2011 will forever remain as a key moment in time within the GT Academy history as it was the first moment it landed on US soil. Over 53,000 aspiring racecar drivers competed in the GT Academy online time trails in Gran Turismo 5. Thirty-two of the nation’s best players moved onto the National Finals in Orlando, with 16 of the fastest racers moving onto the final at the Silverstone Race Circuit in England. The grand prize? A shot at becoming a professional racecar driver! At the time, everyone thought the concept was crazy – It was just not possible to turn a gamer into a professional racecar driver.
Little did anyone know at the time – 2011 was just the beginning.
The legendary Silverstone Race Circuit was completely foreign to our top 16 competitors from the US – Very few of them had any knowledge of the circuit layout of the track, or even the F1 history or what the hallowed ground carried. Even more so, the competitors had no idea the type of mental and physical challenges they were going to be put through.
To ensure the best driver was crowned winner at the end of the season, the esteemed line-up of Judges were on-site guiding and critiquing their every move.
The week long competition started with all drivers placed in a go-kart, where judges were able to gauge a baseline on their ability to learn, build consistency, and grow as a driver. The start of day 2 was where things got interesting as all drivers were placed in a mini-triathlon. 16 would start, but only 5 would actually get into a 370Z to cross the finish line. Competition really started to heat up after the first round of cuts, where 3 drivers went home and drivers found out that no one could be too confident as no one was safe from elimination.
As D-day drew closer, each driver was placed through various series of real motorsport challenges including top lap time with an open-wheel race cars, lane changing challenges with electric Nissan Leafs, car control in rally form through a special prepped 370Z. Finally, each of the surviving drivers got their chance to push their upper limits of a 530HP Nissan GT-R.
Finally, after a week of victories and crushing eliminations, the final four drivers emerged for final battle in a winner takes all race to become the first American GT Academy Champion. The final 4 drivers included:
Heitkotter took pole at the start of the race, with Johnston chasing after his bumper. Roberts made a pass on Arscott early onto lap 2, and the 3 front cars battled for 1st. On the 3rd lap, Heitkotter made a crucial mistake and Johnston took full advantage by taking the lead. However due to a mis-shift by Johnston, Heitkotter re-took the lead with Arscott sneaking through to 2nd – Johnston fell from 1st to 3rd in half a lap.
With only a lap to go, Johnston placed everything on the line and returned the favor by passing Arscott on the outside under hard braking, only inches away from each other. Heikotter managed to build a small gap from 1st to 2nd, but Johnston was catching up quickly with .09-second gap with 2 miles of racing left.
At the end, Bryan Heitkotter finished 1st place, after beating out 53,000 online competitors and finishing among the top 16 in 2011, becoming the first US GT Academy Winner. When asked how he felt the moment he crossed the finish line, he replied, “That was the paramount moment of my entire racing experience thus far because it represented the realization of my lifelong dream of becoming a professional racecar driver.”
Upon winning the competition, Heitkotter remained in the UK and earned his international racing license and finishing on the podium for the Dubai 24HR, teaming up with fellow UK GT Academy winner, Jann Mardenborough in a race prepped 370Z.