The Racing Platform

This article was originally published in the March 1997 issue of Thunder Valley Racing. The pace of hardware and software development has rendered some of the information here obsolete, but the concepts remain valid. This article has been partially updated for publication here. For more current information about specific input devices and 3D accelerator cards, see my technical requirements notes.

Hardware Requirements

Some of these sims, especially the older ones, can run on a 486, but it's just not worth it. They are too CPU-intensive (unless run in low-res mode, which is very ugly). For reasonably smooth play with most of the scenery and other graphic detail turned on, you need a Pentium 133 or better and at least a 1 mb PCI video card. One exception I've found is that the Rendition-ready Papyrus games (more about this below) will run quite well on my Pentium 60 with a Screamin' 3D card installed.

Input Devices

You also need a good input device. Although these sims can be "driven" from the keyboard, it is not only virtually impossible to drive quickly and precisely by tapping away at the arrow keys, you also lose the one of the best features of a racing sim: the motions you make in the sim are exactly the same as those you make in a real race car. A joystick is a little better than the keyboard, but please treat yourself: you really need a driving wheel and pedal setup.

Unlike golf sims and other sports sims, where you use a mouse or keys to direct a swing or a player, in a racing sim, with a good wheel and pedal setup, you are actually driving a car. Flick the wheel to whip the car through a high speed chicane; turn it hard over to get around a hairpin; squeeze the throttle to get the power down without wheelspin, modulate the brake to keep the wheels on the edge of lockup as you haul the car down from top speed at the end of the straights. You can also choose to shift gears, with a shift lever or buttons on the wheel (depending on the type of wheel you choose).

The authors of the sims have achieved an incredible degree of realism, and a driving wheel is essential to fully realize their potential. Now that I've hopefully convinced you to spring for a driving wheel and pedals, I'll review the options. The most popular and readily accessible is the Thrustmaster T2 driving wheel and pedals. This is a decent setup, and with a little work, can be made even better. They are available mail order for around $99.

A slightly lower cost option, which has the flexibility of also being usable with flying sims, would be a CH Pilot yoke and CH pedals. You don't need to spend the extra money for the Pro versions of these for racing, since you don't need any more buttons than those that come on the basic yoke. The non-pro pedals are actually better for racing than the Pro pedals or the pedals that come with the Thrustmaster T2.

CH's products are well designed and very well made. The big limitation with the yoke setup is that the yoke is limited to about 90 degrees of motion, vs. about 270 degrees for the Thrustmaster T2. The lack of precision that results is a significant drawback. CH pedals are $50 and the yoke about $60, I believe. These are available mail order or in some larger computer stores and mass outlets.

For the serious racer, for about $250, you can get a Thomas Super Wheel, and for another C-note or two, there are a number of fancier competitors on the market.

If you are the type who likes to build your own, there are plans available on the Web. If you're a good scrounger and good with tools, you can build a fine wheel and pedal setup for under $50.

For starters, a T2 is quite adequate, and once you graduate to a better setup, you can get your friend to bring her computer over, hook it to yours with a null modem, and let her use your old T2.

Note: See my technical notes for more recent information about input devices.

Frame Rate

Unlike most video games, the all-important factor in racing sims for realistic feel and response is the frame rate. This refers to how quickly the computer can paint a new picture.

Like movies, the computer doesn't actually draw things in motion; it rapidly presents a series of still frames, each slightly different from the last, and the eye is tricked into seeing motion. The rate at which these frames are displayed is critical. Below about 18 or 20 frames per second, the eye begins to perceive a choppiness, and around 13 or 14, the illusion of motion is seriously compromised. However, frame rates above 30, though not visibly different from rates around 20, impart a much smoother sensation and greatly improved sense of feel, as well as improved responsiveness; as you turn the wheel, the car reacts instantly.

The frame rate is a function of CPU power, the quality of the video accelerator card, and other factors in the computer's design. It is also a function of the level of detail displayed by the simulation, the speed at which the car travels, how busy the computer is doing other things (like making sounds and computing vehicle dynamics and motion) and how efficient the code is (i.e. what tradeoffs the programmers made when they designed and implemented the sim).

All of the sims allow you to turn off detail (such as sky, scenery, trackside detail, track texture, paint schemes on opponents, crowds in the grandstands, tire smoke, etc.), reduce the number of computer-generated competitors' cars, and adjust other factors that impact the frame rate. If your computer can't generate an acceptable fame rate with all the detail turned on, you can shut off more and more detail, leaving more CPU power for the remaining stuff.

The tradeoff is that much of the detail, in particular track texture and nearby trackside objects (like fences and braking markers) is very important for driving quickly; with too much detail turned off, you lose the visual references you need for braking points, turn-in points, and so on. Also, of course, the sensation of realism is lost as detail is turned off.

