November 21st, 2021 by Keegan Leahy
2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion Keegan Leahy joined NASCAR and iRacing representatives at Phoenix Raceway earlier this month to accept his championship trophy as part of NASCAR Championship Weekend. Here’s his recap of the experience, and the years-long journey it took him to climb to the top of the sim racing mountain:
What a year! It’s hard to put into words how surreal it feels to be a NASCAR champion through the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. I’d like to give a bit of background on my journey, and talk about the amazing season I had, which capped off with a Championship win and an award presentation in Phoenix.
To be a race car driver was a childhood dream of mine and, as a huge fan of the sport, to be a part of NASCAR. Partly due to living in Canada and not having any relationships in the local racing community, I didn’t seize an opportunity to get into racing in my youth. As I grew older, the racing dreams began to fade, and I focused on what I thought was the more “realistic” goal of becoming a Meteorologist or Operational Forecaster for Environment Canada. Through my time studying at university, I made sure to take plenty of time to enjoy my hobbies of playing competitive video games and of watching NASCAR. In 2013, those worlds of racing and gaming collided, and I began my sim racing journey on iRacing.
I joined iRacing with the intention of racing in what would become the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Many names from back then are still active in the series in one way or another, like drivers Ray Alfalla, Nick Ottinger, Michael Conti, etc., and ex-driver and now competition director Tyler Hudson. I became fans of these drivers, and I dreamed of competing against them one day. However, I quickly realized just how far away I was from being at their skill level, to the point of it seeming unattainable. I didn’t realize how much more goes into being competitive than just driving fast. It’s equally important to have good racecraft, a sense of strategy, “setup-building” skills, and the propensity to work well with others in a team environment. It took me 5 years of dedicated work of incremental improvements in all of those areas, but I finally reached the series in 2018.
My eNASCAR career has been quite positive overall. I got my first win in my 2nd-ever race start, and I made the Playoffs in each of my seasons, though including the side by side finish for the championship in 2019, I never quite capped off the season with the big prize. Whether it was bad luck, lack of execution, nerves, or some combination of each, I couldn’t finish off a strong season with a Championship win in the season finale.
That is, until this year.
It all came together at the end of 2021. I spent much of the regular season leading the points, but all of the other drivers were extremely competitive and taking wins, nipping at my heels in my bid for victory. We had the largest number of different winners in eNASCAR history this year, which goes to show how competitive the series is now. The Playoff format dictates that in the final 4 races, the top 10 drivers with wins get their points reset, so no matter how well my regular season went, it really all came down to the Playoffs. I had a rough start to the Playoffs in Darlington, but managed to save my season with a clutch victory at Bristol to move onto the Championship Finale race at Texas.
My whole family was watching the final race. After I won the Championship, I drove straight to my Mom’s house, where she was hosting a watch party. It took me an hour and a half to get there, and it was nearly 2am on a weekday, but everyone was there waiting for me when I arrived. We spent the rest of the night celebrating and some of us didn’t go to bed until the sun started rising.
Focus shifted to media obligations during the next week. Stories ran about my iRacing win on Canadian local and national news networks. Notably, the CBC news story really took off, and there were quite a few instances where people recognized me in public. I’m a humble and introverted person most of the time, but I made sure to let myself enjoy my 15 minutes of fame.
iRacing and NASCAR invited me and one guest out to Phoenix to experience the real-life Championship weekend, and to receive my trophy and awards. I chose my Mom to experience the trip with me. We joined with iRacing’s Otto Szebeni and Tyler Hudson. I’d never been any further south-west than St Louis, so the Phoenix landscape looked closer to Mars than anything I’d seen before on Earth. The hot and dry weather was a bit of a shock as well, flying out from Canada in November. Luckily we had some downtime to enjoy the city before the race weekend, so we took the opportunity to explore the desert landscape and to drive up a nearby mountain overlooking the city. We were treated to some amazing restaurant meals as well. It was a warm welcome into Arizona.
The real “meat and potatoes” of the trip was the NASCAR weekend. I spent some time in the mornings at the eNASCAR exhibition on Raymond Smith’s invitation, where I got to meet many sim racing fans, as well as some of my competitors who I’d only met online previously. Mid-day typically involved walking around the garage area and watching practice sessions. My Mom and I snapped hundreds of photos in the infield. We also ran into quite a few drivers and NASCAR reps. Of course I’ll probably miss a few names, but it was really great to meet fellow iRacers Timmy Hill, Rajah Caruth, Parker Kligerman, Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and William Byron. I got to meet my “teammates” and 23XI partners Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, team president Steve Lauletta, and Bubba Wallace. An especially touching moment for me was finally getting to meet my childhood hero Jeff Gordon. I also had an amazing interaction with Dale Earnhardt Jr., when he made the time to talk to us about iRacing and to congratulate me on my big win. NASCAR President Steve Phelps and Director of Race Operations/Event Management Jusan Hamilton made sure to talk to us as well, and congratulate me and iRacing on a successful season.
Otto, Tyler, Mom, and I watched every race together that weekend. I was able to meet up with some iRacing friends to spectate the races too, including Logan Sheets, Nick Ottinger, and my championship rival Logan Clampitt. Some long lasting relationships, and some new personal connections had me rooting for certain drivers in each of the series races. I was especially rooting for Denny to win the cup series championship. Denny was extremely competitive and had a strong shot at winning, but it just wasn’t meant to be after Kyle Larson’s amazing late-race pit stop. Each race was a different experience, but the Xfinity championship definitely had the most exciting finish – what a race!
On Sunday morning, I was presented the eNASCAR trophy, ring, and ceremoniously large cheque on-stage before Driver Introduction. It was a huge crowd. Stage fright from that situation would have rendered me motionless when I was younger, but I’ve learned in recent years to embrace stressful situations (like iRacing championship races!) and enjoy them to their full potential. I was handed the trophy from Steve Lauletta, the championship ring by iRacing marketing director Otto Szebeni, and was thoroughly congratulated by Steve Phelps and Jusan Hamilton.
I’m not an emotional person in general, but winning the eNASCAR Championship hits differently. Not only was it an accomplishment I’ve been working towards for 8 years, but winning a NASCAR championship was a childhood dream of mine that I thought was out of reach. Sure, it was done virtually in a simulation, but the competition, dedication, and the experience to win feels quite real to me Receiving my trophy and ring at Phoenix was amazing in itself, but what was really important to me was experiencing that with all the people and organizations that are pushing to grow NASCAR’s presence in sim racing. Being able to experience all of this with my Mom with me brought it all together into the best weekend of my life.
It takes much more than just one driver to win a championship. My spotter Matt Bontempi, my 23XI teammate Mitchell DeJong, my colleagues at Coanda Simsport, and the support I get from my sponsor and employer Virtual Racing School are integral parts of my success. The series wouldn’t be what it is today without the work from the people at iRacing, and the support from NASCAR and Coca-Cola. Thank you all for supporting me and our series, especially the fans who watch every week and cheer us on. For me, it all culminated in an amazing moment when I lifted the trophy on stage. This was really something special and I’ll never forget it.