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2020 iRacing Road To Pro preview – Part three – ‘Fast Firsts’, Q&A, and what to watch for

EDITORS NOTE: This is the final part of a three part preview series for the eNASCAR Road-to-Pro Series. Part one can be found by clicking here. Part two can be found by clicking here.

With the addition of the official teams to the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series last season, as well as the changes made in 2018 to include the Road-to-Pro Series as a precursor to the Pro Series, the interest has never been higher for Sim Racers looking to compete at the highest level.

To rehash a quote from the iRacing Media Days in Charlotte back in January, Steve Sheehan, current driver of the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevrolet for KLR eSports, said, “When it started, we always hoped it would turn in to something, but I don’t know that we knew back then what the potential was. Within the last two years, our sport has grown so much, and has gotten so popular out of nowhere it seems, it’s just incredible.”

The interest has definitely grown exponentially, and has warranted new faces not only onto the iRacing service, but many have also quickly worked their way up the ranks to have a shot at making it big time.

FAST FIRSTS

Donovan Strauss is about as fresh a new face as you can get in this year’s Road-to-Pro series. At only 14 years of age, the youngster has his sights set on big things already, in both the online and real life track.

Strauss resides in Marietta, Georgia, and currently races Bandoleros at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I’m hoping to be a NASCAR champion someday,” Strauss said. “I’m currently pushing to also be in the eNASCAR Coca Cola iRacing Series, and I just started high school this year.”

It’s been only one year since Strauss registered to race on iRacing.com, and it didn’t take him long to garner an iRating over 7000. “I first started racing on console games back in 2011, playing all the NASCAR games on Xbox 360, and then went to iRacing in 2019,” Strauss said.

In his first attempt in the Road-to-Pro Series, Strauss is teamed up with the Horizon Racing Team, and hopes the knowledge from his teammates will help guide him through the season.

“Braden (Boulos) is an awesome person, awesome teammate, and awesome friend,” Strauss said. “I have asked him about how he would approach some things in some situations… I know he’s been through all of it.”

Boulos was a contender in the 2019 Pro Series, so it’s a shoulder than Strauss plans to lean on in the coming weeks and months.

“Seth DeMerchant is an awesome friend and an awesome teammate, he knows about everything possible on what can make a car better which is insane, he’s been doing this stuff for years, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for this year. Markus (Ruckman), Matt (Danson), Jordy (Lopez), and Christian (Pedersen) are all awesome friends and teammates as well, and I’m ready to learn a lot from all of them. I can’t wait to work with them for this year and for a long time.”

From a newbie’s perspective, Strauss is looking forward to the upcoming challenge of the Road-to-Pro Series, and believes the system works in how the 40 drivers are decided upon for the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.

“I think the system that we have is a good balance to the guys in the Coca-Cola Series and to the guys trying to advance to it, because 20 make it from Road-to-Pro, and 20 drop out of the Coca-Cola Series, which is the best balance possible in my opinion,” Strauss said. “I honestly don’t think the system plays to my strengths or my weaknesses, I just think it’s about being consistent and getting good finishes race in and race out. If you can do that you’ll have a really good shot at advancing.”

I really do have to admire the confidence that Strauss portrays, but it will be interesting to see how he handles himself at his age. Regardless, the schedule is close to perfect for the young Georgia native.

“I feel really confident at all the tracks this year that we go to, except Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP),” Strauss said. “I’m not really that good at the road courses, but I have gotten somewhat good at the Charlotte ROVAL… CTMP is just a whole different level.”

***

Someone I’ve personally raced with for years on the NASCAR Racing 2003 Season platform, Blake McCandless, is trying his hand at the Road-to-Pro for the first time in his Sim Racing career in 2020.

McCandless, 23, hails from Raleigh, North Carolina, and is currently attending Gardner-Webb University. He has an identical twin brother, Philip, who also sim races, and his grandfather was a professional Drag Racer back in the day.

McCandless recently got serious with his iRacing career, and has gotten recently over 6300 iRating. The team he will race for in 2020 is the Sim Performance Group.

