How a group of GTA V developers became unlikely motorsports champions

(Illustration for The Washington Post; Wayland Standing/Rockstar)


Ben Lyons, Technical Director at Rockstar North, creator of Grand Theft Auto, is no ordinary video game programmer. Back in 2013, the Scotland-based developer oversaw the physics and handling of all hundreds of Grand Theft Auto V cars, ensuring that each felt unique and authentic. But around the same time, he also started thinking: “What if I try to race these cars in Reality life?”

A passion project soon emerges as Leon and a few teammates become amateur racers, seeking to prove that their programming prowess can translate into success on the track. It all culminated in a major achievement earlier this year: Under the team name “Rockstar Racing,” they took a shocking win in the V4 class of the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, an endurance race in Germany that ranks among the world’s most prestigious motorsport events. .

“We had big Rockstar logos on our cars, and most people couldn’t believe it was actually Rockstar — like 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 got into auto repair when they first started working on “Grand Theft Auto V,” buying a used 2006 BMW 325i for the sole purpose of modifying it for racing at the Nürburgring. In recent years, this car model has become a popular model in the V4 racing segment, exclusive to sedans produced with 2.5-liter engines.

“It’s quite a feat for a small team of game developers to build a race car in a tent in Scotland, and then get to work to compete in one of the biggest endurance races in the world,” said Eoin Callan, Technical Director, Rockstar North. Props who served as crew chief. “Then going ahead and winning our class on our first try—we’re totally humbled by the whole experience!”

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Rockstar itself provided financial support to help the team achieve its goal, and executives seem pleased with the outcome.

“What the team behind Rockstar Racing has been able to accomplish is amazing,” said Jennifer Colby, Head of Publishing at Rockstar Games. “The passion they bring to motorsport both on the track and in the game is something we are really proud of.”

In a sense, art imitated life: just as Lyons and his cohorts have become more focused on racing over the years, so 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 it [‘GTA Online’] Updates for years, and we always try to build on what we learn and improve.” “All the cars are set up so that every time you play, these cars [in the game] We give the same satisfaction we get when we’re racing and tuning in real life.”

Lyons has long been a fan of motor racing, but his involvement in the sport has been limited to the occasional ‘autosolos’, a popular form of motorsport in the UK that involves driving as fast as possible around cones that have been set up to create a makeshift track. Most of the participants, including Leon, used their daily cars for these events.

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

After he landed his dream job at Rockstar and met his new car-loving colleagues, the idea for Rockstar Racing was born, and Lyons bought a car more motorsport-friendly. The goal, from the outset, was grandiose: to modify a BMW from the ground up, specifically designed to compete in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring – a race open, though difficult, to amateur entries.

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

“It just felt so out of reach at that point,” Lyons recalled. “But there was always this basic idea that if all the stars lined up, we could do it somehow.”

Nestled in the heart of Germany’s Eifel Mountains, the Nürburgring is the world’s longest permanent race track, with 73 corners and 1,000 feet of elevation change throughout the circuit. One lap usually takes over 10 minutes, and this year’s endurance race featured 138 cars in total competing across a variety of classes.

Over the past few years the Rockstar Racing team has dabbled by competing in smaller endurance races all over Scotland, but the Nürburgring, with its unbridled atmosphere and slick grandstands, was a whole different beast.

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“It’s a special place,” Lyons said. “Driving in the dark out there, you see all the fans with their big bonfires. They play with that proper German technique – you can smell the flames, you can smell the sausages.”

For Rockstar, the game plan for this year’s race was simple: Instead of trying to set fast lap times, they aimed for a steady, measured pace, hoping consistency would help them avoid unnecessary crashes and stops. This plan paid dividends, as Rockstar ended up winning its class by three laps without any major incidents.

“It may have looked smooth on paper, but it was very rough in the pits,” said Callan, who advocated for strategy throughout the 24 hours of the race and had to help organize minor repairs to the car during each pit stop.

The moment of refreshment came in the early evening when it started to rain heavily in the pits. Due to the circuit’s location in the mountains and its enormous length, the Nürburgring can have deceiving weather conditions, with heavy rain on one side and perfect conditions on the other. When one of the team’s co-drivers (a friend of Leon’s and not a Rockstar employee) walked in, a tough call had to be made.

Our driver got out of the car under an sheer load of rain and said, ‘Ben, I know it’s raining here, but the rest of the track is dry, so Not Lyons remembers.

In the end, Callan made the bold plea—or as he calls it the “scary choice”—to keep the dry-weather tires running, and it proved to be a successful decision. While Lyons had to navigate a bit of rain as he first exited the pits, the rest of the track was certainly dry and victory was in sight.

How did it feel to achieve such an unlikely victory?

“It was the usual mix of emotions, but perhaps more trauma than anything else,” Callan said.

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Grand Theft Auto V inspired Rockstar Racing to kick off their quest for Nürburgring glory, and the team has taken what they’ve learned and brought 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. Genders now account for more than half of all user-generated content. Hundreds of millions of races have taken place online since the game’s launch in 2013, Rockstar said. “GTA Online” features the Nürburgring racetrack covering the German track layout above Los Santos, the game’s fictional world.

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

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

“So far, ‘GTA Online’ is constantly evolving with updates full of new cars, races, and experiences that build on what we’ve learned during our time on the track,” he said. “This is something we will continue to do as we move into the future.”

For Rockstar Racing, could more endurance racing be in the future? Lyons says the team is more focused on game development at the moment, but getting back on track may be in the cards at some point down the road.

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

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


An earlier version of this article misstated Rockstar executive Jennifer Colby’s title. She is the head of publishing at Rockstar Games, not the subsidiary studio Rockstar North. The article has been corrected.

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