NASCAR: SimRacing

NASCAR: SimRacing

Written by Dave Gamble on 3/11/2005 for PC  

According to EA Sport's web site, NASCAR SimRacing "has been redefined specifically for the unique tastes of the PC gaming community." By this I assume they mean that a higher emphasis has been placed on accuracy and depth of the entire racing experience than on glitz and ease of use. This would fit in exactly with my expectations of a PC-based racing sim versus a console-based version. To be accurately termed a "racing simulator," SimRacing will require a complex physics model, superb graphics and sound, and realistic racing behavior from the computer controlled opponents to provide a highly realistic on-track experience.

Beyond that, to be accurately called a "NASCAR Simulator," SimRacing will have to provide a realistic off-track experience too. Being a NASCAR race driver goes far beyond the driving of the car. The driver must interact and communicate with his team and crew chief to get the best possible setup on the car prior to the race. He must be able to correctly assess the on-track performance of the car and make adjustments to the setup in order to achieve a compromise between stability, controllability, and speed. On track, a driver has to do what it takes to make passes, but has to balance his aggression with caution to make sure he doesn't cause expensive damage to his or other driver's cars. If a driver gets too aggressive and gets a reputation as a dirty driver, he will find it difficult to get other drivers to work with him in races such as Daytona where it essential to have drafting partners. A driver that is not aggressive enough runs the risks of not only finishing poorly and losing sponsors, but of being bullied by the more assertive drivers.

An owner/driver has even more to be concerned about since he will be managing the ongoing research & design work during the season, dealing with current and potential sponsors, and deciding what types of merchandising and endorsement deals will generate the funds needed to get through a long, hard race season. And, of course, there are the inevitable repair costs after each race which will draw big bucks from a limited budget. In any given race, an owner/driver faces the possibility of a complete loss of a car. Because the races are so close together, often times being scheduled one a week for weeks on end, the owner/driver needs to also ensure that he has a big enough stable of cars so that he always has one ready to race the next week should anything happen to this week's car.

These are the requirements for a full-blown NASCAR Simulator. There are not, however, the requirements for a commercially successful NASCAR Simulator. The reality is that not many people have the time, ability, and desire to spend all of the time required to manage those details. Also, not everyone interested in a racing simulator has the skill to compete in a 100 percent accurate physics engine against 100 percent strength opponents. As essential as it is to have very high realism settings available in a PC-based racing sim, it is equally important to have easier settings and 'cheats' available for those that want a fun and somewhat realistic racing experience without having to manage the plethora of details required to be competitive in a fully accurate mode. The best possible strategy for commercial viability is to make the spread between "dead easy" and "dead accurate" as wide as possible.
SimRacing does a commendable job of that. The high granularity of the difficulty settings allows for a number of different strategies when it comes to progressing from winning in the easiest mode to being a contender in the most accurate mode. For example, using the 'Rookie' difficulty setting, my 11 year old daughter won the pole and the race at Lowe's Speedway in Charlotte, NC. within 20 minutes of sitting behind the wheel for the first time. The second place car finished 10 seconds behind. She will quickly tire of such easy wins, and will want to increase the challenge without making it too difficult for her to remain competitive. She could do this through any combination of increased opponent strength, opponent aggression, or changes in the number of 'cheats' used. In my daughter's case, she won because the opponents were too slow. She struggled with the car, spinning it at least three times, so removing anything like car stability, steering help, braking help, antilock brakes, or traction control would make it more challenging, but in a more frustrating way. Instead, she can increase the opponents' performance by raising a percentage slider.

I chose a different path. I race with no driving aids turned on, and use the default 'race' and 'qual' setups for each track. I set opponent strength at 95% and aggression at 100%. At these settings I can usually qualify in the top 10. I seldom finish a race, though, since I almost always crash, but I enjoy the feeling of the more accurate driving experience. It's a far more challenging kind of driving, though. Without traction control, 750+ horsepower wants to spin the back tires. Without antilock brakes, it's easy to lock the rear brakes. Either of these will cause you to spin out. By the time you turn off all of the aids, most people sitting down at the wheel would not even be able to get the car out of the pits, much less get through their first lap without spinning and/or hitting the wall. That level of accuracy can be fun, but it's not for everyone. The ability to choose tougher opponents and/or more difficult driving rules in just about any combination ensures that everyone will eventually be able to tailor the settings to what best fits their style of play.

