Stephen Cox Blog Presented by McGunegill Engine Performance
“When I was doing it, I got paid to drive. You were judged on your merit as a driver… not the check that you brought,” Darren Manning said while sipping an after-hours beer and relaxing in the lobby of his company’s new facility on the west side of Indianapolis.
“I got chosen to drive by Ganassi, Foyt and Walker. It was a very fun time. There was a great camaraderie between all the drivers because the drivers up and down the field were getting paid.
“The sport has changed a lot.”
The man who scored 25 top-10 finishes in seven years of IndyCar racing now lives a more relaxed life. He spends more time with his family after leaving the sport for several years in the wake of his departure from IndyCar in 2009.
“I was so disillusioned with motor racing and the politics and the finances around it. I’m not a driver who will call everybody to try and get a drive, rightly or wrongly. I don’t know whether I’m too proud or too pigheaded or too stubborn, or whatever it is,” Manning said.
“I didn’t like the fact that I needed to go to a race every weekend and beg team owners to put me in a car. I wanted to be a guy who got chosen to drive for a team, and that went away. That disappeared. I decided that I didn’t want to (beg for rides).
“There are a lot of people out there that want to drive in the Indy 500 no matter what it costs them. They’ll live on a couch or sleep on the floor. They’ll sleep on the streets just to drive in the Indy 500. I get that. I was there once. I’m not there now.”
Manning’s days are now spent in a spacious west side office that includes one of the most amazing, interactive driver training programs I’ve ever seen. Traditional driver coaching requires leasing a track, hiring a driving coach, paying his fee and expenses, and then paying all tire and fuel expenses to run the race car. In return, the driving coach gets to view one corner of the track at a time and advise the driver only on what he can see within his scope of vision.
Manning has beaten that system. For less than the hauler’s fuel bill a driver can get an hour of coaching from Darren Manning at iAdvance Motorsports (www.iadvancemotorsports.com) on a simulator that features a full racing cockpit and a 20-foot wraparound projection screen that is shockingly similar to the real thing.
“After all these years in the sport I have a good grasp, I think, of what it takes to be a good racing driver,” Manning explained. “I wanted to create something different, something accessible. I have friends in Europe who have created simulator facilities and I talked to them on numerous occasions and they helped me build the facility that I have here. There isn’t really anything like it in America. There was a niche in the market for that.
“I wanted something that gave me a tool to get what’s in my brain across to anybody so I could sit next to them in the simulator and see what they’re doing, analyze what they’re doing and go through the data.
“The weight of the steering wheel needed to be identical to the race car, and the pedals on the simulator needed to have enough adjustment to be identical to any car. The vision is a 20-foot wraparound screen that immerses the driver.”
Despite the fact that it can replicate any type of vehicle, Manning is quick to point out that the simulator is not as realistic as racing. Only driving an actual car on a real track can perfectly replicate that experience. But Manning’s simulator provides an incredible interface that allows the student to mentally grasp the concepts that only a driver of Manning’s caliber can pass along, and it works exactly as advertised.
My afternoon under Manning’s tutelage was amazing. I pleaded with him to allow me to start our simulator session at the (virtual) Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a car that was a bit more familiar to me, such as Indy Lights. “No, no, no! You’re going to drive a big boy’s car,” Manning joked while programming the simulator to Indycar settings.
With Manning sitting at my side shouting instructions while studying on-board data readouts and fiddling with a keyboard, my lap times on the simulator dropped precipitously due more to his coaching than my driving. He told me that my race experience was showing and my lines were better than most students. In less than half an hour he had me running long stints and competitive times in full race trim. It was a barrel of fun, which explains why iAdvance Motorsports also offers corporate entertainment programs with side-by-side simulator racing.
But nothing humiliates a driver like qualifying. Typing like a madman on his keyboard, Manning trimmed out all the downforce on my virtual Indycar and told me to lay down four clean, fast laps with a qualifying setup. I begged him for more time under race conditions to no avail. “You better hang on for your life, mate,” he laughed.
If I lifted for even a fraction of a second to set the weight of the car on corner entry, Manning would shout at me to be a real man and keep my foot on the floor. It was all in good humor, but I can only imagine what an Indycar team owner might say to a driver who breathed the throttle for a microsecond under similar conditions in real qualifying.
When I finished, my eyes were bloodshot, my palms were sweaty and I was thoroughly humbled. Yet Manning’s knowledge and expertise were even more astonishing than the totally absorbing simulation facility that he built with his own hands. Darren is the real deal. He has forgotten more about driving than we mortals will ever know.
My only real shot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway evaporated in 2014 faster than you can say “the team wants more money.” In the unlikely event that I get another chance, you can bet I’ll be banging on the door at iAdvance Motorsports.
If Darren Manning can’t make you into a driver, well… you’re just not a driver.
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