NHRA Countdown to the Championship is still the undisputed king of Drag Racing Sims

Originally appearing on VirtualR.net in the winter of 2013, I wrote this piece on NHRA: Countdown to the Championship out of sheer boredom.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 15-54-35-50Drag Racing is a lot like baseball. Unless you’ve sat in the stands for six hours in the scorching heat, waiting for your favorite class to pull to the lanes and obsessing over statistics in the meantime, you’ll never really get it. It’s not something that everyone can sit down and enjoy watching, yet it has the most active grassroots-level participation out of all motorsports in North America. And there is no such thing as a casual drag racing fan, someone who can only jump into conversations when the names “Schumacher” or “Force” are mentioned. It’s a form of motorsport that begs you to come out to the track, not just to see who wins, but also to take in the atmosphere and immerse yourself in the culture and traditions that have been over fifty years in the making.

Because of all this, like baseball games, drag racing games are quite hard to recommend to people who don’t wear their Scott Geoffrion shirt proudly on casual Fridays. After all, what’s so hard about hitting the gas pedal for five seconds?

When it’s done right, a lot.

The same basic developer team from NHRA 2007 has been happily working with the National Hot Rod Association since the late 1990’s, when under the ValuSoft brand, they produced three PC drag racing games that gathered a niche following among fans and drivers alike. These games, the original NHRA Drag Racing series, were low on system requirements and featured a robust online mode that put many other racing titles at the time to shame. Couple that with in-depth tuning options, changing track conditions, support for custom liveries, and you had a recipe for a large cult following.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 15-48-09-43In 2005, the dev team was absorbed by THQ and renamed Lucky Chicken Games. Their first drag racing title for the Playstation 2 (eventually ported to the PC) was a buggy mess, but unlike most developer teams, they actively took to the fan forums to ask what needed improvement. By the time 2007 rolled around, the real-life NHRA restructured their points system to essentially copy what NASCAR was doing with incorporating a playoff format into the final few events, and THQ announced that a new drag racing game would be released at the midway point in the season.

We were all very happy once we got our hands on it.

This is not a game where you can simply do the tutorials and be dominating the AI on the hardest difficulty within a few hours. This is a game that requires you to understand the little nuances in drag racing to be successful, or even qualify to race on Sunday. This is the only game I’ve ever played where, if you fail to qualify in the top 16, you get to sit and watch on race day.

If this becomes a habit, career mode doesn’t last long.

This was not a game developed by guys who kind of know about cars and have a degree in computer programming. This was a game made by drag racing fans, for drag racing enthusiasts. No details were left out to make it more accessible, and you are never trying to chase some sort of XP goal to level up your character.

Exhaust changes in thickness and color based on your exact fuel mixture. The racing groove varies from run to run, with catastrophic failure ready to send your car barrel rolling down the track if you do so much as move slightly towards the wall. Repeatedly getting on and off the throttle to combat unwanted wheel spin can explode your engine in one of fifty different ways, all of which are presented to you after the run in the dreaded “expenses” sheet. The length of your burnout and time spent idling at the starting line reduces the weight of your car based on how much fuel was burned up. A detailed weather and environment report dictates how much power your engine will produce, and how much your tires will grip at certain parts of the track. Six different pages of setup options let you adjust anything from clutch weight, to blower overdrive, to spark plug compression, and even the exact moment your fuel mix changes.

tunesAnd if you need even more data and numbers to worry about, there’s an entire MoTec-style plugin built into the instant replay feature. That is, if you didn’t get enough information from the results screen giving you an entire rundown of your incremental times and speeds.

It’s a lot to comprehend, and pressing the what does this adjustment mean? button only throws paragraph upon paragraph of information at you. Suddenly, just making the show on Sunday becomes a lot less tangible as you contemplate no less than thirty different adjustments to make before night falls on the track, creating conditions optimal for setting track records. If you don’t run a personal best time, three other drivers probably will.

Keep in mind, this is a PS2 game about driving cars in a straight line for four to six seconds. It also got ported to the Playstation Portable if you just had to play drag racing when taking a shit.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 15-48-43-80None of these insane little details would be of any use if the actual driving was less than stellar. While I can’t speak from experience when it comes to driving these rolling bombs, Lucky Chicken managed to make driving an eight thousand horsepower Top Fuel dragster a rather convincing experience. Pro Stock Bikes require pinpoint accurate shifts and bang-on setups to advance through rounds. Pro Stock Cars lack any downforce whatsoever and spin wildly out of control the moment you even think about going out of the groove – just like the real thing. The short wheelbase of a Funny Car can send you into the wall if you lose traction more than a second into a run, and Top Fuel Dragsters are easy to keep in a straight line yet need insanely unstable engine setups to even be competitive, leading to a lot of fireworks and destroyed engine parts if you get it wrong.

Relying on the auto-tune button will always land you two tenths of a second off pace, meaning you’re going to eventually have to get your hands dirty if you want to win rounds instead of getting obliterated by the AI.

