Drag racing is exciting because it distills auto racing into a very short, very intense event that emphasizes the core strengths of American-made cars--they go really fast, really quickly, and in a really straight line. Even just watching these land-bound rockets is a viscerally thrilling blend of noise, speed, and fumes. IHRA Drag Racing: Sportsman Edition, on the other hand, captures none of the excitement of drag racing, instead presenting the sport as simplistic, ugly, and tedious.
Every race in IHRA Drag Racing: Sportsman Edition goes something like this. First you enter your dial-in time, which is your own rough projection of how long it's going to take your car to run the quarter mile. It's extremely important that your dial-in time be as accurate as possible without being over your actual race time, as it's used to handicap the delay between the two lanes on the light tree. Set it too low and your opponent gets a head start on the light tree; set it too high and you'll basically be disqualified from the race. If your car is equipped with a delay box, you then set the delay time, which can be useful for getting off the starting line quicker but is difficult to fine-tune. You go through the burnout phase in order to heat up your tires for optimal grip, which simply requires you to lean on the accelerator button until the onscreen meter tells you that your tires are suitably hot.
Then comes the staging mode, where you roll as far up on the starting line as you can without going over; once you're staged, you're ready to race. If there's any challenge, it's in timing your acceleration so that you're off the starting line within thousandths of a second of the light turning green. There's rarely much challenge in keeping your car in its lane, and by default, the game handles shifting gears automatically, though for a more realistic experience you can choose to shift manually. From a strictly nuts-and-bolts perspective, it's technically fairly accurate, and gearheads will probably appreciate realistic touches like the dial-in time; but in practice, the whole experience is just mind-numbing. All the prerace preparations are basically mechanical, but the game still requires you to go through them yourself every single time, and once you're actually off the starting line you get no sense of power, speed, or danger, all of which are key to the experience of real drag racing.
IHRA Drag Racing: Sportsman Edition packages its dull racing experience in two different ways, neither of which is compelling enough to excuse how lackluster the core of the game is. An arcade mode lets you jump right into a race against an artificial intelligence opponent or a friend using prebuilt, tricked-out dragsters, while the season mode offers something a little more in-depth. You start off with a beater, though by winning races you'll earn cash that you can spend on part upgrades like new front and rear tires, engine blocks, cylinder heads, carburetors, blowers, nitrous kits, camshafts, valves, transmissions, and delay boxes, as well as new cars.
The game has zero licenses beyond the IHRA name, which means that all of the parts you'll buy have fake aftermarket names, and the cars you can buy look like knockoff versions of Challengers, Chargers, Camaros, Monte Carlos, and so on. There's also some light tuning you can do, such as suspension stiffness and your fuel ratio, and you can also choose from a handful of paint designs and colors. The season mode focuses on a series of 12 bracketed events where you can earn not just cash, but points that go toward your overall position for the season, though if you go straight into one of the 12 season events with your stock car, you won't make it past the first qualifier. Instead, you'll have to go and engage in single races, over and over again, in order to build up enough of a bankroll to get your car into serious competition shape. The fact that you have to go through a bunch of monotonous races for cash before you can think about going through the monotonous season races speaks to how poorly the season mode was laid out.
Making IHRA Drag Racing: Sportsman Edition even harder to sit through is its muddy, underwhelming presentation. The cars themselves actually look like decent approximations of real hot rods, but everything else is just flat, barren, and ugly, which makes it kind of appalling that the game has trouble keeping a stable frame rate when all it's showing is two cars and maybe a dozen cardboard-cutout spectators. The game uses some filtering effects to augment the frankly pathetic sensation of speed, though they kick in at specific intervals so bluntly that it almost feels like the graphics engine is shifting gears. Both the PS2 and Xbox versions are pretty unpleasant, though in their own special way--the PS2 version is grainier, while the Xbox version feels smoother, but more washed out. Regardless, both versions are saddled with lots of ridiculous load times. The game can't even muster some decent noise for the cars, which are inappropriately subdued and often overwhelmed by the game's antiseptic heavy metal-inspired soundtrack, and you can forget about bells and whistles like track announcers.
It can be tempting to forgive certain production value shortcomings when you're looking at a budget-priced game like IHRA Drag Racing: Sportsman Edition, but the whole of this game is so shallow and so unengaging, it doesn't warrant any such charity. This is a dreary approximation that makes the genuinely exciting world of nitro-burnin' dragsters just look like a drag.