Why Do Sims Often Struggle with Oval Racing?

AMS2 CART 1998 Fontana.png
Just like real motorsport, sim racing's various disciplines and very different in nature. Circuit racing has been accepted as the standard form, but even there, considerable differences can be found - like on ovals: Despite them being run on closed courses and on tarmac surfaces (for the most part, that is), many racing sims tend to struggle when trying to portray this discipline in addition to racing on road circuits. But why is that?

Oval racing has a bit of a reputation for being easy, especially among racing fans from regions where it is not very present. European fans, for example, tend to dismiss the discipline as "just turning left", doubting the entertainment value and that there is much skill involved.

The opposite is true, in fact - especially on superspeedways (read: the big ovals), drivers need to be very precise, smooth and aware of their surroundings at all times as they reach enormous top speeds in excess of 380 kph/240 mph in competitions like the IndyCar series. The slightest mistake could mean a race ending and potentially highly dangerous crash involving multiple cars, so the stakes are high when racing in close quarters to other cars.

And yet, the underlying principle is the same as in road racing: The car to complete the set race distance the fastest wins. It is the way there that differs considerably, however, and this is where many sims tend to struggle.

The Rules​

Despite the principle being the same, the rules of oval racing are usually rather different compared to circuit racing, most notably for full-course yellows. It is the exception rather than the norm for a yellow not to be thrown when something goes wrong during an oval race - even spins that do not result in contact with a wall are often the cause for a caution for safety reasons.

Implementing this into a sim that is not built with oval racing in mind from the ground up can be difficult, as Automobilista 2's case shows: A FCY system has been implemented in 2022, and while it works, it can be hit or miss when it is actually going to get triggered. Caution periods are also very short, so they do not present much of a tactical opportunity. There are no options to choose whether or not the pits should be closed once a yellow flag waves, either. However, the system could be imrpoved soon in combination with the introduction of an actually visible pace car being part of an upcoming update.

AMS2 CART 1998 Fontana Mark Blundell PacWest.png

Racing at over 240 mph on a Superspeedway has to be one of the most exciting things possible in sim racing - if it is pulled off correctly.

AI​

Getting the AI right when it is not built for ovals from the beginning can be a tricky task as well as the same principles at work in road racing do not necessarily apply on speedways. Do you gamble and stay out during a yellow to potentially gain positions should another caution fly soon, or do you use the opportunity to pit? These calls are highly subjective and not always rational, so getting AI drivers to act in a realistic manner in these instances proves to be challenging.

They also need to drive in a predictable and fair manner in order for players to be able to race them well, even more so than in road racing. Small lifts in unexpected places or an erratic steering movement can cause other cars to overreact, triggering unnecessary incidents. AI lines and their overall behavior are under a magnifying glass on ovals, especially the faster ones.

When the AI works, it can lead to spectacular oval races including exciting back-and-forth battles using the draft, but it can all fall apart quickly once it is time to pit under green due to weird AI behavior when trying to leave the track to get service.

Participation​

The issues listed above are all irrelevant for multiplayer racing, of course. Therein lies another problem, though: Ovals are often regarded as a novelty feature, which quickly loses its allure once drivers who find out how hard it can be to be fast around an oval lose interest - oval racing is an acquired taste in most of the world, after all.

This can also be the result of the different nature of oval setups: They are asymmetrical by default, meaning the usual methods of setting up a race car do not necessarily apply. And setups are essential to be fast on ovals - meaning many drivers will rely on the default setup. If this is not up to par, oval racing may not be enjoyable to them unless fixed setups are enabled.

As a result, developers may find it hard to justify putting in more effort into a discipline that is hardly used in their title.

iRacing NASCAR Next Gen.jpg

iRacing pulls of featuring in-depth oval races as well as circuit racing both on tarmac and dirt. Image credit: iRacing

Conclusion​

As you can see, there are quite a few elements that make oval racing tough to implement into a circuit-racing-based sim. The biggest factor is how different the discipline is compared to "normal" tracks, meaning any sim that is not built with it in mind from the get-go could struggle adding them later on.

The only modern simulation that manages to pull this dance off fine is iRacing, which even throws in dirt ovals. Of course, iRacing is rooted in the old NASCAR games by Papyrus, so the oval base was already very solid for the US-based sim. Participation is high due to this reputation and the official cooperation with NASCAR, and until the IndyCar license deal expired, open-wheel oval racing was very popular as well.

rFactor 2 also offers oval racing, but it can be hit or miss - it can be tweaked via config files, however, so the experience is highly customizable. The sim even features an official rendition of the Dallara IR-18 IndyCar, as well as a fictional NASCAR-style stock car

Your Thoughts​

What is your opinion on oval racing? Do you think there are other reasons for the difficulties when it comes to implementing the discipline into sims? Let us know in the comments below!
About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D

Comments

The best short-oval racing against AI i experienced so far is in SRX The game. The AI is simply amazing and properly fights for positions, and driving either the SRX cars or the asphalt Late Models is super fun. From that i say the quality of the AI is what makes or breaks the experience in the first place. It has to be a proper RACE experience, not a hotlap session.

