Virtually speaking, Gran Turismo video game more influential than you think

The Gran Turismo franchise has remained among the best-selling video games over the past decade. AP Photo/Red Saxon

When I set out to make a career out of racing journalism, I knew I would spend a lot of time at racetracks, talking to drivers and engineers and officials. But there turned out to be a lot more to the job than writing about wins and losses and accidents and blown engines.

In the past 15 years, I've gotten a crash course in bankruptcy laws while covering the demise of CART and Champ Car, gotten an inside look at mergers and acquisitions when Cosworth was in play, and learned far more technical minutiae than I will ever need to know.

Some of that stuff can be boring, but there are times it can be pretty compelling. I'll never forget sitting with former Honda Performance Development chief Robert Clarke in the Mexico City paddock in 2002 while he explained and sketched out on a napkin the way Honda legally circumvented the turbocharger pop-off valve, a clever (and I repeat, legal) bit of engineering that indirectly led to CART's downfall.

More recently, while in Las Vegas for the Indy Racing League Championship Celebration (don't call it a banquet!) and the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show, I had another interesting experience when Sony offered me the chance to interview Kazunori Yamauchi, the founder and chief developer of the Gran Turismo series of video games. I'm not much of a gamer, but I have owned every one of the four iterations of the GT series to date, and it was cool to get a look at the GT5 Prologue and meet the man chiefly responsible for its creation.

Talking to Yamauchi reminded me of a similar experience when my colleague Gordon Kirby and I interviewed the key engineers responsible for Honda's Indy car engines a few years ago. Although Yamauchi speaks fairly good English, we still used a translator, which meant every question I asked was translated into Japanese and the Japanese answers were then converted back to English. It's a time-consuming process because every question takes at least twice as long to run through.

Yamauchi said he is a lifelong car enthusiast who has worked on graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for the past 20 years. These days, he still spends most of his time in Polyphony's Tokyo skunk works working on the game -- except for the "3 percent or so" he is on the road promoting the GT franchise.

Actually, Gran Turismo is far more than a game. Yamauchi and his crew helped Nissan develop the dash layout and interface for the GT-R sports car and, more recently, collaborated with Citroen to create a prototype concept sports car that was unveiled at the Paris Auto Show in October.

"If you like cars, to be involved in the creation of a car is something you like to have your hand in," Yamauchi said. "That's what led up to the collaboration with Nissan.

"We worked on the concept together with Citroen to build a future sports car within the game," he added. "It is an industry first for the game industry and the auto industry, and it is the first car named after a game. It made the front page of Le Figaro and got a lot of response from the media and the public. We will be able to actually drive the car soon, and I would like to get them to sell it one day!"

Many racing drivers use video games and simulators to learn tracks, so I asked Yamauchi whether he believed the technology makes better drivers in general. He was quick to affirm the notion.

"I think it is very useful for typical, regular drivers to learn how a car responds to your input," he said. "Even if you are not driving at racing speed -- for example, if you are in the freeway in the rain, you learn how you are not supposed to drive the car. It really helps out."

Yamauchi expressed surprise that Gran Turismo has remained one of the top-selling video game titles for more than a decade. Although no release date has been set for GT5, he revealed that all aspects of the game will be in high definition.

"We were able to raise the quality of the exterior and the interior of the cars to a level that is almost unnecessary," he noted. "That goes for the track and the scenery, as well. Now we are online, as well."

"We just had a 10th anniversary event in New York where we displayed all the Gran Turismo games from GT1 to GT5 Prologue, and GT1 kind of looks like an old Atari Pong game," he added.

Based on the reaction GT5 Prologue has garnered, Yamauchi won't be in any danger of having to look for a new career anytime soon. Gran Turismo remains an international phenomenon -- during the SEMA Show, Sony hosted the annual Gran Turismo Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel, featuring a performance by Ludacris.

"I did hear of one person who set up a room dedicated to Gran Turismo with a 200-inch screen and surround sound and everything," Yamauchi marveled. "There are crazy people like that out there."

Gran Turismo has given Yamauchi the opportunity to drive many spectacular cars on many of the world's greatest tracks. Yet he is still enamored with driving and car culture in general.

"I love it!" he said. "But it is actually more fun to drive on a real track with a real car than it is to make video games."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.