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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...THE BIZARRE : PC Grand Prix
| PIT STOPS | SO SOCAL

June 28, 1998|Preston Lerner

You're hammering past the pits at Long Beach at 185 mph, your hands squeezed around a leather-wrapped steering wheel, your butt buried deep within the enveloping seat of a 900-horsepower Indy car. As you scream down Shoreline Drive, you ease off the aluminum gas pedal and--the damn computer locks up.

A simulated cockpit featuring a race-spec seat, steering wheel and pedals, all packaged in a metal frame that allows a desktop monitor to double as a "windshield," the Virtual Vehicle is perhaps the world's most exotic and--at $1,295--most extravagant accessory for computer racing games. "I was a racing maniac and computer geek," Francis De Giorgio says as he sits in the product of his twin obsessions. "This was a natural."

Until recently, even the most fanatical virtual racers had to make do with flimsy plastic steering wheels and pedals. De Giorgio, 34, a computer consultant and amateur racer, decided to do better. Two years ago, he and brother-in-law Erick Unbehand, a master machinist, patented a steering wheel that uses a gas-damped shock absorber to generate lifelike resistance.

Hooked up to a Pentium hot rod, performance is so realistic that Indy car drivers Adrian Fernandez, Mark Blundell and Tony Kanaan have bought units. "We had one at the U.S. 500," De Giorgio says, and Indy car champion "Alex Zanardi wouldn't get out of it."

Next, De Giorgio plans to tackle interactive racing. "A virtual racing league," he shouts over the wail of a digital Ferrari. "It's a natural."

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