Gran Turismo 5 gamers compete for real-life racing job in GT Academy
"You're not man enough!" barks a former SAS marine. "Throw your face in the dirt and crawl you little f*****!" These gentle words of encouragement aren't aimed at a young soldier, but at Phil Arscott, a 21-year-old student from Portland, Oregon, who's been flown to the UK for the finals of the inaugural American GT Academy.
The academy, now in its third year globally, is a competition that finds the best Gran Turismo 5 players from across participating countries and pits the final 16 head to head in real race cars in front of experienced judges. The person adjudged to have the most natural talent and potential to succeed lands the right to drive a racing car for a professional racing team. The losers walk away with nothing.
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At the start of the GT Academy, Phil and his compatriots are brimming with nervous energy -- and deservedly so. They've seen off 54,000 of their rivals. They are elite. They can almost taste glory. They've been flown to Heathrow Airport, chauffeured to Silverstone race circuit and transferred to Race Camp, where they'll endure a six-day comprehensive racing driver training programme designed to test whether their unrivalled gaming ability translates in the real world.
It's difficult to believe, but in just six short days, all that time spent sitting around on a couch playing PlayStation could finally pay off. Each of them has a one in 16 chance of being able to write a letter of resignation to their employers back home that reads: "Stuff your job, I'm the new Lewis Hamilton."
It's not long, however, before Phil and those who've made the trip with him are made acutely aware that the life of a racing driver isn't all hooning around in fast cars and spooning Nicole Scherzinger. It's a cut-throat world that chews you up, spits you out and sends you home -- something a quick blast on Gran Turismo 5 can never truly convey.
GT Academy goes out of its way to reflect this. Race Camp, it turns out, is centred around a military-style dormitory that feels suspiciously like a young offenders' institute and, like prison, the participants are under near-constant observation.
Their every move is captured by a huge television crew shooting a reality-style show for America's Speed TV network. When the cameras aren't rolling, the contestants are shadowed by Crave and other members of the global press, who regularly question their motives (some are failed racing drivers desperate for one last roll of the die); their courage (many are homesick after less than a week away); and their driving ability (a small fraction are obviously quite pants).
The most critical eyes, however, are cast by the judges. Californian racing driver and equestrian Liz Halliday, former F1 and Indy Car driver Danny Sullivan and ex-Nascar driver Tommy Kendall analyse the contestants' lap times, their responses to the media and their general demeanour, wielding the axe of elimination of every wrong turn.
If they dare complain about wading through a muddy assault course, fail to give the right answers to journalists at a press conference, cry like a baby about the horrible English food or score badly on their racing licence exam, then chances are they're history.
Occasionally, when the contestants' personalities aren't being judged in minute detail, they're being taught to race. Driver activities are varied. Some tasks are as simple as enthusiastic lane changing in the Nissan Leaf, an activity designed to show the contestants that, while a sudden yank on a virtual steering wheel upsets the balance of a car, doing so in a real life vehicle also upsets the balance of the driver.
Other tests judge the entrants' competitiveness and speed -- their very first task after arriving at Silverstone, in fact, is to race go-karts in the pouring rain. Later, they're split into groups of threes where they must race Nissan 370Z coupes around Silverstone's Stowe circuit in a three-car 'dogfight'.
Each car is positioned on a different part of Stowe in its own coned off area. After a 3-second countdown, drivers must accelerate hard, complete three laps at full speed and come to a full stop in the box they originally started in. The first person back in their box wins and the two losers must face the wrath of the judges.
As the competition progresses, the difficulty of the tests increases -- as does the level of pressure. One notable task sees contestants abandon Silverstone's smaller Stowe circuit to show their skills on the main Grand Prix track, where their idols compete on a weekly basis.
Here, they contestants compete to set the fastest lap time in F1-style single-seat race cars. The cars prove something of a rude awakening for many competitors, as they lack ABS, power steering or any form of electronic driver aids to mercilessly separate the PS3-playing wheat from the chaff.
On the last of the six days, just five contestants remain and something remarkable happens. All appear amazingly calm, as if the next few hours won't play any part in shaping their lives. All have the air of future champions, and are buoyed by the fact they've vanquished thousands of their peers in the virtual world and put paid to a large swathe of their closest rivals in the real world. They're no longer scared -- they're expectant, eager to get out onto the track to vanquish their remaining rivals.
Sadly, their optimism evaporates the moment a winner, one Bryan Heitkotter of Fresno, California, is crowned by the judges in front of a Silverstone crowd that had assembled to watch the day's GT-1 race.
Heitkotter's victory must be applauded -- he is a deserved winner. But young Phil Arscott and the others in this motley group of gaming ne'er-do-wells may be bitter at the fact that Heitkotter wasn't just your average console-playing Joe off the street.
He's been a sim racer since 1992 -- almost as long as some of his rivals have been alive. He is also an accomplished Autocross driver, having won the SCCA Solo E-Stock National Championship Autocross championship in his first year of competing in 2006 and again in 2009.
After a short trip home, Heitkotter will head back to England to begin intensive training before he makes his debut in a gruelling endurance race. Whether he remains a fixture in the world of motor racing depends on his performance in this and subsequent events, but whatever happens, his virtual route to the very real world of racing will forever make him a role model to every aspiring Jenson Button with a controller.