Exclusive Interview with
Tony Johns

Tony is a former employee of Papyrus and is the original founder of IWCCCARS.
He now has his own Graphics Design and Writing company: Thunderbird Creative Media, L.L.C.
and writes for an online racing magazine: Racing Press.

Q: Please tell us a bit about your background that eventually led you to IWCCCARS?

A: It wasn't really a matter of background in anything, except being a racing fan. I was born in Indianapolis on race weekend, and so naturally the day Indianapolis 500: The Simulation came out, I was one of the first to buy it. Likewise, when IndyCar Racing came out, I bought a copy as quickly as I could -- and then waited in frustration until the Indy Track Pack came out!

Anyway, I "discovered" NASCAR racing in 1993. I had seen Daytona, obviously, since I was a little kid. But in 1993 I found that stock cars raced at lots of other tracks, and after watching a few races I was hooked. I latched onto Mark Martin as my favorite NASCAR driver because of all the good things the announcers said about him, as well as the fact that he was sponsored by Valvoline, just like Al Unser, Jr.

That was when the whole car painting thing came into play. I had IndyCar Racing on my computer, and I wanted to drive a Valvoline car like Mark Martin's in the game. So I painted Mark's paint scheme onto my ICR player car. Then I thought, "Hey, why don't I just do the whole field?" At the time, there were plenty of Indy car sets out there from guys like Peter Burke and Earl Ma, but no NASCAR paint jobs. Thus was born ICRNAS, the first NASCAR-based ICR car set, which quickly became a pretty popular download.

About that time offline racing series were the big thing. So I thought I'd join the club and I started the IWCC series, based on my NASCAR paint schemes and the oval tracks in ICR. IWCC initially stood for Internet Winston Cup Championship, but eventually -- after NASCAR Racing came out and Tim Wortman's NASSCAR series was forced by NASCAR to change its name -- it became the Internet Winner's Circle Championship.

So, to bring this long-winded explanation to a close, The IWCCCARS Project began as the continual update of IWCC's CARS.DAT updates with the latest Winston Cup paint schemes. I maintained IWCCCARS until I went to work for Papyrus in 1997.

Q: What was simulation/online racing like in those early days?

A: In the very early days, it was largely based on imagination. Until Papyrus' HAWAII servers came online, it was all offline league-based racing or racing against the AI. Consequently, there was a lot of imagination that you had to use to make it feel real. So we instituted newspaper-style race reports and role-playing aspects into IWCC that you see a lot these days in the current leagues (e.g. fictional winnings, etc.). We didn't have any tools to speak of to tally points or anything, so it was all done by hand. The League Admins these days are spoiled! But to be honest, there are challenges with leagues these days that we didn't have to face back "in the day." I much prefer the current leagues when they're done right. Nim Cross' VRW series is probably the most immersive evolution of what we were trying to do back in 1994.

Q: How difficult was it to paint in the old days (N1, N2) to paint realistic cars compared to today (N4, 2002, 2003, etc.)?

A: It was tough, especially before I discovered Photoshop. Believe it or not, I did most of my painting until N3 in the NASCAR Racing paintkit, pixel by maddening pixel. Even when Paint Shop Pro was around, it was tough to be accurate or realistic because of the limitations both of the color palette and the tiny low-res templates.

These high-res templates that are out now are taken for granted by a lot of painters, but I continuously am amazed at how detailed you can be -- with the car viewers and 3D Studio Max, you can get photo-realistic cars! Add to that the Russian logo pirates who have those online databases of vector logos and the proliferation of racing image sites, and the painters today are literally on cruise control. I can paint a car from scratch in less than an hour.

Contrast this with ICRNAS and the first IWCCCARS car sets, where I had to watch and videotape each NASCAR race to catch the changes to paint schemes using my pause button, then approximate what I saw with a handful of colored pixels (the B- and C-pillar graphics were usually just blobs of color). A car set could take weeks to put together. Add to that, you only had certain panels on the car that you could detail -- the rest had to be block-colored in the paintkit to match. I laugh when today's painters quibble over single-pixel inconsistencies or minor warping or other little things like that... stuff like that gets me going in my "walking uphill both ways in the snow" mode!

If we're lucky, racing sims five to ten years from now will have today's painters being just as curmudgeoned and brittle as I am now!

Q: Tell us about your job at Sierra Online/Papyrus.

A: When I graduated from college, I was still beta-testing Papy simulations, so I had a lot of contact with Adam Levesque, who was the GM of Papyrus at the time. One day, I shot him a joking e-mail telling him I was available if he wanted me to come work for him, and he shocked me by asking if I wanted to relocate to Massachusetts. Within a month, I had packed my wife and kid up and moved to Waltham, Mass. and taken over Rich Yasi's old job as primary test driver.

