Perhaps you've never seen the high banks of Talladega. Maybe you've never negotiated the 11 altitude-changing turns at Sears Point. Have you ever wanted to race at Bristol? Nowadays, anyone can race at all of those places, but without the g-forces, the heat, the broken bones, the prying media frenzy, the sponsorship deals, the talent, and the years of work it takes to get there in real life.

Digital racers (that includes you) can rub fenders with digital Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, and the rest of the Winston Cup field. The necessary ingredients include a relatively new computer, a 3-D graphics card, and one crazy race fan. A steering wheel helps, too. You can even race with your relative who lives across the country, a stranger next door, or with your buddy on two side-by-side computers.

It's no secret that many of the younger generation of NASCAR drivers have publicly admitted to driving-sim addiction. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart have gone on the record stating that certain PC driving games have been hard for them to put down. Maybe they learned a thing or two in the process.

What can somebody learn from an accurate driving sim with a realistic car-handling model? Plenty. For starters, track proportions, banking, and turns are all fairly realistic in the games mentioned. Next, chassis elements can be changed, and cause-and-effect relationships can be seen by the use of different springs, tire pressures, and camber settings. Adjustments can be made to cause the car to be loose or tight. Whether or not everything is accurate is debatable at times, but general relationships are easy to see. Lastly, driver input must be precise and appropriate for the track. There's a lot more going on than "gas pedal equals fast and the brake pedal equals slow." Often, the programmers for these games visited tracks, consulted driving experts, experienced the cars, and created a handling model that strongly reflects reality. The cars bounce, the front ends slide, the rear ends slide, the sheetmetal crumples, the tires wear out, and the knuckles turn white.

Even the most realistic driving simulator won't turn anybody into a real racecar driver, but it can help get the mental gears flowing and the reflexes flexing. Here are some of the best games the Circle Track staff knows.

NASCAR Racing 3NASCAR Racing 3 from Sierra Sports is regarded by many as the most accurate and true-to-life Stock car racing simulator on the market. Dale Earnhardt Jr. once told the company, "I really think it's kind of one of my secrets. I feel like over the past two years, spending a lot of time on that game has taught me a lot of things ... There's only one thing it's lacking, and that's the seat-of-the-pants feel you get in a real car, driving it. Other than that, it's right on the money."

Since the mid-'90s, this game has evolved from NASCAR Racing to NASCAR Racing 2, to NASCAR Racing 1999 Edition, to its final state of NASCAR Racing 3-and millions of copies have been sold. Be careful at big software stores, though-if you want the latest edition-as older versions are still being sold in the bargain bins.

In the highly realistic Simulator mode (the game also has Arcade mode for those who are less hard core), NASCAR Racing 3 demands skills that make a real race car driver successful. Tires need to be conserved, sheetmetal can be easily damaged, pit stops need to be made, breakdowns can occur, and wrecks can unfold. Sure, you can race to the front when the green flag drops, but don't be surprised 30 laps later when you start falling back because you raced the tires off the car. Patience must be exercised.

As far as the actual handling goes, the cars track just like real stock cars do by wanting to pull left on the straight-aways and acting tight or loose, depending on the setup. The user can fiddle with springs, shocks, tire pressures, and much more. Most of the Winston Cup and Busch Grand National tracks have been recreated in amazingly high detail (disappointingly, there's no Daytona). A high amount of throttle control is necessary, and steering input must be precise. A spotter and a crew chief provide help over the radio. Relatively high levels of concentration and good reflexes are rewarded in Simulator mode, however, arcade-style game play is available, too. NASCAR Racing 3 improves over previous versions by including 3-D video effects, better car-handling properties, an updated roster of drivers, better sound, and better graphic resolution. A NASCAR Craftsman Truck expansion pack can be added. Free online racing is available, and a demo can be downloaded at Sierra's Web site.

Dirt Track RacingFinally, a PC game has arrived that gives Stock car racing on dirt its proper justice. With Dirt Track Racing from Wizard Works, Ratbag, and GT Interactive Software, gamers can choose to race a Pure Stock, a Super Stock, or an 800hp Late Model on 30 different dirt tracks. The tracks are realistically modeled after ones around the United States and include all types/sizes of ovals-and then there is the Figure 8 track. Need I say more?

Similar to real racing, this game requires skill. Stomping on the gas and furiously turning the steering wheel won't get the car around the track very fast. The advanced physics engine rewards a driver who gets on the gas at the right times and slides the rear end out in just the right part of the groove. The graphics appear sharp and realistic with dust effects, skid marks, and vehicle damage. And if you want to turn a virtual wrench and start experimenting with different setups, it's possible to see how factors such as stagger tire pressures and spring rates relate.

Because of those details, it's fair to say that this simulator contains educational value. However, setting up the cars can be a mildly frustrating experience. The cars include a neutral setup and offer no advanced settings like other racing simulator games (e.g. NASCAR Racing 3) have right out of the box. The cars' ability to run extra-fast requires old-fashioned trial and error, and a manufacturer's suggested chassis baseline would be nice. Online racing through the CarQuest-sponsored DASCAR (www.ivga.com) is available, and the simulator has modes that range from Easy to Expert. This game offers an excellent entertainment value with a suggested retail price of $19.95. We do have one suggestion for a future game from Wizard Works based on this worthwhile platform: Pennzoil World of Outlaws Racing for the PC. That would be nuts.

