Nissan has a rich history of involvement in motorsports that dates back to 1936, when the Datsun Sports NL75 won at Tamagawa Speedway in Japan – since then Nissan has competed in all forms of racing. In 2015, Nissan claimed nine international championships around the world, and for 2016 the company continues to participate in various categories and championships as well as build on its customer support programs.
In North America, Nissan North America’s efforts are focused on the fight for both driver’s and manufacturer’s championships in the GT class of Pirelli World Challenge with Always Evolving Racing/AIM Autosport and a pair of Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 entries. The team is running its second season in PWC and looks to build on a strong showing in its first year in the series.
Throughout its history in motorsports the list of prominent drivers and teams piloting Nissans in North America includes Paul Newman, who piloted the 300ZX to a Trans Am win in 1986 at Lime Rock, and the Steve Millen-led team that won 24 IMSA races between 1990-95, as well as both the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s championships in 1992 and 1994 campaigning the 300ZX. In 2016, the Always Evolving Racing/AIM Autosport team is looking to put Nissan in victory circle with former Indy Car/Indy 500 competitor James Davison piloting the No. 33 AERNOW sponsored entry and Bryan Heitkotter driving the No. 05 entry. In 2015, Davison scored two victories (Barber Motorsports Park and Road America) and 16 top 10 finishes en route to a fourth in the overall GT Driver’s Championship, while Heitkotter, Nissan’s first GT Academy winner was promoted last year to the rank of a full professional driver in GT after earning five victories in PWC’s GTA class and finished 10th overall with 10 top 10 finishes last year.
This year both drivers have competed hard with Davison sitting in 9th place after Rounds 16 and 17 of the Championship, while Heitkotter currently sits 6th after a breakthrough weekend recently at Utah Motorsports Campus winning back-to-back races – his first career GT wins. After the August 12-14th weekend, Heitkotter commented that “this is what I’ve dreamed for my whole life. Since I was a little kid I always dreamed of being a racing driver and winning races. It took a while but here I am now and I’m racing with some of the best in the world. It’s a world-class racing series with a lot of top teams and drivers, so to be up front in both races, get P1 and close the deal, two in a row – it feels really good.”
Heitkotter’s road to professional racing has not been conventional. He won North America’s first gamer-to-racer GT Academy competition in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, Heitkotter drove the Nissan 370Z NISMO for Doran Racing and earned three pole positions, and four top 10 finishes including a podium. In 2014, Heitkotter joined the CA Sports Team to race their Nissan Altima and earned three podiums and four top five finishes in PWC Touring Car.
GT Academy is a competition created by Nissan and PlayStation that brings virtual and real-life racing together to make the dreams of aspiring racers become a reality. The competition, which originally launched in Europe in 2008, finds the best of Gran Turismo players from across participating countries by testing their skills in an online gaming qualification process. They then compete against each other in the live National Finals before the winners from each switch to driving real Nissan cars at the now famous Silverstone Race Camp. The overall winner of GT Academy is then trained in multiple areas required to become a professional race car driver and if the winner makes the grade they will compete in the Dubai 24-hour race for Nissan and have the chance to be considered for a future career with Nissan as a NISMO athlete.
Melbourne, Australia’s Davison moved to the United States in 2005 to further his racing career. He worked his way up the open-wheel racing ladder and career highlights include a “Road to Indy” runner-up finish in the 2007 Pro Mazda and 2009 Indy Lights Championships respectively. In 2013 he made an impressive IndyCar Series debut for Dale Coyne Racing at Mid Ohio and in 2014 and 2015 competed in the Indianapolis 500.
Davison moved into sports cars in 2014, and in 2015, began racing for the AE Replay XD Nissan GT Academy team in PWC, helping to debut the Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 in North America. He comes from a motorsports family with grandfather, Lex Davison, being a four-time winner of the Australian Grand Prix, while his father, Jon Davison, drove in nine Australian Grand Prix, finished runner up in the 1980 Gold Star Australian Driver’s Championship. James’ cousins, Alex and Will Davison, are V8 Supercar drivers with Will having won the Bathurst 1000 in 2009.
While both Davison and Heitkotter are personable, up-and-coming racing stars, at times both are somewhat overshadowed by the fact they drive a car that has a cult following: the Nissan GT-R, and specifically the GT3 version. Under the hood sits a NISMO-spec Nissan VR38DETT not unlike the one that powers the street version of the GT-R. In GT3 trim, the setup makes over 500 Turbocharged horsepower right out of the factory and the car’s specs include a Hewland 6-speed sequential gearbox, Brembo brakes, NISMO/RAYS 18×13-inch forged wheels, NISMO carbon composite body panels, polycarbonate windows, carbon front splitter, diffuser, GT wings, and front and rear 325/705, 325/705 Pirelli P-Zero slicks.
