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#81 – Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge

The thrills and heartbreak of NASCAR, now on your NES!

Featuring one of the few songs in the entire game!

To Beat: Win the Championship Season
Played: 4/17/18 – 4/23/18
Difficulty: 9/10
My Difficulty: 9/10
My Video: Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge Final Races

Let me be clear of something right away. I don’t like racing, I don’t like NASCAR, and I don’t like racing video games. I can understand the appeal of the sport, I suppose, but it’s just not for me. I only wanted to play a few of the more popular NES racers, some of the more arcade style ones like Rad Racer and R.C. Pro-Am. Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge was nowhere in my radar. Sure enough, this is a game that tries to emulate real racing with the ability to customize cars. That’s the kind of complexity that scares me a little bit. Though I did have some struggles with the game, I was able to figure it out enough to share my findings with you today.

NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. It was founded by Bill France Sr. in 1948 in Daytona Beach, FL. The company headquarters is still located there today. NASCAR as most people know it these days arose from the Strictly Stock Division of racing, which was one of the three initial divisions created for this form of auto racing. Today, NASCAR sanctions over 1500 races every year, mostly across the US and Canada.

Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge was developed by Distinctive Software and published by Konami. The original release was on MS-DOS in 1990, with NES, Amiga, and Macintosh versions appearing in 1991. While not the first game featuring stock car racing, it is believed to be the first game with the NASCAR license. The NES version of the game was released in December 1991 and only appeared in North America.

It’s not fun watching Bill Elliott win all the time.

In this game you compete in several NASCAR races against other drivers, including Bill Elliott. He was a 1988 Winston Cup champion and a very popular racer during his time in NASCAR. He is the best racer in the game and the one you want to beat if you hope to finish this game. Each race consists of sixteen drivers and there are four tracks to choose from. Two courses, Daytona and Talledega, are high-banked ovals, and the other two, Sears Point and Watkins Glen, are road course with various twists and turns. There are several options to play the game, but to beat the game you want to compete in the Championship Season. This consists of eight total races so each track appears twice. You and the other racers earn points based on the overall standings after races are finished. If you are in first place in the standings after the season, you win the game.

The driving in this game takes places in first-person view from inside the car. The controls are straightforward. Use Left and Right on the D-pad to steer the car. The A button hits the gas to accelerate, and the B button brakes. Release the A button and press Up to upshift the car and Down to downshift the car when driving with manual transmission. That’s all you need to know!

There’s a lot of information inside the car. The top of the screen displays how many laps are remaining and which position you are in the race. You also have a rear-view mirror to see anyone coming up behind you. The bottom of the screen has even more information. To the left of the steering wheel is your speedometer, and through the wheel is the tachometer to see your RPMs, or revolutions per minute. The steering wheel is static but has a little knob on it that moves as you drive so you can more accurately see how you are steering. The three gauges in a row on the right are for oil pressure, temperature, and fuel. Below them are the damage light and the fuel warning light. The far right displays a flag indicating the current race conditions, and under that is the gearbox and gearshift. It might seem overwhelming but it’s really not.

There are many options for setting up the game listed out on the main select screen. The first option is to choose your track, and you go to a screen that shows a map of each course along with the name. Use the D-pad to select a track or choose the Championship Season if you want to play a full game. Press the A button to decide, and then you can choose how many miles you want to run. You can choose from 10 all the way up to the full 500 miles. The default is 20 miles, and that’s what I went with. On the next screen you can choose which car you want. Your choices are a Pontiac Grand Prix, a Ford Thunderbird, or a Chevrolet Lumina. Each one handles a bit differently, but it’s not clear what the differences are just from looking.

So many options it’s hard to find the main game.

The NASCAR license screen lets you enter your name for the standings. Use the D-pad to choose a letter and press A to enter it. There are arrows at the bottom to reposition the cursor, and the RUB option deletes the highlighted character. Select the End option when you are finished. You can also press Select to put the cursor to the box below to enter your password. This applies to the Championship Season only and is a huge, 35-character password. It’s a little longer and a little less complicated than The Guardian Legend passwords.

Auto-qualify can be set to either Yes or No. This determines if you run qualifying laps before the race to determine your pole position. If you choose No, before you start the race you will run two laps on the track yourself. Then your time is compared with the other racers. Your rank here determines both your starting position for the race and which pit area you will use for pit stops. If you choose Yes, then this process is done for you and you are given a randomly selected position. Unfortunately, this position is always near the back of the pack, but it saves you time if you want to get into a race quickly.

The skill level can be set to either Novice, Rookie, or Pro. In the Novice level, the opponents drive slower and you cannot crash. This is perfect for practicing courses under normal racing conditions. In both Rookie and Pro levels, you can crash. The Pro level racers go all out compared to the Rookie level drivers. The bad part is that when you run the Championship Season, you are locked into the Pro level no matter what.

