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“It will take a long time”; Keegan Leahy is eNASCAR’s latest sim-to-reality hit

On March 26, 2023, at the real Circuit of the Americas, Tyler Reddick piloted his #45 23XI Racing Toyota Camry to victory for its first win of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Surviving multiple NASCAR overtime restarts, Reddick hosted an all-afternoon master class in Austin, Texas to overcome different strategies and plenty of restart mayhem to claim victory.

At Victory Lane, Reddick credited the work of one of his 23XI Racing teammates for his speed throughout the event. No, he wasn’t talking about driver 23 Bubba Wallace, or former No. 45 driver Kurt Busch, or even his team owner and competitor Denny Hamlin. Reddick spoke about his iRacing compatriot Keegan Leahy, the 2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Champion.

“Keegan really helped me save even more time in the simulator and it really paid off when we got here, it correlated very well,” Reddick told SiriusXM NASCAR radio after the race. NASCAR and eNASCAR commentator Alan Cavanna broke the story after the COTA race.

LEAHY’S NEW POSITION IS ONE OF NASCAR’S FIRST

On Monday the 27th, Hamlin took to his Actions Detrimental podcast and spoke about the work Leahy has already done for the team, revealing that the best sim driver was more than just one of their iRacers on the team, it was also an employee of 23XI Racing for that year.

“I’ve been working with Keegan Leahy, our iRacing Pro Series driver for 23XI, for a couple of years now,” Hamlin explained on his podcast.

Keegan Leahy at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2022.

“We only recently hired him on our team to work with us and I know he and Tyler have worked together quite a bit in preparation for COTA. I was actually there and I was surprised, I went into the sim and I was like, ‘Oh hey Keegan, what’s up? What are you doing here?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’m moving here in a month’.”

After Leahy’s fifth-place finish at Richmond Raceway on Tuesday night (March 28), he confirmed that he is indeed bringing his talents to North Carolina to work for the team as a performance advisor, but in what official and specific capacity it is still of him and be determined by the team during the process.

Leahy was invited to the post-race press conference with eNASCAR media to share the news and when asked by RACER.com’s Ryan Kish, he revealed all he could about his current situation.

“It’s kind of taking a long time. I’ve built my relationship with 23XI Racing and Denny Hamlin and now the drivers, Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace, are getting to know the team.

“They invited me over a few months ago to watch a race, go behind the scenes, sit on the pits… they also gave me a tour of the store. I expressed an interest and they expressed an interest and it was like, hey, maybe this can be a bit of a gig for me. You know the title is “Performance Consultant” and honestly that’s what it sounds like.

“It’s just a huge mismatch of what I can do to help the race car or the drivers to be faster for the race. I’m able to use my physics degree, I can use my knowledge of sim racing, like driving a car, which everyone knows is getting closer and closer to real life.

“iRacing skills can be translated. Well I can’t say 100 percent but if you throw me in a car at a track now and give me enough time to warm up and get rid of my nerves I feel like I could do well in a race, or at least drive fast lap times. I can add a lot of value to a racing team so it’s a really interesting job, something I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of and trying to find my niche.

“I can try a lot of different things this week and find out what I’m good at, what I like and enjoy, and what the team expects of me. To be honest, I can’t tell you exactly what I’m doing because I don’t know yet either.

“What I can say is that what we’ve been working on this week, particularly my one-on-one with Tyler Reddick, and Denny Hamlin was also there for the meeting, really had to think about what I thought they were doing on the simulator, as i thought they could go faster just by watching what they do and drawing on my experience from the Circuit of the Americas circuit on iRacing because we had a race there in the eNASCAR Coca Cola iRacing Series in 2021, believe I.

“I’ve done a lot of laps at this track… I’m happy to hear from Tyler that it was worth it and helped them, and whether it was a big part or a small one, I’m happy to be a part of this.” win and I am very happy for the team as a whole.”

Keegan Leahy to the eNASCAR press after a fifth place finish at Richmond Raceway on March 28, 2023.

SIM TO REALITY IS NOT JUST FOR DRIVING REAL RACING CARS

Many sim-to-reality stories involve drivers getting real racing seats, like Vicente Salas and his full-time late-model ride that pays off with a win at Hickory Motor Speedway last weekend, or Kaden Honeycutt and Parker Retzlaff who moonlight in the NASCAR ranks while also being part of the eNASCAR Coke field.

