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GT Academy 2012 - A Retrospective Of Episode 1 and 2

Episode 1: Victory Is Anyone's
The 2012 U.S. GT Academy finals are complete, with a reality show from Nissan and Spike TV that kicked off November 1, 2012 that takes you step-by-step through the action. As the finalists now make their transition from the virtual world of Gran Turismo 5 to real-life driving, they find out that racing is more than a numbers game.

With the skills honed from the most popular driving simulator in the world, the finalists of the GT Academy are subjected to a variety of challenging tests to demonstrate their real-life driving skills. But if you think the GT Academy is only about setting lightning-fast lap times around a racetrack, you would be sadly mistaken. Imagine the look on contestants’ faces when they are asked to compete in trials that mix physical fitness with driving and even drifting (most of these guys had never gone sideways in a car). As the first two episodes reveal, victory is indeed anyone’s, but the road to top is filled with obstacles that measure pure skill, instinct, mental toughness and fighting spirit.

The GT Academy began with 400,000 online contestants competing to be one of the 32 fastest drivers on Sony PlayStation’s GT5. Those who had what it takes made it to the National Finals, held last July during Comic-Con in San Diego, California. There, the finalists faced off in state-of-the-art “sleds” equipped with GT5 on virtual tracks created for these heats. When the dust had cleared, the final 16 were chosen to pack their bags and head across the Pond to the Silverstone Circuit in England, home of the British Grand Prix Formula 1 race since 1948. Here they would compete in real-life racing tests to win a seat on Nissan’s racing team and the prestigious Red Helmet.

Perhaps even more challenging than some of the tests prepared for the contestants are the judges who would evaluate their every move. The show is hosted by former NFL star Dhani Jones, with the judges consisting of Maryeve Dufault, Kart Champion and the first Canadian-born woman to race in the NASCAR Nationwide series; Boris Said, two-time 24 Hours of Daytona winner and the only American to win the 24 Hour Nürburgring, and Danny Sullivan , a Hall of Fame race driver and winner of the 1985 Indy 500. After suiting up, the players immediately got their first taste of real-life high-performance driving. The first Benchmark Challenge put the players behind the wheel of a Nissan 370Z. The competitors with the two slowest times went home…at least they wouldn’t have to deal with jet lag.

Next up was the Quadrathlon, designed to measure the physical endurance and driving skills of the remaining 14 players. In this trial, they were required to run, bicycle and drive. Those in very bad physical shape…and there were a few…were weeded out along the way, not even making it to the driving part of the trial, which featured a race to the finish in single-seat formula cars and 370Zs. Lucky for them, this was not an elimination round, although their performance, or lack thereof, would reflect badly in the judges’ eyes.

Next, the drivers were introduced to Chris Forseberg, 2009 Formula Drift Champion (cool!) who greeted them in a 370Z drift they would have to emulate in a challenging figure-8 course. They were judged by speed, style and car control (not so cool as many had never gone sideways in a real car before).

Day One ended with the judges voting off another four players. With only ten contestants remaining, no one except the judges knew what to expect the following day.

Episode 2: The Need For Speed
The second day of the Academy began on a dreary day with the contestants being evaluated on their off-road capability. The remaining ten men saddled up in the Nissan Frontier Pro-4X Truck, and negotiated a muddy off-road course that was changing by the minute due to the rainy weather conditions. It was evident that those who had played off-road courses in GT5 had the upper hand, as each contestant slid through the slippery mud. Guest judge Carl Renezeder, one of America’s top off-road racers, assisted in judging their performances.

After each had a stint in the Frontier race trucks, they were confronted with perhaps the biggest surprise of the Academy so far: they would ride shotgun in a Bull Dog stunt airplane, as the judges evaluated how they handled extreme g-forces. Some were pumped about the opportunity to take flight, but for those who weren’t comfortable in airplanes, even in giant commercial jets, it would be a day of extreme misery. To their fortune, this challenge wasn’t judged—although the judges did appear to experience a hidden pleasure watching some of the contestants squirm in the airplane as it went upside-down or performed a free-fall from thousands of feet up.

From the sky back to the ground, the players now faced a challenge that mimicked real-life racing. They would have three laps to pass three Nissan GT-Rs, piloted by professional drivers, after starting in a similar car from the back of the pack. In a scene right out of a GT5 cup race, the action was fast-paced as some players passed all three GT-Rs, with one contestant causing one instructor to go off the track. One player said it best: “Doing the passing challenges on Gran Turismo 5 definitely helped out.”

As the sun went down, the action was just starting to heat up: The final challenge of the day tested on the players performed in night driving. In almost all forms of endurance racing, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the 24 Hours of Daytona, driving at night is a necessity, and the judges pulled no punches when evaluating their ability to negotiate Silverstone in the dark. Because of a nighttime noise restriction, the contestants drove the Nissan Leaf EV. An instructor chased the contestants in another Leaf, flashing its headlights and trying to distract the drivers as they made their way through each corner in nearly complete darkness. And to add a bit more drama, smoke was added to reduce their already limited vision. When the challenge was over, one more driver was sent home. At the end of Day Two, nine former gamers, with dreams of becoming a professional race driver, were left, not knowing what sort of challenges awaited them the following day.

For more info, visit Spike.com for full episodes and GT Academy Pit Pass for exclusive behind the scenes content captured during GT Academy Race Camp