Anybody that has known me a while can tell you I’m a bit obsessed with Gran Turismo. Ever since I received GT2 for Christmas in 1999, I’ve been an avid enthusiast of the game, only upgrading my consoles when a new version of Gran Turismo is released. Needless to say when I was invited to an event that was comprised of two of my favorite leisure activities track driving and Gran Turismo I jumped at the opportunity.
The premise was simple; invite journalists out to Streets of Willow Springs for two days of driving and gaming. Along the way we would all receive practice and instruction from professionals on-track and practice on the racing simulator. After a day of honing our skills we would be set loose in identically prepared spec Toyota Yaris hatchbacks out on the track and back indoors we would be piloting similarly modified virtual versions of the cars. The journalist with the lowest combined lap times would be determined the winner.
When we arrived at the track early in the morning of our first day I was excited to get out in a car as soon as possible. However, as with any track day, there would be a driver’s meeting first and in this case additional training for those not so acquainted with performance driving. Luckily the guys from Fast Lane Racing School were on-hand to help give some much-needed pointers. As it turned out, it was the first time most of the journalists on-hand would be driving on a racetrack so far my odds were looking pretty good.
With our briefing completed it was time to suit up and get out on track, but not before taking a ride along with the instructors. Two medium-paced laps around the track and we were off to hop into our ex-Celebrity Gran Prix of Long Beach Toyota Celicas. They put us out in the Celicas for our practice sessions to prevent premature wear on the Yaris, which was an especially good idea for my group where two out of the five contestants had never even driven a manual car before (one would eventually destroy a transmission by the end of the day).
Fortunately for me, I have driven these Celicas once before, on different tires, and I have also driven Streets several times, but in a different configuration. In what I can only presume was an effort to keep speeds down, we ran approximately half the track to start out. In my first session, I quickly realized that the brake pads were a little more aggressive than the tires were, and locked up several times going up hill into turn two. This resulted in some pretty nice flat spots that were only exaggerated under heavy cornering loads.
After our first lapping session we headed indoors to allow everyone to familiarize themselves with Gran Turismo, for me it was time to learn the limits of the Yaris in-game. Since the game allows users to thoroughly modify the cars Chris Hinojosa-Miranda from Gran Turismo was able to prepare our in-game counterparts very closely to the cars we would be driving tomorrow. The experience in game would now help two-fold for the event tomorrow, both in preparing for the game and getting a decent idea of what to expect on-track in the Yaris.
With the gaming portion completed the next portion of our Race School included two activities on the skid pad, both in the dry and wet. For the dry exercise we went out with the instructors and drove around a constant-radius circle while they explained how to find the limit and throttle-steer the cars. In the wet, we were asked to do e-brake initiated 180s as well as reverse 180s commonly referred to as J-turns. The idea was to educate everyone on how to control the car in over-the-limit situations and everyone in my group went through with no major incidents.
After experiencing the sensation of finding the limit and exceeding it we were set loose again on the track, but this time we were running a slightly longer, but still incomplete, configuration. In my first session on the new track instructor Raul Moreno hopped into the car and pointed out a few of my mistakes and drilled the turn-in points into my mind. He also pointed out that I have a habit of leaving my hand on the shifter too long, which I need to shake. As the day went on my line improved but my tires got much worse.
With about five minutes left in my final session and heading down the straight in the fastest section of the track, I heard a loud clunk accompanied by a symphony of smaller clunks, dings and bangs coming from the passenger side of the car. Great, the tire let go don’t panic just bring the car to a halt safely. Easing off the gas and slowly applying the brakes I gently and safely deposited the car on the shoulder of turn two and waited for the session to be checkered. When the safety truck arrived they confirmed my suspicion and I limped the car back into the pits.
After the practice day was over I was feeling pretty good about my performance. I knew Peter Tarach, from Modified magazine, would likely be faster than me on-track but I had over two seconds advantage on the field in Gran Turismo. Things were starting to look pretty good and I was really excited to get out in the Yaris’ to sort them out. They lacked the power of the Celica but offered a shorter wheelbase, a lower curb weight and eliminated my main enemy of day one: tires. The Goodyear Eagle RS DOT race tires were sure to be a better match for the Carbotech XP8 pads.
During dinner the night before the competition, the event’s celebrities arrived; all members of the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) family. The patriarch of the group whose name the team goes by is, of course, Joe Gibbs. If the name sounds familiar it’s probably either because he’s won three National championships in both the NFL as the Head Coach of the Washington Redskins and in NASCAR as the owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. Accompanying him was a portion of JGR including: sons JD and Coy, Motocross Riders Davi Millsaps and Justin Brayton and young rising NASCAR talent Joey sliced bread Logano. The last three we found out would be joining our contest setting pro times to beat.
There would be many changes on race day in both virtual and reality. In the game we would be driving the same Yaris but Chris decided not only to change the course, but to use the new course maker function of GT5 to eliminate any advantages experienced players like myself might have from hours of course memorization. Out in the real world we would be driving cars that behave differently than the ones we drove yesterday and on top of that we would be navigating yet another newly extended version of the track. No pressure.