The responsibility that comes with racing the beloved Nissan GT-R GT3 and representing a company with 80 years of racing history is tremendous, one that Rick Kulach, Nissan’s North America Manager, Motorsports Marketing Communications takes very seriously and something that has been in his blood for 30 plus years. So what does it mean to be part of a brand with that much racing heritage?
“I have been with Nissan 30 years this summer,” said Kulach. “While most of those years were not in motorsports with the company, I have been an SCCA member for over 30 plus years, and have raced Formula Fords, to Atlantics, to Showroom Stock A, B C, to everything in between.”
“One of the previous managers at Nissan Motorsports, Frank Honsowitz, said we’ve got to get you out of that Formula Ford and into a Nissan and I started racing a showroom stock B Sentra way back when. When you work for the company and drive their products it’s a great connection. Years later, Frank was replaced with Ron Stukenberg. When Ron was getting set to retire, he called me up and said ‘it’s obvious that we are never going to discourage you from all of the motorsports and racing’ and I moved into the overall marketing department. It’s a huge responsibility, you really are the face of Nissan and the historical perspective of the legend.”
“I myself from early days remember volunteering as a flagger for SCCA at Pocono raceway, and seeing Paul Newman compete. I was there when he was racing in the SCCA Nationals with his B210 and TR-6.”
“It’s easy for me to really respect Nissan’s accomplishments over the years plus where we are going in the future. There’s been a number of changes in what we are doing in the United States moving from endurance racing to sprint racing in World Challenge. I believe a fan’s attention span is more benefited by a sprint race, it’s 50-minutes of heart pumping adrenaline and there’s no holding back. Every lap is important and critical and it brings an intensity that isn’t seen in other series. For Nissan I believe that’s the return on investment in that we connect with the fans and continue to develop younger fans, including Millennials and Gen Xers — we have a better connection with them because of our exciting products.”
“The GT3 cars are products people can identify with. The Nissan GT-R GT3 has the bones of the production GT-R that you can go buy. Fans can see that it’s built on the same platform and that connection to our road cars is much stronger. For us at Nissan, it’s not a branding exercise to get your name in front of fans. Nissan’s are fun and exciting, but importantly the team’s cars ran two years and never had a breakdown, they are reliable.”
“We had over a million fans come out to the track events last year in 2015. I believe motorsports is a better connection than any other of the type sports Nissan is partnered with because it involves the products we make. We do not make footballs or basketballs, we make cars with passion and that’s the connection.”
“James was our pro coming in last year and was instrumental in the success of the team. Bryan is a steadfast professional – he delivers with intensity. I enjoy the camaraderie and competitiveness of James and Bryan as they go through data and looking at video. James will admit that he learned from Bryan on certain things, and Bryan has benefited from James experience, both of them play a very important role. They are always pushing each other in a very supportive way, everyone is competitive but everyone wants everyone to do well. Unless we win as a team it doesn’t count. I think there’s no doubt we will win. I absolutely believe we will win because of the efforts from the team and the drivers.”
“I’m incredibly honored to be a part of Nissan’s rich motorsports history,” says Heitkotter. “It’s something that was a far off dream five years ago when I competed in the first US GT Academy competition. It was always my dream to race cars and that was the opportunity I needed. My teammate James and I are always pushing each other hard and learning from each other, ultimately bringing out the best in each of us. Along with the awesome guys at AIM Autosport, we do our best to give Nissan fans something to cheer for and celebrate. Pirelli World Challenge in 2016 has an incredible depth of talent among many manufacturers. It’s a treat to be racing in such a highly competitive series and at several legendary circuits across North America.”
“Representing Nissan in the United States is an incredible opportunity, being in their biggest automotive sales market,” says Davison. “The GT-R has a huge cult following so the success of the AERNOW NISMO USA Team is important. The team is one of, if not the best teams, I’ve driven for and ultimately just love doing battle with the GT-R NISMO GT3 machine.”
Both Davison and Heitkotter are great ambassadors as they look to put Nissan on the top step of the podium in one of the world’s premier GT sports car championships. Follow Nissan motorsports @ http://www.nissan-motorsports.com/ENN/index.html. Follow the AE team @ http://www.alwaysevolving.com/.