Working for Papyrus was an interesting situation. Those were the days when Ed Martin was still trying to build the NROS, when guys like Dave Matson were chatting up the newsgroup, and when Dave Kaemmer was struggling to get his magnum opus -- Grand Prix Legends -- out the door. It was like a dream working there. I had so much fun at the beginning -- I can hardly describe it.

I worked as primary tester for a year, and then I was "promoted" to associate producer on the stillborn NASCAR Manager product. Then I rather foolishly agreed to be made the designer for NASCAR Racing 3. I say foolishly because I was taking on more responsibility than I could handle at the time, but I didn't want to admit it. As a result, I reacted badly to the situation -- I let myself get overwhelmed with unimportant details, I got caught up in politics, and eventually fell out of favor with the wrong people. When Papyrus went through a huge round of layoffs in 1998, I was one of the ones let go -- and for good reason, I now believe. But at the time it was a real body blow for me.

But hindsight clarifies things a lot, and I think it was for the best. I've moved on and grown up a lot since then. I still have lots of friends at Papy that I keep in touch with, and of course I'll always be a dedicated customer. And, of course, if they ever need beta-testers...

One of the nice things I've seen in the past few years, though, is seeing some of the stuff I designed into NASCAR Racing 3 when I was working on it finally being put into the production game. One of the hardest parts of designing those games (and Rich Yasi will concur with me on this) is that you can design the coolest game out there, but you'll rarely get to see what you put on paper fully committed to the production game. I think NASCAR Racing: The Final Edition will be as close as Papy ever gets to building the kind of NASCAR game Rich Yasi and I envisioned years ago.

Q: What real-life racing experience have you had?

A: While at Papy I got to go to the Buck Baker Racing School -- the three-day course. That's the most time I've spent in a real race car right there, although I've done some karting and local stuff since. I've had several offers from some of the people I work with nowadays to try their cars out, but so far my wife hasn't let me take them up on it!

Q: Do you feel there are any correlations between real life racing and sim-racing?

A: There is one thing that sim-racing will never, ever be able to simulate -- and that is the seat-of-the-pants feel that a driver has in a race car. You never get the sensations you do in the cockpit. You also don't have the self-preservation instinct at work when you're racing on a computer.

That said, I think that Papyrus has come the closest to providing as real a racing experience you can have without getting in a race car. You notice the similarities especially when you race online in a league -- the art of racecraft, of taking care of your equipment, of being patient and making moves when you know you can do them without incident, of balancing your aggression with patience, and so forth.

I have said before, and I will continue to say, that Papyrus' stock car simulations DO have a real-world application outside of sheer entertainment. I still think track designers could use the Papyrus tracks and physics engine to do "pre-development" on new circuits to establish feasible layouts. I think that serious racing schools should include a day of simulation driving via a few networked computers before putting the drivers out onto the real track driving laps in anger. Maybe someday someone will take those ideas and run with them.

Q: What do you envision as the future of sim-racing?

A: I think the future of sim-racing depends on the future of racing sims. Much rests on what Papyrus' ultimate direction will be. They are developing a cross-platform policy again to stay viable in the market. Whether that means the days of racing SIMULATIONS is dead and gone is a matter of time.

I think, though, that moving away from simulation to a wider audience of platform-weaned gamers is not necessary. What should happen, in my opinion, is that the simulations need to get more immersive than the simple on-track experience. NASCAR Manager was a great idea, and you will see hints of that kind of paradigm in the new NASCAR Heat: From Dirt To Daytona sim coming out this year. Racing fans all know that there is more to oval racing than just driving in circles -- it's that set of intangible elements that needs to be represented in future games.

Q: Do you think you'll ever become an active member of IWCCCARS again?

A: I never say never. But my skills are no longer nearly as unique as they once were. There are so many talented painters out there that there is more supply than demand. Plus, some of these guys don't have lives and consequently can come up with brilliant and enormously detailed templates and paint schemes that an old fart like myself with three kids can't spend time on!

I guess if people signed a petition or something I'd have to think about it. But I think my time in the sim-racing spotlight was over years ago.

Q: Lastly, what are you up to these days?

A: After I left Papyrus, I went back to school -- first, I went for my MCSE certification with Microsoft, and then I REALLY regressed and went to a community college to get an associate's degree in graphic design. I worked briefly for Action Performance Companies in Phoenix, and then I started my own graphics design and writing company, Thunderbird Creative Media, L.L.C. ( I am currently running the gamut of graphic design work, but I still get the chance to work with race teams and sponsors, which is my driving passion (no pun intended).

I also publish and write for an online racing magazine, Racing Press ( Since I started publishing it in 1997, Racing Press has won several awards (more on the way in 2003, I hope) and I am extremely proud of what we've built the site into in five years. We just finished a big expose article on the Red Bull F1 Driver Search that is still stirring up controversy, which of course is a great thing!

And, of course, I'm still sim-racing once a week with my online league... and as long as Papy makes racing sims, I'll continue to race them!