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NASCAR Racing, Accelerated: Matrox Millennium, NVIDIA NV1, 3D Blaster VLB

Tim Wheatley - May 22, 2022       0 Comments
Tim Wheatley - May 22, 2022
    0 Comments

The free games that come with an NVIDIA or AMD graphics card these days probably won’t determine your purchase decision, but back in the 1990s certain games would release versions exclusive to a specific renderer and if you wanted to get the best out of a certain simulation, you needed the right graphics card.

Sim racers have chased technology, upgrading often as each new major milestone product became available. Many of us transitioned in varying ways from software rendering to proprietary hardware-based GPUs from Rendition, PowerVR, 3DFX Glide, eventually to Direct 3D, and then often back and forth between NVIDIA and ATI/AMD cards supporting Direct X depending on which brand was supposed to work best with our favorite sim.

Most of us know NASCAR Racing as a title we’d run in software-rendered SVGA (if our system was good enough), but a select few may know the Papyrus title as a simulation they ran with hardware rendering. Special versions of the title were bundled with NVIDIA NV1, Matrox MGA Millennium and 3DLabs GLINT-based video cards, all allowing a hardware-accelerated build of NASCAR Racing to take advantage of their power during a time when most cards of this kind were designed for use in computer-aided design (CAD) applications.


Note: The 1996 release of NASCAR Racing for the Mac included the 1996 driver roster, replacing the 1994 drivers and cars seen in all other U.S. versions.

Sierra’s release of NASCAR Racing v1.21 on CD (the one that included the track pack) had both the Matrox and Creative (3DLabs) executables, and by default they ran in 640×480 with the Matrox version also supporting standard 320×200 VGA with the ‘MATROX -L’ command line. The NVIDIA NV1 build, far more difficult to find these days, was only bundled with the video card. None of the accelerated versions will run without the correct graphics cards installed.

Like Rendition, seen in IndyCar Racing II and SODA as the exclusive hardware renderer of those titles, each of these NASCAR Racing renderers has ended up becoming something we cannot emulate today. No wrapper exists for these rare, proprietary, and long-dead APIs like we thankfully see for 3DFX or early versions of Direct 3D in tools like NGLIDE or dgVoodoo2, so if you want to run any of these special builds you’re going to need to get your hands dusty and build a retro gaming computer, or mess around with GPU passthrough and virtualization.

Option 3: Creative Labs 3D Blaster VLB Version

Announced to the world on August 16, 1995 as the first ever 3D gaming video card for the home PC (though it was actually beaten to release by just a few days by NVIDIA), the Creative Labs 3D Blaster was optimized for Windows 95 DirectDraw, Reality Lab and Direct 3D, and originally launched in November, 1995 on the VL bus with a PCI version expected (but seemingly never released) for 1996. The card released with 1MB DRAM for textures/z-buffer and 1MB VRAM frame buffer, and is the only video card with texture mapping support to release on the VL bus.

NASCAR Racing was bundled along with Magic Carpet Plus, Cybersled, Azreal’s Tear, Ballz Out! and Flight Unlimited. The card had a theoretical fillrate of 25 megapixels/second which was barely adequate for 640×480 and according to both reviews and user reports on rec.autos.simulators not enough power to support NASCAR Racing at any more than ~22 frames-per-second on a system of that era. However, it could allow a user to set higher graphic options without impacting framerate on the 486 32-bit CPUs of the time.

Overall a benefit to slower computers unable to upgrade to a Pentium CPU, but far from cutting edge. The card ultimately didn’t sell well to the emerging Windows 95 market, and the PCI version was seemingly scrapped. I don’t think this is a viable option for a retro build unless your retro build is a 486, but you’ll not have to worry too much about that because it’s incredibly hard to find these cards at a reasonable price.

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Option 2: Diamond Edge 3D NVIDIA NV1

First announced by NVIDIA in May, 1995 with a quote from Papyrus co-founder David Kaemmer, the NV1 was the first card to integrate GUI acceleration, wave-table synthesis, video acceleration, 3D rendering with quadratic texture mapping and a game port into a single card, and in November, 1995 beat the Creative VL bus card to market on the more technologically-advanced and forward-facing PCI bus with 2MB of VRAM and an optional 2MB expansion board.

