Test Drive: From Gamer to Racer

The ballad of Bryan Heitkotter, a man who turned Gran Turismo into a dream job
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Bryan Heitkotter isn't a superstar. Not to most people. He's a guy, a normal-looking dude in his early 30s, not ugly, but not a stud either. He lives in Fresno, the same city where he grew up. His parents live nearby. He's got an older sister. He'd like a family of his own one day, but he doesn't have one to speak of right now. He enjoys playing video games.

Like most people, Heitkotter has goals. Things he'd like to do one day. Dreams.

Unlike most people, Heitkotter's already realized most of them. In fact, he's one of a kind. Until late last year, no other American could ever claim to do the things he's done. He's a record-holder, a winner and a champion.

Bryan Heitkotter is a professional race car driver. But he's not just any race car driver; he's the first American to go from racing virtual cars to racing physical ones. People call him a real athlete now.

With the help of Sony, Nissan and Polyphony Digital, Heitkotter defeated 53,000 of his fellow Gran Turismo 5 drivers to qualify for the inaugural American edition of the GT Academy, a week-long competition/training program/reality TV show set at the famed Silverstone Circuit in England. At the time, Heitkotter had just been laid off from his job back home. But in England, he beat the best digital drivers in the country. Now he races cars for a living, like he's always wanted to — and like he had practiced in racing game after racing game for years and years before.

Here's how he got to where he is today.

Human Angle: The Digital Road Warrior

The "Car Guy"

Growing up in Fresno, Heitkotter had what he terms a "very stable, almost sheltered upbringing." On the surface, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary. He got a private education up through high school and went to college after that. There wasn't much drama — no broken homes or notable financial issues or anything like that. He had friends, a loving family, a roof over his head and a good education. All the boring stuff.

But what Heitkotter also had was a deep love of anything and everything related to the automobile. His parents say that he would only play with toys that had wheels on them as a little kid, while Heitkotter says that he would watch every race he could find on TV, and then record those races on VHS tapes to soak in again later. Outside of his home, this love of cars would seep into his social life, too.

Guy

Bryan Heitkotter

"To all my friends, I've always been 'the car guy,'" Heitkotter recounts. "Drawing cars in study hall, getting magazines — before the internet took everything over — and reading them cover to cover before starting homework, playing every racing game I could get my hands on and watching all the racing I could find on TV. When I signed up for driver training to get my license, I got on the waiting list to learn in a manual transmission car."

It was that sort of passion that can fittingly be described as abnormal. For whatever reason, racing had consumed Heitkotter's brain at an early age, took control of it and made it hungrier for more. "Ever since I can remember I dreamed of being a racing driver when I grew up," he says. There wasn't any room for ambiguity here. He wanted to go fast.

Like so many kids growing up in the '80s and '90s, video games left a lasting impression on Heitkotter. Starting with his family's ColecoVision, he sped through any racing game he could get his hands on — even The Dukes of Hazzard, for God's sake — so long as it got him behind the wheel in some way, shape or form.

And as Heitkotter matured, so, too, did the racing games he adored. Many of those were becoming more and more realistic, emphasizing precision, patience and an understanding of car physics above all else. These games were also setting the stage for Heitkotter to morph into the professional he is today.

"Racing video games were my fix growing up," remembers Heitkotter. "I lived my racing career many times over, vicariously through the screen. It was the closest I thought I would ever get at times, and yet sometimes I felt that somehow, some way, I would get into racing in real life. But I didn't know how."

The beginnings of that "how" would start to come in 1998, when a 17-year-old Heitkotter first played the work of a man across the sea named Kazunori Yamauchi, and his development team named Polyphony Digital. That work was a video game called Gran Turismo.


The Game

Gran Turismo was actually one of two racing games that stood out to Heitkotter in the mid-90s — the other being Papyrus' Grand Prix Legends for the PC — but the way it adhered to a code of uncompromised realism almost immediately impressed the aspiring driver.

