TAMPA — Glenn McGee got so good at playing a racing simulator video game that Mazda made him one of their race car drivers.
McGee, a 26-year-old Town 'n' Country resident, won a real race in a new Mazda sports car at a South Carolina track last month. He beat seven other finalists competing in the 2015 Mazda Road to 24 Shootout and won a $100,000 scholarship to race on a team with Mazda's pros next year.
He's the first annual winner of the 10-year-old competition to rise from the ranks of computer racing and win the real race, said Mazda spokesman Dean Case. He beat some 60,000 other virtual racers on the simulator, and he turned in the best performance on the track.
"I found it to be fairly seamless," McGee said. "The car was extremely easy to drive."
The construction industry consultant drove a 2016 MX-5 Cup car to victory over two days of competition at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C. The drivers, maneuvering through the course one at a time, were gauged on the speed, consistency and technical skills. A device in the cars kept track of pedal and steering movements and speed.
Mazda staff also tested drivers on their off-track skills, evaluating them on their interpersonal skills to determine which ones would best represent the company in public engagements and media interviews.
"Ultimately, we're looking for the best all-around race driver," Case said.
Simulated racing has become so sophisticated over the years, Case said, that pro drivers use them to polish their skills.
"It's not a game," he said. "It's a training tool."
McGee, who practiced before the Shootout under the guidance of 2015 Mazda MX-5 Cup champion John Dean II, will compete at an entry level of pro racing. He likened it to the minor leagues in baseball. It even has scouts. Those who do well can make the jump to the big leagues.
After a period of training, he will join a Mazda team and drive next spring in the 2016 Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship in California. He'll go up against 30 to 50 other drivers in a series of races with relatively small purses, but the big winner gets $250,000.
McGee started simulated racing using handheld consoles but found them unrealistic. In 2010, he bought the first iRacing software — the Mazda simulator — and installed it on his computer. He bought a steering wheel and pedal system that, once hooked to the program, simulates the feel of the car under varied conditions. When the tires are about to lose their grip, for example, the program duplicates the resistance in the steering wheel.
"I think my big advantage is adaptability," McGee said. "Even though there is real danger (on the track), I have trained myself mentally to be calm and be in a state where I can focus on command."
Simulated success, he hopes, will lead to many more real-life victory laps.
Contact Philip Morgan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.