GT Academy 2013 North American Finalist and 24 Hours of LeMons racer Bill Fisher has no doubt about the competitiveness and true motorsports pedigree of Gran Turismo and of LeMons. As one of 12 finalists from a continental pool of nearly half a million, Fisher has demonstrated his sim racing ability to an impressive degree. On the real track, however, he and his LeMons teammates took home hardware by coming out on top of the series’ closest Class B finish in history very recently at Road America, when Fisher’s final stint sealed the win for his team.
The GT Academy television show, which airs Monday nights at 10:30 p.m. EST/9:30 CST on Spike TV starting tonight, was filmed at England’s Silverstone Circuit in late September while Fisher’s teammates campaigned their trusty Ford Festiva in a 24-hour race at MSR-Houston. Hooniverse gave Fisher a call the week before he left for England to talk about GT Academy, sim vs. real racing, Iranian Festivas, and how the 24 Hours of LeMons has shaped his racing ability.
Keep reading for the meat…
Hooniverse: What is GT Academy?
Bill Fisher: “Basically, it’s a competition that revolves around the video game Gran Turismo. They do an online qualifier with people from all around the world. It’s segmented out into different regions, so the United States, Europe, UK, and Middle East all compete. I think something like 1,500,000 people tried this year, with 450,000 in North America.
For the North American GT Academy, at least, the top 32 times set online in Gran Turismo 6 were invited to New York City to compete in the National Finals. Basically, the goal of GT Academy is to pick one winner; they’re searching for basically one driver who will ultimately drive professionally for Nissan Motorsports throughout Europe in GT3. Mostly, at least, as previous winners have done theJapanese GT500 as well. They’ve raced in Le Mans and they’ve done Formula 3. Previous winners have single-handedly gotten GT Academy racers banned from British GT3 for being too fast. They’ve run in Australian V8 Supercars also, so pretty much the goal is to find somebody who can race around the world and be a face for Nissan Motorsports.”
Hooniverse: How much practice time have you had playing Gran Turismo to prepare for this?
Bill Fisher: “I’ve been playing racing video games since I was 10 years old. Gran Turismo 4 came out about nine years ago and that’s when I really started getting into it heavy-duty. Gran Turismo 5 came out three years ago, about when I moved to Chicago, and that’s when I finally got a real high-quality setup to have a go at it seriously.
I’ve been playing Gran Turismo online with friends; we run an online league where we do endurance races and we do casual races. I don’t know how to factor it…several thousand hours of practice time. And then when GT Academy gets released—this year it was open for a month—so if you weren’t good at the game already, you didn’t have time to be as good guys who had been playing for years.”
Hooniverse: One of the big points of [GT Academy] is not necessarily proving that simulation racing is a one-for-one match for real-world racing, but kind of showing that the toolset is similar. In your experience, how does virtual racing inform real time on the track? Is there a correlation there and, if so, what is it?
Bill Fisher: “There’s definitely a correlation. Like you said, it’s not a perfect one-to-one match, especially on a game like Gran Turismo, which is a console game. In Formula One, they have simulators that Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton and those guys use that are very close to exactly what you get in a real car, but Gran Turismo and console racing is not the same. But certainly there’s a correlation between being fast in the game and turning that into real-world skill.
When I turned 18, I started getting into autocross and go-karting. I started getting into LeMons when I was about 23 and right off the bat, it was clear that my skillset was a little bit higher than some of the guys who had no sim experience and were just getting cold into real-world racing. Obviously, my talents weren’t as good as guys who had been real-world racing for a long time and there was a lot of adaptation, but I found that it certainly helped.
Some things sim racing can teach you is basics like lines—the quickest way to get a car around the track—something somebody cold to racing might not understand. It can teach you things about when to get on the brakes, when to get on the gas, how weight transfer can affect how a car can be manipulated. Things like being smooth, being smart, being patient: That’s all stuff you can learn on a video game. Things like racecraft, in terms of how to set somebody up, how to get underneath somebody, how to be clean, respectful, how to look ahead. All that stuff you can learn. It comes down to seat time and being on the track as much as possible and I feel it doesn’t matter if that’s in a real car or in a video game, that kind of stuff you can learn from practice.
Where it doesn’t correlate, obviously, is…there’s a lot of aspects. One of the first major things I noticed in a real car is visibility is completely different. You put a helmet on, you put a suit on, there’s a rollcage there, people bearing down on you all the time from different angles. You get sensory overload.
