“A long time coming”; Keegan Leahy is eNASCAR’s latest sim-to-reality success

The 2021 eNASCAR iRacing Series champion Keegan Leahy is moving to North Carolina to start his real-world racing career this year as the new Performance Consultant for NASCAR’s 23XI Racing.

On 26th March, 2023, at the real-world Circuit of the Americas, Tyler Reddick piloted his No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota Camry into victory lane for his first win of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Surviving multiple NASCAR Overtime restarts, Reddick put on a master class throughout the afternoon in Austin, Texas, overcoming differing strategies and tons of restart chaos to pull off the win.

In Victory Lane, Reddick credited the work done by one of his 23XI Racing teammates for his speed throughout the event. No, he wasn’t talking about Driver 23 Bubba Wallace or the former driver of the No. 45, Kurt Busch, or even his Team Owner and fellow competitor Denny Hamlin. Reddick was speaking about his iRacing compatriot Keegan Leahy, the 2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series champion.

“Keegan really helped me shave off some more time in the simulator, and it really paid off when we got here, it correlated very well,” said Reddick to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. NASCAR and eNASCAR commentator Alan Cavanna brought the story to light following the COTA race.

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

On Monday the 27th, Hamlin went on his podcast ‘Actions Detrimental’ and spoke about the work that Leahy was already doing for the team, revealing that the top sim driver was more than just one of their iRacers on the team, but also a hired employee of 23XI Racing for this year.

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

eNASCAR Coca-Cola: Matt Bussa saves enough gas to win Coca-Cola 150
Keegan Leahy at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2022.

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

Following Leahy’s fifth place finish at Richmond Raceway on Tuesday night (28th March), he confirmed that he is indeed taking his talents to North Carolina to work for the team as their Performance Consultant, but in what official and specific capacity, however, is still to be determined by him and the team through the process.

Leahy was invited to the post-race media press conference with the eNASCAR media to speak on the news, and when asked by RACER.com’s Ryan Kish, he spilled everything he could on his current situation.

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

“They invited me down a few months ago to observe a race, watch the behind the scenes, sit on the pit box… they also gave me a tour of the shop. I expressed interest, and they expressed 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, it is what it sounds.

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

“iRacing skills do translate. Now, I can’t say for 100 percent, but if you threw me into a car right now, on a track and gave me enough time to warm up and get the nerves gone, I feel like I could do well in a race, or at least do fast lap times. I can add a lot of value to a race team, so it’s a really interesting job, something I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of and try to find my niche.

“I get to try a whole lot of different stuff this week and figure out what I’m good at, or what I like and enjoy, and what the team needs me to do. Honestly, 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 did work on this week, especially my one-on-one with Tyler Reddick, and Denny Hamlin was there in the meeting as well, really got to go over what I thought they were doing in the simulator, how I thought they could go faster just watching what they were doing, drawing on my experience from racing Circuit of the Americas on iRacing because we had a race there in the eNASCAR Coca Cola iRacing Series in 2021, I believe.

“I have a lot of laps at that track… I’m glad to hear from Tyler that it did translate and it did help them, and whether it was a big part or a small part, I’m happy to be a part of that victory, and really glad for the team overall.”

Keegan Leahy to the eNASCAR Press following a fifth place finish at Richmond Raceway on 28th March, 2023.

SIM TO REALITY ISN’T JUST FOR DRIVING REAL-WORLD RACECARS

Many sim-to-reality stories involve drivers getting real-world racing seats, such as Vicente Salas and his full-time Late Model ride paying off with a win last weekend at Hickory Motor Speedway, or Kaden Honeycutt and Parker Retzlaff moonlighting in NASCAR ranks while also being a part of the eNASCAR Coke field.

Keegan’s path takes him further down the hole of sim racing, more on the path of someone like the 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 was the former driver of the No. 23 for 23XI Racing the past two seasons in the eNASCAR ranks.

This is really the first of its kind in NASCAR, however. There was a lot of crossover during the 2020 and 2021 eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series, but nothing that truly crossed over into the real-world product. Even in its early stages though, the success has already shone through with a 23XI Racing victory in just the sixth race of 2023.

eNASCAR Playoff Preview: Mitchell deJong, Michael Conti share thoughts entering Round of 10
Michael Conti (8) races alongside 23XI Racing driver Mitchell deJong (23) in 2021. Mitchell is an official factory sim works driver for Porsche.

“Honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long,” said Michael Conti, driver of the No. 8 for JR Motorsports in the eNASCAR ranks. “I think you’ve got a lot of guys in the Coke field that a lot of people in the industry sleep 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 looking at doing the same thing that Leahy is doing as it is a big unknown and he’s currently content in his real-world career, but he also admires what possible doors are being kicked down in the process for fellow eNASCAR competitors.

“You get a lot of guys that have always had aspirations of driving in real life. I think they have the talent to be successful in life, but for whatever reason, didn’t have the opportunities to make it happen when they were young, and were able to start that that journey up the NASCAR ladder.

“I feel like Keegan is paving the way for a lot of other people in this series. What separates Keegan from the majority of the field is the fact that he is very knowledgeable with the with the garage, the dynamics of the cars, telemetry, we worked with him quite a bit last year.

“That COTA performance from Reddick, that whole team showed that you can take somebody out of not only just Coke series, but top tier iRacing as a whole, and if they’ve got great knowledge of the garage, and great ability to drive a car to its limit, you can take them throw them in the manufacturer sim, and they can extract just as much, if not more than a real Cup driver that isn’t doing a sim session every day.”

LEAHY: “I WOULDN’T BE A PART OF 23XI WITHOUT MY EXPERIENCE ON iRACING”

In 2019, when the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series took on official teams in the series, Leahy drove that season for G2 Esports, finishing second in the title fight in one of the most memorable moments in series history, a clean but competitive battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway against the eventual champion Zack Novak.

eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Race Preview: Homestead-Miami
Keegan Leahy (62) races side-by-side with Zack Novak (6) for the eNASCAR championship in 2019.

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

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

While 2022 wasn’t the best season for the defending champion, he did pull off what would be his 12th and most recent victory in the series in the championship finale race at Phoenix Raceway in October, the only person that beat the eventual champion Kirwan (who then and now drives for XSET) on that day.

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

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

“I’m a big believer that experience in sim racing can be a decent replacement for having real-world experience,” Leahy said. “It’s really good to know exactly, or at least partially, what the driver is going through in the races, right? It’s tough to be an engineer, when you’re watching the driver and they get loose in their corner and you can’t tell why, or you can tell they’re doing something weird on track, but you can’t put your finger on what that advantage might be.

“If you can speak their language of racing, that helps you do your job, whatever it is to make the car make the driver faster. In my experience, iRacing especially, is a huge asset, and I wouldn’t be part of 23XI without my experience on iRacing.”

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

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