The Second Career of Donovan Strauss
Like so many before him, Donovan Strauss started watching races on television when he was young. The interest from simply watching motor races morphed into a wish to be a part of the racing community. The right time for him and his family took a while but in March 2019, his wish came true. But it wasn’t behind the wheel of a go-kart, Bandolero or any other physical race car. Instead, his foray into the racing community was with iRacing.
“It really wasn’t a great computer or setup,” said Strauss. “It was a little desk, with a little computer and one monitor with a wheel and pedals mounted to the desk.”
Strauss used this setup for over a year, but honed his sim racing skills in 2019. He eventually stepped into his first real race car in December 2019. Throughout 2020 while he raced Bandoleros, Strauss attempted to earn his way into the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series for the 2021 season but failed to qualify.
Not just anyone can race in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Similar to the NASCAR Cup Series, there is a ladder system that leads you to the top ranks of eNASCAR racers. It starts with the eNASCAR Qualifying iRacing Series, which utilizes virtual NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series trucks. Drivers that possess an Oval Class 2.0 License or higher on iRacing are eligible to compete in this series. In the first round of races anyone can race but in Round 2, the top 70 drivers from Round 1 advance and from there are narrowed down to the best 20. Those 20 drivers move on to compete in the eNASCAR Contender iRacing Series.
“[The eNASCAR Contender iRacing Series] is the bottom 20 [drivers] from the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series and the top 20 from the eNASCAR Qualifying Series.”
This series is a seven-race championship and the top 20 drivers out the combined 40-driver field will be eligible for the next year’s eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, along with the top 20 points finishers from the previous year.
“I originally tried to qualify for the series in 2020 and missed it,” Strauss said. “When I made it in 2021 it was a big comeback journey, especially how I did it. I won a lot of races when I was qualifying through.”
Strauss admitted it was fun advancing through to the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series with several victories and was relieved when he qualified for the series for the 2022 season. His family and friends were, who provided and continue to provide so much support, were happy to see him accomplish this career milestone. In particular his mother, who Strauss says is his “biggest supporter.”
Once Strauss earned his was into the highest eNASCAR series, he entered into a free agency period where eNASCAR teams reach out to available drivers. Who reached out to Strauss? Williams. Yes, that Williams. The same Williams that holds seven Formula One world driver’s championships. Its esports division, Williams Esports, fields two entries in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series and Strauss signed with them for the 2022 season.
“Williams is probably the most historic team that is in eNASCAR,” said Strauss. “It’s given me an opportunity to build great connections with people in Formula One.”
Those connections led him to attend the inaugural Formula One Miami Grand Prix in 2022 where, among other things, Strauss was able to hang out in the Williams garage.
“It’s an amazing feeling being part of the team. Honestly, I don’t see myself anywhere else in my eNASCAR journey.”
Williams Esports has 30 drivers and just like a real team they have obligations such as meetings. But Strauss feels best when he is able to help others within his team. Including his eNASCAR teammate, Vicente Salas, who he met nine years ago when the pair connection on Xbox. A friendship that began while playing NASCAR console video games, grew stronger when Strauss qualified into the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Salas had already raced in the series in 2021, but for 2022, they elected to sign with Williams and race together.
One perk Strauss received when he signed with Williams Esports was an upgraded rig. His one monitor on a desk setup now was replaced by a Sim Seats seat and chassis, three 32-inch curved monitors, a VRS direct drive wheelbase and Heusinkveld Ultimate Plus pedals (pictured above).
Helping others is a passion that Strauss holds close to his heart. He received help from Steven Wilson, who won the 2023 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series championship. Strauss credits Wilson for helping him be smoother with his feet, helping him not rush to the throttle, and extending the life of his tires. iRacing is very sensitive and little mistakes add up.
“I’d say all these drivers in the eNASCAR ranks, they’re about perfect every lap and mistake are very, very minor,” said Strauss.
Working at Williams has afforded him the opportunity to help others within the team, and hopes to pay it forward.
“I work on cars a lot on iRacing and help people get faster. I enjoy seeing people do better and helping any way I can.”
The 2022 season wasn’t what Strauss had hoped for and full of challenges. He scored only two top fives, three top 10s, and didn’t lead one lap but managed to finish 20th in the points standings and avoided having to re-qualify for the series again. The 2023 season didn’t start the way Strauss wanted it to, either, but ended on a high note.
