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Driving 200 MPH From The Sofa

Courant Staff Writer
July 25 2004

LOUDON, N.H. - If Derek Jeter is worried about his swing, he can spend hours working on it in the batting cage. If Kobe Bryant is having trouble with his jumper, he can take as much time as he wants shooting after practice.

But if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having trouble getting into turn 3 at Darlington Raceway, he can't just load up a racecar and go out on the track for practice.

But he can spend hours trying to master the turn on his computer.

Earnhardt Jr. is one of many drivers who swear by video games, not just for fun, but as a training tool for racing.

With the realism of racing simulation games increasing each year, more drivers, particularly the younger crowd, say video games help offset the practice they can't get on the track.

The simulation of the relationship between the car and the track has become so realistic that even track builders are using the games to understand how design changes will affect racing.

"I've used computer games whenever I've joined a new series to try to learn the race tracks that I haven't been to," 2002 Nextel Cup Series champion Tony Stewart said. "It's not going to teach you exactly how to enter a corner, but it at least gives you a somewhat realistic idea of what to expect. EA Sports is building games that are about as realistic as they can get without putting you inside an actual racecar. ... You may [not be able to test before you] go to a new race track, but if you can look at that race track before you go race there, you at least have a little bit of an idea of what you're up against."

EA Sports producer Scott Stutsman, who has been designing NASCAR simulation games for six years, isn't surprised drivers credit the games for helping them.

"We provide first a medium for entertainment," Stutsman said. "But when you create something that is as [detailed] as the video games we're doing, you're creating something that does give drivers an accurate manner of simulation that allows them to get their senses teamed up for venues they are going to."

Not all drivers are convinced. Most older drivers, who didn't grow up with today's gaming systems, can't understand what can be learned on a video game and transferred to real life situations on the track.

"I can't dispute it one way or another," said Ward Burton, 42, an 11-year Nextel Cup Series veteran. "I wouldn't even know how to turn on the video game. It might be for the young drivers, but for a driver my age, I just don't get what can be learned from that stuff."

"They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks," Stewart said. "And if that's what they want to believe, so be it."

But not even all the young dogs believe.

"EA Sports and all those guys there are doing an awesome job of making these games as realistic as possible," said Nextel Cup rookie Brendan Gaughan, 29. "Gaming technology has come so far and I love playing them, but for fun. When it comes to actually using it as a coaching or training tool, no, I don't think that works, at least for me."

Games Playing Role In Reality

Stewart has long been a believer in the use of racing games to improve his ability behind the wheel.

"I guess I'm like a 13-year-old trapped in a 33-year-old's body," Stewart said. "I've always liked video games. I drove a three-quarter Midget for [owner Larry Dwenger in 1990] and lived with him and his wife for six months while I worked with him. Every night he made me play an hour of video games before I went to bed. It was amazing how many wrecks that following year I missed because of the hand-eye coordination and how sharp it made me. It's fun to play the games but at the same time it seemed like it served a realistic purpose. In Nextel Cup, if you can respond to something that you see faster than the next guy, a lot of times it can be the difference between missing the wreck and being in the wreck."

The two road courses that the Nextel Cup Series visits annually are like being on another planet for most stock car drivers, who for the most part come up competing primarily on ovals. Road courses, with their left and right turns and elevation changes, present a new set of challenges for most drivers. Being able to practice on the road course layouts, learning the proper braking and shifting points, is the most valuable lesson most drivers say they can learn from video games.

"In learning road courses, it's just excellent to have the games," said Nextel Cup rookie Brian Vickers, 20. "Just to learn the course, the rhythm, the turns, where pit road is, I think it's definitely a great tool. I play video games and I enjoy it and I can definitely learn something visually about things to look for on a race track."

The drivers aren't the only ones learning.

The 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway became a part of the Nextel Cup schedule in 1999. The flat layout made for single-groove racing, devoid of passing.

The lack of action at the track sent the owners of the facility, International Speedway Corporation, looking for a way to change the layout to promote better racing. They came up with an idea to add varying degrees of banking to what were corners with 8 degrees of banking. The idea had never been tried before at a major racing facility.

Before tearing up the track and making the changes, designers sent their plans to game designers at EA Sports. The game designers were able to mock up the exact specifications of the envisioned design on the game platform, allowing ISC officials to see exactly how cars would run on the track.

"We worked with the engineers to understand the changes in layout they wanted to make and then we were able to create, using the game platform, an accurate simulation of the effects those changes would have on competition at the track," Stutsman said. "It turned out it was spot on."

Test-Driving Courses Cost-Free

As a cost-cutting measure, NASCAR has begun restricting the number of test sessions teams can conduct at tracks on the Nextel Cup schedule. The planning and traveling needed for the sessions can throw a team's schedule out of whack and conducting the tests can cost millions of dollars.

As a driver, Kyle Petty, 44, doesn't see games as being useful.

"I haven't fooled around with them too much," Petty said. "Pinball is about as high-tech as I get."

But as a team owner, Petty understands the money that can be saved by learning from simulators rather than putting a car on the track for real.

"They've been using simulation in pilot training for years," Petty said. "As our simulations become better, yes, they become a viable option for drivers. And it's a lot cheaper than going to the race track and spending laps riding around.

"They're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and at the same time, you're not going to trust a guy that gets his pilot's license sitting in front of a computer. But, these kids have grown up playing video games, so their hand-eye coordination, their reactions and how they perceive things is a lot different from old guys like myself. It's a plus and I think down the road it could be a huge plus."

At a normal test session a team might change hundreds of small things on a car looking for the perfect setup for a particular track.

The games EA Sports is producing allow players to make almost any change on a car that a team can make in live racing.

Those changes reflect almost identically the effects that would occur when driving a real car.

"On the video games where you have to adjust the setup [of the car], I can screw up a racecar in a heartbeat," Stewart said. "I can take a decent-handling car and make it really bad really fast. It's fun. You learn a lot. I've learned a couple of things off the game just through trial and error. But the one thing about video games is that you can try something that you'd never, ever try in a car that you'd drive for real. Because you know that if you make a mistake, that it's not going to hurt. You've got the freedom of trial and error."

Of course, Gaughan might have said it best when talking about one big difference between the video games and the real course.

"The last time I played a video game, when I hit the wall, it didn't hurt."

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