Allowing us to peek into his private life today is the esteemed real-life racer and online sim racer, z1nonly.

Autocrossing locally since 2005, and nationally since 2013 with the SCCA in their Championship Tour, Pro Solo, and Match Tour formats, “Z” as he is affectionately known, appears to excel most where the rubber meets the road. His high level of commitment to performance driving means he is always active and travels a lot to various national events. However, when not on the road, he can be found putting in some practice laps on his GTR GTA-F racing simulator online. In this exclusive interview with Sim Racing RX, we discuss why racing may be good for the brain, ask him who he would most like to race against, as well as what his passions in life are.

So without further ado..

Enter z1nonly.

Question: z1nonly, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule for Sim Racing RX. What should I address you as?

Mike: Mike is fine, thanks.

Question: OK, Mike it is then. If I may, I’d like to start off by talking about Mike the man, rather than Mike the racer. Could you please introduce yourself?

Mike: I’m a husband, father, son, former Marine, autocrosser, sim driver, fixer of broken electronic stuff and electronic gadget geek.

Question: That’s a lot to have going on, Mike! I’m aware that behind every great man there’s a great lady, and this seems very true in your situation. Could you talk about your wife?

Mike: Yes, my wife, Tonda is the source of everything awesome in my life. She makes the tough stuff bearable and the good stuff meaningful. I have been a generally happy person my whole life, but I had no idea how good life could be until I experienced it with her. She’s the one that insisted we should take my shiny new 350Z to some car meet, in the mountains, a full day’s drive from our home. When I expressed a lack interest for driving two days’, round-trip, just for a car meet, she dug up a video online of someone driving one of the roads near where the car meet was being held. The meet was ZdayZ and the road was the Tail of the Dragon!

She’s the one who encouraged me to go see what all the tire-squealing and engine-revving in the distance was about when I was washing that same Z in our drive way. It turned out to be Gulf Coast Autocrossers, one of the best autocross sites in the country, within earshot of our home, and she’s the one who suggested that I upgrade from a wheel clamped to a desk to a full rig. Tonda, is also a skilled national-level driver in her own right. She won her first national event at last year’s Dixie National Tour, beating two national champions for the win in Ladies SSC. She was the fastest on both days of the two-day event, with the second day being in the rain. She covered all the bases in that single event and, later that year, made it into the trophies on her last run at the championship!

PRIVATE OPINIONS Of The Sim Racer With 800+ World Records

Question: It’s quite obvious that “team Z” make a formidable outfit. Tonda sounds like one in a million! Same car, same course layout for Tonda?

Mike: Yep, same everything. The only difference comes down to track conditions since Ladies and Open run at different times on the same day. For that particular event, she had the tougher conditions since her heat ran in the rain that morning and the course had dried up by the time I had to compete in the afternoon.

Question: Being an autocrosser in real life, I would think a lot of your skills would be transferable to online racing. However, the visceral physical sensations you get from auto crossing simply don’t transfer over into a stationary seat and 2D monitor and wheel rig in your living room. However, I’m curious to know if it goes the other way; are there any skills you’ve picked up through your online endeavours that are interchangeable with autocrossing?

Mike: One of the reasons I like Project Cars 2 is that the stuff that works for me in real life works in PC2 and the stuff that costs time in real life also costs time in PC2. Progressive inputs, proper weight transfer, good arcs and angles – all of that transfers over. PC2 TT with ghosts has also helped me quantify the cost of various mistakes and sort my risk-management strategies.

autocross racers at the track
Mike and Tonda are members of Gulf Coast Autocrossers

Question: So the benefits cross over equally well in both directions?

Mike: Yes. Both reinforce good habits for the other.

Question: What’s the most interesting or exciting thing about autocrossing for you?

Mike: The frequency of required inputs is very high in autocrossing. There’s virtually no time to beat yourself up over a mistake or pat yourself on the back for nailing an element. Your brain gets no “downtime” on course.

Question: So racing is good for keeping the brain sharp. The margins seem very tight with hundredths of a second separating drivers. For those who are not familiar with autocrossing, please give us the lowdown.

Mike: Autocrossing takes an open area, like an airstrip, and uses cones to mark a course that competitors run for time. Knocking over a cone, or displacing it from it’s marked box, results in a two-second penalty. We get to walk the course many times and formulate plans, but the number of driving runs is very limited depending on the format. There are only 3 runs per course at National Tours.

Question: As you need to commit the autocrossing course layout to memory – not such an easy feat as there appears to be cones scattered all over the run – I’m wondering, have you ever forgotten a course layout during a live run?

Mike: Haha, yes, but it’s not as big an issue as the “sea of cones” would make it appear.

Question: But one small seed of doubt and surely that’s it?

Mike: Autocrossing is similar to other sports in that your brain learns to deal with a lot of the “noise” automatically as you practice and get familiar with the sport. I tell all the new students at the Gulf Coast Autocrossers performance driving school that the limiting factor at their first few events will not be their driving skill, but their eyes. We, veteran autocrossers, can forget how confusing the cones were first time out.

When I was in the Marine Corps, we would hide in plain sight by dressing up in the same colors as the environment. Well, in autocrossing we put a bunch of orange cones in front of other orange cones and tell students to “look ahead”. The first time I pulled up to the line on an autocross course I remember thinking it looked like my son had thrown all his toys on the floor, only they were all the same color and shape. It just looked like a big orange mess, and a blurry mess at that when I tried to drive at speed.

