V8 Supercars star and Motorsport.com columnist Rick Kelly is in England getting ready for the Nissan GT Academy Race Camp.
I’m mailing in this week’s column from abroad, as I’ve jumped on a big jet plane to head to the UK to take in a very special motorsport talent search competition.
The GT Academy is a project that I personally find very exciting, largely because my brother Todd and I both came through a driver development programme to get our start in motorsport.
Because of that, these days we love nothing more than helping new drivers get a leg-up in the industry.
Since we started our own team in 2009, one of our priorities has always been to give new talent a chance to break through. And to an extent we have achieved that.
Outside of running cars in the V8 Development Series, we had our own TV show, the Shannons Supercar Showdown, which ran for a couple of seasons and proved to be quite successful.
We gave some young guys a shot to race in the Bathurst 1000, which is just about the biggest prize you could give to a young driver in Australian motorsport… as the event is pretty much a closed shop these days.
However, it was always very hard to have a succession plan for the winning driver. Once the weekend is done and dusted, what’s next?
Fortunately both Cameron Waters and Jesse Dixon have gone on to excel now in the Development Series in their own right.
Having a guaranteed plan is what is so exciting about GT Academy.
Experience of a lifetime
Scouting from the computer gamer talent pool is very different and innovative, so to take our Australian finalists over to Silverstone in the UK is an unreal experience.
If you win the whole competition, you’re guaranteed to receive a driving contract to become a Nissan athlete, which is, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing you could ever hope for.
It’s mega to see a manufacturer such as Nissan step up and support emerging talent, and actually pave the way to become a professional driver on the world stage.
We’ve seen the success of the programme over the years since Lucas Ordóñez won in 2008. He’s still out there racing for Nissan in Japanese GT500, Formula 3, GT3 and LMP1, so it’s very much a proven project.
The competition is only starting
The race camp over in the UK is an amazing opportunity. The six young Australian guys we are taking this year have earned the opportunity; they’ve made their way through the online and live qualifications and the Top 20 final at Movie World on the Gold Coast.
The Australian final was across four different disciplines – the Gran Turismo computer game, a physical challenge, meeting the media (something Motorsport.com helped us with), and a real life driving challenge in Nissan 370Zs.
The best six from those four activities are now joining me in Silverstone.
Some of these guys have never been overseas before, so it’s going to be a life-changing experience.
Again, there are a lot of different driving disciplines, and we eliminate one contestant every day from each country until we get to one representative in the big finale on track at Silverstone.
The winner from that event will receive the million dollar prize of a Nissan Driver Development Programme contract, so there is plenty on the line.
Comment from the Super Coach
For me personally, I’ll be back for my second crack as the mentor to the Australian team, which I hope is going to assist in leading us to the best result we can possibly get.
It’s such a big unknown as to how we will compare to the competition; last year we were up against some countries that haven’t got as strong a motorsport culture as we have here in Australia.
This year we will be going up against a host of new countries, like the USA, Turkey, North Africa and reigning champions Mexico, so it’s going to be pretty tough.
Certainly last year, Australia’s six were the star performers in the majority of activities.
We won the fitness tasks, and most of the other activities every day, but it was just a mishap with our final two competitors which forced us to start at the back of the grid for the final race.
Josh Muggleton, the Australian winner, went from last all the way through to a close second, but finishing runner up in that race meant that he finished second in the whole competition.
This year we want to go that one step better, and give an Australian the chance to become a Nissan athlete on a global scale.
I haven’t spent a lot of time with the Australian winners, other than at the finals, but I will have the chance to have a good chat to them and help prepare them ahead of race camp.
Last year, however, I didn’t get that chance. I only met the contestants when they already arrived in the UK.
This year we have prepared ourselves a bit better, and for me, last year was a good learning experience. I went into it with my eyes wide open.
This year I know what it’s all about, and we go into it wanting to win it. Hopefully that experience will make a difference.