“Prior to joining the team a couple of months ago, I hadn’t raced too often with the team, but we’re familiar with some of the names through the years being involved in different sims,” McCandless said. “The vision for the team was largely put together by DJ Lyon, who wanted to create a team with exceptional drivers and exceptional people, and I think he’s been able to do that.”

“I know in the few short months I’ve been here, I’ve really enjoyed being able to work with everyone and learn some new things because I haven’t devoted a significant amount of time to the sim over the last few years. I’m also very excited to be able to share the track with the likes of Spencer Burns, Trevor Perry, Justin Botelho, Blaze Crawford, Max Brady, and several other guys who are going to be running Road-to-Pro with us this year. That, and along with our work with the Horizon Racing Team, I think this team has the potential to put together some really solid runs this year.”

The newness of the series to McCandless is something that he looks forward to participating in for the first time.

“I know it will be a great opportunity to compete against some of the best sim racers in the world on a wide variety of track types,” McCandless said. “There are plenty of former Coca-Cola Series winners, Pro drivers, and those like me trying to make a run at Pro for the first time, so the diversity of talent in the field is going to be exciting to see.”

McCandless will have a lot to learn as the season progresses, but for the most part, he’s got a pretty good idea of what it’s going to take to be in the conversation.

“As far as preparation goes, I think it just depends on the track,” McCandless said. “With Daytona as the season opener, it’s just a different type of testing that has to go on versus a Las Vegas or something similar. Like anything else in life, the more time you put in, you generally get a better outcome, and that’ll be the case for this series this season.

“I know each person is different, but I’m really looking forward to Michigan, Richmond and Dover, which all happen in a four-race span over the summer. Richmond has been my favorite track on any sim since I first picked up a console NASCAR game. I don’t know why, it’s just always suited my driving style. The big ones I have circled to do a lot of individual practice for is the Charlotte Roval and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.

“Road course racing is not my strong suit, and that certainly is the case for road courses that haven’t been a part of the NASCAR schedule for a long time. I don’t even have Canadian Tire purchased on the sim, so I’ve never turned a lap there on iRacing. I’ll have to get comfortable with that track over the summer. I love the Roval and think it’s a really fun track, I’ve just never run there with the truck. It should be fun to learn.”

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Coca-Cola stepped up to become the Series sponsor on the eNASCAR iRacing Series tour. 20 teams and 40 drivers will compete over 20 races to determine both a Series champion and a Team Champion. Photo by Justin Melillo / TRE via iRacing.com

GROUP QUESTIONNAIRE

I asked all ten drivers who were featured in this three-part ePreview what teams, if any, of the 20 official Coca-Cola Series teams that they would prefer to race for, also asking if a potential teammates team could affect their decision.

Adam Gilliland: “Being one of the 40 guys with the ability to sign to a team would be an honor in itself. I feel like at that point any team would be great to be a part of but I think it would be really neat to sign with a NASCAR based team. I’ve always really admired the Wood Brothers Racing team and their history in the sport, so that would be awesome to be apart of. I think ideally you’d want to be teammates on the setup side with the other person that’s on the team you sign with but it’s not a make or break type deal.”

Brandon Hauff: “First off, I think it’s extremely cool how many of the Cup guys have gotten into the series as owners. It’s great to see the exposure they’ve helped the series get, and I know it will only grow in the future. But as for a preference? Not necessarily, but Kyle Larson is one of my favorite drivers so if I did make it, it’d be really cool to drive for him. No matter what though, I’d be honored to be on any of the teams if I were to make it.”

Nicholas Morse: “I haven’t thought about that. To drive for any team would be a great honor. I wouldn’t want to be teammates with Eric Smith or Brian Schoenburg. Other than that, most private teams still control speed behind the scenes. So, I’d still work with everyone at HPM and keep our chassis in house. I couldn’t see a situation where sharing data with a corporate teammate would be permissible. Private teams and the amount of work we put into making our cars fast supersede corporate partnerships in the setup world.”

