No matter how many times we here at PRC.net cover a story featuring NASCAR Racing 2003 Season in some aspect, the opening paragraph never changes and is always necessary to drill home the magnitude of what consumer racing simulators can achieve. Released in February of 2003 and depicting Winston’s final year as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s biggest series, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season was Papyrus Motorsports’ magnum opus – one last incredible oval racing game aimed at the most hardcore of Stock Car fans before the company went out of business.
As someone who’s owned the game since launch, out of the box, the game was phenomenal. A landmark achievement in video game history, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season was to Stock Car fans as Microsoft Flight Simulator was to aviation enthusiasts and amateur pilots. A robust, realistic physics engine unlike anything on the market was complemented by pinpoint-accurate tracks, computer opponents who drove with the tenacity of NASCAR’s best, and a multiplayer component that spawned online friendships long before the world was blessed with Facebook and Twitter. A few short years after the game’s release, just as Nextel had begun to adorn the mandatory contingencies of each car on the NASCAR circuit, news began to leak that several top-level drivers were using NASCAR 2003, a computer game you could buy for $30, to practice for upcoming races. This was passed off as a goofy, unsubstantiated rumor, until NASCAR’s most popular driver confirmed it in an ESPN segment.
The EPSN piece on Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. confessing to spending their off-days playing pretend NASCAR with each other gave way to several other stories of drivers using this ultra-hardcore NASCAR simulator, one that was now a few years old, as a legitimate training tool. Jerry Nadeau credits the game with helping him recover from his crash at Richmond in 2003. Denny Hamlin won the Bud Pole award and eventually his first Nextel Cup race at Pocono with the help of NASCAR 2003 in 2006. Most recently, 2012 Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski admits to spending long hours in the shop running races at Watkins Glen in NASCAR 2003 as a kid before he got a shot at his own career in NASCAR – a career which includes several road course victories.
And once a community surrounding the game had formed, the longevity of the title increased with each passing month. Dedicated players, skilled in third party editing programs such as Sandbox and Photoshop, set out to turn NASCAR Racing 2003 Season into an eerily-accurate virtual encyclopedia of North American Stock Car racing. Despite the game only shipping with the Winston Cup lineup as of February of 2003, entire decades of ARCA, CASCAR, IROC, and USAR seasons are represented among the hundreds of combined historic NASCAR championships churned out by the community. Virtually any car that saw more than five laps in a NASCAR practice session since 1970 has been faithfully recreated for the game, along with era-specific tracks that allow anybody to travel back in time to the days when Ontario Motor Speedway, South Boston, or North Wilkesboro were still on the calendar.With such a talented, diverse community of 3D artists, attention eventually shifted on expanding the list of additional tracks available for the game to include obscure local facilities. Once the community grew tired of producing historic versions of tracks like Riverside, and keeping up with the current Cup Series schedule by renovating tracks already seen in-game like Homestead and Las Vegas to mirror their current configurations, several individuals gave nod to the weekend warriors of oval racing by faithfully reproducing tracks where Late Models reign supreme and Fan Appreciation Night cut ticket prices in half. Evergreen Speedway in Washington State, New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, Mesa Marin Raceway in California, and Edmonton International Raceway in Alberta were just a fraction of the local short tracks offered for those wanting to flesh out their own personal K&N Pro Series or Canadian Tire Series schedule.
Speaking of Edmonton…Opening in the mid-1960’s as a quarter mile dirt oval before being paved in the mid-1990’s, Edmonton International Raceway is home to the Alberta Has Energy 300, the fifth stop on the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series tour. Located 45 minutes south east of Edmonton in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, this is my local track, and the only NASCAR-sanctioned track in the province.
Some kid made it for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season in an effort to complete the list of 2014 Canadian Tire Series tracks available for the game.
I come from a family full of racers, although they’re more of the straight line variety. I’ve always wanted to get into racing myself, but obviously the cost of fielding a sportsman drag car is beyond what’s attainable for most families, even if numerically it works out on paper. As a result, racing in general has been strictly off-limits for me, forcing me to get heavily involved with all different types of sim racing to get my fix. Over the years I’ve driven everything from virtual Stock Cars to virtual Monster Trucks, and been quite successful at it. A couple iRacing K&N Series championships, a couple GT championships, numerous Indy Car wins, and a top five points finish in Brazilian Touring Cars of all things are just some of my online career accomplishments; although I still hate motorcycles with a passion.
The more successful I was in the virtual world, the more I heard about how real drivers were using the same racing sims I was playing for fun as legitimate training tools, and the more I learned about how affordable other forms of racing are compared to Nostalgia Drag Racing, the more I wanted to jump in a car and try it myself. Trips to the local karting complex, while fun, weren’t cutting it anymore. And despite everyone telling me how dangerous it was to buy my own kart and do dumb shit around the neighborhood with it, I never hurt myself. I had a bunch of money saved up, and Skip Barber looked like a sweet option, but the logistics of flying to California as a Canadian, from booking a hotel to renting a car and getting my ass to Laguna Seca, would be a total nightmare and more of a hassle than what it was worth. As auto racing isn’t as big in Canada as it is in the United States, it’s entirely possible I could come away with an SCCA License and have no use for it.
I was thinking about all this at work earlier this summer, when I thought back to the World of Outlaws event up here last August. During driver introductions for the Dirt Late Model portion of the night, our local track announcer mentioned one of the rookie drivers, the daughter of an accomplished local racer, had recently attended oval racing school in Wetaskiwin, attaining a license that allowed her to drive in events alongside her father.
Wait, we have a racing school here? That’s much easier than flying to California.
On its official website, Edmonton International Raceway offered two variants of a Stock Car racing experience – one designed as a gift akin to the Richard Petty Driving Experience for about a hundred bucks, and a much more expensive option essentially acting as a one-day course to obtain a proper NASCAR competition license in order to compete on short tracks all across the continent. I dropped the $650 and signed up when I got home, receiving a huge package in the mail about a week later.
I’d really like to say I jumped in a car with no prior experience, but that would be a lie. Previously, guys like Greger Huttu and Ray Alfalla were given a chance at real-world racing; although both of them struggled in the end. Hailing from Finland and being a fisherman by trade, Huttu had never driven a car before, running a handful of laps at a time before becoming nauseous from the unfamiliar feeling of G-Forces acting upon his body, and Alfalla’s time on iRacing meant he’d accustomed himself to iRacing’s improper transmission model and had to re-learn how to drive a standard, having never done so before.
I wouldn’t be going into this totally blind. My bizarre list of actual on-track experience is a hodgepodge of stuff that has at least gotten me familiar with G-Forces and driving a car at speed. Across the field (literally) from where I work is Castrol Raceway, which hosts both an IHRA and WoO national event during the course of the summer, along with several national drift and superbike events. I’ve taken both street cars I’ve owned to the Friday night street legal events, routinely cutting the tree down on much more expensive cars and amassing two perfect lights – more than some professional drivers have in an entire career. Currently, I drive a 1998 Dodge Dakota, so one of these .000 RT’s was accomplished by leaning under the steering wheel to release the E-Brake as the tree dropped.
Most of my real-world experience comes from road racing, as we have a pretty huge karting complex up here that offers the standard stat tracking and ranking system common with indoor kart facilities in 2015. One of my high school buddies and I used to frequent the place so much, we found out that after ten races, the engine restrictor was turned off for us and we’d graduated to a much faster class. We got so proficient at driving these things, and the place ate into our wallets so much, we eventually bought our own karts and resorted to making stunt videos around the neighborhood. In the long run, it was actually cheaper.
And finally, iRacing member and real life Spec Miata driver Greg Cloutier introduced himself to me on the iRacing forums, dragging me out to a private track day shortly before the City Center Airport IndyCar course would be permanently demolished in 2012. At the time I was driving a 2005 Ford Focus sedan; a day that should have ended with my car in several pieces resulted in nothing more than a moderate tan and a sore neck from the technical section that makes up the back half of the course. So all of the big hurdles I’d be introduced to when tasked with driving a Stock Car, such as G-Forces, how much you can ask from a set of tires, and what different handling characteristics feel like, I’d already experienced one way or another.
The biggest problem I was facing, is that I would have no way of practicing for the school ahead of time. The indoor karting facility had exploded in popularity to the point where I’d have to skip work to avoid waiting in lines for hours on end, and running laps there would really help re-familiarize myself with what driving hard feels like. Therefore, the only other way to prepare was to run laps in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, and pray that Earnhardt, Keselowski, Hamlin, and Truex weren’t bullshitting when they attributed their success to what’s now in 2015 an obscure NASCAR simulator you can’t buy in stores that was sitting on my shelf.
To replicate as much of the upcoming school as I possibly could, I selected the 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo from the Aero88 mod, a third party modification that uses the game’s Craftsman Truck Series handling model to represent what a late 1980’s Winston Cup car would feel like. In this case, the 1988 Monte Carlo body style is a popular choice among Street Stock competitors, and would therefore replicate the exact visibility I’d have when looking out the window. And in order to replicate the relatively low power of a Street Stock (a little over 300HP, compared to a 2003 Truck with 750 HP), I threw a 4.11 Rear End Ratio into a setup designed for Langley Speedway, and left the car in second gear.Wetaskiwin is a 1/4 mile bullring; almost a scaled down version of Richmond, except the Start/Finish line is on the backstretch. The track was repaved for 2014, and features a huge rumble strip along the apron on both ends of the race track. You lift off the throttle about a car length after the Start/Finish line and gently drag the brake until the car settles along the bottom. At this point the car is neutral, and you can work the brake pedal if you come in a bit too hot. You put in around 10% pedal input, and progressively lifted off until your foot was off the brake in the center of the corner.
Unlike most short tracks, there’s actually a coast zone in Wetaskiwin that lasts all of about 30 feet. These turns are long, and applying the power too early will send you straight into the outside wall because the corner hasn’t opened up yet, so you essentially coast with both feet off the pedals for half a second.
Once you’re about to see a gaping hole in the wall, you can put the throttle to the floor and let the car drift out to the middle of the backstretch. Ideally you don’t want to let the car drift too high, because someone will poke their nose under you, and a late apex for turns 3 & 4 isn’t ideal for a low powered car like this.
You begin braking for turn 3 at a point that seems ridiculously early, although with how tight turn 4 becomes, it’s necessary. Like turn 1 in Richmond, you gently ride the brakes to set the car along the bottom, following the line of rubber and not the yellow line on the apron until both of them eventually meet.
The center of turns 3 & 4 show you just how nutty this end of the track is. Under braking as you approach the apex, the car dances around a little bit, and you need a combination of both gentle steering inputs and a smooth left foot to set the car along the bottom of the track, because the centripetal forces pull the car to the outside wall. That wall is mighty close, and turn 4 is eerily reminiscent of Turn 2 at Richmond – it’s a sharp left with little room for error; the black marks on the wall of the real thing served as a reminder that people can and do make mistakes rolling on the throttle too early.
And just like Richmond, you regularly scared yourself by pointing the nose of the car at the wall on exit, lap after lap, because once you put the throttle to the floor, the car would lazily float up there, setting you up for another lap.
I put roughly 300+ laps into practicing, including 70 straight laps in the hour before I left the house to try the real thing. It’s the strangest feeling in the world to spend a bit of time at your computer desk running laps on a sim in the comfort of your jammies, only to jump in a car and be walking around at the real thing an hour later.
The course began with filling out the necessary paperwork and being introduced to the Theiring family, who both own Edmonton International Raceway, as well as whose daughter competes in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. These were the nicest people you could possibly meet, and immediately put my mom at ease. Watching any form of auto racing is a bit difficult for her after my cousin’s fire a few years ago, and other miscellaneous close calls that she’s been on the starting line taking pictures of.
The first hour of the ordeal included a detailed track walk and a ride-along; an incredibly in-depth lesson about racing on an oval. Now, after having driven countless oval racing sims, I definitely know how to drive on an oval, but I’ve never been able to explain it to other people, particularly my European buddies, how to do it for themselves. Having all of the driving techniques I’ve picked up from sims over the years explained to me in ways that were easy to understand, as well as why the car behaves in a certain manner, was really eye-opening. I basically got every question I’ve ever had about racing in the past few years answered, with both mechanical and physical explanations that made sense. That was the first of many instances during the day when I thought to myself “it’s crazy how much you can pick up from computer games.”
One thing that stood out to me while walking to track was how good of a job the guy behind NRTracks did with the track surface model. While NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is a bit out-dated and doesn’t allow for super high resolution pavement textures, the overall surface of the track was surprisingly accurate and featured all of the bumps and elevation changes on the real thing. The kid who made it had never even been to the track in person.
Even better, the overall racing line and track shape was virtually spot-on compared to the third party modification. I mean, we’re talking that the braking points, coast points, and acceleration points were within five feet of the real thing. I went from feeling slightly nervous about driving a 3000lb Stock Car that had huge stickers plastered everywhere saying “you are responsible for any damage done to this vehicle”, to feeling as if I studied my ass off for a mid-term and was probably going to nail the test.
Being strapped into one of these is an experience you can’t replicate in a street car. You cannot physically get a standard seat belt to be that tight against your body. Obviously, it’s beneficial for safety reasons, and so you can get a better grasp on what the car is doing because you aren’t being thrown around by it, but for anyone who’s out of shape, I could see this being difficult for them. One thing that surprised me was the overall visibility; I run a crazy high field of view setting across all games to enhance the sense of speed, but in reality, what you see out of your visor is more in line with how EmptyBox has his cockpit settings set at.
One thing I sorely missed, right off the bat, was the lack of any heads up display, as well as a push-to-talk button. While there was indeed an in-car radio system built into the helmet so I could receive feedback from the instructor at any given time, I was disappointed I couldn’t respond to him. During online league races, it’s essential to have a plethora of HUD buttons and Teamspeak buttons mapped to your wheel to share & manage info about the current race, and during my first time on the track alone, I actually responded to a few things I heard over the radio, before remembering shit, he can’t actually hear me and this isn’t Teamspeak.
The first session out, I was instructed to demonstrate that I’d learned the proper racing line, and I drove like a total bitch to familiarize myself with how the car felt, picking up speed with each lap. Near the end of my first fifteen laps, I felt like I was reaching a pretty decent pace, experimenting once or twice with matting the throttle out of the corner. Just as Maple told me on Teamspeak the previous night from his time racing a Street Stock before progressing to a Late Model, these cars aren’t dangerous and provided you point the nose properly, you can lay on the throttle pretty heavily without consequences.
The adrenaline fully kicked in once I returned to pit road and received my briefing for the next session, being encouraged to pick up the pace as I felt comfortable. As I left pit road for my second session, one thing I noticed was how over-done RaceRoom Racing Experience’s chassis sounds are. While you can hear every little thing rattling around when putting around on the apron, the engine and tires eventually over-power everything at speed.
Four or five laps in, I actually started to push the car. I was afraid I was going too quick, as the whole point of the course is car control and not hotlapping, but my fears were put to rest as a friendly voice came over the radio and said “if you don’t hear anything, it means you’re doing a good job.” That was all the confirmation I needed to lay on the throttle and drive the car a lot harder. The rest of the session was done in almost complete radio silence, with the occasional friendly reminder about keeping up a good rhythm, until I eventually received the call to come back to pit road.
“The next session is usually designed to focus on your braking technique, but you seem to be doing it properly already. So just go out there and do what you’ve been doing.” That was the briefing I received before I began my third session. I didn’t actually know what the proper braking technique was, I was just doing what worked in NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. You put in around 10% pedal input, and progressively lifted off until your foot was off the brake in the center of the corner.
I put in a few warmup laps and tried to push the car to the best of my ability, without mowing down cones or knocking down the wall. To my surprise, the quicker I went, the easier driving laps became. You lifted about a car length after the start line, gently held the brakes at like, 10% input while gradually lifting until the center of the corner, let off everything for a car length, then floored it and prayed you didn’t hit the final turn 2 pylon. You positioned the car for a shallow entry into turn 3, got slightly harder on the brakes, and as the center of the corner approached, did exactly like you did on the computer; worked both the steering wheel and brake pedal to coax the car to the bottom of the race track as centripetal forces pulled you outwards, before matting the throttle and pointing the nose directly at the outside wall.
I had no idea how fast I was going aside from the radio silence and roar of the engine, but the tires spoke up for me, squealing pretty damn hard in Turns 3 and 4, although the car didn’t exhibit any unwanted handling characteristics. It’s funny how I’ve ripped on Gran Turismo 6 for having these ridiculously over-done tire squealing sounds, yet in reality, that’s exactly what was occurring and I couldn’t just change the disc in my PS3 to make it go away.
But I definitely picked up some bad habits from Sim Racing. In rFactor, we set our GT3 cars up super loose, and balance this in the corner by giving around 5% throttle input, even under heavy braking zones. In the game, this generates a neutral handling car, and keeps up your speed through the center of the corner, as well as on exit. In the world of iRacing, basic racing guides on the game’s official forums advise you to always have some amount of throttle input. Don’t do this in a real car. You don’t actually benefit from it, all it does is generate unnecessary understeer, and I had to be reminded a few different times to take my foot completely off the gas in the corner.
By the final session, I was extremely confident with my ability to control the car, and I made an effort to push beyond my comfort zone and drive the car pretty deep into the corners. During this session, I really began to understand why this month has been extremely deadly on Alberta Roads.
On one particular lap I drove it really hard into turn 3, knowing that my time in the car was coming to an end and it was time to go all-out. The car got really nervous under braking, and while wrestling it to the bottom of the race track, I glanced up to see how much space I had to work with if it didn’t stick. Out the front window, I had no more than a car length of room to get the thing settled, and that wall just past the cones was mighty big. While I succeeded and heard some positive feedback on the radio in the form of “good job, you’re looking really good out there“, it hit me that this is why the police say speed kills. Putting the throttle to the floor and whizzing past traffic is easy. Getting on the brakes and trying to slow down a 3000 pound car in a safe and efficient manner is something the general public would never be able to do without panicking and making the wrong move.
Upon exiting the car and packing up for the day, I was praised by the instructor for my braking, driving line, and overall smooth inputs. Whether your at home in your jammies or inside the real thing, this is what you want to achieve as a Stock Car driver.
You can’t feel anything through the wheel. A lot of sim racers, especially now, jerk each other off over Direct Drive Wheels, a highly expensive type of toy steering wheel that shakes and vibrates, meant to be leaps and bounds above other toy steering wheels (that also shake and vibrate), priced at a whopping $1,700. What I held in my hands while in the actual car, on an actual race track, couldn’t have cost more than $50. I would also argue that my Logitech G27 pedals were of a higher build quality. The car had a 14:1 steering ratio, which allowed for a lot more play compared to my usual in-game setting of 18:1, and coupled with how little you felt through the wheel at speed, the first session was getting used to driving with a wheel that felt like someone had turned force feedback effects completely off and compensated with a bit of Centering Spring in the Logitech Profiler.
It is hilarious to be piloting an actual race car with a $65 steering wheel, knowing full well that Sim Racers on various message boards are arguing about computer game toys that cost more than what an actual car is worth. I guess it’s a sign that the elite nerds of sim racing have lost track of their priorities.
What I use below is what I use for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (and I use 330 degrees of rotation, not 540, due to the age of the game), but a realistic feel would be around 30%. There was no actual feedback through the wheel, so turn that shit completely off if you want an authentic experience. What you did feel reminded me of sitting in my uncles boat, and we were hauling ass on the lake. You can’t replicate that without a motion simulator.
A while back, I wrote a 2,500 word essay on iRacing’s Street Stock, and subsequently received a lifetime IP ban from the service the next day for what were pretty valid criticisms on how the car drove. After having driven this same car in real life, iRacing has gotten it totally wrong, which is strange, because the same developer team got it right over a decade earlier with NR2003.
This is a 3,000 pound boat with big, sticky tires. In the corners, it’s nervous under braking, requiring gentle brake & steering inputs to settle the car along the bottom of the race track. On exit under power, the car tightens right up, and you basically have a second to figure out the exact moment to get back onto the throttle. It’s essential to do everything in your power to keep up your momentum, as even the slightest flubbed corner, you can instantly feel that you’ve scrubbed off some speed.
iRacing’s Street Stock Camaro is ridiculously stable under braking to the point where it feels like a GT car, neutral in the center of the corner, and insanely grippy off the corner. The car feels glued to the track when taking even the biggest of bumps, and at no point does it feel like you’re in control of a giant boat on wheels from the 80’s. I put anywhere from 60-75 laps on the same set of tires during the night, and at no point did the car step out on me under power – and I was moving at a pretty competitive pace. In iRacing, as we’ve talked about in the past, 20 laps at USA Speedway were enough to grease up the rear tires and create a loose-off condition so bad that all but the most competent of drivers in the session would wind up nailing the wall and end their race prematurely.
If there was one big shock that came of the whole ordeal, it would be what Maple calls Adrenaline Dump. While in the car, your body over-exerts itself and shoots you full of adrenaline, as it perceives you’re in a life-threatening experience. This is understandable, as there is a huge concrete wall a few lanes away from you at all times that can send you to the hospital (and bankrupt you) with one wrong input. However, once you’re out of the car and the “threat” has been eliminated, your body is in a state of complete disarray. How one reacts to it, according to Google Searches, is different for everybody. Learning how to control it is a big part of auto racing, as well as in sports like Mixed Martial Arts, and even in Law Enforcement. The downside is that once you manage to control it, very little in life excites you, as you are so used to preventing yourself from getting excited.
To demonstrate this, on the way to the track, which is an hour out of town, I cranked as much fast, angry music as I possibly could, and purposely re-read infuriating text messages I’ve been too lazy to delete from my phone. By the end of the night, I had an uncontrollable urge to crawl into a corner and blast the slowest Taylor Swift songs about failed relationships. Upon waking up for work the next day, it felt as if the right side of my body had a terrible cold and desperately needed Dimetapp, but the left side of my body was totally fine. An hour into my shift, my body seemed to equalize, replaced with what can only be described as a crushing anxiety/depression hybrid that made talking to coworkers impossible for three hours – a scenario that became problematic when a constant stream of people asked “how did the racing thing go?”
At first, I believed this might have been a flair-up of old post-traumatic stress symptoms that I thought I’d gotten past earlier this year, but talking to both my cousin and uncle about their experiences with adrenaline dump after drag racing, this huge lack of energy for a day or two after being in the car is completely normal.
Obviously I have to thank the Thiering family for operating such a great facility that allows people like me to come out and attain a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series competition license. From the time I stepped on the property to the time I left, this was a fantastic experience and I learned an incredible amount that will most definitely help both on the computer, as well as in the real thing. With some money saved up, the quest is now to find a ride, which is easier said than done.
But the biggest thing to take away from this whole experience, is that while left-wing activists claim certain mainstream video games are murder simulators and oppressing women, an obscure NASCAR game from over a decade ago is perfectly capable of teaching you how to drive a race car. And while iRacing IP banned me for daring to speak out against flaws in their tire model, with angry fanboys running over here to dismiss my legitimate findings as an “irrational vendetta,” Papyrus successfully helped prepare me for my first time in a Stock Car.
This now cements PRC.net as the only driving game publication run entirely by licensed race car drivers.