Speed Racer: Engineering Student Builds Auto Racing Simulator During Pandemic

January 11, 2022 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

Thomas Twomey’s body is a few inches above the floor of his bedroom, supported by a silver-colored aluminum frame. He’s clutching a black Formula One-style steering wheel with finger controls to shift gears; white virtual-reality goggles are clamped to his head.

His mind, however, is at Le Mans, the French track that is home to a famed 24-hour endurance race, the images of which are rushing past his eyes.

Others in the room can see what he sees on a laptop display: the view through the windshield of his “car” and a smaller screen-within-a-screen above it that represents the rearview mirror, informing him virtually of where he had just been a second before, as if he had actually just been there.

The road rises, falls, banks and straightens, as Twomey, focused on his task, controls the movement of his virtual racer with a flick of his hand on the steering wheel. He plunges ahead, braking and accelerating with foot pedals as in a real car, shifting gears up and down with flat levers on the McLaren steering wheel. Like a seasoned pilot executing a difficult maneuver, Twomey makes it look easy, as if anyone who drives an automobile could do it.

A hubris-filled visitor tried it, and after only a few minutes was completely defeated by motion sickness brought on by swinging the virtual-reality vehicle around hairpin turns, up and down rises and dodging traffic bollards. While fully aware he was seated motionless, stable, inside a solid apartment building, to his eyes the speedway was rushing by alarmingly fast, with dips and curves. At one point, his virtual speedometer read 70 mph and he panicked. Still in third gear, he was afraid he would blow the transmission.

Twomey smiled and said, “Don’t worry. It happens to a lot of beginners.”

Some in the room feel sorry for the hapless driver. The only thing he had proven is that he is not Thomas Twomey.

Few are. A fourth-year University of Virginia systems engineering student, Twomey is an enthusiastic virtual race car driver with aspirations of doing the real thing.

Twomey was raised in San Diego, surrounded by a strong car culture – especially drag racing – though he was more attracted to track races because the drag races were over in a matter of seconds. The legacy of Riverside Racetrack, outside of Los Angeles, lingered, even though it was closed by the time Twomey was born.

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Video game being played on a laptop
Twomey’s virtual racing simulator shows him what is in front of him, as well as what is behind, in his virtual race world.

“There was a ton of street racing as well,” he said. “I think Riverside Raceway got paved over for a housing development, but that was one of the most famous tracks. There was Formula One racing there at one point, and NASCAR would go there every year.

“There is a lot of racing history in California, which is now being covered up, sadly. It is a great place to be exposed to cars, but in terms of racing itself, there are definitely other opportunities around the country that seem better.”

In his younger years, Twomey spent time on twisty, dusty country roads with friends, enjoying the adrenaline rush of speed, but also appreciating the hazards actual physical racing posed to himself and others. As a teen, he found arcade racing games.

“The engineering brain in me says there has to be a way to do this,” Twomey said. “When I was in high school, I loved just basic arcade racing games because I was a huge car enthusiast. I used to go to a lot of car meets in California and see some really cool cars, like super cars and one-off stuff that you would only see in the San Diego and L.A. area, since there is a huge car culture there.”

At UVA, Twomey found another element of the car culture, being introduced to virtual racing by economics professor Ken Elzinga, a car enthusiast who learned of Twomey’s racing interest during an office hours chat.

“I wanted to use economics to make racing viable for me in the future – to make it economically feasible, which is difficult,” Twomey said. “I guess the question kind of caught his eye and he had heard about simulated racing before.”

“I connected Thomas with someone in virtual racing,” Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, said. “This also gave me an opportunity to take Thomas for a ride in my Shelby Mustang. After making connections, I leave it to the gifts and talents that characterize UVA students like Thomas to take it from there, which Thomas – and many of my students – then did.”

“Professor Elzinga’s Shelby Mustang was an incredibly beautiful car and an excellent piece of history,” Twomey said. “My dream car would be to own a Formula Four or Three [car], where I can drive it on the track as fast as I want without compromise.”

Elzinga drove Twomey to the house of a friend who had simulated racing equipment, and Twomey got his first taste of virtual driving.

“It was a track I had actually been to in Laguna Seca,” Twomey said, referring to a track near Monterey, California. “I had done racing school there for a three-day course circuit, and I was blown away because the [virtual] track was largely the same.”

The track had been laser-scanned, and the sight lines were as Twomey remembered them from his time there. Upon entering the world of advanced racing simulators, Twomey found that they were a sport of their own, as well as good practice for the real racetrack.

“I had done real-world experience with the real track and then I tried it in the simulator,” Twomey said. “I was even beating Professor Elzinga’s friend in some tracks, since sometimes I had been there. I had not played any kind of simulator outside X-Box controllers and playing basic arcade video games, compared to intense simulations. I think the appeal is that it allows you to practice racing and race craft in a safe environment, where you are free to learn without having the worry about the repercussions of actually crashing or damaging anything.”