Beyond that, there’s a lot more sensations you get in a real car that you don’t get in a game. It tires you out a lot more. The pedals are a lot stiffer, the wheel is a lot stiffer. If the car gets loose, you have to be ready to react. When somebody cuts you off, you have to be ready to react. There’s no “reset button,” so there’s a lot more diligence that has to be paid. You can’t push as hard in a real car like you would in a video game. In Gran Turismo, the fastest way way around a track is usually to throw it in there at a high slip angle and a really long trail brake. You try that in a real car, you’re going to go spinning off the track every time or you’re going to hit a wall or you’re going to hit somebody else.
In Gran Turismo, the conditions are static. The track temperatures don’t go up and down. The tire pressures don’t go up and down. In Gran Turismo, if you do a 90-minute race, the conditions on Lap 1 is identical to the way the car feels on Lap 50. Obviously, in a real car, it completely changes. It’s never the same as the track gets greasy, tires get worn out or hot. That’s another thing I thought was a pretty dramatic shift, to stay on top of what’s happening with the car.”
Hooniverse: You mentioned “racecraft.” I’ve actually met you and seen you at the racetrack and I can tell from your demeanor at a race that racecraft and improving yourself as a driver has been a goal with you, even in LeMons. Did you see LeMons as a means to that end, to improve yourself yourself as a race driver?
Bill Fisher: “Absolutely. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about LeMons getting into it. I’d read about it here and there, but I had never gone to a race or checked it out before I showed to my first one (an arrive-and-drive in New Hampshire in 2011). My goals have always been to get into auto racing and wheel-to-wheel racing and to just get on the track. LeMons kind of seemed like the natural progression for me. I didn’t have a lot of money. I wanted to get on the track. I didn’t get into it to say ‘Let me get into LeMons to develop talent enough to get into Grand-Am’ or whatever. At the same time, I always enjoy learning and getting better at my talents across the board.
Once I got into LeMons, I realized I wasn’t nearly as talented as I thought I was. As I’ve done LeMons more and more—and I’ve done seven races now—I’ve clearly found myself getting better and better every single time. I think the fact that I’ve done seven races has gone a long way in improving my talent and racecraft, like you said, and improved my ability to advance in a competition like GT Academy.”
Hooniverse: The next thing for you in the Finals is to head to Silverstone. What’s your mindset headed overseas?
Bill Fisher: “It hasn’t really sunk in yet, besides knowing that I bested 450,000 people and now I’m in the final 12 to get a shot to race professionally. [The National Finals weekend] was probably the most intense three or four days of my life. The competition was unbelievable; some of the people there were just crazy talented. Honestly, I felt a little overwhelmed and I certainly feel that I deserve to be in the final 12, but I’m pretty impressed with myself to be able to overcome that.
Going to Silverstone is a whole other ballgame. It’s the best of the best at this point. These are real cars. I still feel I have a decent amount of experience compared with the competitors. As long as I stay smart, stay clean, and trust the talent that I do have and show the judges that I have the potential, I am confident in my ability to do well. I’m trying to not overthink it, to work really hard over the next month in terms of my physical fitness, my mental preparation, my eating habits, etc., just to make sure I’m ready to go with whatever they throw at me.”
Hooniverse: You mentioned a lot of the guys you faced in New York were experienced. Is that experienced virtually or do you have a leg-up on them in terms of seat time in an actual car?
Bill Fisher: “It’s about 50-50, I’d say. Everybody there is involved in the racing scene one way or another. Some of the guys are motocrossers. Some of the guys work for teams in Grand-Am. Some of the guys work on the sidelines at racetracks. Some of them are national autocrossers with the SCCA, so some of the guys definitely don’t have the seat time, but they’ve shown enough potential to be where they are. Some of the guys definitely have real-world experience and some of them have dramatically more real-world experience than I do.”
Hooniverse: Let’s talk about LeMons and specifically your team, We are not Really From Iran. First of all, where did the name come from?
Bill Fisher: “That was a name that my partner came up with. I’ll be honest; I enjoy the racing aspect of LeMons and I enjoy wrenching on the car. Some of it, the whole theme stuff and being frivolous, is not exactly something I wake up in the morning excited about. A lot of that, I put on the shoulders of my teammates and said ‘Whatever you want to do is fine.’