It’s a racing game where your engine explodes at the hit of the throttle for the entire first week you attempt to play it. But, little by little, things start to make sense. You start to understand that you can’t smoke out the crowd on every burnout because it damages your engine. You develop a “baseline” setup that gets you down the track and lets you “play on Sunday” a few times a season. You learn what weather conditions allow you to go balls-out on the fuel mixture settings, and you learn what tracks are simply impossible to run consistently at because they’re on the side of a goddamn mountain. You start to get a feel for how the AI drivers behave, and which drivers can occasionally make mistakes, opening the door for you to go a few rounds and work your way up the standings.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 15-58-53-37And then, just as you think you’ve got it down and qualified for your second race in a row, Tony Schumacher knocks you out in the first round of eliminations and resets the national ET record in the process.

Playstation 2-era graphics aside, the sensation of making it down the track in one piece and posting a respectable time, is rivaled only by running a clean stage in Richard Burns Rally, or nailing a lap of the Nurburgring in rFactor. The cheesy motion blur effects and lifeless trackside environments become petty complaints when you blow past the final timing block with the headers fully lit.

There is no fancy rags-to-riches story to be found in NHRA 2007, it’s all about the racing itself. You get your standard match race and single event modes, but the real beauty of the game is progressing through career mode. At first, it may seem like a dull text adventure, with nothing but brief screens detailing your first sponsor contract and introducing your first crew chief, but it soon gives way to an open-ended quest to become a champion in a relatively new (at the time) points system.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 16-03-29-03The AI leaves little room for error, sponsor contracts are hard to fulfill, and unless you’ve spent a fair bit of time learning the basics of tuning your preferred car, you’ll lose an incredible amount of money blowing up in every way imaginable. If you simply can’t get it together for even a few events in a row, your funds evaporate into thin air and it’s game over. Just like the real thing.

If, on the other hand, you do manage to survive the initial learning curve, career mode is a simplified but a relatively accurate portrayal of professional drag racing. You can hire and fire crew chiefs, who give different tuning advice based on their own individual skills. You’ll have the option of several different teams to drive for, all of which provide you with real world sponsors on the side of your car. The goal is simple: Win the championship as many times as you can.

That’s not an easy task when you take into account how well the AI drivers reflect their real world counterparts. Tony Schumacher wins nearly every event, often sharing the podium with other dominant drivers such as Doug Kalitta and Larry Dixon. This isn’t a case of NASCAR Heat syndrome, where one driver was hard-coded to be better than the rest; this is really how it was in the 2007 season. The Summit Pro Stock cars clean up the points chase no matter how many seasons you do in Pro Stock, John Force wins championship after championship in Funny Car, and Antron Brown dominates Pro Stock Bike if you choose to venture over there. And not only did the devs manage to snag licenses for over a full field’s worth of competitors in each of the four classes, even the back markers behave surprisingly realistic. You’ll never see underfunded drivers like Bob Gilbertson or rookie Ashley Force smash track records, and Brandon Bernstein is prone to completely missing the setup at some tracks during summer events. It feels as if spending time watching NHRA events at three in the morning on ESPN2 have paid off, because their in-game behavior is spot on.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 15-49-51-94Unfortunately, this is a Playstation 2 game. Tracks just aren’t that detailed, some are missing entirely (but replaced with realistic alternatives), and you could only do so much with certain sound effects on Sony’s old hardware. Even playing it through a surround sound system on two entirely different setups, there was nothing spectacular about it aside from the initial punch in the gut you felt at the hit of the throttle. On a positive note, the game is detailed where it counts. The different sound and smoke effects have been modeled accurately to properly portray a wide variety of engine failures or malfunctions, and asphalt textures give a clear indication of where the racing groove lies. Parachutes dance around in convincing fashion, smoke pours out of one side of the exhaust if you’re about to lose a cylinder, and header flame height and brightness directly relate to your exact fuel mixture. The sacrifices in graphical fidelity are understandable when you realize how many little details have been faithfully recreated in the virtual world.

But the one glaring flaw with NHRA 2007 is the subject matter itself. No matter how realistic or challenging the title may be, it still focuses on a niche motorsport that competes with (and often loses to) Women’s Gymnastics for airtime on ESPN2. It’s right up there alongside Richard Burns Rally and Grand Prix Legends in terms of difficulty and realism, but the sad fact is that very few people will want to play a game where they race for all of four seconds, only to spend the next five minutes figuring out how NOT to send the blower into outer space.

PPSSPPWindows64 2015-06-24 16-02-52-00For some of us who have been going to the track ever since we were four years old, this kind of obsessive trial-and-error racing game sat comfortably on our video game shelf among the several generic modern military shooters of yesteryear. Since then, companies have put out more and more of these “fad” games, shamelessly making their own versions of Call of Duty or Guitar Hero, hoping to get a piece of the pie.

Meanwhile, we’ve still never gotten a next-gen update of NHRA 2007. And that sucks, because it was awesome. As demonstrated above, the game runs relatively well on a PSP emulator with the graphics cranked up, but it’s clearly outdated. Will we ever get another modern drag racing sim?

Probably not.