To understand why Gene Martindale was dubious when his boss at Ford Motor Co. suggested he play a video game before taking the fastest-ever Mustang for a test drive in Europe, just look him up on YouTube. More than 120,000 have watched his nail-biting spin around the Virginia International Raceway, where he hit 140 mph and set a course record for Mustangs. Another 60,000 have checked out “Mean Gene” racing a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor through a California desert. Thousands more see Martindale at racetracks around the country. “I race professionally on the side for private teams,” says the affable Holly resident, who’s an engineer and lead test driver for Ford’s Special Vehicle Team. “The last couple years, I’ve been racing a Mustang.”
Given the years Martindale has spent pushing the limits, he believed his mission this summer — piloting a 2011 Mustang Shelby GT500 around Germany’s notoriously challenging Nürburgring test track — was business as usual. Never mind that his boss said the mountainous course was “very difficult” to learn and a video game could help lower the curve. “I thought, ‘You know, I don’t need that because I’ve been racing my whole life and I learn tracks very well,” Martindale recalls. “’I know the track is long, but how bad can it be?’ ”
He got his answer from the home of his greatest driving hits. “I went on YouTube to find a video of somebody going around Nürburgring,” Martindale says. “And about halfway through, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that has a lot more turns and elevation, and it’s longer than I actually thought it was.’ … I really needed to get a video game.”
A video game, like one you’d get at Best Buy?
Yes. Now, these video-game companies rent the tracks and go out and scan them and put in everything from the little holes in the track to trees next to it, to the curbing and the guardrails.
Were you ever much of a gamer?
I hadn’t really played a lot since I was a teenager. … My first video system was one of the Ataris.
Pardon the pun, but how did you get up to speed?
I started by asking several of my friends both in the automotive industry and out of it: ‘What’s the best video game to learn race tracks with?’
So this video-game practice thing isn’t unheard of.
It’s becoming more common all the time. Friends that I raced against professionally use video games to learn tracks.
Any names we know?
Jack Roush Jr. I was at his house a couple years ago. … He had a video game that he was using on [a desk computer]. He was sitting in his office chair with a steering wheel, and he was driving.
So when you finally embraced it this year, what game did you go with?
Everyone said Gran Turismo 4 is the best game that’s currently out. … I had to buy a PlayStation 2. I also purchased a steering wheel. It has a gearshift and all three pedals — the clutch, the brake, and the throttle. It was around $300. Ford actually paid for it.
But how many guys can say the boss wants them to play video games?
Whenever you make it part of your job, it’s not as fun. I made it my job to learn the track. I would come home every night after work and play it for a minimum of one hour and up to three hours.
How was your debut as a video test driver?
My girlfriend, Meghan, can attest that there was plenty of swearing and me getting upset. … The first lap I did was very difficult. I got completely lost. Nürburgring has a lot of up-and-down hills, so a lot of the turns are blind. I crashed almost immediately. I hit a guardrail, spun around. I would just keep building up speed and eventually crash. But the nice thing about a video game is you can just start again.
What was it like ‘driving’ in your living room?
It was weird. When you’re driving the video game, you have to do everything visually. You can’t drive by feel. Your inner ear is your sense of balance, so that’s very important when you’re driving a race car around the track. You drive by that. But with a video game, you don’t.
How did all the hours in front of the TV help you on the real track?
The video game gave me such a leg up. When I got there, a [Ford Europe] engineer was assigned to show me the circuit. He drove the first two laps and then said, ‘OK, now you drive.’ And within two laps he’s like, ‘Wow, you’ve already figured out where to go here.’ He said that I learned the track quicker than anyone he’d driven with.
Was the track as difficult as everyone said?
It’s pretty ridiculous. The track goes very steeply up, very steeply down, and turns abruptly. You actually get off the ground in places. You jump the car slightly. It’s probably the highest average speed track we’ve ever been to.
How fast did you go?
The highest speed that we achieved with the Mustang was just over 164 mph.
Is this catching on with the rest of your team?
We’re using it for all tracks, to make it more efficient when we go there. It’s obviously very expensive to rent the track, to fly all the people there, to have a semi take cars there, mechanics, engineers. Time is money, as they say, so a few hundred dollars for a video game pays off very quickly.
You must want to play something that doesn’t involve driving.
I think it would be cool to get some of the old-school games, the old Frogger game and Centipede.
What’s up next on Gran Turismo 4?
We’re getting ready to do testing at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, so I’m going to use it to refresh my memory.