The reality of the competition was that to win, you had to excel at three tasks. Nicolas Hammann did, and he won, opening up incredible experiences for him across the world. He just couldn’t tell anyone.
The competition was the United States GT Academy, which UNC Charlotte Mechanical Engineering junior Hammann won in 2014. The three tasks in which he had to excel were physical fitness, driving race cars and playing video games. His victory gained him a spot on the Nissan racing team and the opportunity to race throughout world in 2015, including in front of his family and friends at his hometown track.
“I always wanted to race professionally,” Hammann said, “but didn’t really have the money I needed. In high school I found out about the GT Academy, which is based on physical fitness, driving and video gaming, and I decided to give it a shot.”
Sponsored by Nissan and PlayStation, GT Academy began in 2008 as a driver development program to turn Gran Turismo gamers and into professional racecar drivers. The competition started with contestants playing Gran Turismo online via PlayStation 3 and submitting their best times. The top qualifiers then went on to competitions in New York and England, the finals of which were broadcast as a Spike television series.
Some of the skills Hammann developed growing up were a perfect fit for the GT Academy competition. He played soccer and basketball and ran track, which gave him a strong background in physical fitness. His home is Wisconsin also helped build his gaming and driving talents.
“It’s such a long winter in Wisconsin, you have to have something to do when you can’t go outside,” Hammann said. “I started playing Gran Turismo 2 in about 1999. It’s a car racing video game where you choose the type of cars and tracks you drive on. It actually helped me with one of my other interests, which was go karting”
Hammann’s home in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, was 10 miles from the Road America racetrack. His family had always been involved with cars and racing. His grandfather started an auto repair shop in 1934 that the family still owns and where Hammann worked summers and weekends. His father had also always been involved in amateur racing.
“When I was about six, my dad and uncle bought a go kart for me and my sisters,” Hammann said. “My first season started out pretty rough, but we got a lot of help and advice from one other racer and started improving. I won my first feature race by the end of the season, and went on to win three karting championships at Road America.”
At the age of 16, Hammann began racing sports cars, and in 2010 earned his Sports Car Club of America license. He continued to race at Road America and other regional tracks.
When he heard about the GT Academy competition, Hammann thought it sounded like a good fit for his mix of skills and experience. He first entered the online portion of the competition as a high school senior in 2012, finishing 100th out of about 50,000 competitors. His freshman year at UNC Charlotte, Hammann improved to 50th out of 100,000 competitors, just short of qualifying for the national finals in New York.
Hammann came to UNC Charlotte as a Motorsports Engineering student to get the education he needed for a career in racing. “I still had the dream of being a driver,” he said, “but also realized I needed an education that would take me on the path to a career as test driver or race engineer. I chose UNC Charlotte for the hands-on opportunities the university offered through its motorsports program.”
As a college student, Hammann found he actually had a little more time to improve his gaming skills. “I was still busy with school and homework, but wasn’t playing sports or doing the racing that I did in high school. So, I had more time for playing GT. I was in the FLC in Hawthorn Hall and a lot of times when my friends went out to do something, I stayed back playing my game. I guess I was kind of a racing geek, but I had a goal in mind.”
As a sophomore Hammann succeeded in reaching his goal, qualifying in the top 32 of the online GT Academy stage out of 450,000 competitors and moving on the United States National Finals. At the New York event, competitors were judged on their online racing, driving times in real racecars on an autocross course, and on-camera interview skills.
“At nationals I was able to capitalize on my karting and sports car experience,” Hammann said. His racing skills paid off and he was chosen as one of 12 competitors to go to Silverstone Circuit in England for the finals in August of 2014, which was televised by Spike.
“The competition started about the same time classes did,” Hammann said. “I knew if I won I wouldn’t be back to school for a year, but I had to be prepared in case I didn’t win. So, I actually moved into my dorm at UNC Charlotte and then left for England. I think my roommates were pretty confused.”
The England competition included multiple events that tested the contestants “speed, strength and soul”. Things didn’t start well for Hammann, who finished last in the first driving challenge.
“I thought ‘Oh no, they’re going to kick me out after one episode,’” he said. “But in the next challenge, called the quadrathlon, we ran, drove single-seat racecars, biked and raced Nissan GT-Rs. I won that event, so that kept me alive in the competition.”
Hammann continued to do well, and one by one other competitors were eliminated. The final event came down to an eight-lap road race between Hammann and the other final three competitors. Hammann won the pole, and led from start to finish, winning the race and the GT Academy overall championship.
As champion, Hammann joined the Nissan Motorsport (NISMO) racing team for 2014-15 as a professional driver. He first had to come back to Charlotte, cancel his classes and move out of his dorm. Because of a contractual agreement with Spike, he couldn’t tell anyone he had won the event until the episodes had aired on television.
As the U.S. champion, Hammann joined other winners from France, Mexico and Saudi Arabia at the Nissan driver development program. They trained as a team at the Silverstone track.
“For two and a half months we did classroom and simulator training, driving and working out,” Hammann said. “Our coaches taught us all facets of racing such as overtaking, blocking and strategy. We also ran raced at area tracks on the weekends to get experience and earn the driving credentials we needed for the Dubai 24 Hour Race.”
The Dubai race was January 9-10, 2015. A surprise for Hammann at the race was that Nissan and GT Academy flew his parents there to watch. “My parents surprised me, which was very cool,” he said. “It was great to have them there for my first big race.”
Multiple classes raced on the five kilometer course at the same time. The GT Academy team raced a Nissan GTR GT3 in the fastest of the classes, the A6. The drivers took turns racing for the 24-hour event.
“We finished fifth overall out of 96 cars and second in the Pro-Am class,” Hammann said. “One of the team members on the winning team was actually our instructor from GT Academy. I really enjoyed the race and had such an amazing experience.”
Following Dubai, Hammann raced in Moscow, Russia, at Moscow Raceway with Mark Shulzhitskiy, a GT Academy winner from Russia in 2012. They finished third in class and 14th overall.
From there Hammann returned to the United States, where he raced at tracks including Lime Rock Park, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Virginia International Raceway, Sonoma Raceway, Mazda Raceway Laguna, Circuit of the Americas, Road Atlanta and his home track, Road America.
“I got to compete in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race at Road America, which was perhaps the biggest thrill for me. I was on my home track in front of my family and friends, and I was in the lead for the majority of my stint. Just a year before I had been in the stands watching. My teammate and I finished fourth overall.”
Hammann’s racing continued while he was back at UNC Charlotte for the fall 2015 semester. He would fly out to races on Wednesday evenings, race all weekend and then take a redeye flight back Sunday night, so he could be at his 8 a.m. class on Monday.
“I was doing my homework on planes and in airports,” Hammann said. “Everyone at school was really helpful. That was one of the reasons I had chosen UNC Charlotte to begin with, because the advisors and professors were all so positive and good to work with.”
For 2016, Hammann is on call to the GT Academy team to do whatever races they may request of him. “I may get a call telling me I need to be on a flight that afternoon,” he said, “so I’m staying in shape and I keep racing on my simulator.”
The experience of winning the competition, racing around the world, signing autographs and being part of a top race team was a bit surreal Hammann said. “Each time I get into a racecar, I think about how lucky I am to be living my childhood dream. This whole experience has shown me that dreams can come true with hard work and dedication.”
More information about Hammann, his GT Academy experience and the Spike television episodes of his winning year are here - http://www.nicolashammann.com . Also you can follow Nic’s progress by following him on Twitter @NISMO_NIC and on Facebook at Nicolas Hammann.