How a group of GTA V developers became unlikely motorsports champions

(Washington Post illustration; Wayland Standing/Rockstar)

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Ben Lyons, a technical director at Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar North, isn’t your average video game programmer. Back in 2013, the Scotland-based developer oversaw the physics and handling of all of “Grand Theft Auto V’s” hundreds of cars, ensuring that each felt unique and authentic. But around the same time, he also began thinking: “What if I tried racing these cars in real life?”

A passion project soon emerged as Lyons and a few of his colleagues became hobbyist racers, seeking to prove that their programming prowess could translate to success on the track. It all culminated in a major milestone earlier this year: Under the team name “Rockstar Racing,” they shockingly won the V4 division of the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, an endurance race in Germany that’s among the world’s most prestigious motorsport events.

“We had these big Rockstar logos on our car, and most people couldn’t believe it was actually Rockstar — like, the real game developers,” Lyons told The Washington Post with a laugh.

The victory was the result of nearly a decade of hard work and preparation. Lyons and his colleagues had begun tinkering with cars way back when they first started working on “Grand Theft Auto V,” buying a used 2006 BMW 325i with the sole purpose of modifying it to race at Nürburgring. In recent years, that car model has become a popular one in the race’s V4 division, which is exclusive to production sedans with 2.5-liter engines.

“It’s a pretty big achievement for a small team of game developers to build a racecar in a tent in Scotland, and then work up to compete in one of the biggest endurance races in the world,” said Eoin Callan, Rockstar North’s art director of props who served as the team’s crew chief. “Then to go on and win our class on our first attempt — we’re quite humbled by the whole experience!”

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Rockstar itself even provided financial support to help the team realize its goal, and executives seemed delighted with the outcome.

“What the team behind Rockstar Racing has been able to accomplish is incredible,” said Jennifer Kolbe, head of publishing at Rockstar Games. “The passion they bring to motorsports both on the track and in-game is something we’re truly proud of.”

In a sense, art has imitated life: Just as Lyons and his colleagues have become more focused on racing over the years, so too has “Grand Theft Auto V.” The game’s online component, “Grand Theft Auto Online,” increasingly reflects its developers’ love of car culture, particularly with last year’s “Los Santos Tuners” update, which allows players to make in-depth modifications to their cars.

“We’ve been working on [‘GTA Online’] updates for years, and we are always trying to take what we learn and improve on it,” Lyons said. “All the cars are set up to be tuned so that every time you play, these cars [in the game] give that same satisfaction that we get when we race and tune in real life.”

Lyons had always been a fan of car racing, but his participation in the sport had been limited to occasional “autosolos,” a popular form of motorsport in the UK that involves driving as fast as you can around cones set up to create a makeshift course . Most participants, including Lyons, used their daily commuter cars for these events.

“I’m not sure it was at all safe,” he laughed, “but it was just an amazing opportunity to learn car control.”

After landing his dream job at Rockstar and meeting his new, car-loving colleagues, the idea for Rockstar Racing was born, and Lyons bought a car more suitable for motorsports. The goal, right from the start, was lofty: to modify a BMW from the ground up, specifically designed to compete at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring — a race that, despite its difficulty, is open to amateur entries.

Lyons scored a deal on a used BMW 325i, and he and his colleagues soon set to work, installing a roll cage — necessary for safety — and making modifications, including stripping it of virtually all unnecessary parts and adjusting its weight distribution. All the while, Nürburgring remained the ultimate goal.

“It felt very far-fetched at that point,” Lyons recalled. “But there was always this underlying thought that if all the stars aligned, we could somehow do it.”

Located in the heart of Germany’s Eifel Mountains, the Nürburgring is the world’s longest permanent racetrack, with 73 corners and a 1,000-foot altitude change throughout the circuit. One lap typically lasts more than 10 minutes, and this year’s endurance race featured 138 total cars competing across a variety of classes.

Over the past few years, the Rockstar Racing team had gotten its feet wet by competing in smaller endurance races throughout Scotland, but Nürburgring, with its wild atmosphere and packed grandstands, was a different beast entirely.

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“It’s such a special place,” said Lyons. “Driving in the dark there, you see all the fans with their big bonfires going. They’re playing this German, proper techno — you can smell the bonfires, smell the sausages.”

For Rockstar, the game plan for this year’s race was simple: Instead of trying to set blisteringly fast lap times, they aimed for a steady, measured pace, hoping that consistency would help them avoid crashes and unnecessary pit stops. That plan paid dividends, as Rockstar wound up winning its class comfortably by three laps with no major incidents.

“It may have looked smooth on paper, but it was pretty relentless in the pits,” said Callan, who called strategy for all 24 hours of the race and had to help orchestrate minor repairs on the car during each pit stop.

The make-or-break moment came early in the evening when it started raining hard in the pits. Due to the track’s location in the mountains and its enormous length, the Nürburgring can have deceptive weather conditions, with heavy rain on one side and perfect conditions on the other. As one of the team’s co-drivers (a friend of Lyons’ and not a Rockstar employee) came into the pits, a tough call had to be made.

“Our co-driver got out of the car in an absolute load of rain and said, ‘Ben, I know it’s raining here, but the rest of the track is dry, so do not put wet tires on,’” Lyons recalled.

Ultimately, Callan made the gutsy call — or, as he calls it, the “scary option” — of keeping dry-weather tires on, and it proved to be a winning decision. While Lyons did have to navigate a tricky bit of rain as he first exited the pits, sure enough, the rest of the track was dry, and victory was in sight.

How did it feel to pull off such an improbable victory?

“It was the usual mix of emotions,” said Callan, “but probably shock more than anything.”

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“Grand Theft Auto V” inspired Rockstar Racing to set out on its quest for Nürburgring glory, and the team has taken what it’s learned and put it back into the game. According to Rockstar, last year’s car-focused “Los Santos Tuners” update brought more new players to “Grand Theft Auto Online” than any previous update. Races now account for more than half of its user-generated content. Hundreds of millions of races have taken place online since the game’s launch in 2013, Rockstar said. “GTA Online” even features a Nürburgring racecourse that overlays the German track’s layout on top of Los Santos, the game’s fictional world.

“I just can’t believe the longevity of it,” said Lyons. “We love our community, and it just feels so special to make so many people happy.”

And while Rockstar remains tight-lipped about its next Grand Theft Auto game — especially after a hacker leaked unfinished videos of the project earlier this year — Lyons acknowledged that racing has emerged as a “strong point” of the series.

“Even now, ‘GTA Online’ is constantly evolving with updates filled with new cars, races, and experiences that build on what we’ve learned through our time on the track,” he said. “That’s something we’ll continue to do as we move into the future.”

As for Rockstar Racing, could more endurance races be in its future? Lyons says the team is more focused on game development at the moment, but a return to the track could very well be in the cards at some point down the road.

“It’s always been hand in hand for me: making video games and motorsports,” he said. “It’s amazing to get to this point where I can combine the two. What are the chances, really?”

Gregory Leporati is a freelance writer and photographer covering esports, tech and motorsports. His recent work has appeared in GQ, the Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork and Ars Technica. Follow him on Twitter @leporparty.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the title of Rockstar executive Jennifer Kolbe. She is the head of publishing at Rockstar Games, not its subsidiary studio Rockstar North. The article has been corrected.

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