The Answers With… Darren Cox and his inspiration for the GT Academy, what he thinks of the film, and the unique race car he had auctioned
With the film Gran Turismo, motorsport is experiencing a moment that’s as meta as it gets. As with Ford v Ferrari, Hollywood’s latest racing drama uses true events as framework for the narrative, but the result this time is nothing short of an infinity mirror.
First, of course, came the actual racing, followed by PlayStation’s Gran Turismo video game based on that racing; easy enough to follow, so far. Here’s where it takes a turn. A Nissan insider thought up the idea to have those gamers see if they could race for real in what became the GT Academy. Some did so well that a movie was made about it and named after the game. Oh, and one of the real race cars plays itself in the film, is also in the video game, and was just auctioned on 25 August 2023 at the Silverstone Auction.
If your mental wheels are now doing doughnuts, don’t feel bad. We recently spoke with Darren Cox, the former Nissan wunderkind behind the GT Academy—which ran from 2008 through 2016—and even he had a hard time wrapping his mind around it all. Cox did share how it all started, what it’s like having Orlando Bloom play him on the big screen, and why the car on offer is a powerful common thread.
How did you get introduced to the automotive industry and motorsport?
My dad was in and around the motor industry for many years and was a stunt driver for TV films and series. He was on Return of the Saint with Ian Ogilvy, for example. That was the Jaguar XJS era, and my dad picked me up from school once in the white XJS from the show; so when you have that kind of background, there’s only one way you’re going to go. My brother works for Red Bull Formula 1 now, so it’s been a family thing. My first job out of university was with Renault. As the movie depicts, I started with an apprenticeship in the collections department, phoning people to get their loans repaid.
How fast was your progression with Renault?
Pretty quick. I ended up being a field guy looking after all the dealers in London by the age of 25. I was at the beginning of the Renault and Nissan alliance, and was one of the first guys to walk across the bridge to Nissan. It was supposed to be a short-term secondment to do a marketing job, and I ended up staying with Nissan. The alliance worked for me; it didn’t work for too many people.
When did you conceive of the idea for GT Academy?
When I was with Nissan in the UK, we did this co-promotion with PlayStation where we had a special-edition [Nissan] Z coming up, and PlayStation had the new Gran Turismo 4 game coming up, so we did an event where we gave the car away and PlayStation put the car in the game. These were gamers, and they didn’t have to qualify. They drove a Murano, then a Pathfinder on a 4×4 course, and then a 350 Z. Then they drove the game on a simulator. The best driver would win the car.
One of the instructors [said], “A couple of these lads can actually drive.” So I went and looked at the times on the PlayStation, and I went and looked at the times on the [Nissan] Z, and the guys at the top were the same on both. That was the moment. I was like, “hang on a minute, there’s something here.”
How long did it take for GT Academy to get the green light?
In the film, it takes three minutes for me to get the project signed off. In reality, it took me three years. You can imagine two very conservative Japanese companies, and gaming was not seen as a marketing platform like it is today. McLaren was the only one building their own F1 simulator at the time. We had some awful experiences of trying to get it done and various bureaucracies stopping us. We got it launched in 2008, had a winner named [Lucas] Ordóñez, and we made a TV show right from the start. It was signed off by Mr. Ghosn [Carlos Ghosn, former chairman and CEO of Nissan] because it wasn’t advertising, it was marketing—through a TV show—for the [Nissan] GT-R and Z.
When did you know the initial success wasn’t a fluke?
For Ordóñez, his prize was to race at Dubai in January of 2009. One of his teammates was Formula 1 driver Johnny Herbert, and Lucas was a match for him in the car during that race. I felt then, that I had to keep this going.
How did the GT Academy accelerate from there?
To cut a very long story short, we expanded that programme across the world—we did it in the Philippines, in India, in Russia, in Japan. The only big country we didn’t do it in was China. It turned into a franchise, really, and every year, the different regions would come to the UK, to Silverstone racetrack. In the end, we had 21 winners and had won the Bathurst 12 Hours in Australia, had guys racing LMP2 and GT3 in America, podiumed at Loe Mans—which you’ll see in the film—and won the GT Pro Championship in Europe. Someone reminded me recently that we made 500 separate episodes and had 97 TV stations around the world who took the show.
Of the GT Academy drivers, which one does the film focus on?
Ordóñez won the first year and Jann [Mardenborough] won the third year, and he’s the one the film is about. Ordóñez is not mentioned in the film, so it’s as if Jann is the first one.
How did you become aware of the movie project?
It’s funny. I was at Spa for one of our races, and the pro driver who trained the gamers was good friends with Jenson Button. He mentioned that Jenson was in Hollywood and met this famous producer who said they bought the rights to GT Academy from Sony. So I met the guy, Dana Brunetti, who has done 21, Social Network, Captain Phillips—a proper guy—and he sent me the script, which was awful. I told him, “This is not how it happened,” and this was like 11 or 12 years ago. But then they found the story of Jann and they sent over the script writers to meet me, my family, Jann, his family, and some of the other winners. The last two script writers—there’s been about five—made it a lot more real.
Did they consult with you on casting your part?
It was all last minute. I think Orlando [Bloom] was the last one to be cast. There was a change of script writer right at the end, and a change of director. I don’t know if I’ve told anyone this, but Jerry Bruckheimer was supposed to produce the movie, and then he got the F1 opportunity [Brad Pitt’s film project]. I said, originally, that Jack Black should play me. I would get a text from one of the producers who would tell me actors they were talking to and I would show my wife who would say, “don’t be silly, that guy’s not going to play you.”
Did you get to meet Orlando Bloom?
I went to meet him on the film set. He’s a good guy. He loves speed, and he’s just done a TV show where he’s jumping out of planes, climbing mountains, and doing dives, he’s an interesting character. We got on very well.
How accurately are you depicted in the movie?
Orlando’s portrayal is a lot more corporate. I was a lot less corporate—and a lot less corporate-jet—than he plays. I’m made out as a Nissan hard guy that’s all about my career, and I try to slow the guys down, and change the winner, and all this other corporate stuff—which absolutely wasn’t me. But I get it, I get Hollywood. They’ve made a film that’s 80 percent the truth, and that’s as good as Hollywood’s going to get. I’m very happy with the outcome of it.
Tell us about the car being auctioned?
It’s a very unique situation. They borrowed my car for the movie, and the reason I got this one was that it came in ninth at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, which is Nissan’s best result there. But the sad story is why the car raced in black. The reason is the big crash Jann had, which is covered in the movie. Unfortunately, a spectator passed away. We were supposed to be running two cars at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, but we withdrew the car that he was supposed to race. This other car we put in as a memorial to the spectator, with the agreement of his family. As a sign of respect, we painted the car black.
The movie used the real racing car, but they changed the livery to white with a red stripe on it. Then, at the start of the promotion for the film, PlayStation put that car in the game—so you’ve got this whole loop; the same car in the actual racing, the movie, and the game. And the auction is happening the same day that the film comes out [stateside]. The crossover is quite phenomenal.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, and Archie Madekwe, Gran Turismo is now playing in Singapore theatres.
This story was first published on Robb Report USA