The good news is, this “information overload” passes with time and practice. Eventually, you focus on a few key cones and tricky elements rather than memorize the whole course.

Question: So you instruct at Gulf Coast Autocrossers’ “Performance Driving School”?

Mike: Tonda and I are both members of Gulf Coast Autocrossers, or GCAC as we call it. Most autocross clubs have veteran drivers available to help new drivers (or even experienced drivers that would like a second set of eyes to help them improve). For most clubs, this is a work assignment and our favorite “job” to get when we run with other clubs.

GCAC is a little different in that we have two-day events and a large site that accommodates two courses at once. The first day of our two-day events has a test-n-tune course on one end of the air strip and a separate course for the school on the other. We try to keep the student / instructor ratio low so that students get a lot of one-on-one, in-car time with their instructor, as well as a lot of seat time. The school runs during the first half of day-one of our events. (Day two we use the entire air strip to make competition courses that run about a mile long.)

Tonda and I both enjoy instructing not only because we get to help people improve, but also because teaching and reinforcing good habits for other drivers helps keep us mindful of our own driving.

Question: What car do you run on autocrossing days?

Mike: We currently run an FRS (GT-86) in the Solo Spec Coupe class.

Question: How hands on are you with the car’s setup?

Mike: One of my favorite things about SSC is there are not a lot of “knobs” to turn. We get single-adjustable shocks, adjustable sway bars, and a front and rear alignment kit. I’m pretty hands-on with the setup, but we all “tune” in a relatively-narrow performance envelope.

Question: With all your autocrossing commitments, is time management ever an issue for practicing online?

Mike: It can be, but the children are out of the house and Tonda is very supportive, so I can allocate a large portion of my free time to the sim.

Mike Lawson autocross car Scion-FRS-GT-86 with wheels off
Mike and Tonda's Scion FRS (GT-86)

Question: A great example of how a professional couple can manage their work in such a way that they get the time to fulfill all their hobbies and enjoyment and start new work with a fresh mind! In your case, though, sim time is really autocross practice time – it has that kind of value for you. Moving on from autocrossing, what racing titles do you currently own?

Mike: PC1, PC2, AC, ACC and I play with iRacing occasionally.

Question: Which ones do you play the most?

Mike: I play PC2 almost exclusively as the road cars that I have driven in real life feel similar to the road cars in the title, and I much prefer the VR interface of Project Cars.

Question: When and where did online racing start for you?

Mike: The first time I really competed online was the Nissan GT Academy on PlayStation. I went back to more causal/occasional sim driving before getting my full rig in 2017 and then diving back in.

Question: Racing both online and in real life is about a sense of mastery, high-speed decision making, risk taking, perfect execution, and putting in the work to be better than the next racer. How much work do you put in to stay at the top?

Mike: I have 1,790 hours in PC2. I try to pick combos that I enjoy though, so it doesn’t feel so much like “work”.

Question: That’s some decent seat time there. With over 800 world records on Project Cars 2 and a longstanding interest in driving skillfully, you seem best placed to know what makes a driver fast. In your view, what can the average sim racer do to become faster?

Mike: Here are a few things I try to remember:

When I “hit a wall” and find myself unable to drop time, it’s often because I have started making demands of the car rather than “communicating” with it. I drive my best when I pay close attention to how the car responds to my inputs. If I am competing with a custom setup, changing the smallest thing (like one click in air pressure) will put me back into the mode where I’m asking, “how will the car respond when I do x?”.

Make sure you are executing your strategy well, before you change to another.

– z1nonly

When you try a certain approach, try to make sure you give it a chance to work before bailing and moving to another. Ghosts are helpful with this in a sim. For instance, if you decide to try braking a little early for a turn, the ghost may pull away on entry but end up behind you by the next braking point. Also just as important is working to properly execute a new strategy. It’s unlikely you will get it right on the first few tries. Make sure you are executing your strategy well, before you change to another. From a strategy standpoint, the longer the straight after a turn, the more I’m willing to err on the side of a slow entry to ensure a good exit.

If you nail the throttle on corner exit and get wheel spin you will lose time over someone that managed the throttle just below the point of the tires breaking away. If you floor it and the tires hook up with no wheel spin, you will lose time to someone that slowly applied throttle up to the point where you are nailing it. You both end up at full throttle in the same spot, but the binary approach misses out on all the partial throttle available before that point.

In real life it’s often suggested to “get all your braking done in a straight line.” This is the safest approach and a good plan for new drivers that want to drive their cars home from the track. However, that approach leaves available grip on the table when the braking load isn’t fully utilizing the contact patches. When you get to a point in the braking zone where braking is no longer using 100% of the contact patch the left-over grip can be applied to turning, as long as the total between braking and turning doesn’t exceed the overall available grip. This progressive “hand-off” from braking to turning is easier said than done, but there’s time there.

I tell this to my students all the time. It’s easier to “feel” in real life, but it’s still loosely applicable to sim racing. If you’re getting through turns easily, you are probably under-driving. Likewise if you are gritting your teeth and death-gripping the wheel, turn after turn, you are probably over-driving.

When you go too slow, you basically have one problem: you’re going too slow. When you go too fast, you often have a big mess on your hands. Slip angle, bad entry/exit angles, later throttle availability, etc. On top of the vehicle dynamics, your brain is now allocating resources to deal with the mess and picking up visuals becomes more challenging.