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.
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.
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.
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.