We would be given practice time in both the game and the Yari prior to the timed sessions but we were limited to only ten minutes in each. Given the nature of the spring rates, rear sway bar and shorter wheelbase, I knew the Yaris was going to rotate a lot better than the Celica and it lived up to this expectation. Under hard cornering the Yaris remains relatively neutral, but coaxing the rear end to come around is a simple matter of a pinch of lift-off. In more desperate situations, some trail braking does wonders and I soon learned that if you get the car pointed in quickly you can hammer the throttle mid-apex and the lack of power allows the car to continue rotating through the corner. In a nut shell, the Yaris was shockingly fun out there and my time in the car was over before I had even broken a sweat.
After getting out of the car it was time to acquaint myself with the new track in Gran Turismo. Chris had opted to run an Eifel Kart Track-style course that creates a very narrow circuit normally used with Karts to better suit the low power and short wheelbase of the Yaris. The track was fairly difficult with lots of complex corners of varying speeds and elevation changes that made many of them blind. I watched some other competitors lap the course before I went on to help memorize it. After the practice session, I learned that my advantage in the game was still there but I also found out that Logano wasn’t too shabby either and figured my chances of securing a victory by relying on the game probably wouldn’t work.
With practice well and truly over it was time to move onto the main competition. We would start out on the track where each journalist would be given four laps, one out lap, two hot laps and a cool down lap with only the middle two counting for times. If you were to drop a wheel off the track at any point you would be given a two-second penalty and if you went four-off or short cut the track a 20-second penalty would be added. Once our times were recorded we would head back inside where the same rules would apply to GT5, except you simply have three laps to record your best time (cool down lap isn’t required in a game). Now it was crunch time.
I was initially slated to go last of the five drivers in my run group, but due to two of them having to sit on the sidelines for the track portion, (the team figured it would be better to have a working transmission at the end of the day), so I was now set to go third. In the real world this is a good thing since this meant the car would be in better condition by the time I got in. Unfortunately, someone already went off in the practice session but aside from some dirt in the cabin the car felt much the same on my out lap. My two timed laps felt good and I didn’t make any mistakes but by the time I was thrown the checkered flag I still didn’t feel that I had found the car’s full potential.
Once out of the car I made my way to the sled to record my GT5 times and knew I’d have to push in hopes to offset my track time. I was able to clock a time only .1 second slower than my record time during practice on the first lap so I knew I could step it up from there. That’s when disaster struck, getting a little too greedy on a corner entry I was forced to over slow to make the corner and lap two was already done for. I collected the car and my concentration to better my time on the final lap. The first two-thirds of the track went well but when exiting the highest speed corner on the track (taken in 5th gear) I barely exceeded the track width on the exit and dropped two in the grass causing the car to very nearly spin at speed. My first time would have to be good enough.
When it was time for the results I was excited to see how we all stacked up. Before announcing the competitor’s scores they decided to post up the pro times to beat and in a Top Gear style format they placed magnets w/handwritten times on the board with the slowest at the bottom. Not surprisingly both Brayton and Millsaps were quick, however Logano washed them both out. Now it was time to see where the journalists fit in. As the times went up the media began approaching the Motocross times but with only two names left they still hadn’t passed them, the two remaining names being Tarach from Modified and mine.
Here was the moment of truth, who was faster combined? I knew Peter was going to have the faster track time but by how much? And would we break the combined time of a NASCAR pro? The next magnet hit the board between the Moto-duo and Logano and read TARACH with a combined time very close to Joey’s. Most impressively, Peter posted an on-track time of 1:17.54, only a half-second off Logano’s pace! The last magnet would read K-HOEFER (as my name is simply too long to fit) and it was placed just below LOGANO. My combined times tallied up to 2:52.684 just slower than Joey’s 2:52.395.
Although pleased with my positioning I was a little disappointed in my on-track time of 1:18.57, if I could have found a little more and dipped into the 1:17 bracket it would have been enough to not only defeat the Pro but also further illustrate the correlation between GT5 and real driving. Still, although this wasn’t my first day at the track, I have considerably less experience than a pro and I’ve learned most of what I know virtually. In the end, the point of the whole event was to have fun and I can’t remember a Tuesday and Wednesday I’ve ever enjoyed more. I learned more than I expected and had a blast the whole time and you can’t ask for more than that!
2010 Toyota Yaris Club Sport Challenge Racer
Power/Weight 116hp/2100lbs (estimated)
Engine 1.5L normally-aspirated 1NZ-FE VVT-I engine; K&N air intake; TRD Sport muffler
Engine Management stock
Footwork&chassis TRD Sport shocks, springs and rear swaybar
Brakes Carbotech XP-8 front brake pads
Wheels & tires 15X7" +38 Kosei K1 TS wheels; Goodyear Eagle RS DOT race tires
Exterior I/O Port tow straps; Molly Designs inspired graphics
Interior Sparco FIA race seats; NRG Innovations steering wheel w/quick-release; Simpson 5-point harnesses; Autopower window net; Emergency Suppression Systems fire system; 8-point rollcage