Heitkotter first learned of the game through his friends. A group of three brothers with whom he used to play N64 classic GoldenEye 007 after school first introduced him to Gran Turismo (GT) one summer evening. Together, they pulled an all-nighter, becoming enraptured by how, to use Heitkotter's words, "its car behavior was above and beyond anything else on consoles at the time." They learned about cars they could only dream of driving, engaged in wheel-to-wheel multiplayer battles and watched replays of their efforts, until Heitkotter knew he had to get a copy for himself. The rest is history; Heitkotter has bought and heavily played each installment in Sony's breadwinning racer ever since.

Gran Turismo's famed blending of accessibility, panache and realism arrived at just the right time for the young Californian. His itch for all things racing had only amplified as he got older, and simple racing games just weren't going to satiate him any longer.

Enter GT, a series that has, perhaps to a fault, always aspired to be more of a "racing simulator" than a "racing game." This has made it popular with gearheads in particular, spawning the kind of affectionate community that turns a video game into a small-scale lifestyle choice. But Gran Turismo (and future simulators like iRacing and rFactor) couldn't satisfy Heitkotter's racing desires alone. About a year after his first contact with GT, he started participating in autocross competitions with his local chapter of the Sports Car Club of America, getting his first opportunity to develop physical car skills alongside his virtual ones.

Britcar

"It's very grassroots," Heitkotter explains, "taking your street car to a parking-lot course lined with cones and running mostly in second gear. But it was a great way to apply car control in the real world at those speeds. I became addicted to it, not only for the fun of it, but because of the community as well."

Autocross isn't "racing" in the traditional sense — nobody goes wheel-to-wheel, it's skills-based and competitions are almost always held at a safe, relatively slow pace. But it's something. Plus, it let Heitkotter finally take control of an automobile that wasn't being generated by a graphics card.

Heitkotter was good at this. Over the next 12 years, he continued to hone his virtual and real road talents, winning various autocross competitions and even taking home a national championship for his stock in the SCCA's Solo division in 2010. He was getting more comfortable in the car, and his hand-eye coordination was probably something beyond that of mere mortals. His desire had borne real talent. He could drive.

The problem with all of this was that he couldn't stay 18 forever. And autocross, fun and fruitful as it may have been, didn't bring home the bacon. "I didn't realize until I was older that it took a lot of money and karting experience from a young age to make it in racing the traditional way," he says. "I felt like I had missed my calling. Autocrossing was great fun, but it would only ever be a hobby."

Heitkotter's heart was and always had been in driving, yes, but his life wasn't quite as romantic. And soon after that nifty national championship win, Heitkotter was laid off from his job of a year and a half as an auto parts delivery driver (what else could he be?). He may have been able to avoid the layoff, but Heitkotter actually admits to turning down promotions just because he liked driving all day.

Suddenly, Heitkotter had some soul searching to do. He was now a guy in his early 30s; not ugly, but not a stud either, with no job, no family, a bunch of trophies from a sport most people in America haven't heard of and a set of a Gran Turismo skills that didn't mean much outside of his living room.

"Being unemployed doesn't do any favors for one's sense of self-worth," Heitkotter says.

Heitkotter had some choices to make, although there was only one that he ever had in mind. The problem had always been getting the chance to run — or drive — with it. In the spring of 2011, it arrived.

The Contest

The GT Academy had been around before Heitkotter took his stab at it. The brainchild of Nissan's Darren Cox and Sony's Mark Bowles, it's a contest based on a simple premise: take the people who drive virtual cars best in Gran Turismo, throw them into actual cars and just let them loose. If they make it, they change their lives. If they don't, they go back to being everyday people. Easy enough.

The inaugural edition took place in 2008: German Lars Schlömer and Spaniard Lucas Ordóñez went faster than 25,000 other Gran Turismo 5: Prologue (the pseudo-prequel to the complete GT5 that would appear two years later) players. In the span of a few months, two young dudes went from being a cab driver and a university student, respectively, to becoming members of Nissan's legion of professional racers. Many of the Academy's winners (Ordóñez in particular) have even gone on to be pretty damn successful. So a precedent had been set. If Heitkotter could get a shot at it, he just may be able to turn those 30 years of racing fanaticism into a full-fledged dream job. This was real life.

Before 2011, the Academy had been limited to European regions only, but its continued popularity convinced Sony, Nissan and company to bring it stateside for the first time. Once they did, they were greeted by almost 53,000 rabid GT5 players that were all registered and ready to do battle — Heitkotter included.

