In 1994, I was 10 years old—too young to travel around the country with the family truck team—so I spent the summer with my oldest sister, Ginger, and her husband. He loved video games and he loved racing, and he bought this new game that I had never heard of: NASCAR Racing by Papyrus. I played it, and I fell in love with it. Really, it was the first video game I fell in love with, and I’ll never, ever forget it. I remember waking up the next morning and just being excited to play it.
It was awesome. It was really the first major NASCAR title that was done well. Every other NASCAR game before was done very poorly. It had great graphics, decent physics. It was just groundbreaking for its time.
At the time, I would never have imagined that a couple decades later, I’d be part of making what I hope will be the best NASCAR racing game ever created. But that’s what happened. How it happened is kind of an interesting story in and of itself.
The last great NASCAR game, to me, was NASCAR Heat, but the company that developed it—Monster Games, and the company that published it, Hasbro Interactive—was sold and lost the NASCAR license in 2002. Eventually, Electronic Arts took over the title. They didn’t do a great job with it and people stopped playing. So for a few years, there wasn’t really a great NASCAR game. That was really a waste because it’s such a great way for young fans to connect to the sport, just like I did.
This story begins with my truck team, Brad Keselowski Racing. Although we talk a lot about developing drivers like Ryan Blaney, who’s now in the Cup series, I have a passion for giving opportunities to talented people outside of the car, too.
Matt Dusenberry went to work for me as a business development manager a few years back. He had come from NASCAR, and we had a pretty exhaustive process for interviewing him. He was with us for about two years, and he worked with our sponsors, trying to make them happy, give them the services they needed, and look out for people on the race team, too. He did a ton of work with us, both at the track and away from it, and he was great.
Matt was familiar with NASCAR driving games, too. His father, Tom, had been the CEO of Hasbro Interactive back in the 90s—and it was at Hasbro that Tom had produced NASCAR Heat along with a man named Ed Martin. Like me, Matt was aware that there wasn’t a really compelling NASCAR video game anymore.
He saw an opportunity, and decided he wanted to do something about it.
So Matt, his father and Mr. Martin created Dusenberry Martin Racing Games. DMR met with Brian France, and got the rights to NASCAR.
All they needed to do next was make the game.
DMR asked me if I wanted to be an investor, and of course, given my history as a gamer, I did. But I wanted to do more than just back it financially. I felt rather strongly that a well-done video game could be an important part of moving the sport forward, and also a way for me to give back to the sport. If I was going to invest in the game—a NASCAR racing game—I wanted to have a voice in how it was it made.
So I became a consultant and an endorser, too.
MY LOVE OF DRIVING GAMES
The finished product, NASCAR Heat Evolution, comes out for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and PC on September 13. It’s an awesome game, but to understand what I like about it, I want to tell you a little more about how I came to love video games, and racing games in particular. Video games opened up a whole new world for me, and in a lot of ways you wouldn’t anticipate.
When I was a kid we weren’t very well off, so having a video game system was a big deal. We always had one, but it was always five years old. We had Atari when everybody had Nintendo, and we had Nintendo when everybody had Sega.
You get the drift, right? It was basically a hand-me-down situation.
Back in 1994, when I discovered NASCAR Racing, one of the biggest joys for me was that it gave me a chance to really experience racing as a kid. As you might imagine, I loved racing. My family had a racing team, and racing was our lives. But since we didn’t have money to race quarter midgets or other cars for kids, racing games—NASCAR Racing, in particular—were how I got my fix.
I loved so many things about the game. I loved that it had real drivers in it. I loved that you could climb your way through the ranks with your own career. I always was the No. 19, the number of my hero, Chris Gehrke. (He actually died right before the game came out.)
The game also gave me one of the most meaningful memories of my youth. My older brother, Brian, and I didn’t spend a lot of quality time together growing up. We argued and fought a lot, as brothers often do. He didn’t want to play with me all that much.
But New Year’s Eve in 1994 stands out in my mind, even 22 years later. That night, my parents were gone at a New Year’s party. We were at my cousin’s, and I was with my brother, playing Mario Andretti Racing. We were competing, but we were also just together, having fun. I had a chance to be with him, and I loved it. It sounds kind of funny to say, but that night we shared playing the game felt really special and important. A video game was one of the few things that brought us together.
That’s a huge part of why I’m such a big fan of video games. They can be a really positive influence. They have been for me, whether it’s been building relationships with family, or my confidence or hand-eye coordination. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that video games have played a big part in the success I’ve had in my life.
NASCAR Racing went through a couple iterations, and every summer for a couple years, that’s all I did: play the game. In 1996, the new edition had a great version of Watkins Glen, and it became my favorite course. I know it sounds crazy, but I would say that I run good at Watkins Glen because of how many races I’ve ran there on the computer, in video games. I just fell in love with that track. I had every corner mapped in my mind since I was 11 years old.
It got to the point where I remember a day when I was racing it, and set a new track record. I printed the results, took it to school, and posted it on the wall of my classroom. No one else knew what it meant, but I did! I couldn’t have been more proud of it. It was one of those major accomplishments when you’re 11 or 12 years old.
All of those feelings I had about racing games as a kid are ones I’ve tried to ensure are in NASCAR Heat Evolution. I’ve been beta-testing the game, and had a lot of input on different parts—how the cars drive and handle, the nuances of the tracks, that sort of thing.
But one of my favorite parts of the game involves different challenges you can undertake. That was something I was a big part of helping spur on and develop, and what makes it great is that the challenges are all based on real-life racing moments. For example: One of them is from my win at Fontana in 2015, when I restarted in the middle of the pack with a few laps to go, and wound up winning the race. You get to see if you can do it, too—just like the drivers, and in real time.
Another fun feature that’s relevant to my fans are the multiple paint scheme options available as downloadable content or DLC. The game comes with the No. 2 Ford for our younger fans, as you get to drive the Checkered Flag Foundation version of my car. If you’re older, you can download the Miller Lite No. 2 car (behind an age verification wall of course)! In fact, you can be nearly all of the real drivers who are currently in the Cup series, and for the first time ever, NASCAR Heat Evolution has 40-person multiplayer, which means you can play online against 39 other people.
A lot of being a race car driver is about reaction timing, spatial awareness, confidence—all things that video games can teach. They’re very important tools for anyone in the NASCAR world. There’s a lot to be said for the confidence that a video game can help you build, and those are all qualities that get tested in NASCAR Heat Evolution, too.
Needless to say, I’m really excited for the game to come out. Maybe more than that, though, I’m eager to see what NASCAR fans think of the game. I’m hoping you’ll love it as much as I do, and give us great feedback on how to improve it. NASCAR Heat Evolution is going to be here for years to come, and I want you to play an active role in how it gets better. And who knows: If you decide to play, you and I might wind up dueling against each other online.
For your sake, just hope it isn’t at Watkins Glen.