A new crop of Nissan GT Academy winners are set for their endurance racing debuts this weekend in Dubai, including 2014 North American champion Nicholas Hammann.
The 21-year-old Elkhart Lake, Wis. native follows in the footsteps of previous GT Academy USA winners Bryan Heitkotter, Steve Doherty and Nick McMillen in Nissan’s highly successful gamer-to-racer program.
“I was joking with my parents and friends. Six months ago at this time, I was a college student going for my mechanical engineering degree. And now I’m sitting on the grid at the 24 Hours of Dubai,” Hammann told Sportscar365.
It’s been a whirlwind last few months for Hammann, who after winning the coveted North American title in September, remained in Europe to earn his competition license.
Hammann competed in 14 club races, while also taking part in an initial test with a Nissan GT-R GT3 NISMO, the same car he’s sharing with fellow GT Academy winners Ricardo Sanchez (International), Gaetan Paletou (European), Ahmed Bin Khanen (Middle East) and 2012 Germany winner Florian Strauss this weekend.
The A6-Am entry, run by longtime Nissan partner team RJN Motorsport, marks the first all-gamer lineup utilizing a FIA GT3-spec car in Dubai, after numerous years with a SP3 class Nissan 370Z.
“Getting in the car was a surreal experience,” Hammann said. “About two months ago, we got to do a test, but you forget how much fun the car is to drive when you get back in.
“So getting in it again, and just getting the braking and all that stuff down to the [suggested] time of 2:04, it was a lot of fun.”
Growing up around Road America, Hammann said he’s always had a passion for racing, but didn’t have the financial means to take it to the next step, until this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go pro racing.
“My dad and I did a lot of car stuff,” he said. “He did some racing at Road America and I did some karting. I got into a little bit of car stuff but we knew financially that we weren’t going to be able to do this.
“So when this program came along, this was my one chance of becoming a professional race car driver.
“It just shows that if you put hard work and determination in, you can achieve your dreams.”
While his 2015 program has yet to be announced, Hammann is excited at the long-term prospects of the GT Academy program, particularly with Nissan’s push to put an American driver in its new LMP1 car by 2016.
“I’m very excited about that,” he said. “When I was in the program and hearing that they are looking for an American driver, hopefully even me in a couple of years down the road.
“If I’d get a chance to test it, and having a shot, it would be a great progression. I’m looking forward to it.”
For now, the focus is on the task at hand in Dubai, as Hammann, one of only three American drivers in this year’s race, makes his first step into professional racing.
“I believe that just to get a good, solid, 24 hours of clean, no contact is going to be key to success for sure,” he said. “A podium would be phenomenal.
“It’s just unbelievable what Nissan and everyone does. It’s a cool testament to this program, GT Academy, and how it can take your virtual dreams and turn it into a reality.”