My Raceplan log entry for March 24, 1997, after two mechanical
failures in the British Grand Prix: I'm an idiot.
April 29, after mistakenly running my cars at the Belgian Grand
Prix, a low-downforce circuit, with high-downforce settings: No,
I'm the world's biggest idiot.
May 27, after my two alleged drivers spin no fewer than five
times at Estoril, in Portugal: For God's sake! Would somebody
mind telling me what the hell is going on here?
June 13, when my one disgracefully slow but surviving car blows
its engine on the last lap of the last race of the season:
That's it. I quit. They can take this [expletive deleted] game
and they can [many expletives deleted].
Raceplan, a play-by-mail computer simulation of Formula One
racing, isn't just a game. It's an obsession. Every two weeks,
the moment my Raceplan fix arrived via Royal Mail from England,
I dropped whatever I was doing, breathed deeply to calm my
butterflies and analyzed the latest computer-generated race
results for two hours, longer than it takes to run a real Grand
Prix. Over the following week I would spend at least 12 hours
crunching numbers for the next race--calculating fuel mileage to
plan pit stops, figuring appropriate corner speeds,
etc.--agonizing over strategy and mapping out my seasonlong
Besides keeping my Raceplan log, I filled a loose-leaf binder
with race stats, freehand drawings of all the Formula One
racetracks and random ruminations. (I like to think of it as my
version of Da Vinci's notebooks.) At least once a week, just
before nodding off to sleep, I studied the 33-page Raceplan rule
book (including six pages of updates and clarifications) with
the fervor of a biblical scholar pondering a difficult passage
of Deuteronomy. I had the bug so bad that I even wished broken
limbs and debilitating illnesses on the fictitious drivers of
For better or worse--no, make that for better and worse--I
discovered Raceplan about a year ago while browsing through the
classifieds of Autosport, the British racing weekly. ARMCHAIR
GRAND PRIX MANAGERS WANTED! screamed the headline. CAN YOU GUIDE
YOUR OWN F/1 TEAM TO WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP GLORY? Is Jacques
Villeneuve French? (Actually he's French-Canadian, but you get
Here was my chance to prove that Frank Williams, the Roger
Penske of F1, had nothing on me besides means and opportunity. I
promptly contacted Raceplan creator Danny McConnell, a
31-year-old computer-simulation savant who runs an empire of
play-by-mail games--not only in automobile racing but also in
baseball, basketball, boxing, cricket, football, rugby and
soccer--in Kent, England. It didn't take long for McConnell to
convince me that Raceplan was much more indeed than a
warmed-over version of Rotisserie baseball.
For about $100 per 17-race season, Raceplan allows team
owners--I mean players--to make nearly every important decision
affecting the fate of a mythical Formula One team (short of
planning the menu for the sponsor's hospitality tent). That
means managing preset budgets, hiring and firing drivers, and
building and developing the race cars based on 19 technical
specifications that range from high-speed downforce (a variable
affecting traction and speed) to the compound of qualifying tires.
The game is designed for Formula One fanatics in desperate need
of a real life: pale, geeky guys pretty much like, well, me.
I've been following Grand Prix racing for 25 years. Dead drunk,
I can recite the names of every F/1 world champion since 1950.
If there were a Jeopardy! for motor sports, I would be rich.
("I'll take 'Desmodromic Valvetrains' for $2 million, Alex.")
McConnell, sensing he had a live one, encouraged me to "take on
a position" in an existing game instead of waiting until he had
enough players to start a new one. I bit. Hard. My first
Raceplan installment arrived a week later, and I found out why
McConnell had been so eager for me to take on an existing
position: The position sucked.
Each of the 26 cars on the grid--13 two-car teams--was rated
(excellent, good, average, poor or obsolete) for each
performance spec. My chassis-and-engine package was obsolete in
five categories, poor in five more and average in the rest. My
two drivers were out to lunch. In the preseason race at Brands
Hatch, one of them crashed, and the other bid the race adieu
with an engine problem while running a scintillating 17th.
