Inside RaceSim1, Toronto’s sleek new racing-simulation arcade

Inside RaceSim1, Toronto’s sleek new racing-simulation arcade

At one point or another, just about every Torontonian under 30 has sat in the driver’s seat of a retro Cruisin’ USA arcade terminal or picked up a Nintendo 64 controller and rocked some Mario Kart. That’s all child’s play next to RaceSim1, the latest entry in Toronto’s emerging e-sports scene. The sleek basement space, next door to Clinton’s Tavern, features five custom-built cockpits and impressively realistic racing games for adrenalin junkies who don’t have the chops—or disposable income—to hit the racetrack. Here, a tour of the new, one-of-a-kind arcade.

Founder Maxime Jacques never had a particular affinity for either cars or video games. “I’m not a gamer,” the Montreal native says. “I’m sure I have ADD. Give me a controller and a game, and I’ll play five minutes before I lose interest.” He was working as a project manager at a software company when a friend invited him over to try out a game that used a real wheel and pedals—he ended up staying up all night racing his friends. He first imagined turning the hobby into a business while travelling around Vietnam on a motorcycle earlier this year. When he returned to Toronto in February, he was surprised to find nothing like it existed in Toronto. So, he quit his six-figure job and got to work.

When Jacques found the basement space on Clinton Street, it wasn’t the clean, bright arcade he envisioned. “It looked like a dungeon and smelled rotten,” he says. The space had previously housed a gym, an internet café, a cigar lounge and, according to neighbours, a strip joint in the 1970s. He ripped the place bare and began renovations, encountering not one but four floods along the way. “Everything is new, except for the two poles.”

Next, Jacques started building RaceSim1’s lifeblood: its racing stations. He ordered a DIY cockpit kit from a engineer and race-sim enthusiast in Florida, then spent months tweaking the design. He worked through four prototypes in his apartment before settling on the current model. (“My girlfriend was so happy when it was gone,” he says.) Each station ran him about $4,000, including a large-screen TV, a chair designed for a real race car, a Logitech wheel and gear stick, a sound system with five speakers and a subwoofer, and an Xbox One that runs either Forza Motorsport 6 or Project CARS. Both of the games feature real cars and racetracks from around the world—the games’ developers used laser scanners on the actual courses to make sure they’re accurate down to the centimetre in the game.

Racers can walk in, reserve a cockpit or rent out the whole space for parties (it accommodates 15). Jacques gives new players a quick tutorial on the games’ controls and can suggest cars and tracks fit for beginners—a few regulars are already pros. He dreams of competing against gamers from other race-sim locations and founding a race-sim team (in France, where the e-sport is already popular, companies sponsor teams in the same way Mercedes might back a Formula One squad). First, though, he just wants to establish a steady customer base. “I’m still losing money,” he says, “but I didn’t start this to get rich.” One upside to an empty arcade: he can play as much as he likes.

RaceSim1 is open Wednesday through Sunday. Sessions start at $10. 693 Bloor St. W., racesim1.com.