Once you have made all your selections to this point, it is time to race. Well, almost. The final two options are Race and Practice. The Race option is for running an actual race, either a single course or the Championship Season. First you see the track you have chosen. Then you will see the standings if you are in the Championship Season. Next you will fine tune very specific settings for your car, and you can watch the animation of the crew making changes to your vehicle if you want. Finally, it’s time to drive either in the actual race or qualifying if you haven’t done that already.

Watching the mechanic work!

Practice mode puts you in special situations. You get another screen and can choose from Drafting, Passing, Following a Line, or Pitting. Choose your option and then you can read some advice from Bill Elliott himself. Then you can tune your car and go right to practicing. Some of these techniques are really valuable to learn.

Drafting is an important technique you will want to learn. This happens when you are following behind a car closely. The lead car moves so fast it creates a partial vacuum behind it, so following a car gives you less air resistance and you can go faster. The idea is you can let off the gas a little bit while still maintaining the speed to stay behind the lead car. This allows you the opportunity to sling shot by hitting the gas and using the additional acceleration you saved by drafting to pass the lead car. Trying to sling shot at the wrong time can leave you out of position to draft the car if you are unable to pass them during the move.

Another important technique is holding a line. The idea is that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, so you go faster along the track if you can hold a line versus moving around along the track. On an oval course, the best line is the inside track during the turns and the outside track during the straightaways. For the road courses, it’s more important to get through curves as quickly as possible.

Fine tuning your vehicle is the most important process for racing in this game. The manual covers all this information really well. The first two options on the left are the most straightforward. You can choose either a manual or automatic transmission, and also either the racing engine or qualifying engine. The automatic transmission means you don’t have to shift gears while driving, however this engine will always fall short of peak performance. You must learn to drive manual to have a shot at beating the game. The qualifying engine is designed to give you the best performance for qualifying, but it is prone to failure if you are running a long race.

Ah, the open track, no one in sight! Oh it’s just qualifying…

The other three options on the right are more detailed. The first of these is the spoiler angle. You can set it anywhere between 20 and 70 degrees. When the angle is higher, this puts more force down on the car. That helps you hold a line better and not slide out so much during turns. Lower spoiler angles help the car run a bit faster at the expensive of less handling.

The gear ratio can be set at predefined values between 2.00 and 4.57. This determines how many RPMs you run the engine. If you run at too many RPMs for too long, your engine with blow up and you will be knocked out of the race. Lower gear ratios run at higher RPMs, which means you get better acceleration but have to shift more often. Higher ratios give you less acceleration and may prevent you from running at optimal speed. This is the setting you really want to tinker with the most to get the best top speed out of your car.

The last option is tire stagger. This is the size difference between the inside and outside tires. This is most important on the oval tracks with the high-banked curves. A higher tire stagger helps you hold a line within a curve better, which in turns helps you go a bit faster. If you are pointing too much toward the inside of a curve, you might want to increase stagger. If you are sliding toward the outside wall too much, you might want to decrease stagger.

During a race you might need to make a pit stop to repair damage, adjust settings mid race, or refuel. There are red arrows along a portion of the track that point to the pit lane. Cross the red-dotted line and drive to the end of it to enter the pits. The view will change to a top-down view, and here you always drive automatic to help make this easier. You need to remember which position you started in so that you can stop at the same numbered pit area, and you want to come to a complete stop. If you go too far, you have to make another lap and try again.

Don’t forget to make an accurate pit stop.

On the pit stop screen, you have to work quickly. You see your position and stopwatch for time spent in the pits. There are a bunch of meters showing how different components are doing, and you see your spoiler angle and tire stagger at the bottom. You can tell your pit crew to focus on any of these items by selecting one with the controller. The top meter is fuel, followed by left side tires, right side tires, all tires, and general damage. Pick an option to perform repairs by replacing tires, fixing damage, or refueling. All repair or replacement options include refueling. Replacing tires or repairing damage take the longest. It’s up to you to decide what you want to fix to get better handling. The race is still going on in the meanwhile, so the less time you spend in the pits, the better your position.

As you could probably guess, this was my first time playing Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge. I don’t remember where I got the cart, probably in one of my random eBay lots. It costs around $5 or a little more, so it’s not expensive. I bet there are more copies of this game floating around because it’s a Konami published title and that keeps the price down. In my experience, it’s a game I don’t see around much even though it’s readily available online. My collection copy is the only copy I’ve owned.

It really helps to read the manual for the game before playing it. There are hints for how you might customize your car to get the best performance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell you everything. First you have to select a car, and then the tweaks you need are dependent on the particular car. I think there are hidden stats on each of the three cars, and I bet one of them is geared toward the highest speed and other toward the best handling. I messed around with different cars and settings in the Practice mode. I started out with drafting practice since that seems like the most important skill in the game, and I couldn’t keep up with Bill Elliott at all. I got my car to top out at 199 mph but that was too slow.

After a few hours of getting nowhere, I took to the internet for help. There is not much to go on. GameFAQs has two FAQs on this game, and neither one is very detailed. One of them had speed/handling stats for the cars, but I have no idea where that came from or if it is even accurate. Ignoring that, I looked on YouTube. I found a video where the creator wins Daytona using the Chevrolet Lumina. He got the car to top out at 202 mph which was better than I figured out on my own for any setup. I copied his configuration to get that top speed, and now I was at least keeping pace with Bill Elliott in practice.