I cleaned house ruthlessly. Before the season opener in
Australia (Raceplan games are run every two weeks, and they
follow the track sequence of the F/1 season, though not
necessarily the exact schedule), I switched designers and
commissioned a new chassis. After the second race, in Brazil, I
booted my top driver and "signed" Chance Allison, a free agent I
named after a character in the racing novel I'm trying to sell.
Still, I careened from failure to failure, bottoming out in
Canada, where Allison and Steve Robinson--my carryover
slug--both wrecked the cars before mid-race.
I took solace in McConnell's Yoda-like advice (13.0, Hints and
Tips): "Be philosophical. Raceplan is a simulation of real-life
motor racing, and strange things do happen. Leaders do blow up
at the last corner. Teammates do collide at the first corner.
Sometimes you'll get lucky; sometimes you won't. But you've got
to take the [bad] with the [good]."
I soon settled into a routine: When my Raceplan envelope
arrived, I would turn on my telephone answering machine, clear
my desk and murmur a little prayer--nothing extravagant, just
your basic "Look, Big Fella, I know I've been a little bit
remiss about this whole religion thing, but do you think you
could maybe find it in your heart to let one of my guys finish
on the podium? Just this once? If it's not too much to ask?"
Then I'd sit down with the lap-by-lap recap of the race, spit
out by a computer that plotted the positions of all 26 cars on
the track at 3.6-second intervals. I savored each line as if it
were the dactylic hexameter of Homeric verse. ("Past these they
raced, one escaping, one in pursuit....") In my mind's eye, I
conjured up every pass, every missed gear, every botched pit
stop. Later, when I'd run out of epithets, Homeric and
otherwise, I started planning my strategy for the next race.
For each Grand Prix, I had to decide the speed at which my
drivers would take individual corners, their wing settings, how
much fuel they'd carry, how many pit stops they'd make, whether
they'd indulge in kamikaze-style, late-braking maneuvers. Armed
with a calculator and graph paper, I forecast tire wear, fuel
consumption, top speed, you name it.
I went a bit crazy at Monaco, choosing a very risky one-stop
strategy, and Robinson, my No. 2 driver, rewarded me by
finishing sixth and scoring my first world championship point.
This modest success inspired me to work even harder. Unread
magazines piled up in teetering stacks. Every night after
dinner, I would retire to my office to "catch up on some work,"
as I put it. My girlfriend would roll her eyes and mutter
scathing comments that I pretended not to hear.
My new regimen produced back-to-back fourth-place finishes, at
Hockenheim and the Hungaroring. But all the money I spent
tweaking my car drained my Raceplan budget, and my progress
stalled. Inexorably, my team sank back into the mediocrity from
whence it had come. After a dreadful performance in the
year-ender at Suzuka, I was ready to admit that, yeah, maybe
Frank Williams had some things I didn't have: brains, for
My manic phase gave way to post-Raceplan depression. I stopped
conducting after-dinner analyses of races past. And suddenly,
amazingly, I found time to read Lord Jim. I caught up with The
New Republic's take on the presidential election. O.K., so it
was eight months after the fact. The point was, I was in
control. I was taking back the night. Raceplan? I didn't need no
Who was I kidding? Even as I was mentally composing my letter of
resignation to McConnell, I was faxing my orders for the
preseason Race of Champions. When the latest Raceplan envelope
materialized, I didn't even bother to take it back to my office.
Instead, I ripped it open right there at the mailbox. Then I
nearly dropped to my knees. "Oh, my God!" I whispered. "You're
not going to believe this."
My girlfriend rushed over. "You sold your novel?"
"I'm on the pole at Brands Hatch!"
Granted, it's a nonpoints race, and my new car hasn't been
tested and debugged. But it's enough to convince me to re-up for
another season. Hey, Frank Williams didn't win his first world
championship pole until his seventh year. I figure Williams is
going to start hearing my footsteps before the end of the
Preston Lerner is a journalist, novelist and playwright who
lives in Los Angeles.
TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY MICHAEL WITTE [Drawing of despondent auto racer looking at crash on computer screen; ecstatic auto racer greeting mailman]