Keegan’s path takes him further down the sim racing hole, more in the path of someone like 2020 Porsche TAG Heuer Esports Supercup Champion Sebastian Job, who recently became Oracle Red Bull Racing’s official sim test driver, or even like his Coanda Esports teammate Mitchell deJong, who has been the former No. 23 driver for 23XI Racing in the eNASCAR ranks for the past two seasons.

However, this is truly the first of its kind in NASCAR. There was a lot of overlap during the 2020 and 2021 eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series, but nothing that really spilled over into the real world product. But even in the early stages, success has already shown with a victory for 23XI Racing in the sixth race of 2023.

eNASCAR Playoffs Preview: Mitchell deJong and Michael Conti share their thoughts on the Round of 16Michael Conti (8) will race alongside 23XI Racing driver Mitchell deJong (23) in 2021. Mitchell is an official factory sim factory driver for Porsche.

“Honestly, I’m surprised it took this long,” said Michael Conti, the No. 8 driver for JR Motorsports in the eNASCAR ranks. “I think you have a lot of people in the Coke industry, and a lot of people in the industry are sleeping on the talent that’s housed in the eNASCAR Coke Series.”

Conti, who will retire at the end of the 2023 eNASCAR season, isn’t particularly aspiring to do the same as Leahy as it’s a huge unknown and he’s currently content with his real-world career, but he also admires what possible doors will be kicked in for other eNASCAR competitors at the same time.

“You get a lot of people who have always had a desire to drive in real life. I think they have the talent to succeed in life, but for some reason they didn’t have the opportunity to make that happen at a young age and were able to start that journey up the NASCAR ladder.

“I feel like Keegan paves the way for a lot of other people on this show. What sets Keegan apart from the majority of the field is that he is extremely knowledgeable about the garage, car dynamics and telemetry. We’ve worked with him quite a bit over the last year.

“This COTA performance from Reddick, this whole team showed that you can get someone out of not just the Coke series, but top-end iRacing as a whole, and if they have great garage knowledge and great driving skills Pushing the car to its limits, you can throw them in the manufacturer simulation and they can get just as much, if not more, than a real cup driver who doesn’t do a sim session every day.”

LEAHY: “I WOULD NOT JOIN 23XI WITHOUT MY iRACING EXPERIENCE”

As the 2019 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series competed against official teams from the series, Leahy drove for G2 Esports that season and finished second in the title shot in one of the most memorable moments in series history, a clean but competitive battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway against eventual champion Zack Novak.

eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Race Preview: Homestead-MiamiKeegan Leahy (62) drives side-by-side with Zack Novak (6) for the 2019 eNASCAR Championship.

The following year, Denny Hamlin started what was originally called DHR or Denny Hamlin Racing, signing Leahy and Casey Kirwan for the 2020 team. They had four of the 20 race wins that season, including three by Leahy alone.

When 23XI Racing was formed in the real world in 2021 with Denny, Michael Jordan and Bubba Wallace as drivers, DHR in the eNASCAR ranks was converted to match the new team name to 23XI Racing (pronounced twenty-three eleven). That same year, Leahy won the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series title.

Although 2022 wasn’t the best season for the defending champion, in October he clinched his 12th and final win of the series at the championship finals at Phoenix Raceway, the only one that eventual champion Kirwan (who then and now drives for XSET) at that Day.

Keegan Leahy wins the 2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series ChampionshipKeegan Leahy celebrates winning the 2021 eNASCAR title at Texas Motor Speedway.

So is this a validation of all the hours and work he put into this particular sim? That’s a frequently asked question from Kickin’ The Tires’ Seth Eggert, and Leahy answered with incredible insight.

“I firmly believe that sim racing experience can be a decent substitute for real-world experience,” said Leahy. “It’s really good to know exactly, or at least partially, what the driver is going through in the races, isn’t it? It’s tough being an engineer when you’re watching the driver and he breaks loose in his corner and you can’t tell why, or you can tell he’s doing something weird on the track but you can’t tell what it is could be an advantage.

“If you can speak their language of racing, it will help you in your work, whatever it is, to get the car to make the driver faster. In my experience, iRacing in particular is a great asset and without my iRacing experience I would not be part of 23XI.”

So far this season, Leahy sits seventh overall in the points standings after four races, with a recent fifth at Richmond being his best run of the season so far. In his three seasons with 23XI Racing he drove the No. 32, No. 45 and now this season he has been moved to fill in as the No. 23 eDriver.

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