Sprint car racing has acted as a sort of AAA league for NASCAR drivers for years now, and considering the similarities between these decidedly American forms of auto racing, it makes sense. Despite a much lower level of exposure than NASCAR, there's something much more exciting and chaotic about sprint car racing, where high-powered engines are bolted onto small, lightweight frames, which are then flung skidding around an oval-shaped dirt track at speeds reaching 140mph. THQ's Sprint Cars: Road to Knoxville never really captures that inherent sense of danger, though it can offer a stiff challenge for sprint car fans at a budget price.
With their glorified go-kart chassis and that giant, asymmetrical wing on the roof, sprint cars are unmistakable, and you can drive them to your heart's content here, though the sprint cars are so powerful and so light that you're better off starting out racing in either the 3/4 midget class, which really are just glorified go-karts, or the modified class, which sport a closed-wheel design and look more like standard stock cars. Though you can do some drafting behind other cars, the real challenge in Road to Knoxville comes from having to powerslide your way around the corners, which is the only way you'll even be able to keep up with the pack. When you're in a 3/4 midget, powersliding is as simple as slamming hard left on the left analog stick when you're approaching a turn, but by the time you work your way up to the real sprint cars, it takes a subtle play of turning, braking, and accelerating, at just the right moments, just to keep from completely spinning out.
Regardless of the class, though, you'll still be skidding around a muddy oval for 20 or 30 laps at a time, the monotony of which intrinsically limits the game's appeal. This isn't to say that every race is the same, since the handling becomes much less forgiving as you go from 3/4 midget to modified to sprint cars, and the length of the track itself can affect how you approach the turns. Even these variables are pretty subtle, and the game has little on offer besides straight-up racing. The modes of play are pretty predictable, including a career mode, a one-off race, a championship series of races, a rather underwhelming split-screen two-player mode, and some basic tutorial and practice options.
The career mode lets you name yourself the manager of your own custom racing team, starting you off with $5,000 with which to buy a car and hire a driver. You can buy cars from each of the three classes, though there are only three different models within each class, and the aesthetic and performance differences within each class are nominal. You hire your drivers from a long list of fictional characters, each with unique stats. Naturally, drivers with higher stats can command a higher salary, though these skills never impact how the game plays as long as you're behind the wheel. At any point during a race in the career mode, you can pause the game and turn on artificial intelligence controls, at which point you can just put down your controller and watch as the AI profile of the driver you hired works his or her magic. Though we've seen such a feature implemented well in other racing games, in Road to Knoxville it potentially sucks any challenge out of the career mode, since it's possible to hire a top-tier driver right from the start and just have them win all the races for you. Aside from this rather prominent quirk, the career mode is shortsighted. There's a meager selection of parts that you can upgrade your car with, and there's a sponsorship system that gives you access to bigger money sponsors the more you win races; but it's possible in just a few hours to have a stable of fully customized cars, and the game gives you little motivation to keep playing beyond that.
The presentation is also a bit flat, though no more than you might expect for a game retailing for $15. The tracks cover the appropriate gamut of backwater locales and county fairs, and include day and night variations. Everything has an appropriately muddy look to it, though the effect of mud kicking off the backs of the cars looks cheap and unconvincing, as does the effect of mud splattering onto the "camera." Cars get progressively muddier, though there's no subtlety to each level of muddiness, and there's also not much of a damage model. The in-game sound effects are consistently unremarkable, though there are a few rock tunes that play over the menus that are inexplicably quite catchy.
Considering the dearth of options when it comes specifically to sprint car games, Road to Knoxville isn't a bad deal if you're an enthusiast, but that's about the limit of the game's appeal. The controls on the cars themselves are solid enough, but there's just not enough of a game built up around them to make this worth most people's time.