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In the Garage
This is where you get down and dirty, tweaking your car's setup to shave a few tenths of a second off your lap times, but don't start here until you learn your way around the tracks. The stock Ace setups are fast enough to win at most tracks, so concentrate first on driving. Once you've logged enough practice laps on a track to know the fast way around, you can start tinkering with the setup to make the car faster or better suited to your driving style. Start with the Ace setup. Let's get a couple of definitions out of the way. Oversteer or pushing is a condition in which the car's front wheels lose grip in the corners, making the car difficult to turn. Understeer or a loose condition means the rear tires are breaking traction, making the rear of the car swing out. Chassis setup is a constant battle against oversteer and understeer, and it's a battle you'll never completely win.
Learn the Track
Concentrate on one track at a time. Each is unique, and each requires a slightly different line. If you're just starting out -- or you're preparing for a track you don't run well -- go to preseason practice for a session before you start the race weekend. On the tougher tracks, lower the opponents' strength by a point or two if you're having trouble keeping up. But don't allow yourself to cheat too much; you'll eliminate much of the incentive to get faster. And being faster on the straightaways than the other cars can be a problem. If you're running up on cars too quickly, you're asking for a wreck.
Each track has a different one, some have more than one, and you won't win until you find it. It's the racing groove. The line is marked on most tracks by the black skid marks on the racing surface. Note their position all the way through the turns: at the entrance, in the middle, and on the turn exit. If the marks begin next to the wall, high on the track, then that's where you need to be when you enter that turn. A second way to locate the racing groove is to follow the computer-controlled cars. When you're searching for the groove in practice -- or even in a race -- play follow-the-leader for a while and see if you can adjust your line. The line is more than the ideal path around the track; running the proper line also involves knowing when and where to lift off the gas, get on the brakes, and get back on the gas. Again, there's no substitute for practice. When you find the right point at the entrance of a turn to get off the gas and/or on the brakes, mark the precise location using something on the wall or in the grandstand as a reference point.
The apex method of cornering applies to any form of racing. Apexing means taking a line through the curve that makes your turn as straight as possible. Generally, that means entering a corner at least half way up the width of the track, then cutting down across track near the apex, or mid-way point, of the turn. Let the car drift to the outside coming off the turn, so that you're running alongside the outside wall as you head back down the straightaway. Avoid tire squeal; it means your tires are losing grip and sliding. Try for a cornering speed that puts you on the edge of tire squeal.
Surviving the Start
The start is easily the most dangerous part of the race, with 40 cars screaming side-by-side toward the first turn. Don't panic. If you're starting on the inside, just try to hold your normal racing line through the first corner. You may lose a position or two, but don't worry about it. You'll have plenty of time to make your moves after your tires heat up and the field strings out in single file. If you're on the outside at the start, hold your line as you accelerate, then look for an opening to the inside, and get in there if you can. If you're forced to go through the turn on the outside, hold your line and get to the inside as soon as there's a break in traffic. Cold tires are mainly to blame for those chaotic starts. Use the lap pace to build some heat into the tires, just like the real NASCAR boys do. Steer sharply from side to side, making the tires squeal. You can also repeatedly accelerate and brake to heat the tires. You should be able to raise tire temps by 20-30 degrees. That'll make your car much more stable through the first few turns.
Passing opportunities vary by track, but here are a few things to keep in mind wherever you're racing. Follow the leading car as closely as you can, and usually he'll bobble and slip out of the racing groove. By holding your line, you'll pull beside him to the inside. If you're still inside as you enter the next turn, you've got him. On the bigger tracks, try to do most of your passing on the straightaways. Follow the lead car so you're within a car length and gaining as you come out of a turn. Move to the inside, and motor on past. Take advantage of the draft by staying directly behind the lead car until you're ready to make your move.
When you can't outrun them on the track, you can sometimes outsmart them in the pits. Pit strategy depends largely on track position, the number of laps remaining, how fast you're running, tire wear, and fuel mileage. Whether and when to pit is always a judgment call, but here are a few general tips: If you're hopelessly slower than the pack, pit for tires and fuel during every caution period. Since you're running at the back of the field anyway, you won't lose many positions, and you'll be able to run longer when the race resumes. If you're fast but running toward the rear, consider skipping a pit stop during a caution if you have more than a half-tank of gas. It's a gamble, but you'll pass every car that pits and move way up in the field. When you're running with the leaders and in contention for the win, you'll have to be a little more conservative with your pit strategy. If the leaders are pitting under the yellow, you should probably follow them down pit road.
This game is one of the most demanding software products anywhere. If your computer can't run the game at a decent frame rate, a difficult sim can become an impossible one. Racing with a poor frame rate is a bit like driving in a time warp. Your reactions are constantly a split-second behind the action. Under the Options menu, choose Graphics. Turn off everything you think you can live without.
A joystick works just fine (forget the keyboard), but you haven't really experienced NASCAR Racing until you've driven with a steering wheel and gas/brake pedals, just like the grownups do. They're expensive -- anywhere from about $130 to $500 -- but they're a great investment if you're serious about computer racing.