By on June 14, 2011

This past weekend, a young man named Lucas Ordonez finished in second place in the reasonably-well-contested LMP2 class at LeMans. The video-gaming world has taken notice, because Mr. Ordonez entered racing as the winner of the PlayStation GT Academy a few years ago.

This proves the truth of what every basement-dwelling, sunlight-allergic gamer geek has been saying for years: being fast in a racing video game makes you fast in real racing. After all, if a kid from nowhere can step from his couch into a racing program and fulfill the lifetime dream of nearly every sports-car racer in the world, surely “Gran Turismo” is a genuine, realistic training tool, right?

Naturally, the truth of the matter is not so simple.

Three years ago, Lucas Ordonez won the “Playstation GT Academy” final shootout, which took place using real cars on a real racetrack. Following that win, according to the Daily Mail:

The last three months of 2008 saw Lucas on an intensive driver training program so he could qualify for an international racing license. He got the license faster than anyone had before, then joined former Le Mans and Grand Prix winner Johnny Herbert in a Nissan/Playstation Academy Nissan 350Z in the Dubai 24 hour race.

It’s a belief of mine that racers are trained, not born. Courage and hand-eye coordination may be the gifts of nature and nurture, but everything else is the simple result of effort and application. A three-month course with professional coaches could turn almost anyone into a racer. To put this into perspective, the average SCCA racing license school is two days long.

But what about the claim made by many modern racing coaches — that without proper training in one’s youth, it is impossible to drive at the top levels? Some coaches say that unless a driver has significant karting experience by the age of ten, it’s literallly too late.

Ordonez, who comes from a racing family and was a keen go-karter in his early years before being forced to give up through lack of finances to focus on his studies

Oops. Turns out the couch-potato kid video-gaming his way to victory has a bit of a pedigree.

A spectacular first-up effort prompted Nissan to sign Ordoñez to a full program in the 2009 GT4 European Cup which saw him finish the series in second place with two wins and six podiums – by this stage he was racing at the forefront of an international series less than 12 months after full time studies.

Note for those of you who are unfamiliar with racing: “sign” usually means “accept a check from”. In this case, Mr. Ordonez has run the Sony livery for a few years now. It’s also not uncommon for “funded” drivers to go from sideline to major series very quickly; I know a fellow who went from trackdays to Grand-Am podiums in under a year thanks to a seven-figure source of personal income and plenty of disposable time to train. Still, having funding only puts you on track. When the green flag flies, it’s up to the driver, and Lucas has delivered every time.

At LeMans, he was also lucky enough to have a co-driver who was a full second faster than any other driver/car combination during his stints. Good codrivers and a solid team make it possible to overcome diffiiculties. The final result: second place, worldwide glory, and a starring role in Sony’s Cinderella story. One headline, “Sofa So Good For Gamer Turned Racer,” pretty much sums up the way the media is reporting it, perhaps because “Karting Champion Succeeds at Auto Racing With Substantial Cash Backing” was already used to describe Michael Schumacher’s career.

TTACers who want to try their own hand at replacing Mr. Ordonez should get in line for the next GT Academy. I’d try it myself, and I am going to save up for a new PS3 at some point, but I’ll be too busy working on “Guitar Hero”, hoping that John Mayall is watching the results and thinking about plucking me from obscurity to follow in the footsteps of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Walter Trout and others as a “Bluesbreaker”.

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22 Comments on “LeMans: So Easy, A Video Game Racer Can Do It...”

  • avatar

    I forgot which F1 principle said it, to quote “basically the best asset an aspiring race car driver can have is a ridiculously rich dad”.

  • avatar

    “I am going to save up for a new PS3 at some point”

    Says a man who has owned TWO Phaetons? PS3s are $299 now, far less than the cost of a Phaeton trunk hinge. Priorities!

  • avatar

    Forza Motorsports is better anyway.

  • avatar

    Professional drivers do use video games, mostly to help commit a track layout to memory and build some instincts about it.

    PS: (no pun intended) aren’t all women pay to play?

  • avatar
    Alex French

    I’m glad you had a point, because that was a very bitter start.

  • avatar

    This guy karted till he was sixteen. He was already racing.

  • avatar
    M 1

    I’m reminded of another video-game-to-real-life story I read awhile back when a bunch of gamer geeks with ultra-high rankings in Rainbow Six or Modern Warfare or something similar took up paintball guns against some actual Marines — and had their asses thoroughly handed to them.

    Apparently racing is easier than Marine-ing. Yes, I just wrote “Marine-ing.”

    For whatever it’s worth, Forza 3’s representations of Sebring and Road Atlanta are pretty amazing. Where there is overlap between the ten tracks I’ve driven and the bazillions represented in all the console and PC racing games I’ve owned, those two in particular “feel real” to me… Sebring has a few hiccups, but Road Atlanta is flawless, and I’ve driven both of those more than anywhere else regularly for the past ten years.

    But it’s easy to see how even a flawed representation can be a very useful learning tool, and probably at least half of the weekend-warrior racers I know do occasionally play racing games.

    Heck, I remember Derek Bell in “In-Car 956” commenting that the ‘Ring is just too large for anyone to remember. But everyone I know has little trouble identifying every turn and hill, because track time in couch-potato-mode lets you drive it over and over for hours on end with no fuel or tire costs, no toll ticket, no risk or danger, etc …

  • avatar

    M 1 writes: “I’m reminded of another video-game-to-real-life story I read awhile back when a bunch of gamer geeks with ultra-high rankings in Rainbow Six or Modern Warfare or something similar took up paintball guns against some actual Marines — and had their asses thoroughly handed to them.”

