NASCAR: From joystick to gearshift

Race teams use latest video games to craft strategy

Posted: Friday, April 30, 2004

FONTANA, Calif. Bobby Hamilton never paid much attention to video games until his son needed help beating a racing game.

Bobby Hamilton Jr. couldn't figure out how to get around the Darlington Raceway. Oddly enough, the problems he had with the game were identical to the problems his father had with his real race car.

"We were in the motor home one night and he was playing his games and I was watching television," the elder Hamilton said. "He was having trouble and he asked for help. You know, I didn't realize you have to pick your shocks and springs and things like that. I put in the same setup I used in my cars at Darlington and I ran the same line. My racing speeds and my computer speeds were almost the same."

Hamilton had his son change the setup, and he showed him a different way to drive the fabled racetrack.

Hamilton Jr.'s score improved with the game and his speed improved on the track.

Drivers have found a way to get a running start by playing games. Taking a lap around the California Speedway in a speeding stock car apparently isn't much different than doing it with a computer keyboard in your living room. The only difference is the crashes don't hurt.

Jeff Gordon was one of the first drivers to use games to familiarize himself with speedways he'd never seen, especially the road courses. By the time he got to Watkins Glen International and the Infineon Raceway for the first time, he had every turn and every bump memorized.

During last week's Busch Series race at the Talladega Superspeedway, race leader Martin Truex Jr. wasn't sure how to keep everyone else behind him. He'd played the Talladega video game a hundred times, but racing it in a real race car was different.

Or was it?

His car owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is another video game junkie. He reminded Truex Jr. about the racing groove he liked best in the game, and once Truex Jr. remembered that, he and Earnhardt Jr. ran one-two for the final 23 laps for the win.

Computer games have become so important one car owner now has a simulator at the shop. Teams can test different shocks and springs on a computer screen instead of wasting valuable time at the racetrack.

At Richard Childress Racing, engineers can program the types of shocks and spring rates into the computer and feed it information about a particular track.

"It helps you save a lot of time," said David Holden, an engineer at RCR. "We have computers that analyze a lot of the effects. Physics and psychology is what racing's all about."

Hamilton isn't sure what to make of all the modern technology fun or otherwise.

"I never had much use for computer games, but I started thinking that pilots and truck drivers renew their licenses on computer simulators," Hamilton said. "That's got me thinking."

And playing.

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