ASHEVILLE – Joel Bergstein’s goal is for people to have fun and, in the time of coronavirus, sometimes that’s all you need to know.
The software developer-turned-entrepreneur is opening a racing simulation center called The Track at Asheville that will give people the opportunity to feel what it’s like to drive “standard road cars, exotic supercars and purpose built track beasts” at high speeds.
But it’s all happening from the safety of a Biltmore Village building at 9 Reed St.
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“The amazing thing about these is the immersion,” Bergstein said. “Some of the (simulation) rigs have three monitors, so you’ve got one in the front and one on each side, so you’re able to see the whole panorama. We also have VR headsets. You feel like you’re there.”
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Bergstein said the center will be family-friendly with coronavirus safety precautions. And, because it’s Asheville, it will have craft beer and wine, too.
He knows the idea sounds odd, but he thinks people will find the race simulators as surprisingly addictive as he does.
“Even if you think you won’t enjoy it, we’ll have all different kinds of cars, all different kinds of tracks to try and experience,” he said. “It’s just really fun to race against your friends and your family.”
A matter of time and money
Bergstein, 41, got involved in motor sports when he was about 20 through autocross, in which drivers race one at a time against the clock on a temporary course.
From there, he moved into track days. That’s driving on a full-sized, permanent road course, but not “wheel-to-wheel” with other cars.
In all his passion for the sport, Bergstein wasn’t blind to one of its key flaws.
“Even at the amateur level, the time and money required to do anything in motor sports is high,” he said. “And it’s a big barrier for a lot of people.”
Time started to be a barrier in Bergstein’s own enjoyment of the sports. With a full time job and a young son, he found he wasn’t able to make it to the track or work on his car on a regular basis.
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He knew race simulation technology had improved greatly over the past couple of years, so he decided to give it a shot.
“Here’s an option where I can actually set one of these up in my basement and, whenever I have an hour, I can go down and turn laps,” he said.
Entrepreneurial spirit and destiny
Bergstein’s idea for the race simulation business started percolating about a year ago when the small company he works for was acquired by a much larger one.
“So, that really kind of spurred me on to take a more entrepreneurial spirit and take control of my destiny and where we’re headed,” he said.
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He liked the idea of sharing motor sports with people in a fun, safe, accessible way and planned to start dipping his toe in this spring.
“We were going to bring some simulators around to like breweries and bars and just set them up on an evening on the weekends and let people try it,” he said. “And we had set up to run at Archetype at the end of March.”
Then, COVID hit and the virus shut down those plans. It shut down real racing, too, and some professional leagues switched to simulation racing, which Bergstein said is a “much more reasonable facsimile” of the real thing than many other sports.
He noticed a NASCAR simulation series getting pretty good views.
“It just brought a lot of visibility into the sim-racing and how realistic it is and how good it is at presenting that experience,” he said.
The heightened awareness inspired him to go for it with the business.
“That really just kind of propelled us to say, ‘Now is the time. If we can do so safely, people are looking for things to do,’” he said.
An immersive experience
The engines used in The Track at Asheville’s simulators will be the same as those used by Formula 1 teams during the pandemic. Bergstein didn’t design any of the software, but he’s customizing the experience by selecting each component.
The rigs reproduce the feel of a drive through the wheel alone — something Bergstein is still amazed by.
“You can feel the rear tires start to slip out from under you,” he said. “And you can feel the front tires start to slip and you can feel the curbing and you can feel this bit of gravel that’s on the track.
“It’s unbelievable how immersive the whole experience is and you really kind of lose yourself. People just sit down and they’ll just run laps for an hour, just trying to improve their lap times, trying to get this corner down. It’s really the immersion that makes it so great.”
Bergstein hopes to open The Track at Asheville in October. Unfortunately, under state reopening guidelines, the situation is a bit hairy.
North Carolina is scheduled to enter Phase 3, which will allow reopening of arcades and gaming establishments, Sept. 11.
However, Gov. Roy Cooper has already extended Phase 2 three times, so it’s impossible to say what the future holds.
Still, Bergstein is optimistic. If push comes to shove, he thinks there is an argument to be made for opening his business in the current phase with all of its precautions.
He designed The Track at Asheville with 12 rigs spaced at least 6 feet apart. People reserve time in the simulators, which will be fully sanitized after each used.
When the business does open, Bergstein hopes it will be accessible to all, even those who’ve never seen a motor sport.
“Really, what my goal is is to provide the fun of racing and the excitement of racing with other people and (an opportunity to learn) about vehicle dynamics and how the cars work and how the tires work and how to really get the most of a track,” he said. “(I want to) bring all that to anybody who’s interested at a really accessible level, in terms of both finance, time and safety.”
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This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Cars and craft beer: Racing simulator business to open in Biltmore Village