    Not surprised. I have no idea why people even remotely think that a simulation on a TV screen is anywhere near real life. If these folks really want the first person shooter experience, I’m sure the Marines could find them something to do in Afghanistan or Iraq. Let’s see how they line up with real insurgents who really, really want to kill them…

    And, I too have heard the same b*llshit about racing simulators, and there is no way that they’re even remotely close to the real thing. I can possibly see the value in them for learning a track’s layout and stuff like braking points or other visual references. But, even a local Saturday night dirt track racer would have these gamers wetting their pants after the first competition lap.

    end rant

    • 0 avatar

      Back in a previous life, I wrote the engine control SW for the Indy cars (late 80s, started using EFI in 88/89, first Indy500 win in89 with Emmo…) and got to know the teams & drivers well (spend winters testing with them).

      A couple drivers were using the PC based SW games (simulators) even then to get familiar with the track. It was funny to see them sitting in the truck or garage with notebook on their lap.

      One of the drivers that was NOT using it was AJ… but that is a different story!

  • avatar

    Jack, you recently contended that some of the best wheelmen in the world are decorated stock-class autocrossers. You may have to buy a little more stock in Sony’s dream machine if the next guy does well.

    Bryan Heitkotter from California just dominated the United States GT Academy, and is a genuine Cinderella case.

    Before GT Academy, he was laid off as parts trucker delivery driver, and his first “race” was a local autocross in his parents’ Camry as a teen about a decade ago. The first time he showed up at SCCA Solo Nationals was when he drove his own non-turbo MR2 all the way to Kansas in 2006 and won E-Stock, a well-subscribed class. He’s been back twice, winning B-Stock in a borrowed RX-8 in 2009, then C-Stock in a borrowed MX-5 last September. Again, two big, fierce classes that are bug lights for hot shoe drivers.

    I don’t know if hard-coded DNA talent exists, but money didn’t buy Bryan anything. Sony took him to Europe a few weeks ago, but he couldn’t even stay to watch Le Mans (perhaps his future “office?”) last weekend because didn’t have the scratch in pocket. I do know that Bryan is unfairly, unworldly fast with anything on wheels, virtual or real. Sony gave him a real “being a somebody” chance that wouldn’t have existed without homebrew video game setups.

  • avatar

    DDR for life, dawg.

  • avatar

    But how much different is buying a ride from being born into one?

    While driving and guitar playing may be more about technique and practice than innate talent, the simple truth is that some folks are members of the lucky sperm club. My friend Vitally is a fine flutist. Both of his parents graduated from the then Leningrad Conservatory and have performed in concert (they’re both pianists and I once had the pleasure of watching/hearing them do some four handed pieces).

    If your last name is Andretti, Earnhardt, Rahal, Hill, etc. you’re born with access to equipment and training that regular folks usually have to pay some dues to get. Even someone like Brad Kesolowski is something like a third generation racer – his family’s raced at a top level in regional racing for a while.

    Life isn’t fair. It’s not a question of what hand you’re dealt but rather how well you play it.

  • avatar

    (They say on Fark that nothing is too obscure for the web, so here goes.)

    I heard his daddy invented the six second shut off valve on toilets.

  • avatar
    Jonathan Gitlin

    OK, it’s not Le Mans, but I wanted to find out the same thing for Ars Technica:

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    The US Army puts aspiring tank drivers into video sim first, before they’re allowed to touch a multi-million dollar Abrams.

    The US Navy, Marines and Air Force also put aspiring aviators and pilots in video simulators for many hundreds of hours before they get to touch the stick for real.

    Every astronaut in NASA since the early 70s has spent the majority of their flight training in sim.

    Why? Cuz it works. It’s affordable. Mistakes only cost pixels. It’s easily repeatable. Observable.

    Today’s driving games are extremely accurate…maybe even as good as what the military demands of their flight simulator suppliers. It stands to reason that if you run Twin Ring Motegi for hundreds of hours in your virtual Indy car, that you might get good enough eventually to try the real thing…like, for realz.

    And yes, Jack, racing, like all sports, can be taught. But talent cannot come from instruction. Yes, you can teach someone with reasonably good coordination to be a passable race driver. But you cannot make him/her a great driver unless they have “it.” The feel, the instinct, the split-second decision-making ability, the inate coolness under physical and threat-of-death stress.

    I don’t have “it.” Love to have “it”, but I don’t, which makes me appreciate “it” even more in others who do.

  • avatar

    huh, what a suprise. i figured this would be another thread were Jack baruth belittles the talents of someone much more accomplished and successful than him.

    BTW my best friend is in corporate travel and he attended LeMans this year with some GM execs, he is bringing me back a cool audi jersey and some flying lizard swag.

  • avatar

    Paul Newman had never even considered racing until he was 45.

  • avatar

    The story goes that Dale Earhardt told Junior that if you either had it or not, and if you do, nobody could take it away. Considering there are only 43 drivers that make the race vs thousands that want to, I believe ol Dale was right.

  • avatar

    GT might not be perfect… but man its fun. Learning the track, braking points and just how fast you can take each corner in an effort shave seconds finds me up to the wee hours of the morning sometimes sawing away at my virtual wheel. I’d like to think its made me a better driver, but for sure its made me realize just how hard it is. Watching the F1 race in Monaco (a car & course combo available in GT5) leave me in awe. Those guys hit there marks perfectly every lap, leaving only inches to spare… its amazing.

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