Forget NASCAR - there’s a new stocker in town

The demise of the Papyrus Design Group in 2003—and the subsequent orphaning of its seminal NASCAR Racing 2003 Season simulation—marked the end of a decade-long love affair between PC racing fans and the sport of stock car racing. Papyrus pampered us for years with its wonderfully crafted NASCAR titles, and though modders and competing developers struggled to produce alternatives, the writing was on the wall. The rolling thunder of the big V-8s had muted.

Which makes it especially gratifying to report the arrival of ARCA Sim Racing 2008. Developed and marketed by Indiana-basedSim Factory LLC, this standalone indie release showcases the Automobile Racing Club of America’s Remax stock car championship, a long-running ‘B’ series for up-and-coming oval-track racers. ARCA may not boast the star appeal of NASCAR, but the cars are nearly as fast and—for most PC sim racers—the on-track action is all but indistinguishable from that of the media-saturated big league circuit.

Above: There are 10 tracks featured in the intial release, with 10 more to follow

At first glance, ARCA Sim Racing seems more like a well-executed mod than a scratch-built game. Developed from ISI’s rFactor gMotor2 engine, the control scheme and basic user interface mirror the original sim so closely, you may find yourself checking the DVD case for an rFactor logo—I did. Where ASR departs from rFactor, however, (and for $49.99 it damned well better) is in its impressive vehicle dynamics and physics modeling. The Sim Factory received input from real-world ARCA drivers to fine-tune the handling, and technical help from Hoosier Tires to accurately model the tire physics. The result is one of the most authentic and responsive stock-car sims I’ve ever plugged a USB steering wheel into.

The initial release ships with only 10 tracks (there are plans to add another 10 in future patches), but it still offers a representative cross-section of ARCA venues, from super-speedways like Daytona and Talladega to Midwestern short ovals to dirt tracks like Illinois’ Duquoin Fairgrounds. ASR doesn’t cater to graphics whores—the rFactor engine limits it in that department—and some of these circuits don’t show much improvement over the Papyrus stuff from five years ago. The laser-scanned Fords, Chevys, Pontiacs, Dodges, and Toyotas also display a pre-DX9 sheen when studied up close, but their detailed in-car dashboards and booming audio effects can help you look past this.

Above: ASR’s detailed cockpit graphics are authentically claustrophobic

Licensed cars, teams, and drivers (few of whom are household names) add authenticity to the exercise, but single-player racing against the AI isn’t one of ASR’s strong suits. I’ve managed a few incident-free offline races, but more often than not, I wound up limping back to the pits to repair front-end damage after a yellow flag–induced AI brake-test. The proper ARCA flag rules—“Lucky Dog” free pass, pit closures, green-white-checker finishes—inject welcome realism, but this can sometimes add to the confusion when running against the game’s often daft and unpredictable computer drivers.

Once you move online, however, ARCA Sim Racing takes on an entirely new life. The lag-free netcode (a refinement of rFactor’s pioneering multiplayer code) delivered smooth, hiccup-free performance every time I connected to a new host, and the sim’s dedicated online community keeps growing and flourishing with each passing week. Once those promised new tracks hit the Net, these 800-horsepower, made-in-the-USA chariots will be very hard to slow down.

In fact, if you can get past its wonky single-player AI and less-than-cutting-edge visuals, ARCA Sim Racing 2008 is already on track to supplant NASCAR Racing 2003 as the go-to online sim platform for devotees of the fast left turn.

Jun 19, 2008