Valley racer's unique road to success

FRESNO, Calif.

Action News reporter Corin Hoggard shows us how he sped up his career path by dominating a video game.

Bryan Heitkotter is living a dream. The Fresno native loves speed, and at the age of 31, it's suddenly his career.

Heitkotter always wanted to drive race cars -- even as a little kid -- but his road to the professional ranks hugged some very unusual curves. He borrowed his mother's Toyota Camry to start racing Autocross, then got his own car and won a national championship in his rookie season in 2006. But Autocross is for amateurs and even its champions don't often go pro. It was actually another of Heitkotter's passions that put him in the driver's seat, and it came as a surprise to everyone -- Heitkotter included.

Bryan Heitkotter: "I never thought that a video game would get me into professional racing. That's something that just doesn't happen."

In this case, it did happen. Heitkotter happens to be very good at racing video games, especially the Gran Turismo series. And when Sony released GT5 last year, the gaming company announced it would partner with Nissan to train the best gamers to race real cars. GT5 duplicates dozens of race tracks from around the world, and with the right equipment, it can be hard to separate the game from reality.

Corin Hoggard: "It feels a lot like driving a real car, but with a lot more speed."

Bryan Heitkotter: "The sight lines are a little bit different because in the game I use a bumper cam instead of a cockpit view. But all the radius of the corners, the elevation changes, all that is the same."

Heitkotter survived four rounds of eliminations in virtual races, earning one of 16 spots in the GT Academy. A reality show on Speed TV followed them through rigorous physical and behind-the-wheel training to transfer gaming skills to the racetrack. Heitkotter ended up in the front of the pack.

Bryan Heitkotter: "It was really kind of an overwhelming experience. I didn't know what to make if it at first. I just remember being happy the whole time."

Heitkotter got a champagne shower and a sponsorship in a professional race circuit. But friends say his quick trip from the couch to the cockpit hasn't changed him a bit.

Audrey Tan, Heitkotter's friend: "He's still incredibly humble and modest about what all he's done. Yeah, he's still Bryan."

The mild-mannered Fresno Christian graduate still lives in Fresno, and even though he drives almost 150 miles per hour at work, he's never had a speeding ticket. He says his video game skills still work in his favor: he uses simulators before driving new tracks, but there is an end to the similarities between his two worlds.

Bryan Heitkotter: "The biggest difference racing the real cars, I think, is if you make a mistake, it's not a good thing in a real car. You know, in the game, you make a mistake, who cares? You press the reset button. You try again."

With his gaming greatness, Heitkotter hit life's reset button. And so far, this new game looks like a winner.

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