Nascar Heat 5 even though it is an arcade game has really great AI and fun races too. I also recently tried Nascar 2005 Chase for the Cup for the very first time and the game STILL holds up with amazing races and super good AI plus so much extra immersion that is not present in any modern NR game. NR 2003 on the other hand even with mod support is super outdated, especially in the FFB department and physics are just like iSkating.

For offline racing and a modern NR game, i still think Heat 5 is the only good choice, from old games any of the Nascar 2004, 05 or 06. Nothing else from other NR games delivers a proper NR experience with everything that an NR game should have.

For short oval racing and also dirt racing SRX The Game is a great choice.
 
Last edited:
I've been looking at a proper oval setup guide, but I can't seem to find a decent one. Does anyone know of a good one?
 
Last edited:
The best short-oval racing against AI i experienced so far is in SRX The game. The AI is simply amazing and properly fights for positions, and driving either the SRX cars or the asphalt Late Models is super fun. From that i say the quality of the AI is what makes or breaks the experience in the first place. It has to be a proper RACE experience, not a hotlap session.

Nascar Heat 5 even though it is an arcade game has really great AI and fun races too. I also recently tried Nascar 2005 Chase for the Cup for the very first time and the game STILL holds up with amazing races and super good AI plus so much extra immersion that is not present in any modern NR game. NR 2003 on the other hand even with mod support is super outdated, especially in the FFB department and physics are just like iSkating.

For offline racing and a modern NR game, i still think Heat 5 is the only good choice, from old games any of the Nascar 2004, 05 or 06. Nothing else from other NR games delivers a proper NR experience with everything that an NR game should have.

For short oval racing and also dirt racing SRX The Game is a great choice.
One thing I will advise regarding NR2003 is: have you tried boosting the steering linearity? Changing it turned the FFB from uninformative, ancient trash into surprisingly really good and modern feeling, especially for a game of its age

Agreed on the physics not quite being all there though, definetely suffers from the "push even slightly over our agreed threshold and you're in an unsavable death spin" effect unfortunately :/

1689098236093.png
 
One thing I will advise regarding NR2003 is: have you tried boosting the steering linearity? Changing it turned the FFB from uninformative, ancient trash into surprisingly really good and modern feeling, especially for a game of its age

Agreed on the physics not quite being all there though, definetely suffers from the "push even slightly over our agreed threshold and you're in an unsavable death spin" effect unfortunately :/

View attachment 679142
Thank you for the tip, i will give that a shot if it manages to improve anything. Last time i tried i just suffered and gave up after a few minutes. This is at least worth a shot.
 
I don't really understand the article. It's well-written but kind of misses the point.

Papyrus, Monster Games, Ratbag, and EA Tiburon have all nailed oval racing. As Tom wrote above, the SRX game is criminally underrated save for the cars having too much lateral grip. You are spoiled for choice for good oval racing games so long as you're willing to put a bit of work in. It is 2023 and if you are unwilling to follow a 5 minute youtube tutorial to install an older game/emulator, or scoff at anything that doesn't promote itself as an uber-simulator, that one's on you.

isi-based software is also more than enough to run an online stock car league with, and many did over the years. Couple guys will remember that before he was big on iRacing, Dale Jr was promoting a little title called ARCA Sim Racing - a glorified rFactor mod that was sold under a different name.

When people say "devs struggle with oval racing", what they are really saying is "this game that is based on ISI motor tech, has unrealistic offline oval racing AI."

And there just happen to be a lot of oval racing games based on ISI tech. Or games with oval cars in them.

The problem is, isi's AI just doesn't have the malleability or weight that Papyrus, EA Tib., or Monster stuff did. Collisions and crashes with other cars were always a bit unnatural as players ping-ponged off opponent cars that were glued to the ground, and with ISI stuff the AI would always look to be on a literal pixel-perfect train track when turning laps. The visual of two distinct strips of cars running nose to tail, seemingly unaffected by dirty air or able to draft with each other, was a pretty big problem. You could tell as a player that it was cheap and unfinished.

Sometimes this would even show up in promotional shots/footage, which I always found really funny.

1689099071545.png
 
Last edited:
NR 2003 on the other hand even with mod support is super outdated, especially in the FFB department and physics are just like iSkating.
Some of this is down to car setup. Cup teams at the point in time NR2003 was released were experimenting with quite rearward weight bias which made the Fast or Expert level setups a bit absurd to drive. Moving the weight bias forward to keep the front end under load and the rear end predictable, and doing a once-over of your setup values, often fixes a lot about what's wrong with NR03.

A lot of the default setups that come with add-on tracks, I don't trust at all.

