By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
A successful title defense in sports can take many different forms, from a game-winning pass to a mistake from an opposing team. In motorsports, consecutive championships have the added factor of competing with teams inside and outside the playoffs. Steven Wilson and Norse Force Racing (NFR) hope another stress-free season can land a second eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series championship.
Wilson dominated the 2023 eNASCAR championship race amongst his title rivals at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. The driver representing Stewart-Haas eSports was the only NFR driver to make the eNASCAR Championship 4. Wilson’s virtual No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang found redemption in his second trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, comfortably taking the checkered flag behind teammate Donovan Strauss (Williams eSports), with several teammates, including Parker White (Kanaan eSports) and Graham Bowlin (Charlotte Phoenix), behind him.
“I don’t really think I could have passed him,” Wilson said. “I think Donnie was really good. I drove really hard that second run, obviously both pulled away from the guys behind us and we held on to the end. So, Donnie was just a little bit better than me and testing of impacts all week, especially leading up to this race. He’s been really fast, he’s working amazing. He should have had one earlier this year in New Hampshire, maybe could have been the playoffs. But yeah, I’m super happy for him, and he definitely deserved it today.”
The teamwork that NFR showed in the race allowed Strauss to earn his first career eNASCAR victory. After two consecutive championships in the Contender iRacing Series, it marked the backend alliance team’s first championship at the pinnacle of eNASCAR competition. However, it wasn’t their only championship in 2023. White captured the Barr Visuals FTF Cup Series title in dominant fashion with 14 victories in the fixed-setup league.
“I think the chemistry, the work that everyone’s putting in on our team is the greatest in the series,” Strauss said. “I think that we put in the most effort week in and week out and that’s why we slowly got better and better and better. That’s what’s been making it a stress-free journey. I mean it’s still pretty stressful with a lot of competition.
“These are some of the best teams in the series. If I’m not available to tests a lot one week, the next guy steps up and that’s just what we do. We stayed like that all year with how many guys we had, we just stayed in that cycle and that’s what paid off and overall.”
That stress free environment created a moral boost that extended beyond just those that compete in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. Michael P Frisch felt the boost while competing in the eNASCAR Contender iRacing Series, the final rung on the ladder before reaching the top-level of NASCAR’s sim racing arm.
“It was a big moral boost,” Frisch said. “Donnie should have got his first win a long time ago in the season. I think he came up short in New Hampshire and he was running really, really good. And then the yellow came. I think Garrett Lowe passed them. But Donnie’s been top of the line. He’s a guy to look at next year. Honestly him, and Steve Wilson paired up and with Graham Bowlin, I mean you got a lot of heavy hitters over here that are going to be up at the front.
“I’m not even kidding. It’s crazy to think we have built this team from going in the eNASCAR Road to Pro system, having only six guys at the time it was me. Zach Nichols … Larry Pace, and Blake McCandless were kind of part time running with us, so it’s crazy to think that we’ve added this many key factors to the team and how much we went up.”
While Bowlin, Strauss, White, and Wilson avoided relegation, mixed results either due to incidents beyond their control or otherwise sent some of NFR’s drivers back to Contender. Brandon McKissic, Daniel Faulkingham, Derek Justis, Femi Olatunbosun, and Wyatt Tinsley all returned to the series that highlights the laser-scanned replicas of NASCAR Xfinity Series cars.
Faulkingham, Olatunbosun, and Tinsley returned to the top level of NASCAR’s esports arm. Matthew Zwack, a former championship contender in the FTF also made it to eNASCAR’s top level, 20th out of the guaranteed 21 to transfer with Michael Conti’s retirement. Justis could return pending another possible retirement.
While NFR will have eight drivers in the Coca-Cola Series in 2024, there’s several that narrowly missed the cut. Swept up in multiple accidents throughout the Contender Series season, Max Brady, Daniel Buttafuoco, Blaze Crawford, Frisch, Eddie Kerner, and McKissic will have to return to the eNASCAR Qualifying iRacing Series.
“(Norse Force Racing) has so many guys who really put a lot of effort, time into every series,” Buttafuoco said. “Coke and now in this situation, Contender, everyone really pulls their weight. Everyone really works hard. They have a lot of knowledge in general when it comes to either setups, making adjustments with the car, maybe loosening or tightening things, or adjusting with driving lines.
“I know those tracks, you have really unique ones in a way, but there’s different lines you can take. And I’ve learned from my teammates. There’s different ways to go about driving a track and different ways to approach it. In a way, qualifying I say is probably the most stressful part in any I don’t even want to call it that.”
The wide range of drivers and driving styles allows NFR to have more of a laid back approach to competition. The brainstorming and testing that come from a diverse driver lineup gives the team the ability to be stress-free in their events.