It’s a big step up from driving a beaten-up Toyota courier van for Australia Post to potentially getting a start in some of the best-known racing series on earth, but that was all part of the plan for Nissan Playstation GT Academy winner, Matt Simmons.
For the unaware, the Nissan Playstation GT Academy is a competition aimed at turning armchair racers in to actual race-car drivers. It’s a joint project between Japanese car maker Nissan, Sony’s Playstation gaming division and the well-known racing game, Gran Turismo.
The 26-year-old was the first Australian to take out the title, beating other drivers from the United States, Turkey, North Africa and Mexico after an intense race camp at the Silverstone circuit in the UK.
Simmons told CarAdvice that he took on the job of Australia Post courier to free up his afternoons to practice on the Playstation, such was his desire to win the GT Academy competition.
He made the cut in 2014, but didn’t quite make the finals. But Simmons said his passion is cars ahead of Playstation itself.
“I’ve always been in to racing,” he said. “I can’t play shooting games to save my life!”
The former Hyundai service advisor said he preferred vehicles that were more specialised in speed, rather than moving boxes.
“I was driving a courier van around Brisbane,” he said. “It’s an old-school Toyota, we called it the bean, because it looked like a massive bean. It was old and ratty, and my boss was going to get me a new van – but because he knew how serious I was getting with GT Academy, he knew the prospects of me working for him were done if I won.”
Had he not made the cut, Simmons’ boss was going to buy him a new work van. So it was win-win either way, really.
Cars are indeed a bit part of this professional gamer’s life. His first car was – appropriately enough – a Nissan Skyline R33 GTS-t. That car was known as a bit of a dud, but he soon switched to a ‘proper’ Skyline, an R33 GT-R.
But his home racing ‘rig’ is where he spent more time in preparing for the competition.
“Definitely I chucked 110 per cent in to it. I was literally coming home broke. I think that was the only way I could make sure, was by winning.
“You have to give everything. I put my whole life in to it – that’s literally what I did, I was going to come home and rebuild again [if I didn’t win].
Simmons said he was going to use the experience to give himself a base to work from so he could get a start in some form of Australian motor racing had he not won.
Indeed, he said gaming offers a great way to scout potential stars.
“I am an example of that, because I didn’t have that financial upbringing where I could go and do go-karting as much as I wanted to. That’s everyone’s dream is to start there and work up, but I didn’t have the money to do it – as much as my family wanted to help me out, they couldn’t.
“I was only very much for GT Academy. I was Gran Turismo fan, and I was always good at racing games. I got serious before the 2014 series competition, got a full rig and set-up.
Simmons said he converted from a controller to a wheel two months before the 2014 competition, and then qualified easily. Some gamers struggle to do that.
Simmons used online competitions to help prepare, pitting himself against his peers to hone his skills.
“I’m a part of a racing league online, and four of the best got through to GT Academy this year. It’s called Race On Oz.”
So, work from before sunrise until midday and then video games all afternoon and evening. Sounds like serious girlfriend material right?
Simmons said his partner had been a big supporter of his through the competition.
“She kind of knew a little bit about GT Academy, but much like everyone didn’t realise how big it really is and what it can do to change your life.
“But she quickly realised how much it was my dream and I wanted to put everything in to it.
“She’s excited about what’s happening now, she can’t believe what’s going on,” he said.
And there’s a lot going on. Simmons will soon leave to live in the UK to take part in the Nismo driver development program. There he will attempt to get his international race licence, and if all goes well, he’ll be a professional racing driver for Nissan – which the company calls a ‘Nismo Athlete’.
Early next year he will have the chance to compete at the 2016 Dubai 24 Hours in a Nissan GT-R Nismo GT3.
Simmons indicated that the fact he is younger and doesn’t have kids or a mortgage to worry about allowed him to pursue his goals more aggressively.
“All of the current graduates, they have a succession plan for them. They’ll move up to one point and there will be seats available for me to move in to. That’s the beauty of the program, it seems to be expanding,” he said.
“There’s a lot of opportunities that I’ll get that people don’t get who have been in racing for years, so I’m very fortunate.”
The fact it’s a paid gig that allows him to put a different kind of ‘professional driver’ on his resume is just a bonus, according to Simmons.