It's not surprising that NHRA Drag Racing Main Event looks a lot like 1998's mediocre NHRA Drag Racing--it was developed by Moto 1, which, back when it was called Motorsims, acquired NHRA Drag Racing developer Tantrum Entertainment. But while Main Event shares a few of the problems of its forebear (particularly in its interface), it delivers much more enjoyment and excitement, as well as a very good all-around drag racing experience.
NHRA Drag Racing Main Event crams an incredible amount of drag racing action into a budget game. In fact, it's actually two games bundled together--NHRA Drag Racing Gold and NHRA Pro Stock Cars and Trucks. Nearly 60 NHRA drivers are featured from four categories--top fuel dragster, funny car, pro stock, and pro stock truck--including luminaries such as John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Bob Panella, Warren Johnson, and the now-retired Joe Amato, to name just a few. Twenty-seven tracks are featured (21 if you don't count redundant versions), and while the 2D models of crew members are a bit crude, the track textures and car graphics are quite good overall. The smoke and flame effects are especially satisfying, though these can put a major hurt on the game's frame rates on lower-end systems.
This is NHRA Championship Drag Racing, so you won't find bracket racing here--just straight-up action in head-to-head matches, single events, and a 25-event NHRA season in which you earn prize money to offset racing costs. (The track list was apparently based on the 2000 season, since several venues from this season are not available.) In both games, you can choose from novice, arcade, or full difficulty settings. Novice is almost worthless since it puts you already staged at the start line--the only things you've got to do are pick a good crew chief to turn your car and have a good reaction time. You can't tune your ride in arcade mode either, but at least you can perform a burnout and stage the car yourself, as you can in full mode. Full mode also lets you make engine and chassis adjustments.
Just as in NHRA Drag Racing, you don't have a lot of things to tweak in the pit, but the game is so poorly documented that only a gearhead with a PhD could understand the manual. Take the clutch settings, for instance. The manual says these are "probably the most important parameter of the whole car" and then launches into an explanation that can leave your head spinning. Maybe some people can readily understand that "the combination of the spring preload, the centrifugal weights, and the coefficient of friction of the clutch plates determine a line of torque vs. speed that the clutch will be locked or slipping," but even so, there should be a more down-to-earth way to guide users through car setup. In the end, you may find that trial-and-error adjustments work best.
The interface, which borrows heavily from NHRA Drag Racing, can be a bit frustrating too. To return to the main menu after a race, for instance, you have to choose "race mode" and then go back two more menus. Selecting a track for a single event is similarly obtuse--after choosing a rack from the list, you go back to the previous menu instead of continuing on to the pits. There's no way to pause or even quit a race once you've staged--a real bummer when the phone rings and your opponent hasn't even pre-staged yet.
The game's force feedback support is quite good, but be forewarned: Unless you want to know what it's like to really wrestle with a 7000 horsepower beast, you should knock the settings down quite a bit. The effects aren't nearly as brutal in the pro stock and pro stock truck races, and you may even prefer controlling the game using a stick, which would likely make it much easier to keep your cars from getting out of shape.
While the pro stock truck division may not be as interesting, the action in the other three divisions offers enough fun in single-player mode to make NHRA Drag Racing Main Event a bargain. Still, drag racing against computer opponents, even if they are named Force and Bernstein, can draw you back only so many times. That's where the Moto1.net comes in: Just head to the Web site and set up a free account and in no time, you'll be putting your engine-tweaking and driving skills on the line against other players. The multiplayer interface can use a little polish--there's no way to actually watch anyone else racing (you do see full results as they take place, however), the waits before races can be rather long, and your wins are tracked only during a single log-in session. Even so, the opportunity to square off against human opponents for free gives the game a much longer play life than you'd probably expect from a drag racing sim.
In the end, NHRA Drag Racing won't convert anyone who doesn't like drag racing. But those who enjoy the sport will find a lot to like here--and at a price that practically no one can refuse. And that's a hard combination to beat.