31 year old German Florian Strauss was working as a car rental manager in 2013 before he entered Nissan’s GT Academy, the groundbreaking video game competition which turns gamers into real life pro racers.
And yesterday, Strauss’ Nissan team came within 1.5 seconds of back to back victories at the Bathurst 12 Hour against some of the biggest teams in the world from Bentley, Audi, Ferrari and McLaren as well as former Formula 1 drivers, V8 Supercar drivers and LeMans winners.
But next year, we could have an Australian GT Academy graduate racing alongside Florian in Matt Simmons, the 26-year-old former postie from Brisbane.
Simmons was the first Australian to win the international competition when he beat over 700,000 people in last year’s event.
The competition was gruelling. Simmons had to prove he was the fittest through a ninja test, fastest in a series of cars including monster trucks and Nissan GT-Rs, the coolest in front of the media and that he could handle the high pressure situations that drivers have to face.
The Nissan GT Academy isn’t just some gimmick allowing gamers to try their skills in the real world. Previous winners have been hugely successful, competing in some of the toughest races around the world.
People who are just good gamers won’t cut it — winners need to have the potential to be elite athletes and good brand ambassadors.
Simmons, who had never raced a car before the competition, has just spent three months living in the UK getting intensely trained by some of the motorsport world’s greatest teachers and will now compete in this year’s Blancpain Endurance Series in Europe.
“Intense would be an understatement,” Simmons told Business Insider of the Nismo race camp.
“Every activity was all focused on motorsport, they wanted to work on every single aspect to get me to a professional level – fitness wise, mentally and racing technique.”
He progressed through better than most, taking out some low-level motorsport weekends throughout his three months in the UK and proved himself good enough for a test run in the same GT3 GT-R race car that won the Bathurst 12 Hour in 2015.
“I had my first go driving the GT3, which was worth a house, in the rain and that was utterly terrifying. There was no instructor, just Jann Mardenborough (former GT Academy winner) giving me tips when I came off.”
“The whole time I was in shock and awe of the car and how fast it was.”
Simmons is in Bathurst to be a fly on the wall and learn how an international team works. But as he and I walk behind the garages to chat, you notice how seriously the GT Academy is taken. Some of the best drivers in the world are here, and nearly all that see him recognise him.
“Walking, being around the V8 Supercar drivers who are starting to take notice of me is a complete pinch yourself moment,” Simmons says as V8 Supercar driver Shane Van Gisbergen goes flying past Pit Straight in his McLaren.
And you can see why they are taking notice.
Inaugural winner Lucas Ordonez is now a formidable force in international motorsport for Nissan, winning some of the most coveted races in the world at tracks like LeMans, Spa and Germany’s Nurburgring.
The 30-year-old is currently racing in the highest tier of Japanese motorsport in the Super GT.
GT Academy graduates are even dominating Australian motorsport, with 2012 winner Wolfgang Reip and 2013 winner Strauss combining to win last year’s Bathurst 12 hour against some of the best GT drivers in the world.
And then there’s the current poster boy for GT Academy – 23-year-old Brit Jann Mardenborough.
Since winning GT Academy in 2011, he has gone from strength to strength and currently races in GP3 and had a couple of drives in GP2, the Formula 1 feeder series. This year he competed for Nissan in their LMP1 car at LeMans, something many pro drivers spend their career aiming for.
He has even signed a contract to Red Bull’s Formula 1 development program, the same program that current F1 drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel went through.
And while Simmons would love the success the other drivers have had, for him, his focus is simply one day becoming a champion of a racing series in anything Nissan will let him get behind the wheel of.
But for now, as he waits to head over to Europe at the end of the month before his first proper race at Monza in Italy, he is more than stoked to just be able to tell people he races cars for a living.
“I still can’t believe that my day job is racing cars. I don’t have a Monday anymore, that’s the weirdest feeling.”
“I am living my dream. I’m a professional racing driver.”