First, full disclosure. Before 2022, I could count on one hand the NASCAR video games I’d played for longer than ten minutes. Here’s the list:
NASCAR (PSP): A mobile port of EA’s NASCAR 07 for the only gaming system I owned,
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season (Demo version, PC), which I secretly downloaded onto a shared family laptop,
iRacing, (Only on the occasional trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, but I’m counting it)
And finally, NASCAR Heat 5 (Xbox One), which I play with both a Logitech G29 wheel and in split-screen mode on a controller.
I didn’t grow up with NASCAR Thunder 2004. Unlike a lot of race fans, I’m not reminded of my childhood every time I boot up the PS2. I’d never played this game before this year and so, I think, my eyes aren’t clouded by nostalgia when I evaluate it.
So, what’s the big deal about NASCAR Thunder? Let me start with the negatives.
Though it doesn’t suffer from the same lack of licensed drivers as the later EA games, NT2004 does not have a full Cup field. Notably, the Jasper Motorsports No. 77 is nowhere to be found. This isn’t the most glaring issue – PSP was missing Wood Brothers Racing and Carl Edwards(!) but I do miss seeing Dave Blaney on track.
NT2004 also features only the Winston Cup series. Other than a handful of Busch drivers used to fill out the back of the field in lieu of Blaney, there are no lower divisions. Career mode doesn’t give you the chance to work your way up to a Cup ride, it throws you right into the deep end with the Daytona 500.
And finally, because I am playing it in the year of our Logano 2022, I can’t take advantage of the game’s online capabilities. In NT2004, I have only ever raced against AIs who, if they were real people, would be older than NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Sammy Smith.
But who really cares, when what the game does have is so, so good? Take it from the guy without nostalgia glasses, NASCAR Thunder 2004 is everything it’s cracked up to be. This game is 19 years old, I’m playing it on a console nearly as old as I am, and yet it’s got me staying up late to squeeze in one more race.
You know what? The title of this article is misleading. It should have been What’s So Great About NASCAR Thunder 2004. No question, this game is great.
It comes down to one main reason: instead of being as realistic a simulation as possible, NASCAR Thunder 2004 is just an incredibly immersive game. It’s a minor difference in goals, but one that creates an incredibly satisfying game, letting players experience each race simultaneously as the fans we are and as the driver we imagine ourselves to be while we play it.
This game comes from the era of Pontiac, Rockingham, and Jack Sprague, and it’s aged into a bona fide classic. The main benefit of a game achieving “classic” status is that its reception becomes less about things like graphics and features and more about if you can have a good time playing it. It’s less about realism, and more about the vibe.
And good lord, does NT2004 vibe.
NT2004 introduces each event with a brief pre-race show featuring audio from MRN’s Joe Moore and Barney Hall, overlaid with a showcase of the virtual racecars parked on pit road. Including both real-life info and descriptions of in-game events in this section was a stroke of genius. Hearing “Kevin Harvick won the first two Winston Cup races here at Chicagoland” and “the [player] car is having a tough year in the points” presented the exact same way grounds the gameplay in the familiar experience of watching a real-world NASCAR broadcast. Even Codemasters’ latest F1 games don’t do this so well.
This type of immersion may best be embodied by the track announcer audio that plays during qualifying laps, describing a driver “lunging into the turn. . . hoping for a good starting position.” This isn’t immersive in the realistic sense – as if a driver could hear commentary over the sound of their own engine as they pass by at a hundred and eighty, but it adds to the heightened excitement that is the distinctive vibe of early-Naughties NASCAR, where every driver had a hope of winning a race, attracting a big sponsor, and becoming a superstar.
But it’s in the little details that NT2004 truly shines. Bouncing off the wall leaves a paint scrape on the concrete as well as your quarter-panel. The career mode menu background gets fancier as you upgrade your race shop. The yellow stripes disappear off the back of rookies’ cars after a season. If you know where to look in the menus, you can even find the manufacturer points standings.
To address the elephant in the room: Is my all-consuming love of the 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix stock car the reason I love this game? Sure, it might be a contributing factor, but I promise there’s still joy in wheeling a Chevy, Ford, or Dodge.
It’s not iRacing or NR2003, but the handling model is just punishing enough to be rewarding – knocking out a single good lap in practice on a tough track like Pocono feels satisfying. Considering I was expecting the handling model of EA’s PSP, in which the cars have so much grip it is impossible to spin out unless you try, I was pleasantly surprised the first time I looped my No. 56 Pontiac in practice at Rockingham. I would later learn that my car’s woefully low-rated chassis may have been partially to blame. After Brent Boodhoo, one of my engineers, built a slightly better one, I was instantly knocking on the door of the top-20.
Most importantly, the cars feel like you want them to– maybe easier to control in a mid-corner slide, and corner-exit momentum might be tapped down a little so you can run side-by-side for longer, but that only means that passing Christian Fittipaldi for 38th place makes you feel like a freakin’ hero. This handling model makes every race one that you’d want to watch.
Recently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suggested on Twitter that it might be time for another NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona, referring to a classic Monster Games release from the year before Thunder ‘04. I actually bought Dirt to Daytona on eBay, too. I’m excited to get into it, just as soon as I bring Pontiac one final Winston Cup trophy…
Yes, a new NASCAR Thunder game would be great too, but it’s important to reflect on just what made the peak of the series so great. It’s not just nostalgia.
Brand-new racing games have to be all things to all people, realistic and difficult enough to please the simracers and accessible enough for kids, far-reaching enough to bring motorsports into the homes of people who might not otherwise have considered it. They’re meant to be fair for online play and league racing, and a source of endless inspiration for streamers’ content, all while offering enough new features to justify the existence of each new entry in the franchise, let alone each paid post-release expansion. Plus, they have to meet that strict once-yearly release schedule. It’s no wonder NASCAR 21: Ignition was such a disaster. Not even NASCAR Thunder 2004 meets all those requirements. I read some comments on long-dormant forums before writing this piece.
The 2003 fan reception of Thunder wasn’t nearly as overwhelmingly positive as it is today, something I think more people would know had social media been more prominent at the time – just look at the recent NASCAR Twitter rehabilitation of Eutechnyx’s NASCAR: The Game series, which was derided at launch.
It’s from trying to be all things to all people that modern racing games start to feel a bit … samey. Random drops and limited-time events can only do so much to make a game exciting (I’m looking at you, Forza Horizon 5).
A new NASCAR Thunder game should recognize that it can’t live up to an impossible set of standards. Instead of trying to preemptively react to its imagined audience, Thunder offers one unique interpretation of what a NASCAR game should be: a little arcade-y, with a deep career mode, a few other ways to race, and a vibe that makes stock car racing look as cool as we wish it really was.
We need the vibes back.
Featured image sourced from GamesWatcher and, yes, it is of the PC version.