So the car that we drive is a 1993 Ford Festiva. Well, it was a 1993 Ford Festiva; now it’s a homogenization of a million different cars, but that car is stll produced today, in 2013, in Iran under the name Saipa Nasim. I guess my partner thought it would be hilarious if we showed up and everybody thought we had an Iranian version of the car. So we showed up with an Iran flag and he put the Saipa badges on the car. Basically, the name is so no one is accusing us of being from Iran, even though our car is still manufactured in Iran.”
Hooniverse: I had no idea they still built those in Iran. That’s amazing.
Bill Fisher: “It was a surprise to me, as well.”
Hooniverse: So what compelled you to build that specific car?
Bill Fisher: “I kind of just wanted to get into LeMons. I wasn’t too convinced on one idea or another in terms of the tool we should use. My background is big Chevys. I always had B-Body Chevys—Impalas and Caprices—so that’s what I knew the most. I could wrench on one of those things blind. So when I got into LeMons, I thought I wanted to do a car like that.
After talking with some people who’d been doing LeMons for a while, it became clear a larger car was probably not the best way to be competitive and have the most fun and be on the track as much as possible and keep costs down with fuel and tires and brakes. I started to be convinced a smaller car was the way to go. Once I got hooked up with Andrey, in his discussions, he was pretty convinced a Festiva with a motor swap would be the best option of any car. I hadn’t done my research; I didn’t know that a Festiva with an engine swap had this massive cult following, but apparently it does, mostly in Australia or something like that.
The swap for the engine was relatively straight-forward. There’s plenty of performance parts that can be modified and adjusted to fit the car. With that ammunition, it wasn’t really hard to convince me to build a Festiva. Honestly, I didn’t really care that much what car I was using, as long we could make it fun, fast, and reliable. So he basically pulled the trigger on a Festiva, unbeknownst to me, and said “Here’s the car.””
Hooniverse: So what’s it like to drive?
Bill Fisher: “It’s pretty ridiculous.”
Hooniverse: In what way?
Bill Fisher: “It’s a microcar, really. It’s an ultra-compact, the size of a Geo Metro or whatever. And then we put this much-larger-than-factory engine in there. Now it’s got a 1.8-liter Mazda BP engine out of an Escort GT. Factory, I don’t know, 140 horsepower maybe, whereas the stock engine was a 1.3-liter with 60 horsepower, something like that.
Originally, we put that engine in there and took it to our first race not really doing anything to the chassis. We just put in the engine and went to the track and it was just a death trap. Every time you’d hit the gas, it would swerve to the left. Every time you’d lift off, it would swerve to the right. Every time you tried to turn in, it would try to spin out, no matter what. It was just a complete disaster.
At our first race, we won the I Got Screwed award due to staying up all night replacing the engine. I wasn’t overly confident in the car. But since then, we’ve kind of been able to sort it a little bit, make it more fun to drive. It’s definitely still kind of bananas. The power-to-weight is enough to be competitive in speed, but only in the powerband. It doesn’t have the torque to get out of a corner if you fall out of the powerband, so it’s definitely what you might call a momentum car. So it’s really important to push all the time if you want to get good speed out of it. If you back out just a little bit, you’ve backed out a lot.
The brakes on it are absurdly good; I wouldn’t be surprised if it can stop better than any other LeMons car in the country. It’s got really good turn-in because it’s so small and the speeds aren’t that much. If you brake really hard, you stand on the nose and you turn the wheel and it goes where you’re looking. The steering is ridiculously quick; there’s no power steering, it’s just direct. We put a non-factory sway bar on the rear; the way it’s set up, once you load up and you turn that wheel, it’s pointing in that direction. If you are ready for it and you’re confident in it and know what’s coming, the car handles ridiculously well.
However, if it’s raining, first of all, it’s a death trap because it just rotates way too much everywhere. If you are not confident in the car or your ability to adjust and stay on top of what it’s doing, it’s pretty ridiculous to drive. Once you turn in, you have to get back on the gas and if you have to get off the gas because you’ve gotten on it too early, you are spinning. If you so much as breathe on the brakes in a corner, you are spinning.
Because of the way it’s set up, once you load up the front, the rear is just begging step out and you have to be on the gas and you have to be smooth, otherwise it’s gone. You have to think way, way ahead with this thing, because you can’t make adjustments mid-corner. It teaches you a lot about being smart, being smooth, and keeping the weight where you need it to be. It’s certainly not forgiving.”
