By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Following the completion of the 2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series season, Nathan Lyon opted to decline an invitation to compete in the Road to Pro Contender iRacing Series.
The driver of the virtual No. 6 Ford Mustang for Roush Fenway Racing was relegated. Lyon finished the season 29th in the standings. He ended the 2021 eNASCAR season with one top-five and two top-10 finishes.
However, the decision to ‘hang up’ the virtual helmet didn’t come when the season ended. Lyon made the decision halfway into the season. Between a day job collecting payments on car warranties and other goals, he didn’t have the time to put into eNASCAR competition. With some putting over 40 hours into the sim for practice and testing, the time just wasn’t there.
“I didn’t really want to hang it up,” explained Lyon. “But I felt like it was just something I really needed to do, put the time and effort that I put been into the Coke Series into something else, outside the sim. Even though I didn’t really want to do it, I just kind of knew that I had needed to at this point in my life.”
When Lyon entered the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series scene, major endemic NASCAR teams were not yet involved in the series. Slowly, that changed. Part of the way into Lyon’s rookie season in 2019, he was signed by Letarte eSports. Then in 2020 he moved to Roush Fenway Racing.
“I think that was the goal was to get to the Coke Series, but I didn’t think that NASCAR teams were going to go into it,” admitted Lyon. “When I first came in, it was 2018 and they had a few of those teams’ kind of experimenting, coming in. I think there was the Chaos Crew from Richmond. I didn’t think NASCAR teams or guys like Steve Letarte would come to eNASCAR.”
A perk of the endemic NASCAR teams joining the series were various tours and tickets to races on behalf of the teams involved in the eNASCAR Series. Lyon, along with his teammates, got to tour the Roush Fenway Racing shop. He also got tickets to go to races, prior to the Covid-19 shutdown.
“They invited us, I got to see the Roush shop when we went out to media day last year,” stated Lyon. “We got to tour the shop and they were always really kind with giving me passes and tickets to races and events I wanted to go to. So that was really, really cool then to be able to do that.”
Representing Roush on the iRacing platform brought back a piece of Lyon’s childhood. Although he grew up a fan of Jimmie Johnson, he was a passionate fan of those that dominated 1.5-mile tracks and his hometown drivers. Two of those drivers were Roush’s Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray.
With Hendrick Motorsports not involved in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, Roush Fenway was a natural landing spot for Lyon.
“It was cool because Roush was one of those NASCAR teams growing up that had those big-time stars like Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, and Jamie McMurray. So, they were pretty big powerhouse, and they dominated a lot of the mid-2000s. It was a pretty big part of my childhood growing up.
“That’s right when I started watching NASCAR and even though I was at Jimmie Johnson fan, I just really liked teams like Roush because it had some of my hometown NASCAR drivers, like McMurray, Edwards. I like watching people like Biffle, