It was a different time, a different era, and a different mindset. Racing simulators were once complete games, supported by loyal community members long after allegedly superior titles arrived on the market. When Electronic Arts secured the exclusive rights to the official NASCAR license over a decade ago, and sim racers learned NASCAR Racing 2003 Season would serve as a final goodbye for the legendary development team Papyrus Motorsports, hardcore virtual auto racing enthusiasts didn’t have enough time to pay their condolences – they were too busy modding. Over the past fourteen years, NR2003 has become an interactive history book in a way the real-life NASCAR Hall of Fame could only dream of; American Stock Car Racing’s past, present, and future have been passionately chronicled down to every last obsessive detail thanks to sim racers with a bit too much time on their hands.
If Dale Earnhardt hit the track in 1990 for practice at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a tiny contingency decal that was accidentally applied in the wrong cluster by a nervous rookie crew member, you can race that exact car. If you were curious as to what the now-demolished Ontario Motor Speedway would look like on the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series schedule, you’re welcome to take a lap. If your uncle once told you stories of racing late models in the 1990’s, the entire field he competed against – including his car – is probably available for download. If the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a museum, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season is a virtual time machine.
But limitations to the underlying engine have caused many to lose interest in this title. Yes, at one point in time, NR2003 was the pinnacle of modern PC racing simulators. However, the planned obsolescence on the part of Papyrus quickly put NR2003 into the past as American Stock Car Racing progressed into the 21st century. Rumors of Sprint Cup entries producing upwards of 1000hp and generating ridiculous downforce figures resulted in real-world performance benchmarks that the Papyrus experience simply couldn’t match. With NASCAR Racing 2003 Season hard-coded to just four preset physics types, all of which were based on NASCAR Winston Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck series rides from the final portion of the 2002 season, the simulation value of NR2003 dropped with each new rules package change. Sure, the screenshots may indicate Dale Earnhardt Jr’s #88 Axalta Chevrolet is available for the landmark Papyrus simulator, but under the hood, it’s still driving like his #8 Budweiser Monte Carlo. And while you’ve undoubtedly come across shots of the Dallara DW12 turning laps at Indianapolis within the NR2003 engine, the game itself believes you’re driving a 2003 Chevrolet Corvette C5R from the SCCA Trans-Am Series.
A friendly Russian fellow going by the name of JJ Hemp is looking to change that, and bust the aging NASCAR Racing 2003 Season wide open for sim racing modders who desperately need a dedicated oval racing platform, as other titles simply don’t want to accommodate stock car racing. Posting under the nick of RaceReady78 on the small yet fairly active NR2003 Subreddit, Hemp has made an active effort to both understand and document a powerful physics editing tool for NR2003, one which could turn a now-aging piece of software into the rFactor of Stock Car racing. That’s right – NASCAR Racing 2003 Season could actually make a comeback.
Has this been done before? In short, yes. The tool Hemp is using was briefly circulated shortly after the release of NASCAR Racing 2003 Season, yet the landscape of sim racing at the time warranted drastically different results. With the future of PC racing simulators still largely up in the air – rFactor was a few years off, and nobody was sure what would happen to Papyrus as a company – those who attempted to work with this tool and upload their results for others to enjoy were pursued legally by the company now known as iRacing, discouraging anybody from making real progress with NR2003 from a physics standpoint. While both a historic Group C Prototype offering and 2005 IndyCar Series mod were eventually uploaded to show how much potential NR2003 still had as a legit modding platform – and each release was praised by sim racers – the harsh reality of dealing with John Henry and other iRacing representatives in a court of law became too much of a risk for the average modder. Those who did step up to the plate were basically destroyed financially, even if hilarious quotes from the litigation made iRacing to be the bad guy in the court of public opinion.
iRacing was scared the community could produce a better product than what iRacing would eventually become; the physics editing tool was promptly shelved and treated as a collectors item; the Wayne Gretzky Rookie Card of the NR2003 community. Those who could use it to its full potential simply moved on to other games, unwilling to deal with iRacing’s bullshit.
PRC: Alright, to start things off, you’re not a guy in the sim racing community that anybody knows a whole lot about. Like, you’re not a “name” so-to-speak, so I guess the smart place to begin is to just sort of introduce who you are, how you got into NR2003, and the basis of what you’re doing here. Because this is something a lot of people will be interested in.