You can extensively customize what you want to fix.

It was time to start trying out the Championship Season. The first race was the oval track at Daytona. With the 20 mile default race, that meant 8 laps around the track. I decided to qualify myself. I wasn’t placing that well at first, about as well as auto-qualifying. The strategy is to take the turns as far inside as you can. Near top speed, you need to rapidly tap Left as you hold the gas the whole time through the turn. With the proper settings, you can stay on the inside without veering off line for best results. To get into the turn, I let off the gas briefly to help steer. It’s a precise setup and technique, and any variance means you can start sliding out and lose speed.

There is an easy trick that really increases the odds of winning a race on an oval track. At around four laps in, the low fuel light flashes and you have to make a pit stop. Everyone will pit halfway through the race. You have enough fuel to go further than that. I didn’t pit with everyone else and tried to do so on the next lap. If you are near the lead, that will put you in first place for a little while. Now I don’t think you can get by the whole race without stopping for fuel, which is too bad because that would almost assure first place every time. What you can do is make your pit stop and fill up your gas tank only about halfway. You can leave pit lane anytime you want for any repair other than tire changes. You can save several seconds by filling up a bit and leaving early. It doesn’t seem like much, but saving just a few seconds extends your lead by a lot. Once I figured out the driving and pitting techniques, I had no trouble winning first place on any oval track. So that’s half the game figured out.

The road courses, on the other hand, I found much more difficult. The imminent danger here is crashing. It only takes one crash to knock you out of the race entirely. The first road course is Sears Point, which in my opinion is the hardest course in the game. It is almost all turns with few places you can speed up. The opponents are strong at taking turns, and they tend to get in your way when trying to pass. My keys to success here were learning the course and determining what top speeds I could take each turn without crashing. A couple turns are so sharp that I have to slam on the brakes early just to go slow enough to clear them. You then have to remember to downshift to get the best acceleration and get back to good racing speed. I had to tweak the settings again, most notably increasing the gear ratio so that I could get better acceleration at the expense of needing to shift more frequently. The good news is that with the default settings, you only run three laps. The bad news is that no one pits so you can’t save time there. It’s best to finish at least 3rd, but maybe you can get by with a spot or two lower if you can make it up later.

I can barely see Bill Elliott behind all this traffic.

The other road course in the game is Watkins Glen. This course has fewer turns than Sears Point and contains some long straightaways where you can build up good speed. Again, it’s best to learn what speed you can take each turn for best results. I figured out an exploit on this course. If you stay on the far outside entering a turn, you can drive straight as fast as you want and the outside grass of the course nudges you along through the curve. That means for a right turn, get all the way left to start, and vice versa. As long as you get all the way to the side and drive completely straight, you won’t crash. You do lose a lot of speed doing this and it damages your car, but it is much more consistent than braking and steering into the turn yourself, plus avoiding crashes is wonderful. I learned I could also use this strategy on Sears Point, but it was not very effective since there isn’t enough room to build up speed for the really sharp turns. I didn’t crash, but I always lost position. But the strategy is perfect for Watkins Glen.

My entire run of the game took 12-15 hours to complete. I reset the game countless times after crashing or finishing poorly, and luckily the game retains your password when you reset so you can go right back where you left off. I managed first place on all the oval tracks and I always gained 10 points in the standings each time. The way the scoring works is that there is a 5 point difference between places within the top 6, a 5 point bonus for leading any lap, and a 10 point bonus for leading the most laps. You can’t get both bonuses. Bill earned the 5 point bonus since he led initially, but then I got 10 points for leading the rest of the way after pitting. The second race, Sears Point, was where I spent the bulk of the time playing. I managed a first-place victory after many attempts but broke even in the standings. Bill got the 10 point bonus for leading the first two laps before I won the final lap. Race 4 at Watkins Glen I won and extended my lead by 15 points by leading all laps. Race 6 was a replay of Sears Point and I just barely finished in second place, losing those 15 points right back to Bill in the process. That gave me a 40 point lead entering the final race at Watkins Glen. In my gameplay video I attempted the course a couple times and only finished once in 5th place. That was good enough to secure a 10 point season victory!

I found Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge to be, well, quite a challenge to play. The game itself is well made. Graphics are quite nice. The physics and handling are about as realistic as you would expect on the NES. There isn’t a bunch of music in the game, but the few tracks are well composed. There is no music when driving. You hear the engine and squealing noises as you drive around, but the audio cues you get are very helpful as your attention visually is often divided. The passwords are awful, especially with punctuation like slashes involved. I think they could have been made smaller, but it’s really a minor gripe. Kudos to Distinctive Software for creating a quality NES racing title. This game did not turn me into a racing fan and I am not going to start liking playing racing games very much. I just think it’s important to give credit where it’s due. Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge is a good NES game, even if I don’t care for it.

#81 – Bill Elliott’s NASCAR Challenge

Posted In: Finished

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