SimRacing also recognizes that PC audiences do not want to screw around with 'unlocking' various aspects of the game as their console-based brethren so often are forced to do. They do not want to have to place third or better at Daytona before they can race at Indianapolis. They want to race in the car they choose, at the track they choose, when they choose, without having to fulfill some arbitrary goal. SimRacing caters to that kind of instant gratification with a 'Race Now' mode, but also provides a more structured, realistic experience in the 'Career' mode. As a career driver, or owner/driver if you're a control freak, you can choose to follow the 2005 schedule of one of NASCAR's three premier series: the Craftsman Truck Series, Busch Series, and Nextel Cup Series.
Throughout your season, you will race at all of the real world tracks currently in the series you choose. In the Craftsman Truck series, you will also race at a couple of ‘fantasy’ tracks, one of which is built into a football stadium. The tracks are very realistically modeled. If you’ve had the good fortune to actually attend a NASCAR race, you will see all of the landmarks that make each track unique. Even if you’ve only ever seen a race on TV, the tracks will look very familiar to you. The detail is simply incredible, all they way down to the bumps in the track where it crosses over access tunnels. The scoring towers, billboards, grandstands, lights, infield sponsors logos painted on the grass - it’s all there. The sky itself is even rendered to a very believable degree. I remember coming out of turn 2 at Homestead and seeing building thunderstorm clouds in the distance. A couple of laps later, I actually saw lightning! I was in the lead at the time, and more than halfway through the race, so I was hoping that it would rain and end the race. It wasn’t to be, however, as the distraction of looking at the pretty sky was more than my limited driving abilities could compensate for and I ended up hitting the wall.

The detailed graphics apparent in the track modeling are also applied to the cars themselves. The cockpits are detailed enough that you can monitor vital measurements such as water temperature from the dashboard gauge. The other cars are easily identifiable by their sponsors, although you will have to adjust to the family-friendly re-painting of the beer/cigarette sponsored cars. Once you get into the real action, though, this becomes a lot less jarring. The car’s graphics are also dynamic in that they change through the race. For example, at the start of the race the cars will still have manufacturers stickers on the tires. After a lap or two those will wear off. Once you’ve completed a few laps behind another car, you will start to see oil and grime appear on your windshield. I haven’t tried it yet, but I suspect that if you have a dirty windshield and are facing into the late afternoon sun, you will start to find it difficult to clearly see the cars in front of you because of the sun’s glare. I do know for a fact that ambient lighting is accurately modeled – the dashboard gauges get harder to see when you’re in shadow or at night.

The detail level of the graphics is highly configurable to allow good frame rates for slower computers, or incredible levels of detail for more powerful machines. The driver’s position in the car is also configurable, allowing you to move closer to or further away from the steering wheel. Some may prefer a very wide angle of view to help them in seeing the traffic while others may like a more restricted view that allows a closer look at the track. It’s a very easy setting to experiment with until you find what you like. I’ve found that the default 75% is a great compromise. SimRacing’s setting is not quite as easy to use as a similar feature found in another racing sim that allows adjustment to the view aspect by using the mouse, but it’s still a very good feature.
Another neat graphics feature is head movement. If set to zero, the driver’s virtual head will be stock still. As the head movement value is increased, the driver’s head will bounce around in reaction to various forces like bumps in the track or G forces resulting from acceleration or braking. This movement acts as sort of a poor man’s force feedback in that it provides an indication of the forces being felt by the car and driver. Prior to the advent of this level of graphical feedback, one would think that the tracks these cars race on are billiards table smooth. This is certainly not the case, and it is not an inconsequential difference. Bumps in the track have a very real effect on the drivability of the car. Very stiff suspension settings will result in a different bump behavior than softer settings, for example. Being able to visually determine where the bump spots on the track are is a great addition to the realism of the sim.

While at least tangentially on the topic of force feedback, it’s time to point out one of the weaknesses of SimRacing. The force feedback is almost useless. At its highest setting, all I can feel through the wheel is centering force. This is an important thing to have, of course, but does not impart the feeling of actual driving as well as the force feedback in something like Simbin’s GTR Racing. In that sim you can feel the rumble strips in the apex of the corners, the bumps in the braking zones before some of the slower turns, and generally have a far superior feel for the road than that provided in SimRacing. This is a bit of a disappointment since good force feedback makes a tremendous difference in being able to manage the complex physics model provided in these modern sims.

There are three important aspects to the amount of realism that can be ‘felt’ by the driver: graphics, force feedback, and sound. Since the vast majority of us will never actually drive a real NASCAR race car, we have to learn to control the car using different sense than those used by a real driver. We have to be able to determine what the car is doing at any given instant using only our senses of touch, sight, and hearing. The benefits from touch and sight are obvious, and have already been discussed. This leaves sound. What does sound have to do with control of the car? Well, there are limits to what can be communicated through sight and touch, especially without high fidelity force feedback controls. Through sound we determine shift points, braking pressure, how close to the edge of adhesion the tires are in the turns, and how much throttle can be applied. Most of what we need to hear has been provided to some degree in older sims. We’ve always been able to hear the engine – this is what we use to know when to shift. We’ve been able to hear the scuffing and squealing of the tires for quite awhile to – this is how we know if we’re skidding or sliding. New to this mix, however, is transmission whine. More than just being a coolly realistic sound that adds to the awesome feeling that we’re actually driving a car, transmission whine is very useful in determining just how much throttle we need. Consider the case of a true oval where the turns go through 180 degrees, on a track that is essentially flat like the Milwaukee Mile. Once established in the turn, there is a period during which you want to keep a steady amount of power. Too much acceleration and you will either push to the wall or break loose the back tires and spin. Not enough acceleration and weight will transfer to the front of the car, lightening up the back and causing a spin. If you can hear the transmission, it is much easier to hold a constant acceleration through the turn.
The sound in SimRacing is very, very good. Because it is based on extensive actual recordings from real cars, it is also incredibly accurate. Also lumped into the category of sound is communications from the crew chief and spotter. One of the downsides of driving in the cockpit view is that you ability to see if there are cars to either side of you is greatly diminished. This is an accurate limitation – it exists in the real cars too. NASCAR addresses this through the use pf spotters. A spotter for each driver is located high up in the stands and is in constant radio communication with the driver, letting him know if there are cars inside or outside of him on the track. This reduces the collisions that would result from a driver not knowing he had traffic close to him. SimRacing provides a spotter to tell you when you need to watch out for the other guy. You will also benefit from your crew chief telling you how you’re doing in the race, how the car is doing, and when to pit for tires and gas.

