DLC available for Assetto Corsa, I believe.
Although not new to SRS – you joined in 2018 – you haven’t been active on the platform until recently. Is your comeback related to the pandemic situation or are there also some “back to roots” reasons behind your current increase in activity?
Honestly, I had been doing league racing only when I started simulator racing again after a long hiatus between 2014 and 2018 – I think it was fall of 2018 I started driving on the simulator again. I signed up for SRS because it seemed interesting, but didn’t actually do any racing on it until a League co-founder for a vintage F1 league I was in asked if I wanted to come race the Lotus 49 at Brands Hatch on short notice because there was a massive split and strength of field with a lot of great drivers in it about to go down. I hopped on that race, then didn’t use SRS again until I believe February or March of 2019 or 2020. Then stopped for about 4-6 months until my YouTube/Community beginner friendly league members encouraged me to reach out and ask for a series on the platform. Now, here I am using it again!
Which are your strongest and your weakest points in racing, and how would you define your racing style (both in real life and in sims)?
Strong point: Learning speed, like I discussed earlier, due to my primarily real life experience, I don’t require very much practice time and can reach my pace limit within I’d say 5-15 laps of booting up a circuit for the first time. This makes it so that my VR track guides for my series only take 10 or 15 minutes to record, and I can gain pace throughout a race even if I’m already on pace to begin with!
Weak point(s): Hilariously enough, also my learning speed. Combined with the fact I don’t metagame. It means I don’t take advantage of the unlimited free practice aspect of the simulator, so sometimes another fast driver shows up who’s better than I am and also better prepared and absolutely spanks the living crap out of me. It always makes me sore, even if I know I shouldn’t beat myself up over it. I also don’t really research or try to learn the little “quirks” of the simulator to really extract the pace like the eSports guys, I just show up and drive the car like I would in real life, which can sometimes be disadvantageous at a high level. I would say, though, that it’s what helps keep simracing fun for me. You can’t be angry about having a bad race if you’ve only put 15-30 minutes into practicing for it. It’s a bit of an odd scenario to manage. Do I practice more and risk being disappointed? Or do I show up for fun and accept I’m just going to lose a lot? I’m probably at the point where I can stomach the losing a lot, especially with all the time running a real life race car that I can’t use for simulator practice!
On the driving style question: I’ve never really taken the time to analyze my own driving style, but if I had to guess I’d say I have a very oversteer-preference driving style and like to use the throttle and brakes to corner, rather than the steering wheel. That’s probably a hold over from when I used to hang the cushion on the top side of Legends car races on dirt ovals in real life all those years ago, and can for sure be a weakness when I’m driving high downforce cars or modern GT’s with lots of driving aids and low slip angle tolerances.
What would you suggest to someone approaching the world of racing, either simulated or real?
Start with the basics. Build the fundamentals first, then advance. Learn your core form and start racing in slow cars until you can truly master them, then move up. A lot of simulator drivers skip from an NA Miata straight to a 2020 F1 car or an F3 car on SRS right away because it doesn’t cost any money, then wonder why their core form is wrecked or they have bad habits once they’re 1000 or 2000 hours into the hobby and still running around finishing 10th in 2nd split. Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher had to learn in a kart First – what makes you think you’re any different to them?
(Photos: Courtesy of Ted Hough)
A really exhaustive and interesting Spec Mx-5 cup interview with Ted:
Onboard from 2016 PWC round @ Road America – Hard Charger Award, started 12th in class, finished 2nd – You will feel all the track bumps in your back!: