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Why World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars 2002 sets the template for virtual dirt oval racing

Why 2002’s World of Outlaws Sprint Cars sets the template for virtual dirt oval racing

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002, by Australian developer Ratbag Games, was an excellent simulation of the dirt oval series, here’s why.

Fresh off the back of iRacing’s announcement that it’s publishing an official World of Outlaws game this year, we felt that now was a great time to look back on the dirt discipline’s past videogame appearances.

More specifically, I want to look at a game that first brought the insanely quick oval race series to my attention – 2002’s World of Outlaws Sprint Cars.

In the two decades since the PlayStation 2 and PC title’s release, there’s been a couple of World of Outlaws games emerge onto the market, the last of which was 2010’s World of Outlaws: Sprint Cars.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
Racing at night under floodlights creates a special atmosphere

Unfortunately, it didn’t fare so well in terms of realism and playability, so our only World of Outlaws sim content has been iRacing’s officially-licensed World of Outlaws 410 Sprint Car and Super Late Model support series racer.

It’s the 2002 (released in Europe in 2003) PS2 version that provides me with the fondest memories, however. In fact, iRacing and Monster Games’ forthcoming World of Outlaws effort would do well to take inspiration from the old console game.

Here’s why.

World of Oz

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002 (WoO 2002) was developed by Australian developer Ratbag Games, a team that previously developed six off-road racing games. The genre experience was clear to see, as the dirt physics in WoO 2002 felt great at the time and are still effective even now.

For the uninitiated, World of Outlaws Sprint Cars is kind of like NASCAR on dirt. Cars race on dirt oval tracks all over the USA in monstrous V8-powered cars. However, lap times tend to be much shorter – around 14-17 seconds is pretty common – and the action takes place over shorter race distances, punctuated by Heats and Finals.

The main A Feature Final grid is decided through a process of Qualifying, Heats, a Trophy Dash race and a B Final, with the emphasis heavily placed on high-speed action – cars can hit 170mph and even average over 140mph on a lap. Quite fast then.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
This is the Home hub area of the Career mode. Nice lockers. Spent all my earnings on them clearly.

The cars themselves feature large top-mounted wings, a staggered wheel setup and an oversized right-rear tyre to help put down near-900bhp of pure American V8 muscle.

Thanks to all that power and a tight field of eager drivers, accidents are inevitable, leading to hefty repair bills. And this is all simulated in WoO 2002’s Career Mode.

Sammy Swindell

Players start from the bottom rung of the dirt oval racing ladder, beginning with a choice of two fairly slow cars to purchase. However, through placing well at minor events players can earn prize money with which to upgrade their car (it’s very satisfying to squeeze in a brand new 800bhp motor into your starter jalopy).

More importantly, however, you’ll need that money to repair your racer after a particularly bruising race – this will happen often, believe me.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
The Hauler is home to your Sprint Car, and lets you upgrade and repair it. Or buy a new one. Quite wasteful though.

You start your career in a hub area, featuring an Office and a Hauler. The Hauler houses your car, and allows you to repair, upgrade or purchase new vehicles. The Office is where you pencil in races to your diary, examine your (empty) trophy cabinet and view sponsorship offers.

Yes, sponsorship! To help fund your climb to the upper echelons of Sprint Car racing and the World of Outlaws series, you’ll need extra cash. Keep performing well and the money starts to roll in. Eventually, you’ll need to purchase a faster car using sponsor and prize money, and this is where your career really gains momentum.

Before that stage though, you need to keep your diary filled up with local races, and the choice is limited considering you need to keep an eye on the cost of traveling to the venue. Yup, this is not an arcade experience, the career is surprisingly deep.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
It’s Brizzle! Oh, not that one.

The game also features 12 real-world courses, including Knoxville, Bristol and Williams Grove Speedway. Along with the tracks we also have 24 real World of Outlaws drivers, including my personal favourite, Sammy Swindell.

I don’t know why I took a shine to him – perhaps it was the alliterative name, or his electrifying personality – but he was the guy for me in Arcade mode.

He was middle-aged back in the noughties, so I was shocked to learn he still races these insane cars on occasion. 394 career wins clearly isn’t enough for the Swindler (that’s probably not his nickname).

Dirrty

We can’t talk about this game without mentioning its most prevalent feature, dirt. Obviously, the tracks are covered in dirt, but the game cleverly simulates the cleaning effect of Sprint Car through a race weekend; a clean line forming with clearly defined thicker dirt at the inner and outer edges.

