Most professional athletes discover their talent as kids after stumbling onto a basketball court or football field. But unlike basketball or football, race car driving is a sport that’s pretty hard to pick up casually. It requires an intimidating amount of capital to get started, and even semi-professional drivers sometimes pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get on a team. As a result, there’s a perpetual shortage of promising new drivers emerging.
According to Wired, Nissan and Sony teamed up in 2008 to tackle the problem and came up with a creative solution: video games. They founded the GT Academy, named for the PlayStation driving game Gran Turismo, and launched a contest to recruit the best video game drivers. The premise is simple: since it is too expensive and dangerous to allow aspiring drivers onto the racetrack, hyper-realistic driving video games could act as a safe alternative.
The academy tests for a range of different skills. Not only do drivers compete within the video game, they must also go through a series physical tests and public relations challenges—it’s important to Sony and Nissan that potential drivers are equipped to deal both with the physical challenges of racing as well as challenges off the track.
Since 2008, 19 drivers have graduated from the academy. The competition is incredibly tough. This year, 300,000 people competed and only three were named winners. But for those who do make it through, the experience is life-changing. Three GT Academy graduates competed this year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest endurance car race. Bryan Heitkotter, who graduated from the GT Academy in 2011, told Wired that his transition from video game aficionado to professional driver was a dream come true, explaining that he'd always wanted to race for real but never had the funds. When asked whether he still plays video games for fun, he replied, “I don’t have time anymore.” He’s too busy racing for real.