Hemp: Well originally, I’m actually from the Russian Federation, but I’ve lived in America for fourteen years. I’ve been playing PC games ever since the first Pentium 133 came out. Thinking back, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season came out around the same time I landed in the United States. However, I didn’t learn of the game until 2007-ish. I got a two year degree for Automotive Technology, so around 2007 myself and a buddy of mine were working in a mechanics shop. To occupy our free time, when there was no work (it happens), I simply googled “best NASCAR racing game PC”, and I’m sure you can guess what the result was. Being familiar with PC gaming as a whole, how to install games, hunt for fixes, stuff like that, installing the game and running the default content wasn’t much of a problem.
Before I knew it, we were putting laps on a laptop at work. Even with the keyboard, the game was something special, and it was the highlight of working at that auto shop with my mates. Fast forward to signing up for Valve’s Steam platform, I made friends with a few people who were really into NASCAR, and I started talking about this killer NASCAR game I used to play at work. They were initially put off by the whole “it’s from 2003” aspect, but it was one of those “they don’t make shit like they used to” type deals. So we got the game up and running for like five different people, and all of a sudden we discovered the modding aspect of this game. Like, hundreds of cars, tracks, mods, series, you name it. My buddies and I went through everything, driving all the different cars and tracks we could find – which was a lot.
Eventually, I started really combing through the NR2003 scene, and stumbled upon a page with a physics editor. Within minutes I had the thing on my desktop. But trying to figure out how to even start the program is complicated. After three days of editing the wrong text files and trying to figure out why nothing worked, I finally got it and made my first change. From there, I started studying the numbers and the values. Lots of them are still unknown, but slowly I’m moving through them all, one by one.
My best approach was to start coloring the Excel files. I would use different colors for the different values, and their individual purposes. That helped me to visualize the differences and similarities between the game’s physics. In my opinion, the game is so solid and nicely made that having an ability to mess with the car physics is like taking chess or checkers and making your own unique rules. Discovering the physics editor made me buy a Logitech wheel within a week, because I realized I’d stumbled upon much more than just an old game with a lot of mods.
I just really enjoyed the freedom to actually feel the differences that you make within the internal numbers. It’s like a game within a game. I’m lucky to be fascinated by all this stuff, and have my work benefit the community if it gets to that point.
PRC: Early in the lifespan of NR2003, efforts to make substantial changes to the underlying car physics were met with legal action by the company we’ve eventually come to know as iRacing. Are you aware of the fact that what you’re currently doing – editing the EXE – was something people were once taken to court over?
Hemp: I’m aware, but I’m also informed. When I was combing through stuff about NR2003 online, sure, I read all the articles about the scary lawsuits. However, when searching in detail, you can see that those guys got sued for distributing their mod along with a full copy of the game – a stand alone mod, if you will. You could basically download, lets say the 2005 IndyCar mod, delete the 2005 IndyCar content, and you’d have a perfect vanilla version of NR2003. That’s what iRacing didn’t like and got pissy about. Opening the EXE and modifying the source code is illegal. However, physics editing is nothing more than comma separated values. It’s just like another INI file with nothing but numeric values. Editing physics has nothing to do with cracking source code.
That is why we will never have double file restarts, overtime, and all of those goodies. With the physics editor we can simply change numbers that the game uses to make calculations, but that’s about it. In my opinion, physics editing alone opens a sea of possibilities. Editing the physics Excel file is the same as tweaking settings in text files – it’s not reverse engineering the EXE, it’s a spread sheet with a bunch of numbers that the game uses.
I’m not here to create a superior product and cut down on iRacing sales, but rather start a database on how to give this old game a facelift.
Hemp: Sophisticated sounds good, but is it really better? All of those games, including rFactor, have an ability to mod by default. The NR2003 editor has been around for ages, but due to corruption within the community – egos and all that – it;s been hidden for years as a collector’s item. Now that it’s available for the public, I think someone should fill in the blanks on exactly what it is, and what it does. I wouldn’t waste my time on rFactor as there are probably hundreds of people with more knowledge in regards to that game, but with NR2003 this is all new and uncharted territory. And with those stalker sites who love to run around, power trip, and bully people who have access to this stuff into staying silent, I’m here as a third party to bust it all wide open.
On a more serious note, the reason I’m setting my sights on NR2003 is the current state of NASCAR gaming. Were the Eutechnyx titles any good? No. Is the new NASCAR Heat any good? No.Was that NASCAR Sim Racing from 2005 any good? No. Meanwhile, there are still people who love this game and play it every day. Why not try, right?
PRC: The NR2003 community can be a strange, hostile beast; one where aging men embark on relentless cyber stalking campaigns over the mere quality of custom car templates. Have you faced any adversity from this community over your work?
Hemp: I’ve read all about that stuff. For now, nobody is messing with me. In my opinion, what they have done in the past is far worse than trying to mod a game or repost a template. It’s rediculous to the point I can’t begin to comprehend.
Personally, I don’t belong to any online racing community or anything like that, so I couldn’t care less about my overall reputation among the established NR2003 warzones and template makers. I’m simply here as an independent guy to show everyone what happens when an already great game has even more great things in it. The fact that the physics editor has been around for years, hidden by “elites” and used as a bargaining piece, is something that disgusts me.
PRC: Let’s talk about your current project, the 1963 NASCAR Grand National Series. Your goal, I guess from the view of an outsider, is to turn NR2003 into a 1963 classic stock car racing simulator. Can you tell us what you believe the mod – physics and all – will look like when everything is completed. What can sim racers expect out of your first major release?
Hemp: Well let me stop you there. GN1963 Edit is nothing more than a way to show you the changes you can make in the text file. It’s much easier to choose which way you want to increase or decrease your numbers. I’m simply going through the fields in the editor trying to figure out what they are. I document my knowledge just so if anyone asks me a question about the editor, I would have a picture to show them.
I can also teach and explain, but regarding a final release, on top of cyber stalking and everything that goes on NR2003, we are not talking about any release or anything like that. Think of it more like a Wikipedia page dedicated to the physics editor, with GN1963 being a “perfect example.” Sim racers should expect every question about the editor to be answered, so they can get to work. That’s the main goal. It’s not a mod or a physics set, but a tutorial for other people.
As you know, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season has four types of physics: Cup, Busch, Truck, and Trans-Am. Each mod uses one of those four specifications. Within the editor, there are tons of unknown values, so it’s impossible to know exactly what they mean. However, by comparing the values for different physics, we can start to guess the general approach.
The reason I chose 1963 cars is very simple. They are very different from the cars we already have. The first steps are very clear; make an engine that has less power, and represents an old 427. The chassis is longer, the weight is heavier… Point I’m trying to make is that there’s a huge difference between these cars, and the default cars. It’s easy to take a swing towards a 1963 car feel. Make “good fields” worse, make “fast fields” slower, make “light fields” heavier. If we are trying to go from 2003 spec cars to 2016, how would we know if we’re on the right track unless you actually drove both cars in real life? Well, with a 1963 stock car, it’s much easier to tell from a modding standpoint if you’re getting it right. We can all guess how an old car drives or should drive compared to a modern stock car. A lot of the values in the spread sheet are real life numbers and dimensions. So you can easily just substitute real life numbers and be 100% correct. That still gives hope for many more edits that could be claimed as correct.
Am I done with understanding what all the values mean? I’d say I’m approaching 50%. It all comes down to the scale of how many things you want to edit. My goal is to document the process of figuring out the values in the editor, and what they mean in a manner that’s understandable for big mod teams. I’m here to simply talk about the physics and show what the editor is and what it can do.
Hemp: Hopefully not. My ultimate goal is for other people to use my documentation for their work own work, which would undoubtedly surpass my own efforts. Whether they build a physics set for the 1963 Grand National season, or the 2012 IndyCars, I don’t really care. I’ll race anything. I just saw a situation in which there was this extremely powerful tool out there, and nobody really knew how to use it. Honestly, you have to be stupid to ignore the possibilities of this program.
