In 2020, the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series ran 100 laps at two different road courses. Bobby Zalenski swept both races and led all 100 laps.
This year, as the series prepares for its first visit to a road course next week at Circuit of the Americas, there might be stiffer competition and new forms of pressure on the horizon for the series’ best road course driver.
In previous years, the pressure on Zalenski was largely that which he put on himself to either make the playoffs or have a chance at the championship title at the final race of the season. A win last year at the Charlotte ROVAL, for instance, helped propel him to the final four where he was passed by Nick Ottinger for the title after three green-white-checkered attempts.
But this time, there’s more pressure from those around him.
“It’s different this year because we have Mitchell deJong in the series. He’s one of the best road course sim racers of all time – it’s a different type of [pressure],” Zalenski said.
“He’s also my setup teammate, we work together. It’s a different kind of pressure because of that. I have to improve, or I will not be able to beat him.”
That competition might be useful for Zalenski, though.
“I know for me, it’s always helped having guys like [Michael] Conti and [Nick] Ottinger… to aim for and look out how they drive and improve,” he told RACER.
“When you have a target speed you can aim for, it does make it easier to improve a little bit because you have a clear goal. I think every year, everyone is trying to just keep working on what they’re doing and now we have new guys like Mitchell in the series, so yeah, it’s definitely a lot harder this year to win, especially at Circuit of the Americas.”
Finding success at the season’s road courses comes down to a number of factors, one of which is braking, Zalenski explained.
“There are so many variables,” he said. “I would say number one is braking because, especially with the current package, you don’t really have a ton of tracks that you brake at. This season, you have three road courses you brake at – we have New Hampshire and Richmond that we brake at, but most of the ovals are bigger tracks that you never need to use the brakes unless you’re entering the pits.
“So I think braking is the number one thing that separates a lot of drivers. You can kind of see it on short tracks, guys that run good on short tracks that might not run as good at intermediates, but you’ve got to get your braking right. Braking is almost everything honestly, you set up braking correctly, the rest of your corner is much easier.”
Tire wear will also be a factor, of course. Zalenski sees either a one-stop or two-stop strategy depending on whether there are cautions. iRacing and NASCAR have not yet told the drivers whether there will be traditional cautions like those on ovals, or local yellows that do not disrupt the flow of the race. This is because cautions at COTA would have to be manually triggered by a human and the series tries to take the human factor out in order to limit interference from race control. If cautions do come, Zalenski thinks a one-stop strategy over the 34 laps could be viable.
Regardless, he will be one of the favorites heading into next week’s race.
“I think it just comes down to, I have the most fun when we go to road courses,” he said.
“It makes it really easy to practice and learn, and it’s really motivating when you’re having a good time. I mean, I’m always having a good time when I’m racing, but the road courses are just a different animal. You’re focused on your driving more than the setup; you’re focused on 15 corners instead of two. It’s just much more fun and challenging to me.”