Liam Brotherton: “I absolutely have a few places I’d like to be over others, and my teammate would affect my decision to a degree. Looking at the list, Williams eSports, William Byron eSports, and Denny Hamlin Racing are probably my Top 3.”

Briar LaPradd: “It would be tough for me to drive for Richmond Raceway eSports with the driver lineup they have, but definitely them, and also Burton Kligerman eSports. To me, teammates won’t matter too much. I’m a nice guy and would like to get along with anyone and everyone in the field. In racing, it’s kind of tough to do that, but it’s racing, tempers happen.”

Michael Fenlason: “If I were to advance through Road-to-Pro and the Pro Series this fall, and make the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, the first team that peak my interest would probably be Richmond Raceway eSports as they back my LockDown Racing teammates, Jimmy Mullis and Zack Novak, and are also letting me tag along with them at both Cup weekends this year. All the teams seem to have their own pros, which is unique, and would be interesting to look at though, so I don’t know for sure.”

Blade Whitt: “I’m open to pretty much all of the teams, as I think they all offer unique things to the sim, but personally, I think it would be amazing to drive for one of the real life Cup Series teams or Cup Series drivers. A potential teammate could influence things, but I don’t think that would be the main factor in my decision.”

Dallas Pataska: “I think you hit the nail on the head with trying to join up with Christian (Challiner) at JTG Daugherty Racing, that would definitely be Option No. 1. As far as the other teams go I don’t have much of a preference. My goal is to perform well enough so that I am a teams first choice. I’m willing to represent any team that would be interested in myself, but if I have a chance to team with Christian I will.”

Donovan Strauss: “Honestly, I haven’t really put that into consideration, but it would be cool to drive for an actual driver like Denny Hamlin as an example, but then on the other hand you have actual eSport teams like G2 and Renegades, which is insane. Having a teammate in the series would definitely play into a factor of which team I would want to be with, in my opinion that would be freaking awesome.”

Blake McCandless: “Without putting too much thought into this, I think racing for Burton Kligerman eSports would be a really cool team to run for, especially since I’m starting to do a good amount of freelance work in sports production. Having that tie would be very cool to share with two names I have grown up respecting. As mentioned earlier, my grandfather drove a Pro Stock for Roush once upon a time, so extending the family tradition that way would be awesome as well to carry that on. Needless to say, I’d be thrilled if anyone were to ever pick me if that opportunity came.”

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An image from the Preseason Thunder at the virtual Daytona International Speedway preceding the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series debut on February 11th, 2020. Photo by Justin Melillo / TRE via iRacing.com.

HUNDREDS WILL TRY

This is only a small cross-section of hundreds of hopeful sim racers that will try to become the next crop of Pro level drivers in 2020, and from there, hopefully the next new faces of the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series.

The current format, and addition of the Road-to-Pro Series, was adopted back in 2018, and has seen an average of over 1,200 drivers in the first two seasons. This is looking to be the biggest season yet, where it might even be possible that some drivers in the 6000 iRating range might be relegated to a second split, maybe even a third split.

There are a handful of the mainstay eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series drivers who aren’t even at a 6,000 iRating, so the competition has ramped up as far as getting as large of an iRating as possible, and it’s also possible that some of these Road-To-Pro fields might have record strength-of-field numbers in 2020.

Check out a few select tweets among the eNASCAR community of those not featured, that are also looking to make waves starting on Tuesday night in their own respective Road-to-Pro campaigns.

 

Good luck to all the sim racers competing in the iRacing Road-to-Pro Series in 2020.

I’ll be racing, myself, but probably in the bottom split. Whatever split I race in, I can still give a better first-hand analysis of the series, which is my plight, so I won’t have my usual live-tweets of the action.

Top split will be carried live on Podium eSports, if anyone is looking for a race to tune into on Road-to-Pro race night, Twitch.tv/podiumesports. I’ll hopefully have Wednesday stat recaps of the multiple splits here on The Racing Experts.

Thank you to all who contributed to this ePreview!

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Justin Melillo View All

Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com

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