NHRA Championship Drag Racing Speed For All is the most technologically advanced drag racing video game to ever grace a home video game console.

(And more importantly, it just hit store shelves for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Four and Five, and the XBOX One.)

(Image/OnAllCylinders)

But it’s not the first video game to bring drag racing into your living room. For that distinction, we’ll probably have to wind the clock back—way back—to the days of the humble Atari 2600 and Activision’s Dragster.

So let’s sit in front of the warm phosphorescent glow of a CRT television, grab some joysticks, and get ready to race.

Fill up on Mr. Pibb, click the TV knob to channel 3, and get a seat on the davenport—we’re going racing! (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Real Drag Racing Action in Your Home!

Released in 1980, Activision’s Dragster was inspired by an earlier arcade cabinet, “Drag Race” by Kee Games.

The premise is simple: your race begins with two front-engine dragsters staged and ready to go. Pressing the joystick button starts a countdown and when it hits zero, you mash the button again to accelerate, being mindful to shift gears at the proper time.

A green-to-orange-to-red bar builds at the bottom of the lane to depict your tachometer, and when it stretches too far across the screen, your engine blows and you lose the race.

Do it right though, and your dragster will cross the finish line, the clock will stop, and you’ll see your ET.

When you first start learning the game, get used to seeing a shattered dragster and the word “BLOWN,” as you’ll likely over-rev your engine a lot. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

While that all sounds pretty straightforward, actual gameplay is actually a bit tricky.

Lightning-fast timing is critical as you manually shift through four gears. Leaving early results in a red light and blowing your engine is laughably easy to do.

But stick with it long enough to get the game mechanics down, and Dragster becomes really, really fun.

It’s seriously addicting too, as the races reset quickly so you can repeatedly try to shave time off your ET. The fun doubles when you go head-to-head against a friend in two-player mode.

Sound effects are delightfully basic, just a gradual chromatic climb from the Atari’s TIA chip as you pick up speed. There’s only one screen and, after the race, the game simply resets to race again.

All told, Dragster is a solid example of Nolan Bushnell’s philosophy of “Easy to learn, hard to master.”

With a little practice, we got our ET down to 7.14 seconds. But serious gamers have investigated the Dragster program code and found out that the best time possible is 5.57 seconds—so we’ve got some work to do. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

Dragster’s Place in Video Game History

It’s worth noting that Dragster was programmed by David Crane—an early video game icon.

That’s because Crane would soon go on to create Pitfall!, one of the most influential platforming video games of all time and, some would say, the best game ever made for the Atari 2600 home console. (In fact, Pitfall! is perhaps surpassed only by Pitfall II, also programmed by Crane.)

But Crane didn’t stop there, making several more colorful and enjoyable games for the Atari before branching out to later systems like the once-ubiquitous Nintendo NES.

Crane’s resume of Atari 2600 games contains many that are highly regarded among vintage gaming enthusiasts. (Image/OnAllCylinders)

While it may not have the fame of an icon like Pole Position, Dragster is still a beloved cult classic for many racing video game fans. And who knows, without a game like Dragster, we may not be able to enjoy modern drag racing video games like NHRA Championship Drag Racing Speed For All.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got to go work on that 7.14 ET. (Just don’t tell our boss.)

While NHRA Championship Drag Racing Speed For All is a tad more realistic, Activision’s Dragster is still plenty fun. (Image/Summit Racing)
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Author: Paul Sakalas

Paul is the editor of OnAllCylinders. When he's not writing, you'll probably find him fixing oil leaks in a Jeep CJ-5 or watching a 1972 Corvette overheat. An avid motorcyclist, he spends the rest of his time synchronizing carburetors and cleaning chain lube off his left pant leg.