A lot of knowledge in regards to NR2003 is hidden or lost, plus NR2003 is so universal in terms of adjusting different things, and making models/mods and all that, it’s impossible for one person to know and be able to do everything. We don’t just need new tracks, or new car models, or new physics, we need all three at once. That’s the real deal and it’s what I’m hoping comes of this. In a year or two, I hope there’s a renewed interest in this game because the Papyrus magic was allowed to blossom into something more than just “look at my new car livery.” I want this to become on-par with rFactor, where teams can use my guide and suddenly within NR2003 there’s this historic 1970’s Trans-Am simulator with authentic physics that everybody’s driving.
PRC: A big hurdle for many sim racers to get over is the ancient Force Feedback found in NR2003 – it pales in comparison to what we see in modern simulators. Have you found anything that could potentially lead to modders re-engineering the game’s dated force feedback?
Hemp: Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about Force Feedback. The physics editor is merely a set of numerical values; horsepower, torque, length, weight, and so on. It has nothing to do with the source code or opening EXE files to look into. You do feel the differences you make, so you’ll feel the car being heavier or less grippy in certain driving situations, but the core logic for Force Feedback has nothing to do with the editor. Someone more advanced will have to do stuff like that. Personally, the ability to have a simulated race alone or with friends with any type of car that modders will come up with will overshadow what some will call dated force feedback. NR2003’s AI and overall racing experience is that good.
Personally, I own a cheap Logitech Driving Force Pro, so any sim I play isn’t going to feel what the hardcore guys will want it to feel like.
PRC: What kind of quirks have you found while working on your project? There are rumors of the Pontiac chassis being the fastest of the four brands, and the cars gaining an extra 25 horsepower in overcast conditions. For as many accolades as the original Papyrus team received for NR2003, what kind of shortcuts were made under the hood?
Hemp: Oh man, I’ll be crucified if I talk about that. When it comes to the Pontiac rumors, I haven’t found any proof. There is only one set of values for one chassis. The track file will choose the chassis, and that’s it. There is, however, a hidden Chassis 0 that anyone can try without mods or anything. Just change your chassis type to 0 in the track.ini file. That one is very interesting, and it helped me to understand the general meaning of a few of the unknown values. That chassis has a different 450 engine with more torque and power, it has a set of tires no other chassis uses, so those are a dark horse as well. Also, it has a horrible drag coefficient of 0.82, versus the 0.53 found in the regular cup car. I wonder if that was their representation of an old muscle car? It has a drag coefficient of a brick, that’s for sure. Or it might be a hidden gem or an extra test chassis for them. Including chassis 0, and all four physics, there are close to 24 unique cars available in NR2003. I wonder if iRacing’s issues to fit new cars in have anything to do with that number.
Extra horsepower during certain weather conditions are hard-coded into the EXE, they have nothing to do with the editor. The game will take initial horespower from the editor and play with it however it was programmed to do it. I don’t doubt weather conditions have an effect on horsepower.
I don’t have a super deep knowledge of the game, but from looking at the numbers for hours I’ve indeed found a few shortcuts Papyrus took. The biggest one in my opinion is the physics themselves. Almost everything aside from the fields in the editor which depend on chassis type have been copy-pasted; meaning, the short track chassis for all four physics sets has the same value. The Craftsman Truck has different aero properties, tires, rims, and a different engine compared to the cup, but for the most part it’s a carbon copy of the Winston Cup physics. This is absurd, as if you took off the body work and lined the two vehicles up side by side in real life, they are most definitely not the same race car.
In terms of the Busch series car, the only values Papyrus changed were weight, wheelbase, and engine – although at the time this was somewhat realistic because the cars are extremely close to one another to begin with. So when the Busch series physics were first put up for download, it was actually nothing more than a few lines of code. That’s what the editor says, at least. I do not know what else goes on in the EXE itself, and I might be terribly wrong, but if I am making a 1963 physics set as an example, they didn’t try hard at all when creating the Busch series physics. I understand it is largely the same as the Winston Cup car, but the numbers say it was a very rushed job.
While JJ Hemp still has an exceptionally long way to go in terms of research, curious modders intrigued by the possibility of resurrecting a Papyrus classic can sample his documentation by clicking HERE for the first edition of his Engine documentation, and HERE for the first edition of his Chassis documentation. The physics editing tool for NASCAR Racing 2003 Season can be found HERE. Hemp’s Reddit account, where he routinely updates users with progress he has made during his research, can be found HERE.