Race Weekend Central

Virtual Reality Heaven: NASCAR’s Gaming Options Reach All Ages

NASCAR has always had a rich, rewarding video game history. From a longtime partnership with EA Sports to the old Papyrus PC series in the ‘90s, fans have accomplished their virtual reality dream while pretending to drive against their heroes. But now, the next generation of NASCAR gaming can allow them to do it “for real.”

iRacing.com – the sport’s relatively new PC-based gaming option – has revolutionized the concept of driving simulation for fans. Co-founded in Sept. 2004 by John Henry, the Boston Red Sox owner and popular Papyrus creator Dave Kaemmer, the company is entering the second year of a NASCAR partnership that’s captivated racing addicts of all ages. Cutting-edge technology has them reproducing the track environment to levels near perfection, paired with creating the feel of what drivers deal with inside the racecar.

Combined, they produce an experience that’s as close to actual racing as a video game gets.

How good is it? Many NASCAR drivers practice and train for their real-life competition using the system, including AJ Allmendinger, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Marcos Ambrose and Denny Hamlin. Drivers find it especially useful when visiting a track for the first time, with the specs so realistic even certain bumps on parts of the turns, like the Pocono patch in turn 3 or Texas’s tricky run through the tri-oval are successfully recreated.

What better way to get a jump on your competitors, considering there’s a testing ban in effect than by testing right from the comfort of your own computer?

But the best part of the iRacing program is how fans live out their own fantasy on four wheels. The company hosts all types of leagues, ranging from beginners to the cream of the crop: in 2010, NASCAR sanctioned the sport’s first-ever official online racing championship. Aptly named the NASCAR iRacing Series World Championship, it involves the 50 highest-rated and most successful simulation racers in the world, competing virtually for a title over an 18-race schedule of events.

Competitors’ backgrounds are wide-ranging, with mechanical experience not required; past entries have come from college students to computer programmers to a renowned classical musician with the symphonic orchestra in Paris.

Last year proved a series of firsts: the inaugural champion was also the sport’s first from overseas as Richard Towler, a 24-year-old graphic artist from Hull, England took the title by 18 points. With 10 different race winners, Henry notes the series lived up to lofty expectations for success.

“There was great competition for the title and it came down to the wire,” he said last November. “The championship was determined at the very last one of the season’s 18 races! Richard won at Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Richmond International Raceway – all without leaving his home.”

Parity has continued thus far in 2011: three races, three different winners in a series only growing in popularity. Ray Alfalla, a 21-year-old student from Cape Coral, Fla. holds a slim series lead after winning the season opener at virtual Daytona International Speedway.

But NASCAR’s reach isn’t limited to just your home PC. The last few years, titles such as NASCAR Kart Racing for the Nintendo Wii have helped the sport reach its youngest video game playing fan, ages 6-11 years old. Timewarping the sport’s top drivers back to their virtual roots, the kids get hooked on the game and make the natural transition to watching the real racing pop up on Sundays.

And the process works both ways, as the sport capitalizes on a particularly strong opportunity with their youth market: NASCAR fans 6-11 years old are much more likely to play racing video games than non-fans (51% to 36%).

For the older crowd, there are two classic titles of note, whetting the appetite of both a movie buff and car enthusiast alike. Days of Thunder: NASCAR Edition for the Sony Playstation network marks the 20th anniversary of the film that helped launch NASCAR into the national consciousness. Classic characters like Rowdy Burns and Cole Trickle return, racing toe-to-toe with your list of 2009 Sprint Cup contenders in an authentic recreation that gets the blood pumping (even without Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman).

That stock car fun can also be found within Gran Turismo 5, the legendary video game franchise that for the first time offers up a NASCAR twist. A limited number of Sprint Cup cars are featured, connecting with a gaming audience that’s more technical in nature and willing to fine-tune a list of fantasy ovals and road courses with their racing favorite. Popular within the NASCAR core fanbase of over 35 years old, the proof is in the Playstation these games can captivate all ages.

So what’s next for the stock car gaming world? You don’t have to look far to find the next round of icing on the cake. The sport’s reach gets a rocket-sized boost on Tuesday, March 29, when NASCAR: The Game 2011 becomes available for Xbox 360, Wii and Playstation 3. Replacing the EA brand, developer Eutechnyx is making their first foray into cars going in circles but don’t expect any “rookie mistakes” with the time and effort they’ve put in.

“We have a passion for the sport,” says Gregg Baker, Community Manager at Eutechnyx. “We wanted to take the NASCAR game back to its roots, wanting to make something that would be incredibly fun for everyone who plays it.”

What makes NASCAR: The Game 2011 stand out is the way the sport’s superstars race you. After extensive interviews and on-track studies of everyone on the grid, they’ve developed AI (artificial intelligence) for each pro driver that matches their personality. Looking for Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton to battle again? How about Carl Edwards actually “getting even” with Kyle Busch? This game never forgets, creating rivalries and mixing them in with your character as you compete as yourself or one of your favorites to win a title.

There’s plenty of other specifics to rave about here: from realistic crash damage, to all 22 real world tracks to recreating the full 43-car field. But most of all, the way the game is structured – leaving it in the hands of the gamer to decide whether they want beginner, intermediate or advanced levels of play – allows everyone from the casual fan to the diehard addict to get involved.

“For hardcore race fans we’ll give them options to tune their cars and play a more simulation style of game,” explains Baker. “While people who just want to turn it on and race can jump right in and do that.”

That speaks to the key of NASCAR’s video game development, generating interest with games that specialize in flexibility to the gamer. When there’s a low barrier to entry in a “plug and race” environment, you can turn on a novice to the sport but if you leave options to go more in-depth, the experts get to customize their play and don’t get cheated out of their ideal racing experience.

So with iRacing.com, NASCAR Kart Racing, Days of Thunder: NASCAR Edition, Gran Turismo 5 and NASCAR: The Game 2011 the sport’s sending a clear message: obsession with driving in circles doesn’t have to stop on Sundays.

Now, it’s up to fans to find their favorites, plug in their consoles and get behind the wheel.

Learn More

NASCAR: The Game 2011
NASCAR Kart Racing
Days Of Thunder: Special Edition
Gran Turismo 5

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About the author

Tony Lumbis has headed the Marketing Department for Frontstretch since 2008. Responsible for managing our advertising portfolio, he deals with our clients directly, closing deals while helping promote the site’s continued growth both inside and outside the racing community through social media and traditional outlets. Tony is based outside Philadelphia.

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