NASCAR Racing was a launch title that was bundled by Diamond (box pictured below) under the Edge 3D name along with Descent: Destination Saturn, Virtua Fighter Remix and in some markets Daytona USA. The card did a fantastic job of running the simulation in the computers of the time, but is unable to run at anything like a decent framerate with most CPUs newer than 1997 (as you can see in the comparison video at the bottom of the article).

Texture output from the NV1-based cards wasn’t as sharp as software SVGA (see screenshots below), even if you enabled ‘Hi-Res’ in the graphics options, and occasionally didn’t work as well depending on the system because this version of NASCAR Racing has no DOS support, and will ONLY run in Windows. Overall the card was quite capable, but undermined by Microsoft’s decision to support triangle polygon rendering with their Direct 3D API.

None of the slightly-varying NV1-based cards are ideal for a retro build because they tend to look worse than well-designed SVGA. In fact, the only benefit over SVGA or the Matrox MGA card is visual opacity for both dirt and smoke. Papyrus were very good at getting the best visuals possible from a system, and unfortunately the NV1 stepped that backwards ever so slightly even though the performance was far better than you’d get from software rendering (provided your system wasn’t bogged down by Windows). Not only that, but these cards are incredibly expensive and the NASCAR Racing NV1 software build is extremely rare.

Option 1: Matrox MGA Millennium

One of the longest running architectures seen in computing, the first iteration of a 64-bit MGA-based video card was released in 1994 for the ISA bus and was updated for 1995 as the MGA Millennium with PCI bus support. The Matrox Millennium featured 2MB or 4MB WRAM memory (8MB max via addons), integrated MPEG-1 video acceleration and support for Microsoft’s DirectDraw in Windows 95. Targeted for CAD applications, the MGA chip was seen in Matrox products until 2014.

NASCAR Racing is the only known game to benefit from acceleration with this video card, and the only known software to include an optimized executable for it. It uses the Matrox Millenium’s high-speed DOS VESA 2.0 graphics mode to improve triangle rasterization and depth buffering in a way that was and still is ideally suited to racing simulations (and CAD, presumably). Although visually identical to software SVGA, the MGA chip reduced CPU load significantly and this allowed many users to run more detail.

NASCAR Racing was bundled with the Matrox video card on a CD that included what were essentially professional tools and technical demos. It seems so far out of place, in fact, that I wonder if this was simply a low-level test of interest on gaming as a viable market.

Overall, of the three options for NASCAR Racing, the Matrox MGA Millennium card is the one I would recommend you try to pick up for a retro build if the far easier option of DOSBOX and simply running SVGA-mode on a modern computer is something you wish to avoid. It’s more affordable on sites like eBay, and you can find the Matrox version of NASCAR Racing very easily.

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Conclusions

The SVGA software rendering offered by NASCAR Racing is so good that using DOSBOX is probably the best way to run the simulation today, but in the mid-90s these cards took load off the CPU in a way that in some cases made the unplayable, playable. With the success of Windows 95, people also wanted to play their games without exiting to DOS, and hardware acceleration allowed that to happen. In other cases, visuals were improved simply because you were now able to turn on the texturing or trackside models and maintain your framerate.

For both visual quality and system compatibility in a real retro build, the Matrox MGA Millennium is the clear choice. Secondary to that is the option to use a real retro Apple Macintosh with Mac OS 9 along with the 1996 Mac release of NASCAR Racing (screenshots below). The framerate on the Mac version is uncapped, and you can expect 200+fps on max graphics, with all opponents visible, using a system only a couple of years newer than the software.

Direct comparison between software SVGA, Mac OS, NVIDIA NV1 and Matrox MGA:

Note: I think the constant rubber-banding seen in the NVIDIA NV1 footage is because I have a newer CPU in this retro machine than the software will work under properly. Unfortunately, the NV1 build only works in Windows 95/98, so I was unable to test it with an older system, or in DOS. However, the texture quality seen is fully representative of how it looked when all settings were applied as shown.

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