NASCAR Craftsman TrucksBased on a previous version of its big brother, NASCAR Racing 1999 Edition from Sierra Sports, NASCAR Craftsman Trucks delivers much of the same entertainment, except the teams, vehicles, and tracks are different. The trucks exhibit different handling characteristics compared to its car counterparts based on less frontal downforce and more wind resistance. Top speeds are slightly lower than the cars, but the trucks can be driven with a little more disregard for body damage and loss of control. Available through Sierra Sports, this game also functions as both a serious simulator or just as an arcade deal (much easier to play).

Viper RacingViper Racing, another title from Sierra Sports, utilizes some of the most advanced physics simulation technology found in any game to date. Its accurate 3-D physics model simulates every major handling component on the Dodge Viper from tire rubber deformation to suspension movement. The high attention to detail can be seen in the way the car handles corners with its predictable yet challenging on-track demeanor. The simulator's developers succeeded in creating a highly realistic Dodge Viper simulator. It reacts like a heavily modified production car would on a racetrack. After spending some time in a real production car on "The Fastest Road Course in the West," it's easy to recognize what the Viper simulator is doing and what realistic expectations are for corner entry speeds and overall vehicle limits.

Like any worthy simulator, Viper Racing allows springs, shocks, gearing, and other car-handling tweaks to be adjusted. Eleven tracks are available, and a maximum of eight cars can race against each other at one time. Online racing and network play is also available. High-resolution 3-D graphics and spectacular crashes add to this game's appeal.

NASCAR Revolution SENASCAR Revolution SE from EA Sports is the only major competitor to NASCAR Racing 3 from Sierra. However, a comparison between the two titles is not easy to make because both feel distinctly different. NASCAR Revolution recreates most of the Winston Cup drivers and most of the Winston Cup tracks in amazingly high detail. Utilizing an advanced 3-D physics engine (that often pushes a computer's processor and video card to the limit), it delivers a strong simulation experience. However, it can seem mildly arcade-like at times due to the overly animated bounce characteristics the stock cars exhibit. Crew chief and spotter assistance is available, and Benny Parsons and Bob Jenkins provide TV-style commentary. EA Sports touts that this simulator doesn't require a physics degree to drive, and setting up the cars can be achieved without getting into a lot of manual settings. A tutorial is provided that walks the gamer through car setup theory. The 3-D graphics are strong and the attention to detail with the cars is correct, right down to the associate sponsors. A Pentium II 266 or better processor is recommended.

Cart Precision RacingCART Precision Racing from Microsoft has been on the market for more than three years. Therefore, the names of the drivers and the cars are slightly outdated, and the physics engine can no longer be called cutting edge. Nonetheless, the drivers in the simulator are authentic CART drivers, and the cars are based on '97 manufacturers and sponsors. So what continues to make this game one of the best ones out there? It's the interactive racing school narrated by Bobby Rahal. Aside from going to a serious racing school or buying a technical book on the topic, CART Precision Racing provides one of the easiest-to-follow guides on real race car physics. The Racing School explains (in great detail with text, charts, and video of real Champ cars, then called PPG Cup cars) subjects like tire slip angle, braking techniques, tire contact patches, smoothness and balance, and a myriad of other practical topics. Then, that knowledge can be taken onto the track for a little drive-and-learn action. Actual game play can still be considered good, even by today's lofty standards of realistic physics modeling; however, the lower graphics resolution and lack of 3-D support heavily count against it.

Game ControllersKeyboards, game pads, joysticks, and steering wheels are the only game controllers that can be hooked up to a computer. Obviously, the only solution for a driving simulator is a steering wheel. Most steering wheels also come with a set of pedals that can be placed underneath your desk. Superior control can be had with infinitely adjustable throttle, brake, and steering inputs.

Thrustmaster offers a wide variety of steering wheels ranging from simple budget-minded wheels (costing around $50) to full-featured, force-feedback steering wheels. The company's line of NASCAR-licensed steering wheels includes the NASCAR Charger, the NASCAR Super Sport, the NASCAR Pro Digital, and the NASCAR Force GT.

Microsoft also offers two steering wheels. The Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro uses advanced force feedback technology built into the programming of many games already on the market. It utilizes an internal motor that varies the feel and simulates different handling characteristics that would prevail through a real steering wheel. It costs about $150. The same steering wheel from Microsoft can be had without the force feedback for considerably less money. Microsoft and Thrustmaster certainly aren't the only companies making gaming steering wheels for the PC, but they do represent two of the most easily accessible companies at many retailers.

SOURCE
EA Sports Clement Ind. (Bart Wheel)
5939 W. 66th St.
Chicago
IL  60638
Microsoft Diamond Racing Wheels
307 W. Layton Ave.
Milwaukee
WI  53207
Sierra Sports Fast Wheels
1924 E. Sixth St.
Tulsa
OK  74104
Thrustmaster Pete Paulsen Motorsports
P.O. Box 66
French Camp
CA  95231
Wizard Works (GT Interactive)