Video gaming revs up NASCAR drivers, fans


Some of the biggest names in NASCAR -- including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch -- are avid gamers.

Video games are such a part of the racing circuit's culture that when Will Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay met with NASCAR officials at Chicagoland Speedway last year to prepare for their NASCAR-themed summer hit "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," the two asked EA Sports to become involved with the film -- and not merely through the EA Sports decals featured prominently on the jumpsuits of Ricky Bobby and other characters in the film.

"We just sat down and talked for fun about what gaming is like and how do these drivers interact with gaming," Jim Ferris, product manager of "NASCAR 07" at EA Sports, says of those first conversations with Ferrell and McKay.

Those talks led to the inclusion of "NASCAR 06: Total Team Control" in "Talladega Nights." EA built a special NASCAR sit-down video game machine running the Xbox version of the game. In the movie, Ferrell's Ricky Bobby character plays the game at a bar and crashes, prompting a digitized Sacha Baron Cohen (playing French driver Jean Girrard) to come onscreen and say, "You drive like Ricky Bobby." Bobby then ponders how Girrard was able to get a video game deal so quickly.

"The whole tide of video gaming was something they thought was relevant to the sport and really kind of relevant to what's happening in (pop) culture right now," Ferris says.

Bringing "NASCAR 07" to PlayStation Portable was a big win for NASCAR drivers, as many of the gamers and nongamers like to use the portable entertainment device to kill time in the pit or on the many flights they take during the racing season.

"For the amount of travel we do, the PSP is the most popular gaming instrument to come around in a long while for us," Kyle Busch says. " I have a PSP ... and I've been able to play it, and it's pretty cool."

Sadler, the cover star for "NASCAR 07," says video games go beyond just entertainment for many NASCAR drivers.

"From our standpoint, video games have played a big role in a lot of what we do with racing," he says. "I know the first time before we came to (New York race track) Watkins Glen and the first time before we came to Sears Point (in Sonoma, Calif., now known as Infineon Raceway), I played the video game a lot to get a feel for those tracks before I was able to drive them."

Both of those tracks were renovated recently. EA had built virtual representations of the renovated tracks into its "NASCAR 06" game before the real tracks were finished. Sadler says that about 50% of what drivers work with in the cockpit of a race car is line of sight. Video games are ideal for replicating that experience as a learning tool for even seasoned drivers.

"If you play the video game a lot and get all of your points and marks on the track that you need when you go there for the first time in your race car, you feel like you've shorn up your learning curve some," Sadler says. "It's pretty neat to be able to use it like that."