"I imagined myself winning it and reaching my lifelong dream but I didn't know if I was good enough," he says. "Still, I was excited about the opportunity and had to give it everything I had. I knew I'd kick myself down the line if I didn't. This was the clearest path for me to go racing and the best opportunity for me to make it. It's unique in that it's an entirely skills-based competition. At no point do you have to sit down and talk finances to continue your progress in the Academy. If you're fast enough, you move on."

Finalists

Heitkotter was fast enough. Over the next few months, Sony and Polyphony Digital released a series of time trial challenges, with the quickest hanging on to virtually race another day. The tens of thousands of racers were soon whittled down to the top 512, and then to 128, and then 64 and finally the last 32. Then the finalists were flown out to Walt Disney World in Orlando to get cut in half once more. Heitkotter had just barely made it to Orlando, only getting by on a frantic lap in the final hour of eligibility, but his spot was secure. It turns out that getting laid off was probably the best thing to ever happen to Heitkotter. Occasional existential crises aside, not having a job gave him invaluable amounts of free time, which he used to prepare himself mentally and physically for the conquests that were to come.

In Orlando, Heitkotter and the rest of his fellow GT5 phenoms had to deal with the added pressure of TV cameras filming their every move. See, the GT Academy isn't just a big happy favor from Sony and Nissan; it's a reality TV show, too. So when Heitkotter won the Disney time trials and was crowned the fastest online GT5 racer in America, his work wasn't quite finished. Once the final round of the online portion of the competition was complete, Heitkotter and his 15 closest competitors were shipped out to the iconic Silverstone Circuit in England for a week of mentoring, challenges and television.

The TV show itself is standard fare. It follows the "three stern judges" format first made popular by shows like American Idol, and pulls out many of the typical "nerds meeting the real world" tropes that have come to be expected from mainstream TV. It throws the "gamers," as they're called, into a variety of gimmicky physical challenges and never misses an opportunity to have them pimp some Nissan or Sony product. Racing, as Heitkotter freely acknowledges, is a very money-driven sport, so good luck to anyone who wants to watch any of these episodes without seeing a Nissan or Sony logo plastered on screen. It's not terrible, but it's still reality.

But behind all that, the GT Academy was still a place focused on taking the massive GT5-bred potential within each of these racers and molding it into a skill set that could be used in competitive circuits one day. It was more than helpful to Heitkotter. "The week at Silverstone was full-throttle intense," he recalls. "We contestants were given so much advice and instruction that it wasn't easy to take it all in and retain everything during the week. As always in a learning experience, some things stick with you better than others."

Heitkotter flew under the radar for the majority of the show, struggling in challenges that emphasized physical fitness (footraces, obstacle courses, etc.) but holding his own when it came to actually driving the car. He was older and quieter than his peers, so he didn't get much air time until the final few episodes. Determination doesn't always make for drama, after all.

The funny thing in all of this was that, despite finishing first in the online qualifiers, and despite being a national autocross champion, and despite being an absolute car freak for the entirety of his life, Heitkotter genuinely didn't think he was going to win.

He explains: "My goal was to perform at my personal best and get as far as I could, and then use that exposure from the TV show to leverage some kind of racing opportunity back home. It wasn't until the second to last day of Silverstone week that it dawned on me I might actually have a shot to win the whole thing. They had announced qualifying positions for the final race and I had set the fastest time. I had a rare moment to myself and that's when it hit me that I had a very real chance to change my life."

And that's exactly what he did. The competition came down to a four-man, winner-takes-all race in the series' final episode. After falling behind in the penultimate lap, Heitkotter kept his cool, fought his way back and gave himself a new future. Not bad for a guy who had never raced in a single wheel-to-wheel event before the week of the TV show.

"Winning GT Academy was the realization of a dream, and the happiest moment of my life so far," Heitkotter says. "It was a gigantic release from the pressure of the week and the months leading up to it. And it was the start of a new journey for me." He could finally be what he always wanted to be.

He also had more work to do.

Exclusive look at the next episode of Human Angle, only for IE 10 users.