Hooniverse: In general, what have you learned about racing from being part of a LeMons team? You’re a builder, a team manager, a driver, crew. What does that teach you about racecraft from all the points of view?
Bill Fisher: “We got the I Got Screwed award at our very first race, [where we learned] everybody has to work together and everybody has to be friendly and cordial. Everybody has to understand that the car is not always going to be working 100 percent and that everybody needs to put in the efforts in every aspect, whether it’s prepping the car for the race, repairing the car on the side of the track, or reveling in the glory of success. It teaches you a lot about working with people and making sure you stay on the same page with everybody.
On the track, LeMons is more of a team sport than other racing because you’re all sharing the driver’s seat. It’s not just one racer and one team manager and everybody else is supporting you. You have four or six drivers or whatever. Not everyone is going to have the same speed, not everyone is going to have the same talent and ability, so it teaches you about working with other people, giving advice to people who ask for it, understanding where everybody’s talents lie, and just making sure you keep a level head and keep shooting for the ultimate goal.
When I first got into LeMons, it was a little frustrating whenever everybody else wasn’t as fast or made a mistake or didn’t quite have the same go-get-it attitude. That was really frustrating for me, but over the races, I’ve learned to become a better team player and instead of getting frustrated, I’ve been able to understand that a little bit more and make sure instead of getting really pissed off, we work through it and move on to the next phase.”
Hooniverse: If you were talking to someone who was a “serious racer,” would you recommend LeMons as a way to get seat time, if nothing else, and maybe a way to improve as a driver?
Bill Fisher: “Yeah, I recommend LeMons to everybody. I don’t look at LeMons as a joke or less than serious. I think there’s lots of different aspects to LeMons. There’s lots of different types of cars and people that show up to LeMons, but you can get out of LeMons whatever you want to get out of LeMons.
You want to win an [Index of Effluency]? Great, show up in a Rolls Royce or a boat or an airplane, whatever. That’s totally great. But at the same time, if you want to learn how to drive a rear-wheel-drive racecar really fast and work around traffic and learn how to be smart and learn how to treat your equipment right and learn racecraft, you can do that as well. If you want to be in the middle and watch cars come from the front and back, you can do that.
As we saw with Emanuele Pirro at Road America—that’s a five-time Le Mans champion—he was absolutely thrilled with the experience. I think it’s great for the really, really serious guys who do Grand-Am or race professionally for them to kind of dial back their tenacity a bit and go back to the grassroots version of it. Just kind of relax and have fun for a weekend while still doing real racing on the track with guys who are smart and respectful and understand it. If you think it’s like a demo derby, it’s not.
For guys who are serious about learning more about driving hard and getting wheel to wheel, it’s a terrific tool. The skills I’ve learned in the past two years doing LeMons is far beyond what I could have learned in that timeframe with the amount of budget I have had to work with.”
Five-Question Lightning round
1. Who’s your role model, racing or otherwise?
Bill Fisher: “Uhhhh…OK…lightning round…I guess my favorite racecar driver was always Dale Earnhardt, Sr.”
2. What do you daily drive?
Bill Fisher: “Embarrassing…my daily driver is a 2001 Honda Accord sedan in gold. It’s probably beige, but I call it gold because it makes me feel fancy. It’s a complete joker. Then again I live in downtown Chicago, so there’s no real reason for me to buy a nice car and have it smashed.”
3. What’s your favorite LeMons car?
Bill Fisher: “Favorite LeMons car…would be…that BMW 850—I haven’t looked at it closely—some guys raced in California last year. That’s probably one of my favorite cars of all time.”
Sure, with the big V12 in it.
Bill Fisher: “Yeah, absolutely. The Turbo Taxi is up there, as well, just because it’s insane. If I had to choose to build a car, that 850 is awesome.”
4. LMP cars: Open or closed cockpit?
Bill Fisher: “Closed.”
5. What do you find yourself saying most often behind the wheel of a racecar?
Bill Fisher: “[Laughs] I’m not sure you can print it. I don’t talk that much, but in the groove, I find myself singing.”
What do you sing?
Bill Fisher: “Just anything. Maybe I’ll sing a regular song; sometimes I make up a song as I go. Nothing in particular; sometimes it just keeps me relaxed. If I’m in the groove and need to stay in the groove chasing somebody down, I’ll just start singing a song. Any song.”
Images copyright 2013 Eric Rood/Hooniverse