It's crazy how good NR03 feels when it's all dialed in, but there's a certain melancholy that comes with knowing it's been 20 years and nothing has ever replaced it.
 
Club Staff
Premium
I mean. rFactor 2 oval racing works quite well online. Good netcode, bumpdrafting is awesome if you run NASCARs, you have in-car adjustments like you should have in IndyCar. SC works fine. You can have lucky dog, wavearounds, different pit rules etc.
We've run a few IndyCar oval races and NASCAR races in the rF2 club the last 12 months, and we've had two problems.
Once the drivers didn't have the patience needed for plate track oval racing. 100 laps at Daytona is a long time, it's not a crisis if you're 8th on lap 4. But there was too many drivers who wanted to be 1st at all times.
And the very first Indianapolis oval race we had, the SC were placed behind the wall, so when the SC was called out, it never got on track. Oups.

Other than that, not a single issue :)
 
doesn't iRacing have the oval bit signed, sealed and delivered? Including great AI as of three years ago or so? I have done countless fantastic races against AI both in the Indycar and Nascar's top class and I always thought it was superb fun. This article leaves me a bit flummoxed.
 
Premium
It really is the million dollar sim racing question. A good, modable game with solid oval ai is a big time hole in sim racing. As much of a lover of AC as I am, trying to do any kind of oval racing is just not worth it. Good article.
 
doesn't iRacing have the oval bit signed, sealed and delivered? Including great AI as of three years ago or so? I have done countless fantastic races against AI both in the Indycar and Nascar's top class and I always thought it was superb fun. This article leaves me a bit flummoxed.
But then you have to deal with how iRacing handles.

2004 Atlanta Pole | 28.9
Gen4 Fixed Pole| 30.9
 
It's not just the sims. I'm from europe, therefore I also struggle with oval racing.
 
For short oval racing and also dirt racing SRX The Game is a great choice.
The Super Late Models provide a really fun experience (and a free DLC). I know the physics are off, but after 20-30 laps that's not what you're thinking about at all. You can be scything through lap traffic and you think you're going to drop that car behind you, but he makes it through just as well as you did. They don't cheap spin you and you have to set up passes laps ahead. I've left races almost sweaty but totally satisfied with my performance, like I really did something well...

Off-topic, the stadium trucks also provide that feeling of accomplishment too, they nail you on the start, but getting those places back over time is very satisfying.
 
Thanks for the Oval focus, Yannik!

Through several decades I as an European have had real struggles with countrymen fellows to see the light in oval racing.
Must admit regarding simracing first years were just on not so serious level through IndyCar Racing 2 title, but just after GTR2 and the infamous spreadsheet of understanding car setup, I acquired rF1 and tried it out at the included Jacksonville Superspeedway.
The fun part was absolutely the scrutineering part and witnessing what effect and difference it made out on the track. Shortly after grabbed some C.A.R.T. mods and made a full "CART Oval Championship" series. And the AI's responded excellent, me having to keep up pace and concentration.
Then re-entered many years later in an iRacing online, this with fixed oval setup. Which turned out well, apart from I dropped out after a few races and entered my old rF1 oval habit.

I think it should be highlighted that if you really also feel that car setup garage work is a big and fun part of simracing - then try it out at ovals :inlove:

It's not that oval racing is a big part of my sim time, maybe 10% at max. But when getting in the seat I always feel the pleasure in the stimulating part being the learning experiences by tuning your own setup, making your own experiences.
 
Last edited:
Oval racing online is alive and well in many leagues still using N2k3. But a major issue with oval racing is learning, and driving, asymmetric setups; with a good one you will actually be holding the wheel slightly to the right going down a straight. The key is not how fast you can go but how much speed you can carry through the turns.

Want to figure the parameters for this suspension in a sim
indy_lotus.jpg


Look at the specs for the Indy 500, from the fifties through the seventies laptimes dropped dramatically, yet there was little difference in straight line speeds. All the improvement was in cornering ability.

Also, on road courses the cars are usually strung out all around the track whereas on ovals "packs" are the norm; it's like five o'clock traffic at 150+mph.

A good oval sim will have to cater to this; "draft" is quite important, not just from the car ahead but those behind and to the sides; asymmetric handling, tire wear and heat, etc. must be realistically addressed. Most modern sims, geared for F1 or GT, can handle this to a degree but cannot be optimized for it.
 

Latest News

Article information

Author
Yannik Haustein
Article read time
4 min read
Views
4,473
Comments
32
Last update

What would be the ideal raceday for you to join our Club Races?

  • Monday

    Votes: 23 14.5%
  • Tuesday

    Votes: 20 12.6%
  • Wednesday

    Votes: 23 14.5%
  • Thursday

    Votes: 21 13.2%
  • Friday

    Votes: 57 35.8%
  • Saturday

    Votes: 92 57.9%
  • Sunday

    Votes: 60 37.7%
Back
Top