At the very beginning of the pandemic, it seemed the only activities we had at our disposal were driving, taking long walks and watching the Tiger King on Netflix. Personally, I turned that free time into gaming hours where I logged onto my dusty Playstation 4 game console for some good old Gran Turismo Sport. Little did I know I was heading straight towards a camaraderie set in stone; a bond so strong that it would lead me straight to a competitive real-life karting race.
When Youtubers Set the Pace
Ever heard of The Straight Pipes? If you haven’t, I highly suggest you visit their channel, as they’re currently the most influential Canadian automotive Youtubers on the internet, with over 1.1 million subscribers worldwide. Turns out they play Gran Turismo Sport too. As a matter of fact, at the start of the pandemic, Yuri Tereshyn, one of the show’s announcers, had created a #stayhome online race lobby in an attempt to encourage his followers to help fight the spread of the COVID-19 infectious disease. The idea was rather simple: get friends to regroup virtually behind the wheel of race-spec’d Mazda Miatas on equal terms: same horsepower, same weight settings and same tires.
“The goal was to encourage others to keep busy at home by playing video games during the first few confusing months of the pandemic. But it was mostly about having fun with friends, make new friends, and race our subscribers,” Yuri explains.
But what kicked off as just “playing video games” quickly became a weekly meeting, where other members of the auto industry joined in. Interestingly enough, the activity gained so much traction, that it caught the eye a Brand Partnerships and Motorsport Manager at Porsche Canada.
From Gaming to Serious Racing
During that same period, Daniel Ponzini was in the process of cooking up a new virtual race series at Porsche. And since he was a life long Gran Turismo player, he embraced the idea of joining automotive content creators in a virtual race.
Daniel had previously worked in the Canadian automotive landscape as a corporate Public Relations representative, and before that, he was an automotive writer and AJAC member. For him, joining the online group meant connecting on a different level and challenging colleagues in a digital race space. Above all, it was about having fun and staying connected in a COVID-friendly environment, values that directly tied in with Porsche’s intention of entering the virtual space.
Daniel’s participation in the #stayhome Gran Turismo races also gave him further assurance that the Esports race project would be a success. In May of 2020, Porsche Canada announced its plans to launch the series, which ran throughout June and July. The project was a success.
“The Porsche Esports Sprint Challenge Canada race series was a completely new initiative that saw us bring Porsche Passion to life in a digital space, but the competition was extremely real,” explains Ponzini. He carried on saying that the top 30 sim racers on iRacing in Canada challenged each other and proved their race craft throughout the series. “Our champion, Brandon Hawkin, won attendance to an authentic Porsche Track Experience, where he was able to bring driving a Porsche on track from the virtual series to reality.”
Recruiting Real Drivers
Having a Porsche employee take part in the #stayhome Gran Turismo lobby inevitably led to actual race car drivers also joining the group. Like all of us, former touring car driver and Porsche GT3 Cup Gold Class winner Sam Fellows was also looking for ways to stay busy during the pandemic’s darkest hours.
“I think everyone was missing racing and not being at the track. The guys from The Straight Pipes saw I was playing Gran Turismo Sport and invited me to the group to race. There’s some really solid drivers in our group so the races are always fun,” Fellows told Wheels.ca in an interview.
He carried on saying that racing online in a closed group allowed him to pick and choose the tracks and cars he wanted to drive. Furthermore, he claims chatting with friends along the way added more camaraderie to the experience.
Sam Fellows eventually took the position of ambassador for Porsche’s Esports series. He even took part in the race, ranking 16th out of the top 30 sim racers in Canada.
A Hint of Jaguar Land Rover
Chad Eusepi knew Yuri and Jakub from his past as public relations specialist at Mercedes-Benz Canada. Today, Chad has migrated to the Sales Specialist position at Grand Touring Automobiles in Toronto, mostly focusing on Jaguar Land Rover vehicles. For Chad, a hardcore automotive enthusiast and racing afficionado, Gran Turismo Sport was a no-brainer destination when the pandemic hit.
“It’s funny, because just after a few sessions of racing, it felt as if we’d all been friends for a while. Fast forward a few months later, and we’re all competing in a fantasy F1 league, talking on a daily basis. We started off as total strangers scattered across the crountry, yet here we are now as a knit group of friends all thanks to GT Sport.”
And Then the Arkells Joined
The pandemic really hit everyone hard, and from all possible sectors. Imagine being part of a rising Canadian rock band, touring the country and seeing your hard work finally pay off when suddenly, everything stops. That’s precisely what happened to Michael DeAngelis, guitarist for the Arkells rock band.
Michael had been racing virtually in Gran Turismo since high school. Like many of us, the game had played a large role in his interest in cars. In January of 2020, he and his band performed in front of a Mercedes-Benz ice-driving event in Gimli, Manitoba. It was his band’s last live concert, but also where he met Jakub from The Straight Pipes and myself. When we found out he was also playing GT Sport during the lockdown, we invited him to the group.
“It was great to be able to use a game like Gran Turismo to meet new people and connect over cars, especially considering how difficult that was, and still is with COVID restrictions. It’s also been awesome to race against a guy like Sam Fellows who have real racing experience. It has pushed us all to get better, I think,” said DeAngelis.
By the end of the fall season, the group, charismatically named Straight Pipes GTSport, had collected a total of 13 individuals from completely different trades. It was time to finally battle it out in real life.
Thanks to Sam Fellows’ connections at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport), we were able to organize a COVID-friendly get karting race where masks and social distancing would ensure a safe race.
I didn’t do very well in that race, ranking towards the end of the pack in 10th place. But it was the fraternal bond that had grown between us that made the experience feel that much more special. More importantly, most of the people I was racing against had been total strangers one year prior. If it hadn’t been for online sim racing, we would probably have never met each other.
As I write this, the Straight Pipes GTSport club is still very much alive and strong. Each week, we battle it out virtually in modified Miatas within a fraternal bond that’s not likely to end soon. We’re already planning the next karting race and placing bets on who’s going to win.
“Finally having the chance to race against a group of individuals I raced online for eight months was one of the best ways to close 2020. The combination of having a semi-competitive race amongst peers was a great way to learn from one another, all while improving our skills. I’m already looking forward to next year’s race,” Jeremy Jova, team member.