Version 1.0 of SimRacing has an annoying problem with the sound, though. After spending tons of time practicing and qualifying, during which you become very dependent on the sounds of your car in helping you control it, you get into a race and find that you can’t hear your car, crew chief, or spotter over the noise of the other cars. There is a fix for this available on unofficial support sites like www.bhmotorsports.com, but is something that EA will hopefully fix in a patch.

The quality of the driving and racing experience, the ability to tailor that experience to just about any skill level, and the off-track Career mode features alone would justify the street price of $40 for this title. SimRacing goes even further, though.

For those that really crave the true complexity of racing in NASCAR, there are two more features that deliver. First is the garage & telemetry system. In the garage, you can adjust all of the major items that a real race team would use to get the best possible performance from their car. If you’ve watched a NASCAR race before, you’ve probably heard about adjusting tire pressures, shocks, sway bars, spring rates, wedge, and myriad other esoteric details. All of these settings, and more, can be set in the garage. The affect each has on the performance of the car is accurately modeled. Some of these settings may result in performance changes too subtle to be felt by the driver, though, so the telemetry system can be used. The cars have many data points that are captured via sensors placed in various locations on the car. These sensors record values that can then be downloaded to the telemetry software. Within the telemetry system, very detailed analysis can be performed to find that extra .01 of a second per lap that can be the difference between starting on the pole or back in the pack. Wheel spin and tire wear can be analyzed to predict when pit stops will be needed or to help adjust your driving style to cause less wear on the tires. If all of this is too much for you to absorb, you can also do what I do: download setups from fan sites on the internet. I think there is a real opportunity here, though, for people who are more interested in the technical aspects of racing to partner up with those more interested in the driving/racing. The telemetry data is stored in files on the hard drive, so it would be easy to send them off to your virtual crew chief for analysis.
The second feature is targeted towards those who just don’t get a thrill out of racing against computer controlled cars. I’m talking about online multiplayer, of course. SimRacing includes a very comprehensive multiplayer feature that allows for finding races on the GameSpy system or creating and hosting your own races. I have only limited experience in multiplayer, but I can tell you this: it really is a lot more challenging. There is just something about knowing that the car you just put into the wall was being controlled by a human rather than a computer that changes the whole experience. I found that I am far less concerned about causing a big pile-up offline that I was about it while playing multiplayer. I also found that there is a lot more satisfaction in qualifying in the top half of the field against human opponents than there is when racing against the computer controlled cars.

That said, there are some downsides to multiplayer as well. Not all internet connections are created equal, and this is very apparent in online play. A driver with a slow internet connection will ‘bounce’ across the track as the predictive model in the sim will adjust its guess as to where a car is as updates come in through the network connection. This can make it very difficult indeed to be in a close race with another car. Also, unless you are hosting the race, you are entirely at the whim of the host. This may take the form of disabling certain driver aids that you have become dependent on, or having to actually sit through an entire 60 minute practice session. These can be addressed by joining a league of like-minded racers, though. While not perfect, online multiplayer certainly does add an entirely new feeling to the racing experience. I know it did for me: racing down the back stretch at Daytona sandwiched between two cars literally made my hands sweat.

EA Sports NASCAR SimRacing is a must-have for anyone that desires a realistic, yet approachable simulation of the NASCAR experience. It provides easily customizable difficulty settings that allow a highly granular selection of car physics, opponent strength, racing rules (SimRacing correctly models all NASCAR 2005 rules, including the Chase to the Cup at the end of the season), and driver aids that will allow a fun and gratifying racing experience for all skill levels. The career mode is a great feature for those that choose to start at the bottom and see if they can race their way to a seat in a major Nextel Cup ride, while the Race Now feature is perfect for those that want to be able to race when and where they want on a moment’s notice. No matter which path is chosen, the driver will be rewarded with a rich, vibrant, and very accurate view into what it really takes to successfully race in America’s favorite racing league.
EA has completely re-developed NASCAR Thunder for the PC to give it many of the features available in the console-based NASCAR 2005: Chase for the Cup. PC Racing Sims don’t usually benefit from a console-based approach, but EA has done it right, giving us what may be close to the state-of-the-art racing simulation.

Rating: 9.4 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.

My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.

While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.

My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.
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