Pole Position by Namco, published in the US by Atari in 1982.
Pole Position, which seemed to be an awfully strange name for a racing game when you're all of seven years old, certainly wasn't the first arcade machine to tackle the sport - but it was absolutely one of the first really notable ones.
Developed by kings of the scene Namco, who could do no wrong during the time (Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaga) Pole Position was another in a series of huge victories for them. The game was bright, colorful, commanding of any onlooker's attention. You saw an enormous steering wheel and gearshift jutting out of the console, a gas pedal, the scaling graphics; instantly it was clear that this was the business right here.
Personally, I was never very good with Pole Position. It also set the tone for difficulty in arcade racers, with to-the-teeth time limits which penalized you severely if you couldn't drift through a checkpoint in time. It was harsh, but the game was so much fun that it didn't matter. Everything about this game was phenomenal.
And of course, what early 1980s videogame sensation would be worth mentioning if it didn't have it's own matching Saturday Morning Kids Show? Pole Position the Cartoon has absolutely nothing to do with the arcade game (other than the fact that cars driving fast were involved) but that didn't matter. It was more about Crime Solving Robot Cars and their young friends. Hey, close enough. Scarf some Cocoa Pebbles and pretend like the Cold War is still cooling down...