“I started off the year miserable. I couldn’t put together results. No matter how well I ran at the beginning of races, I couldn’t put together results.”
But he refocused and put his head down and got to work.
“It was the New Hampshire race in July that was a turning point for me,” said Strauss. “Qualifying on the front row and leading the first half of the race. That was definitely a turning point in my season.”
Strauss finished third that day at the virtual New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He’d only finished inside the top 10 once in the previous 12 races and it was a seventh-place result at the virtual Richmond Raceway. After that race at New Hampshire, he finished 13th at Pocono Raceway but finished the season with four-straight top 10s. At the final race of the season at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, Strauss won the pole and led flag-to-flag on his way to his first eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing victory, and winning that race meant a lot to him and those around him.
“It was a big relief, because I hadn’t won a competitive race since when I was qualifying through the series,” Strauss said. “It was a big relief to know I can still win at this level.”
Waiting for him after the race was his mother and friends who were equally as happy to see him score his first career eNASCAR victory at the highest level. He received many texts after the win, but he did receive one from an old friend.
“I got a text from Elliott Sadler. I used to have a big connection with him in iRacing back in 2021. He was probably the biggest [text I received].”
Yet, through all the struggles of the season and having yet to capture a victory, Strauss said he wasn’t nervous during the race or the closing laps, and doesn’t get nervous for the races. In fact, he shared the only time his nerves come out is for qualifying.
“The races aren’t as long as they used to be, so qualifying is a big factor of how your race is going to go,” said Strauss.
With everyone running near perfect laps, qualifying is very important and his four top seven qualifying efforts in the final four races of the season helped build momentum to close the season. He finished 2023 with two top fives, six top 10s, and 159 laps led, which ranked third among all drivers.
On real asphalt, 2023 was Strauss’ third year in a Legend Car and competed full-time in the INEX Pro Division, chasing the Asphalt National Championship. He started the season by winning the 2023 Winter Nationals Pro Division Championship at Citrus County Speedway in Florida. During that week, he had to leave the track to race in the 2023 eNASCAR season opener at the virtual Daytona International Speedway. A fellow sim racer had reached out to let him borrow his rig for the race, since Strauss would be too far away from his home in Georgia to use his own rig. He returned later that night to compete the rest of the week where he totaled three victories in five races.
Throughout the rest of 2023, he amassed a total of 15 wins, including two during Thursday Thunder at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He captured the 2023 INEX Pro Asphalt National Championship by three points over Jake Bollman in a championship that was decided at the season-ending Legend Car Asphalt Nationals at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October.
“iRacing and real racing are definitely two different lives I have to live. It takes up my entire life practically,” said Strauss. “iRacing has given me so many opportunities and it’s given me opportunity to develop my brand, show who I am, and develop how I can be better for the real world.”
Between racing his Legend Car and preparing for the next eNASCAR race, which he spends 11-18 hours practicing for which doesn’t include time to fine tune setups, there isn’t much time for anything else. He acknowledges that it is hard to balance everything and that it will only get harder as his journey progresses. But he is more than willing to accept the challenge of balancing a world where he wears a physical and virtual racing helmet.
Looking into the future, Strauss hopes there is a shift in the balance next year he hopes to take the next step in his racing journey. Since he won the 2023 INEX Pro Asphalt National Championship, he doesn’t know how much Legend Car racing he will be doing next year. His goal is to race in late models or something bigger in 2024 and considers going for a national championship in a Legend Car a box checked on his list of desired accomplishments. However, he’d still to win a Thursday Thunder or Summer Shootout championship to check one of those boxes off his list.
But hie's not putting Legend Cars completely to the side. Strauss hopes to help other Legend Car drivers, much like he enjoys doing with sim racing.
“I want to help the young kids next year in Legend Car racing if I can. I want to try to help work with people on our team. I want to help people develop and become better next year.”
In the sim world, Strauss is looking to continue his progression up the standings after he improved on his 2022 ranking of 20th to finish 16th in 2023. Whatever comes of the 2024 season on the real track, he hopes to make both worlds work as long as he can.
“My goal is to get a win early and lock into the playoffs and compete for the championship.” Strauss said, “I want to try and do eNASCAR as long as I can continue to pull off the real and virtual careers. Two careers, two lives. As long as I can do that, I can see myself doing both.”