We did one of these on the Rental Karts in Game Stock Car Extreme a few weeks back, and with the release of Project CARS just around the corner, why not tackle a car both of us at PretendRaceCars are familiar with? Since the game has recently gone “Gold“, meaning Project CARS is in a completed state, it’s safe to say this car won’t change much – or at all – between now and the final build.
Have I driven one of these? lol no, so take this stuff with a grain of salt. However, I’ve indeed run across people through iRacing who very well have driven various Stock Cars, and instead of fanboying over meeting a real life driver, I’ve used the late-night teamspeak sessions to ask them what games currently on the market get it right. The answers I got were ARCA Sim Racing and the Craftsman Truck Series physics for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. We’ll use those as a base.
Both games essentially feel like driving a V8 Supercar with no rear wing and one less gear to deal with. Quick direction changes don’t happen, carefully monitoring your momentum in and out of each corner slowly drops your laptimes, and under power through the center and exit of a corner, you’re playing Russian roulette with the throttle. It’s America on wheels. The same basic throttle application techniques you’d use when driving an 80’s turbocharged F1 car applies here, but mistakes are magnified by the lack of downforce and severe weight transfer of the lumbering brick on wheels.
Project CARS features the 1990 Chevrolet Lumina Stock Car, branded as the “Caper Monterrey” due to licensing issues. At one point, Project CARS included fictional versions of Daytona, Indianapolis, and Bristol, although they have suspiciously been removed from the game – one user advising me they’ve been removed due to quality issues. As a result, Sonoma and Watkins Glen are the only two “correct” tracks to drive this car on, so we’ll go to Watkins Glen.
I spent a lot of time beta testing the NASCAR Racing 5 mod, and below is a demonstration lap of the Generation 6 Physics, a lap that would have put me 34th on the grid. Lots of body roll, lots of careful throttle application, and a lot of coast to coast movements from one side of the track to the other.
The track record in real life was set by Marcos Ambrose in 2014 with an average speed of 129.491 mph. With 30 minutes of spare time, I set a blistering pace of 131.379 mph in a car that’s twenty five years old and has 300 less horsepower.
Let’s look at why this is.
Our journey to the setup options reveals a traction control setting that we can’t turn off – the lowest it goes is 1%. I’m fairly certain that 1990’s Winston Cup cars lacked traction control. The rest of the setup screen was slightly upsetting, my usual camber settings of -3.5/-2.8 were simply unavailable – the most negative rear camber I could give my car was a pathetic -0.7 degrees. Regardless, springs were stiffened all around and the steering ratio was set to 18:1 as is the norm for any sim I play. In the opening shakedown laps, it felt like something I could live with.
The AI tasked with keeping me company and listening to me talk about my feelings were severely underwhelming despite being maxed out at 100. The dynamic AI you hear fans of Project CARS talk about was nowhere to be found, and it was very rFactor-like in the way that it was almost on-rails in some cases. The runoff in turn 1 at Watkins Glen has been paved within the past few years, and it basically allows people to carry a ridiculous amount of speed on exit. Every single AI car I followed throughout practice would go way into the paved runoff, then awkwardly cut back onto the track like a child quickly shoving stolen cookies back into the package. In the bus stop, the AI took a very shallow entry that I hadn’t seen since the days of NASCAR Thunder, and retained much more grip than I ever would taking that line. Driving close to the AI warranted one of two outcomes – they either outright ignored me, or switched into an “oh god, James is here” mode and intentionally blew braking points or ran way outside. I got dumped a few times in the bus stop by an AI that just outright didn’t care I was there, and other times I’d just sorta laugh at how much room they’d give me. There was no middle ground. Compared to NASCAR 2003’s AI, which are fully aware they’re driving
Winston Nextel Sprint Cup Stock Cars, it looked very amateurish and wasn’t a lot of fun to make laps with them.
And making laps by myself wasn’t much fun, either. Unlike NR2003 or ARCA Sim Racing, where the awful handling is almost a loveable flaw of American Stock Cars, like trying to walk on a hockey rink with a pair of sneakers, the 1990 Lumina in Project CARS is overly simple. There was definitely wheel spin and a sense of weight transfer going up through turns 2, 3, and 4, but it was never a defining characteristic of the car. The shift points were all the same, the turn in and braking points were all the same, but every situation I put the car in where I expected it to bite me in the ass, it’s like the physics engine just didn’t want me to mess up. The esses that make up turns 2 through 4 usually require a solid line and holding on for dear life in anything that isn’t a GT car, but when you get it right, the car is absolutely flying. NR2003 and ARCA replicate this pretty well. In pCars, I got kinda loose… and that’s it. A quick flick of the steering wheel and the car was stable again.
The bus stop is a challenging part of Watkins Glen as Stock Cars don’t respond well to violent direction changes – even some of the best
Nationwide Xfinity & Cup series guys mess up the bus stop constantly during races. Yet here, the bus stop never gave me any trouble. After the first right hander to start the sequence of corners, I could flick the car violently to the left and stomp on the throttle. Yeah, there’d be wheelspin and yeah, it would get a little loose, but never to the extent that happens in other games – or real life.
Turn 7, the long downhill right-hander is a source of many problems in a plethora of different sims, as well as real life. It never ends, there’s a hundred different ways you can take it, and it’s a corner that lets you know if you got on the throttle too early. In the NASCAR Racing 5 beta video I linked above, you can clearly see me feathering the throttle and using up all available grip, because the tires start to swear at me in the only way they know how.
This isn’t replicated in pCars at all. On several hotlaps in the 130 – 131 mph range, I could send the rear end towards the wall and just sort of hold it there. I was able to get on the throttle for turn 7 much earlier than in any other sim, even compared to my time in GT cars. Multiple laps in a row, even after I was sure the tires were beyond the point of cooperating with me, the game let me hold these giant slip angles with relative ease. Dropping the wing into the mid 50 degree range from the mid 60’s made almost no change to how the car took the corner, even after discovering in ARCA Sim Racing that oh my God, 56 degrees of wing in Qualifying is sorta sketchy. No other Stock Car racing sim would let me get away with what I was able to do in pCars. Only after intentionally hammering the rumble strips to make a cool screenshot did the game finally send me into the wall.
In 30 minutes of driving I smashed a lap record set by V8 Supercar legend Marcos Ambrose in a car that’s twenty five years old and has 300 less horsepower. This is completely understandable in something like Gran Turismo (where I ran two seconds quicker than the track record at Bathurst in the ’00 Ford Falcon on Hard tyres), but Project CARS claims they’ve created the most advanced physics engine ever. If they got it right, how did I put a Chevy Lumina on pole? And keep in mind, while I ran a low 1:09, the world record for this combination in Project CARS is a high 1:07.
Personally, I don’t mind dumbed down physics for the console crowd, as I’m one of the few that immensely enjoyed DiRT 3 and didn’t immediately go looking for physics mods for it. I can deal with a car that’s slightly too fast or slightly too easy if the rest of the game is alright. But with the game touting a robust single player experience, maxing out the AI skill level still left them woefully off pace after a mere 30 minutes of tweaking.
I’m sure the fanboys will jump on me and say it’s pre-alpha or whatever excuse is being used this week, but my time with the 90’s Lumina in Project CARS was underwhelming. Other games do it better, and with less of a hit to the CPU.