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How gamers can compete for a chance to become professional race car drivers

The virtual driving simulator Gran Turismo can make you a better driver and even serve as a stepping stone to a career in professional racing — in the real world. A little skeptical? Jay Leno is too.

The GT Academy, created in 2008 by Nissan and Sony, is a program through which talented gamers compete in difficult, real-life challenges for a chance to become professional race car drivers. Since 2008, the academy has graduated 20 drivers out of more than four million applicants.

On Thursday's episode of CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage," the host takes a ride with its first ever champion, Ricardo Sanchez, and Leno does not exactly look comfortable in the passenger seat of the 2017 Nissan GT-R NISMO.

"You know, he's awful confident considering he's never been here before," he tells viewers as Sanchez whips around the Willow Springs race track. But the gamer-turned-pro is at ease because he has been there, at least virtually. "It's just the same [as in the game]," he tells Leno. It's all familiar, "the curves, the runoff areas, the references."

2017 Nissan GT-R NISMO
Jay Leno's Garage | CNBC
2017 Nissan GT-R NISMO

When he was 14, Sanchez was a competitive go-kart racer. GT was just a hobby, but it was one he was good at.

To become the professional racer he is today, he had to beat out 100,000 competitors in his home country of Mexico, and then go on to defeat representatives of five other territories from around the world.

Still, despite his proven skills, as well as his promise to Leno that he doesn't go quite as fast in real life as he does in the game, Leno looks nervous.

"I'd shake your hand, but you're driving," the host tells Sanchez when it's time to make his formal goodbye.

Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi with Jay Leno using the GT virtual reality headset on CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage"
Jay Leno's Garage | CNBC
Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi with Jay Leno using the GT virtual reality headset on CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage"

To get a sense of exactly how GT works, Leno also pays a visit in the episode to the creator, Kazunori Yamauchi, who gives the host a chance to test out the game's latest version.

Yamauchi seems visibly impressed by Leno's skill as he passes other drivers on the track. And Leno seems impressed by the physics of the game, how the audio and visual effects create an immersive experience. He jokes that it's so realistic he can see his wife off to the side of the road.

But afterwards, when he returns to the real outdoors behind the wheel of his real car, he says, "As much as I like the video game, this real life thing ... it's a little bit better."

CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. EDT.

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Video by Richard Washington