The Revival of NHRA Drag Racing 2

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Prior to the video game landscape evolving to a point where mammoth budgets and extremely skilled developers were required to push out a product just barely passing as competent, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were a Wild West when it came to the world of sim racing. The entire scene was composed of not monolithic corporations, but instead passionate pockets of individuals completely dedicated to bringing the most complete product to the shelves – regardless of how much money the project was given to get off the ground. Unlike the current calendar year of 2016, where only Kunos Simulazioni can attest to operating with a tightly-knit handful of staff members, the climate of gaming in 1998 allowed these companies to thrive on experimental titles alone. The concept of a company striving to achieve “Call of Duty Numbers” at any cost simply hadn’t arrived yet, and if you wanted to put out a niche Drag Racing simulator, you damn well could.

Operating under many different names throughout their lifespan, yet retaining the core group of original staff members under Brian Ewoldt, the team behind the NHRA Drag Racing series of PC simulators have pushed out five major titles since acquiring the license sometime in 1997 – with their last entry launching on Sony consoles in 2007. Regarded as their Magnum Opus by diehard fans, and faring surprisingly well in the eyes of mainstream gaming critics, NHRA Drag Racing 2 featured all four Professional Category classes as seen in the 2000 NHRA Winston Drag Racing Championship, and acquired a devout online following shortly after the game’s release. With development aided by current NHRA Funny Car driver Ron Capps (who also has a degree in software engineering), a robust third party modding scene thanks to the explosion in popularity of image editing software, and an extremely competent browser-based online racing component, virtual luckstomp competitors flocked to the title in droves – aided by the fact that NHRA Drag Racing 2 retailed for the budget price of $19.99, and ran on pretty much any home computer at the time.

Competitive online leagues – of which there were plenty – would see nearly 140 entrants attempt to qualify for a 32-car grid, numbers the real world National Hot Rod Association hasn’t seen since the 1970’s. In short, the folks operating under the name of Moto1.net (or Motorsims) managed to build iRacing for drag racing fans, long before you could even roll your car in the Papyrus line of NASCAR games.

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The lack of any modern drag racing title over the past decade has caused many virtual straight line racers among us to resort to drastic measures in order to get their fix of NHRA Drag Racing. Some individuals have attempted to use the isiMotor engine to create the extremely popular Pro Modified class within rFactor, although setting up online races, the lack of certain elements in the physics engine essential to drag racing, and learning how to use rFactor’s garage area to create race-winning setups have all thrown curveballs into the mod’s overall popularity. Outside of the handful of people who play it, DragFactor is seen as an experiment most simply aren’t interested in trying.

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However, NitroSim.com Facebook page member Mike Russo has taken a different approach, opting to instead hack into NHRA Drag Racing 2 – a game that’s almost seventeen years old – and proceeding to mod everything he can get his hands on. Mike has re-textured nearly ever single asset available in the vanilla game – from the race track banners to the tarmac, re-built the title’s roster of drivers to reflect the current crop of competitors on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour, and even inserted new tracks into the rotation to reflect the 2016 schedule.

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Mike’s dedication to the project is obviously impressive, and only time will tell if he finishes NHRA 2016 for public consumption in the near future, but this only goes to show how lopsided the world of sim racing has become. On one end of the spectrum, there are no less than six different games where you can take a GT3-spec BMW Z4 to the modern layout of Silverstone, and they’ll all provide roughly the same end-user experience, warts and all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, some disciplines of auto racing have been so criminally ignored, certain sim racers are resorting to modding games released for the Windows 98 operating system, because there are no other options.

It would be awesome to have a Monster Truck simulator. It would be awesome to have a drag racing simulator. Hell, even a NASCAR title turning the clock back to 1992 – as Papyrus did with NASCAR Legends and Grand Prix Legends – would be a fantastic change of pace. We haven’t had a Hydroplane simulator ever. Short Course Off-Road trucks? You’ll have to turn the clocks back to SODA Off-Road racing, or put up with rFactor mods of a questionable quality. It’s definitely disappointing that video game technology has progressed to such a fantastic point for other genres, but we’re always given the exact same cars and the exact same tracks by developers pulling apart hairs to differentiate themselves from the competition. iRacing and Sector 3 have both tried to push Drivetrain Flex on sim racers as some wild new feature, while Assetto Corsa and iRacing slug it out over tire model variations – elements of gameplay only the most dedicated users will even notice in the first place. Meanwhile, all of these other great series – which still manage to put fans in the stands and retain their own dedicated following – have been left completely in the dark.

There’s no NHRA simulator, no TORC simulator, no Trans-Am simulator, no Monster Jam simulator, and no Hydroplane simulator… But yet we have six different developer teams all trying to get their Xth version of their own tire model right, so the BMW Z4 GT3 feels right at Silverstone. Now that’s great for European road racers, but for guys like Mark Russo and the crew at NitroSim.com, they are literally forced to mod a budget game from fifteen years ago – totally ignored by the rest of the community, and relegated to the status of a relic from a different time.

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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.

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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.