I didn't give up. Fueled by competitive spirit and aided by the fact that I could practice whenever I wanted without paying track fees or buying new tires, I kept at it. Soon, I was able to actually finish races. Eventually, I landed on the podium. I even won once or twice.
I didn't realize it, but I was learning the instincts a racer needs in real life in the process: How to counter-steer; how to find and hit the apex of a turn; how to focus for 45 minutes straight and, most importantly, how to push myself to find the extra tenths of a second hiding in every corner. Comparing my race telemetry to others' showed me exactly where I wasn't using all of the simulated grip and power available to me. With my racing sim in-hand, I now had the technology; I could rebuild my confidence and improve my skills. And it worked. The harder I worked, the faster I went. I was learning.
When the spring thaw came and the autocross season heated up, I discovered something wonderful: I now had a better feel for my car than I'd had in the fall, in spite of the fact that I hadn't taken it out of the garage in months. I could drive it harder, feel the tires braking away earlier and make corrections sooner. I was fast, and that summer, I won my class twice, and never finished lower than second place.
The ability to log hundreds or thousands of hours of seat time at just about any track in the world from the comfort of your own home is a huge advantage to a racer on a modest budget. But even the racers with corporate benefactors buying their tires for them are warming up to the idea or racing sims. These days, it's common to find a variety of professional racers online, even big names like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who runs his own online league.
Me, I'm still not the most consistent autocrosser, and I still haven't bought those sticky tires, but nowadays, I do most of my racing online anyway and leave the car in the garage. When the track time is free, the competition is intense and the safety is unparalleled, sim racing ceases to be just good practice and starts to become a good alternative.
Tim Stevens is a freelance writer who autocrosses in a 1991 Toyota MR2. He also does the occasional ice race and rallycross in a 2002 Subaru WRX. He blogs about racers and racing games at DigitalDisplacement.com.