For most, the dream of becoming a professional race-car driver remain that, a dream.
It’s expensive, niche and the barriers to entry are dizzyingly high.
But times are changing, and there’s a fascinating new pathway to the profession that’s emerged in the most unlikely of places.
Previously the exclusive domain of bored teenagers, video games are now providing a legitimate passage to becoming a full-blown, pro driver.
The Gran Turismo Academy is a competition that takes the best GT gamers from around the world and turns a very select few into the real deal.
Primarily through the GT game’s uncannily life-like simulator, the GT Academy trains participants up until they’re ready to compete on the track, where a chance at a professional contract is at stake.
Aussie postie-turned-driver Matt Simmons is one of these, taking out the GT Academy International winner’s trophy in 2015.
He now competes in the Blancpain Endurance Series with Nissan GT Academy Team RJN, and I caught up with him for the launch of the new Gran Turismo Sport.
*CHECK OUT TECHLY’S REVIEW OF THE NEW GT SPORT*
Riordan Lee: So what is the GT Academy? It sounds like something from a movie?
Matt Simmons: Yeah! It’s one of the probably the craziest concept that they’ve ever developed. It’s exactly how they say it is.
You’re trying to basically develop the gamer to a real racing driver, and it’s through everyday gamers who have played Gran Turismo, and they put you through a competition, nationally, and then internationally, driving race cars, checking your fitness, and making sure you’re ready to make that step as a professional racing driver.
R: And you took out the gong in 2015.
M: Yeah for myself that came in 2015, where I went into an international competition in the UK, and challenged 29 other people from all around the world.
There’s six per country that go to the finals, and as you go through each challenge, or each driving situation or scenario, you get basically eliminated down to one per country. And then the final day you do what they call the final race, where you drive a real race car at Silverstone.
It’s one of the iconic tracks in the UK, and over that whole race, and the whole week, they determine who’s the best person to continue on. Which was for myself was then, and two weeks later I packed my bags and was living in Europe for three months racing cars on the weekend. So probably exact word, it was absolutely insane.
R: And what stage is the first time that you step into a proper race car?
M: It’s literally what was before winning.
R: That last race? That’s crazy.
M: That actual whole week, when we first got to the international race camp, the very first day I remember we were in a Formula 3000.
So it’s like an open wheeler, kind of just under an F1 car. So as soon as you’re sitting in there, you’re like “Yep, this is real, this is crazy”. And you’re just chucked in the deep end, and you either sink or swim.
R: What’s the hardest part of all that?
M: It’s just getting used to speed. Everything develops so quickly. Fortunately, the program’s been going since 2008, so by the time I had been made the winner of the competition, I was able to learn really quickly. They had kind of everything in place.
R: Were there things that surprised you with how similar they were from the game to the car?
M: Yes, definitely. The biggest thing for me was the final rice – I’d driven on that track tons of times on Grand Turismo. So when I went out there straight away I felt like I’d been there before.
It was a really odd feeling, but at the same time it felt really easy, so I was able to get straight up to speed.
It was just straight away showed how much it translates from being at home, racing on the simulator, to being on the track in exactly the same car. So that was the moment where I knew it could happen, and yeah. Ever since I’ve been doing the same thing.
R: What about things like fitness? I know the sport’s notorious for requiring a psychotically intense training regiment. What sort of training did you have to do?
M: Well before the competition I was, I thought I was fit. But once you get racing you’re using muscles you’ve never used before, and you’re just doing a lot of endurance and cardio work.
So there’ll be times where you’re in the car for an extended period, like an hour or so, and you need to make sure you’re physically up to the demands of what the car wants, and it gets really tough.
R: What tips do you have for people trying to follow in your footsteps?
M: For preparation to become GT Academy, or become a professional racing driver, is just to make sure you look at everything. So prepare well, keep yourself fit, get in as many cars as you can before the competition.
I changed my whole lifestyle. I actually changed jobs. I changed work at Australia Post, so I actually had more time to train on the simulator, do track days with instructors, and also more time for the gym.
R: And what about for people just wanting to master the game?
M: The biggest tip I can give for new guys joining GT sport is just practice makes perfect.
So don’t expect too much just enjoy learning the tracks, and take it a lap by lap. And then hop online with the new competitions, and make sure you learn from other people.
There are so many good talented gamers out there, and you can learn something from them that will make you a better racing driver.