Bryan Heitkotter, the 2011 Nissan GT Academy USA winner, took his first two overall wins in Pirelli World Challenge at Utah Motorsports Campus in mid-August. He took five GTA class wins last year before graduating from the amateur class into the full pro ranks in mid-2015.
We caught up with the driver of the No. 05 Always Evolving Nissan GT-R NISMO GT3 after his double win at Utah on how he’s advanced throughout his career, what the weekend meant to him and how he’ll look ahead to the final two race weekends of the year at Sonoma Raceway in September and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in October.
MotorSportsTalk: Reflecting back on the wins, what do they mean to you now?
Bryan Heitkotter: “It’s part of what I’ve been wanting to do is prove to myself that I can run with these guys, and earn their respect. That’s been one of my goals since started racing. That felt really good. Rick (Kulach, Nissan North America motorsports manager) said to me after my first win on Saturday, ‘Look at all the guys behind you,’ and that was a pretty special moment. A lot of guys have years or decades of experience on me. So to run up front with these guys and Nissan is a dream come true.”
MST: Either in race one when there was the early race restart or race two when it ran caution-free, how concerned were you about the competition behind?
BH: “I was actually very concerned when I saw Ryan Eversley in the Acura behind me after the Cooper/Parente incident. He’s made amazing starts all season… particularly this summer. So when he launched as well as he did it was a surprise… and it got me a little bit worried! But it worked out in the end. There’s good power for us in the long straights and it’s one of the rare tracks on the calendar with a long run down to Turn 1. So I was able to get the advantage.
MST: How did the team rally despite the looming suspension assessed to JD Davison going into weekend?
BH: To be honest it was actually a really good dynamic. James was there for the team all weekend; he came out and did some driver coaching and spotting for us. Everyone was really looking forward to have a good weekend. Good to have Craig Dolby; he has a different perspective in Europe, having driven the 2015 model of these cars (the AE team uses the 2014 model). He brought a fresh perspective.”
MST: Races like Mid-Ohio last year when you podiumed or COTA this year have occurred where you were so close to winning before it went away. How did those fuel you?
BH: “Those ones I came close, ran up front and couldn’t quite seal the deal just motivated even more. It made me hungrier for a win. When I qualified third for race one, knowing there’s a long run to Turn 1, I thought, ‘This is a really good opportunity to win it if you play it right, play it smart.’ We didn’t know everyone else’s race pace. Last year was pretty solid. This year we’re not too bad.”
MST: Considering the number of overall program cutbacks Nissan had this offseason, did you have any concerns about your own role within the Always Evolving Nissan program?
BH: “The offseason is never a fun time for a driver. You never know… you always have your doubts. You wonder, is the budget gonna be there? Have you done enough as a driver and as a representative? You never know. I never expected such a cut of drivers across the globe as we saw. We figured it could come, but it came massively and suddenly. But it was kind of surprising; I was very pleased to have survived it and keep going with the GT-Rs. It’s the best program I could have imagined.”
MST: Describe a bit how the combination of Always Evolving, AIM Autosport and Nissan all work together to make this program work.
BH: “It’s just one of those situations where everything kind of gels. It was a last-minute deal at the beginning of last year. It came together last minute, but to be honest, I think that started us off on the right foot. We gelled early and it has been a tremendous partnership ever since. The AIM Autosport guys have been together a while. They work together very seamlessly. That helps us get up to speed. Everyone’s been very professional. We work together well; it’s an amazing partnership.”
MST: How have all the different variations of Nissan’s you’ve driven (Altimas, 370Zs, two GT-Rs) helped your annual progression?
BH: “It’s been a pretty good time to get some different experience in different cars. You learn on the fly. I remember one weekend… three or four years ago, I got called up to run a GT-R in World Challenge for CRP Racing at Sonoma. I literally missed all the practice sessions, never drove with any kind of downforce, and got in the car Saturday morning. I qualified 11th and was P5 end of first lap, and then some little custom piece broke in rear suspension. So I lasted a lap and a half.
“But it ended up being a good experience. I think that’s one of my strengths as a driver is get up to speed quickly. The variety of Nissan has only helped. They’re broadly similar, but with unique characteristics.
MST: Two more race weekends to go at Sonoma and Monterey, which don’t quite suit the Nissan as well as Utah did. How do you press forward on those type weekends?
BH: “We do the best we can anyway. You have to look at a season as a whole. Last year Sonoma and Laguna were a bit of a challenge, so we’ll look to do a bit better this year.
“But they’re fun. They’re basically my home races with a lot of friends, family and support. From Fresno, I’m about 3.5 hours from Sonoma, and 2.5 from Laguna.”
MST: You know how far you’ve come since winning GT Academy. Did you envision it becoming this successful, this soon?
BH: “This is what I wanted to do since I was a little kid. I entered the academy – knowing this is my best opportunity –and won that. But it doesn’t guarantee you a whole lot. I’ve always been naturally motivated to make the most of every opportunity. You never know where things will go, but getting here was a natural goal.”