In the same way marbles need to be avoided in road racing, it’s quicker to run the cleaner lines in WoO 2002 but snagging the outer tyres on the slower dirt can help rotate the car too. It’s a fine balancing act made more difficult by the super quick and aggressive AI.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
Dirt builds up on the screen requiring the player to use tear offs. A neat feature in 2002.

The racing can also take place at different times of day, again simulating a typical WoO race weekend. The A Main Final often takes place at night under atmospheric floodlights.

The authentic WoO experience is completed by the presence of a Hall of Fame section, featuring driver videos and a four-minute-long presentation on the history of the series. The game is appreciative of its subject matter and understands it perfectly. You can’t ask for much more than that in a sim.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
This was someone else’s fault. Crash physics were pretty good!

Some of the videos are unintentionally hilarious of course – see the earlier Sammy Swindell example. The ‘Track Movie’ for what is now known as Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 sounds like the announcer suddenly realised he needs to be somewhere else. It’s a bit shonky, but in a charming way.

Less authentic, however, are the sometimes-sticky barriers, which, when tapped ever so slightly seem to grab your car, destroying its momentum. The propensity for the game to also count your lap as ‘illegal,’ sending you to the back of the field, was also infuriating. Especially when you consider there’s no ‘restart’ option.

And don’t get me started on stalls…

Double trouble

So, WoO was an accurate simulation of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car racing series, featuring excellent physics and a deep career mode. But I haven’t even mentioned my favourite part about this single-player game.

Multiplayer.

Yes. On the back of the PlayStation 2 game box, WoO 2002 is stated as being for “1 Player”.

Actually, the game has two-player split-screen, where players could race against each other and the AI in Arcade Mode. And it’s brilliant.

You and a friend can take part in Single Races or a full Championship, and this is where things get really good. The two-player championship plops you right in at the start of an official World of Outlaws season; so Practise, Qualifying, Heats, Trophy Races and B and A Finals. You could of course select the ‘Brief’ option if time is a factor.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
A typical World of Outlaws American Office. Where’s Dwight?

Players practise and qualify separately, but can be thrown together into Heats and Finals with up to 14 AI drivers. And they’re all out to destroy you. Did I mention this was fun?

The fast and frantic nature of dirt oval pack racing means races were busy affairs, and it was so cool to have your friend there to help you scythe through the field. Or not, as was the case with my dear wife this week.

With championship points on the line, it was crucial to make the A Main Final, and the fact there were official WoO tracks available made this an essential game to play with a friend. And let’s face it, there weren’t many options in terms of co-op console racers back in 2002-3, let alone any that tended towards simulation.

Outlawed

Firing up a virtual V8 in WoO 2002 today brought back positive memories of playing it in my youth. I was immensely surprised at the smoothness of the experience . The action rips along at a consistently silky speed.

Secondly, the Career mode is a deep dive into the world of Sprint Car racing – players need to start off with a basic car racing in local events offering little prize money.

Through upgrades, better sponsors and car maintenance, the player earns more money until they make it to the big leagues and start filling up their Office’s trophy cabinet.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
Be Stevie Smith! Only in World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002. That should’ve been on the box art.

However, the learning curve is practically vertical for World of Outlaw newbies, and even experienced sim racers unfamiliar with the vagaries of the dirt oval scene – ie: me – will struggle.

Unfortunately, there’s no difficulty slider for Career mode, which is where a significant improvement could have been made.

In Arcade Mode for example, racing against the AI on Easy and Medium difficulties is good fun, especially with a friend. The small tracks, sticky barriers, illegal laps and aggressive AI mean that there’s enough jeopardy in the game already without having to contend with super-fast rivals.

Let’s not be too negative though, we should be dwelling on the fact this is a terrific console sim that features well-formed dirt oval physics – and it’s 20 years old! I have pants older than that.

World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002
Racing is tight and tough on dirt ovals

The PC version built on the PS2’s solid foundation, offering superior graphical resolution and the ability to fine-tune steering wheel and pedal use. Wheels were compatible on the PS2, but understandably lacked the PC’s adjustability. I was unable to test this recently, but will definitely be giving it a go when I find a PC copy.

The challenge for Monster Games will be to make their upcoming World of Outlaws game accessible to the casual fan too, something they’ve arguably already achieved with SRX: The Game. If they can match the feel and density of the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars 2002 experience, they’ll have a sure-fire hit on their hands…

…it was so good it should’ve been Outlawed.

Apologies.

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