ORLANDO, Fla. — There’s nothing quite as whimsical and charming as entering the gates of Walt Disney World. Just the very sight of the welcome sign leaves you with a unique excitement and undeniable giddy feeling. Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida was the home to the first U.S. based GT Academy national finals. I accepted an invitation to attend the event on behalf of Blast Magazine with no idea what I should really expect of the event. George Nicholson, an avid gamer and simulation programmer, also attended the event with me. Little did I know, during our brief visit to the academy, I’d get to observe and interact with 32 grown men chasing little boy dreams.
The GT Academy events started back in 2008 in Japan, but this is the competition’s first visit to U.S. soil. 32 competitors are narrowed to 16 finalists and those finalists will proceed to Silverstone, a course in in the UK. At that point, they’ll go through very rigorous training, physical and mental conditioning to prepare them to compete in actual race cars. It’s a little like the scene in Armageddon when they’re training the unsuspecting oil rig workers to be astronauts (which is awesome, in my opinion).
The event was appropriately hosted in the PlayStation Pavilion. Upon our arrival, we were met by a warm PR rep for Sony and escorted into the Jostens Center where the event was already in motion. We made our way down the stairs and were greeted by a couple of names you may already know – the Nissan Nismo Z and the GTR. Well, hello there! We’ll go ahead and file those under “do want”.
After making our way through the makeshift entertainment hall, we found ourselves in the center of the competition circle. Eight racing stations stocked with their very own barefoot racers. I couldn’t help but notice that everyone driving in a racing station had their shoes sitting next to them. Apparently, these guys are above the law. Rules of my road say that I have to keep my feet enclosed in proper shoe attire. Pretty sure I’ll be writing my congressman about this.
The intensity in the racing circle (which I lovingly refer to as Racing Row) was incredible. Every racer was extremely focused — despite the many professional photographers, videographers and fuzzy microphone covers in their faces. That kind of focus is a highly coveted skill where I come from. I’m just sayin’. After a short stint in Racing Row, I meandered back to the lounge area gratuitously provided by Sony.
In the lounge area, there were several couches individually placed in front of their own 40” (if I had to guess) TV. These gaming stations were equipped with PS3s and the latest Sony titles, of course. Two GT Academy finalists were focused on LittleBigPlanet 2. I sat and took in the sights with Darryl from Lima, Ohio.
After we discussed the fact that neither of us could understand what was going on in this game of LittleBigPlanet 2, we talked a little about racing. Darryl works in the automotive parts industry and participated in “some drag racing” in Lima — but never anything like what the GT Academy was offering. “We’re all gearheads” was what Darryl told me. According to what he knew, almost every competitor had some kind of leg into the automotive world — be it racing, simulation racing, automotive industry workers, etc. He was the one who kindly educated me on the types of cars on display and some other aspects of the competition.
After making my way back to Racing Row again, the intensity drove me out yet again! I’m pretty sure that the guys in the black shirts that said “official” across the back that were holding clipboards had a lot to do with my discomfort. There just seemed to be too many bodies in this small area (and let the record show that I’m not claustrophobic OR afraid of hugs). So, in sneaking away, I saw in my peripheral an interview taking place with an extremely enthusiastic young competitor. That’s when I met Christopher Roberts. The charisma and excitement from this guy was incredible. You’d think he just won the Super Bowl kind of excitement.
“I’m still on cloud nine. I had goose bumps and my heart and adrenaline was pumping.” The mechanical engineering student has been playing Gran Turismo since he was eight years old. He was gifted a PS3 and GT5 from his girlfriend for Christmas which is what allowed him to practice for the GT Academy competition. Best gift ever? I think so. Between his dad’s love of cars and his mom’s competitive nature, this scene doesn’t seem inappropriate for the Champlain, New Yorker at all. He’s been racing other driving simulators for a while now (iRacing, Forza Motorsport). He also raced RC cars with his little brother. So glad this kid made the top 16. His charisma, skill and energy earn him my support — Christopher Roberts is officially my favorite.
We also had the pleasure of meeting Lucas Ordonez, the first season winner of the GT Academy competition who was presently in Florida racing in Sebring (which he eagerly informed us of placing second in the race). Another high-energy character, Lucas will soon be moving on to practice for the Le Mans 24 Hour. I have respect for anyone who puts off an MBA to pursue a career of passion as a racecar driver. Though I was excited to hear about his recent successes, a little of his personal history and his upcoming races, I really had just one question: Based on your observation, which competitors have what it takes to really race? Ordonez said he saw some fast ones this time around, but that fast wasn’t necessarily what it took. Anyone can make a fast car go fast — “what is really most important is staying calm and focused”. He points to Emerson Trimble and Jose Sebastian Cedeno. “Those two over there in the caps (referring to their hats). I think they are very good.”
Congratulations to the final 16:
1. Bryan Heitkotter (GTZf_CudaMan)
2. Christopher Roberts (Dr_3Wide_Skills)
3. Jason Miller (R1600Turbo)
4. Andre Gomes (FixByWire)
5. John Wilding (SpecMiata-JSW)
6. Christopher Morton (Z06Fun)
7. Kris Norris (Appalachian_Kris)
8. Gregory Russell (Gar529)
9. Connor Clifford (ConMan_Skills)
10. Phillip Arscott (Doctor_ILL)
11. Nick Fontana (BlindSideFive0)
12. Rich Pratt (ZeroLM)
13. Glenn McGee Howle (Glenn_McGee)
14. Steve Driscoll (Choate51)
15. Sean Johnston (GTP_TheCheef)
16. Jose Cedeno (SebaF1)
Blast correspondent George Nicholson contributed to this report