I've found that a Pentium 133 with a 1 mb PCI video card allows a reasonably good compromise between detail and frame rate for all three sims. A Pentium Pro 200 with MMX would be lots better, if you've got a spare one you can lend me!

3D Accelerators

The new state of the art is the 3D accelerator card. These cards have more and faster memory than regular 2D video cards, but more importantly, they have on-board microcode that is optimized for the display of three-dimensional action. They also allow special effects, such as a bluish haze on distant objects (like the mountains on the horizon at Sears Point, or the far end of the straight at Michigan), smoothing and adding depth to texture mapping that cover the surfaces objects (like buildings surrounding the tracks, or the cars themselves), and rounding off the jagged edges of diagonal lines (like the white lines at the edges of the track).

The effects of these capabilities have to be seen to be believed. The first few times I spun out in Turn One at Long Beach after installing my 3D card, that part of my brain that does the reflexive interpretation of events in the immediate moment was sure that I was really spinning out, just as I've done many times in a real car! I almost got dizzy.

There are several types of 3D cards, each using a different chipset. A game or sim must be written to take advantage of the particular type of chipset in your card, or else you will get no benefit from it. The most popular type of chipset seems to be the Rendition Verite, and a recent comparison in a computer gaming magazine showed Sierra's Screamin' 3D card to be the best of the cards based on this chipset. These cards list for $200 but street prices are lower, and other Rendition cards can be had for under $100.

Because they offload from the CPU a lot of the work of generating the 3D display, a 3D card lets you get away with a less powerful CPU. My old Pentium 60 with 3D card did great with most of the detail turned on in the Rendition-ready ICR2, but it was hopeless with GP2, which does not support the Rendition card and therefore behaved as though I had just an ordinary video card.

NASCAR2 and a special release of ICR2 (available as a part of the Screamin' 3D card package or the new Papyrus CART Racing re-release) both support Rendition cards only. Cards based on the next generation of Rendition chipset, the 2000 series, is due out imminently. These are rumored to have significantly enhanced capabilities, but a compatibility problem with one of the 3D features known as anti-aliasing makes it incompatible with ICR2. Verite and Papyrus are believed to be working on a fix.

Note: See my technical notes for more recent information about 3D accelerators.

Operating System Environment

Although you can theoretically run any of these sims under Windows 95, only the newer ones such as SODA and CART Precision Racing are written directly for Windows 95. The others are DOS programs. For performance reasons, it is much better to run the DOS programs under DOS. Windows 95 does offer some advantages to the software developer, by providing video, sound, and joystick drivers which have to be written custom for DOS programs, but that doesn't really help you, the racer.

Running a DOS program under Windows 95 severely handicaps it, because Windows 95 adds some layers between the program and the hardware interface that waste a lot of CPU cycles. Also, things tend to get screwed up, and crashes seem to happen more frequently. I always run my racing sims under DOS, and recommend you do, too.

It can be a challenge getting the right DOS environment on a machine which is set up with Windows 95. There are basically four options, listed in increasing order of desperation:

Start Menu. In Windows 95, click on Start, then Shut Down, then Restart the Computer in MS-DOS Mode. This will give you a reasonably good simulation of the DOS which the sims were written for.

MS-DOS Mode Shortcut. In Windows 95, you can create a copy of the MS-DOS Prompt shortcut (this is in the Windows\Start Menu\Programs folder) and then tweak it to cause the computer to enter MS-DOS mode. Copy the shortcut to your desktop, right-click on the copy and select Properties. Then select the Program sheet, click the Advanced button, and click MS-DOS Mode and Specify a new MS-DOS Configuration.

Now you have the option of creating custom Config.sys and Autoexec.bat configurations, which you may need to do if you are short of conventional memory, or want the CD-ROM driver loaded automatically.

DOS 7.0. Windows 95 comes with a new version of DOS, 7.0, that seems to be pretty compatible with the racing sims reviewed here. You can get to this by hitting F8 when starting windows 95, as below, and selecting the "Command Line" option. If the CD-ROM drive isn't available, and you haven't done full installs of the sims (and therefore need to access the CD-ROM drive while running the sims), you can run c:\windows\dosstart, which should load the CD-ROM device driver.

Previous DOS. If you had DOS before you loaded Windows 95, and kept it, Windows 95 gives you the option of booting into your previous version of DOS if you hit F8 just after the "Starting Windows 95" message appears during boot up. You'll get a small menu of choices, and one of them will be "Previous Version of DOS". This will give you your old version of DOS, and hopefully you can run the sim under it without changing anything.

For more help on the intricacies of the various ways to configure DOS environments under Windows 95, I'd suggest getting a book such as Windows 95 Secrets.

It's worth mentioning that some of the public domain and for-sale utilities available for these sims are written for DOS, while others are written for Windows 95. The DOS utilities I've used seem to run fine in a DOS prompt under Windows 95. I use Viewstg and EditRpy this way all the time; I've even set up shortcuts to them in my Games menu.