The Pros

After winning the Academy, Heitkotter was whisked right back to Silverstone to start Nissan's six-month "Driver Development Program." Alongside 2011's European GT Academy champ, Jann Mardenborough, Heitkotter was put on an accelerated training regimen that consisted of physical fitness sessions, practice laps in Silverstone's iZone professional simulator, mental training with a sports psychologist and lots and lots of on-track practice with driving coaches.

Sony and Nissan were molding Heitkotter into a professional and preparing him for what was to come. He was like Gran Turismo's Six Million Dollar Man.

Racinggear

And he was also, finally, racing. After various small-scale races across the United Kingdom, Heitkotter's training culminated with his participation in the 24 Hours of Dubai endurance race. There, Heitkotter drove as part of the first ever "all-gamer" team alongside his fellow Academy winners, finishing third in his class and thereby earning a podium finish. It was the first endurance race of Heitkotter's career — and his validation as a pro.

In 2012, Heitkotter returned home, participated in a few guest races here and there and joined the Doran Racing team on a limited schedule, driving a Nissan NISMO 370Z in the Grand Am Continental Sports Car Challenge series. In four total races, he qualified for three front rows, including two poles, and finished in the top ten in all three of those events. There were some expected struggles — an early crash here, a bad pit stop there — but just about every time, Heitkotter and his team would quietly persevere and battle back for a respectable result.

The finale of these races was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, perhaps the most prestigious course in the U.S. There, Heitkotter set a qualifying record for his class, earned the pole position for the event and finished in the top ten after he and his co-driver BJ Zacharias dealt with an early spin and intense rain delays.

Heitkotter admits that these races may not have had the most ideal results, but they were more than respectable for someone who got into racing the way he did. In the course of one year, this is a guy who went from being unemployed and unsure of his life's trajectory to leading the field and setting course records at Indy. And he's only just getting started.

"In 2012 I proved to myself that I can compete with seasoned professionals," he says. "From a personal standpoint, that's huge."

The Future

Heitkotter's in his first professional offseason now, and he remains coy on just what he'll be driving in 2013. Right now, he's back at home, training, thinking about the future and playing Gran Turismo 5 again.

Heitkotter's career has constantly built upon itself. A desire became a hobby became a job, hopefully becomes a career, maybe becomes a legacy. Heitkotter is still in the early stages of his dream job, and is fully aware that there is still infinite room for improvement.

Dubai

"It's all about perspective, I think," he says. "A couple years ago I would have been thrilled just to be in a race. With new opportunity comes new perspective, and suddenly things that previously seemed unattainable become possible.

"Although I've realized my dream of becoming a racing driver, it doesn't end there. My long term goal is to have a lasting career in the sport, and that doesn't come easy."

Heitkotter's career may not hold up. That's a risk he has to take; it's part of the game. He spent 30 years trying to get to this point, so it's not like he's going to turn back now.

"Being at the track is still a somewhat strange experience for me," he reports. "In one sense it feels like where I belong, and at the same time, I still find myself in disbelief that I'm actually there. Those weekends always go by so quickly and I want to come back again to do better the next time."

In many ways, Bryan Heitkotter's story is already the stuff of fairy tales. Not necessarily because it's happy and earnest and genuine — although, refreshingly, it is those things. No, it's because it's simple. He wanted something really bad, so he did everything he could to get that thing, and now he does that thing every day. He even gets paid for it. This is obsession gone right.

If nothing else, Heitkotter's journey shows that everything counts in some way. The catchphrases say that he's the first American to go from "virtual" to "reality" in the racing world, and that is true to an extent. But only to an extent. The skills and love and feelings borne from those games were entirely necessary for where his life is now. They mattered.

"I'm sure many people have heard the phrase 'video games won't get you anywhere in real life,'" Heitkotter says. "Maybe that's not always true anymore. In 2011, I earned the honor of being the fastest GT5 player in the United States, and that set me up for the opportunity to start an exciting new career. In fact, I think in the future we will see more pro drivers come from a racing game background. GT Academy legitimized and publicized the concept, and racing games will become even more realistic in the future." But if Heitkotter's existence is any indication, those virtual worlds have already gotten people somewhere in real life. In fact, the two may not have been all that separated in the first place. Babykayak





Design: Warren Schultheis
Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors, Pat McGowan
Music: Robot Science

Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone, Charlie Hall

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