While satisfying in itself, the simulation also whetted Twomey’s appetite for the real thing.

“I got involved in all of this because at some point I want to do racing on my own,” Twomey said. “Once I have graduated and have a degree and have a stable job and all of that, I definitely want to get my feet wet as an enthusiast. With the limited track experience I have had, simulated racing is a tool for practicing for real racing.”

Twomey discovered this world as a second-year student; by his third year, when the world plunged into the COVID lockdown, he had built himself a racing simulator “as a project,” he said.

“I assembled everything on my own, because once I tried a simulator, I thought, ‘I need more of this,’” he said. “So, I built that and I was using it all through COVID. I practiced that specific track [Laguna Seca] over and over, and then I went back to it this past summer. With COVID, it was still miraculously open at the end of July, and the same racing school I went to had an advanced course, and my lap time had significantly improved.

“I essentially started driving the virtual tracks more for fun,” he said. “As I got into the real-world stuff, I realized your skill and technique actually takes you quite far in terms of what to do when things go wrong and when you overstep those boundaries. There is no place in the real world to practice that, especially in California. There are no real racetracks, so I would just sit with an X-Box controller practicing the track over and over.

“These road races, specifically, last for an hour, however many laps that is on whatever track, depending on how long it is,” Twomey said. “So the endurance aspect of it is kind of appealing because there are so many different strategies you can develop from that.”

Thomas Twomey Headshot
Thomas Twomey would like a future in Formula One auto racing.

While economics factor into racing, so does systems engineering. It fits well in both virtual and real racing, Twomey said, because both involve complex amounts of data.

“People think they are just cars driving around the track and they don’t understand the complexity and how much data there is behind this,” he said. “I have used my systems engineering degree to analyze the data, especially looking at people’s driving styles.”

He uses these approaches to not only better understand what his opponents are doing, but to determine ways he can use that to beat them. He cited an example of one driver he outraced by better optimizing his tires’ temperatures and speeds. Twomey said the simulators penalize a driver for using the same set of worn or overheated tires throughout a one-hour race.

“I have had races where I was pretty far back in the pack, where I did not have a good qualifying session and was all the way back in seventh place, but because I had a tire-consistent pace throughout the race I was passing four or five different cars and finishing on the podium,” Twomey said. “Those are always the most enjoyable because you are passing people; you are making moves like you see on television, moving up on the inside, and it is always an incredible rush when you are going wheel-to-wheel with people, because you are trying your best to keep it clean and you do get penalized if you miss your braking point and you hit someone.”

William T. Scherer, a professor in UVA’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, is working with Twomey on his capstone project, which involves college golf recruiting analytics.

“He’s a pleasure to work with and to have on the capstone team,” Scherer said. “His interest in the golf project stems from his general interest in sports analytics, as demonstrated by his virtual race-car driving passion.”

Cyberspace holds a multitude of tracks, from Formula One road courses to standard racing ovals, and Twomey has raced virtually on a variety of them in his quest to get better.

“I practiced those tracks over and over,” he said. “After I had done real racing school, I was hooked on the adrenaline rush and the excitement of doing those kinds of speeds. It was extremely fun and there was also the competition element, as well.

Ken Elzinga Headshot

Ken Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, introduced Twomey to virtual racing.

“I played competitive baseball up to my junior year of high school, and decided to stop playing to pursue engineering, because no college coach wanted to let me play baseball and do engineering at the same time. So for me, racing was a combination of engineering knowledge mixed with high-level sports competition.”

Twomey is a perfectionist who pays attention to the minute details of his laps, but he also uses driving to clear away distractions.

“Most things I would say are boring to me [except] racing,” he said. “Some of the most peace I have had mentally has been in a race car, because everything has been so intense and so high-focus that nothing else really matters. It is essentially life or death, where your brain gets focused, and that is almost relaxing to me in a way just because you can’t get that from studying for a test. I have learned I perform well in stressful environments.”

Driving also keeps him grounded, he said.

“What I will do after a stressful day is come back here and turn on the simulator and drive,” he said. “I try to compartmentalize my time. I set a timer for 30 minutes and set my phone on ‘Do not disturb’ and put noise cancelling on everything. The only thing that is there is me and the car, essentially.”

And while cyberspace holds a multitude of racing tracks, it also holds a multitude of racing cars from which the drivers can select, including various levels of formula cars and NASCAR racers.

“Specifically for the Collegiate iRacing League, I drive GT3 cars, which are based on street cars, like you would see – super cars, but they are all kind of standardized in a way,” he said.

While he has access to this virtual fleet, Twomey drives around town in a 2008 BMW Z4 3.0si that his grandfather left him.

“It’s a great car,” he said. “It’s small, light, and it forces me not to take all my friends places because it is so tiny. With racing, I have really come to appreciate light, low-power cars. I have done so much practice in the simulator that if I actually drove as I drive in the simulator, I would probably get arrested.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications