From Four Wheels to Fantasy – When Bethesda made Hardcore Racing Simulators

SolitudeFounded in 1986 by Christopher Weaver, Bethesda Softworks struck gold not once, but twice, with the incredibly successful Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises. Mixing the hectic elements of first person shooters, with extremely deep role-playing and adventure elements, millions of PC and console owners all over the world have gotten lost in one of Bethesda’s worlds, and for good reason – Skyrim’s metacritic score is an astounding 96, whereas Fallout 3 managed to fetch an average of 93. If you don’t personally own a game from the Elder Scrolls or Fallout franchise, you most likely know somebody that does, and if you asked to borrow their copy for a weekend, they’ll let you, because there’s a chance they have a second copy.

But before wizards, dragons, and the nuclear apocalypse, Bethesda pushed out the complete opposite.

247059-xcar-experimental-racing-dos-screenshot-ugh-car-customizationX-Car Experimental Racing was released in July of 1997 for the MS-DOS operating system. Centering around a futuristic racing series that drew a great deal of inspiration from FIA’s now-defunct GT1 category, the hardcore racing sim was years ahead of it’s time.

247060-xcar-experimental-racing-dos-screenshot-track-selectionMid-Ohio, Thunderhill, Putnam Park, and Lime Rock were placed on the schedule along with fictional stops in Mexico and Seattle. The cars resembled modern Daytona Prototypes aesthetically, but were much lighter and could be tweaked beyond what your average endurance racing rule book allows in 2015.

247061-xcar-experimental-racing-dos-screenshot-game-supports-resolutionsDid it drive well? As you can probably guess, nobody had any sort of quality wheel peripheral back in 1997, and brands like Thrustmaster were just getting started. While a demo of the game is indeed available on numerous MS-DOS based website applications, only the most dedicated of DOSBox users will figure out how to get this game working, and even fewer will spend a meaningful length of time with it.

But Bethesda wasn’t done yet. Less than a year after XCar’s launch, the team released Burnout Championship Drag Racing in 1998. Featuring a refined set of physics and even more garage menu options, the game is still held in high regard by real life drag racers for the sheer attention to detail Bethesda displayed given the primitive technology available. As Drag Racing is an incredibly simple sport by nature, Burnout was, and still is, the only game to dive into the monumental amount of engine tweaks required to remain competitive at the real race track. It was Kerbal Space Program, before people knew they wanted something like Kerbal Space Program.

screenshot_nira_intense_import_drag_racing_26Not only did the extremely obscure game serve as a engine builder, but the physics model powering the game wasn’t bad. Not only did the game offer a powerful replay feature that could be consulted after each pass, but Burnout was one of the few racing simulators of the 1990’s that featured a three dimensional physics model. While Papyrus’s own NASCAR Racing series glued your car to the surface, Burnout allowed for you to get crossed up after a loss of traction and helplessly barrel roll your vehicle.

burnout_drag_racing_01Rudimentary graphics aside, virtually every professional and amateur class of drag racing was represented, and the already expansive list of vanilla content was multiplied with the release of a Collector’s Edition package.  Adding native Windows 98 functionality, more cars and tracks, as well as a stand-alone expansion featuring the NIRA’s short lived Import Drag Racing Series, Bethesda built the game drag racing fans had always wanted, well before video games had even caught on in modern society.

4_burnout_championship_drag_racingIn 2000, Bethesda managed to secure the license to the International Hot Rod Association, otherwise known as the IHRA. For those who (understandably) don’t follow drag racing, the IHRA is the straight line equivalent of ARCA – the same caliber of drivers, the same rules, the same technology, the same classes, and sometimes even the same tracks, but a different sanctioning body, one which lived comfortably in the shadows of a much bigger corporate entity.

347590-ihra_007The IHRA was new to the world of computer games, and forced Bethesda into a cycle of yearly releases. IHRA Motorsports, the unofficial sequel to the Burnout line of games, shipped with much-improved graphics, but suffered from bugs and physics oddities that weren’t present in the original game. While it still retained the robust engine building and tuning elements of the original title, the IHRA forcing Bethesda to push a title out for the holiday season left the first game of the new partnership largely incomplete. Requiring a host of patches to prevent constant crashes and annoying little quirks clearly the result of time constraints imposed on Bethesda, even the physics model was a step backwards and never exhibited the true potential of the title.

Bethesda never got a chance to fix these flaws, or improve on what was now becoming a relic of the MS-DOS era of gaming with Burnout Championship Drag Racing. In an effort to simply get a game onto the shelves and sell copies at souvenir trailers, the IHRA series was converted from a hardcore drag racing simulation into something requiring much less skill over a period of three or four years. The final entry, IHRA Drag Racing 2005, could pass as an iPhone game in 2015.

Two years later, Bethesda established themselves as one of the greatest developers of all time.

ihra with dragons


20 thoughts on “From Four Wheels to Fantasy – When Bethesda made Hardcore Racing Simulators

  1. My first Bethesda game was SkyNET, a first person shooter based in the Terminator movie future.

    It looks lame in retrospect, but the atmosphere in that game was tense. One of my favorites.


  2. The Pcars shills/douchebags are always saying, “you sim elitists keep saying graphics don’t matter”………………..well……being one of those so called “elitists” and after seeing the pics from this, I am ready to graphics do matter…


  3. List of essential features missing in Asetto Corsa;

    Aerodynamics that takes proper sideslip/alpha into account
    -Properly handling stiff suspensions
    -Properly working AI
    -Properly working netcode
    -AI during multiplayer
    -Brake temperature
    -Oil temperature
    -Water temperature
    -Dynamic day/night cycles
    -Drivers swaps during multiplayer and singleplayer
    -Dynamic weather with rain
    -Proper race/flag rules
    -False starts
    -Rolling starts
    -Safety car
    -Proper damage
    -Pitstops in singleplayer
    -Visible tire deformation
    -Animated marshalls
    -Steering assist and adjustable speed sensitivity for keyboard users
    -Steering assist for gamepad users


    1. This is not the real Associat0r. It’s an impersonator that mixes his old comments from around the web with some of his own.

      It’s the same guy as ass0factor.


      1. >This is not the real Associat0r. It’s an impersonator that mixes his old comments from around the web with some of his own.

        Associat0r.txt? I’m considering creating a prc.txt on Twitter, by the way.


  4. IHRA Drag was pretty good, although I seem to remember that the general consensus at the time was that the best drag sim was Burnout, which I’ve sadly never been able to track down a copy of.


  5. I had a copy of Burnout, awesome sim at the time. Picked it up off a random value software rack. It taught me a lot about engines since everything about the engine was tunable.


  6. >As you can probably guess, nobody had any sort of quality wheel peripheral back in 1997, and brands like Thrustmaster were just getting started.

    Thrustmaster was around since 1990-1991. Logitech was around since the 80’s. Microsoft used to make gaming controllers (including wheels) in the 90’s as well. In 1997 not only there were racing wheels, but the first *force feedback* wheels started to pop out on the market.

    Better start getting your facts straight, every article referring to something pre-2000 has factual errors


    1. Everyone knows that before the G25 came out we were playing racing sims with Atari 2600 paddles.

      I have no idea how old the current editors/contributors to this site are, but racing sims (particularly the Papyrus and Crammond sims) had a pretty dedicated following by like 1995 or 1996. And you could walk into a CompUSA or a Best Buy and find a pretty decent selection of wheels to choose from.


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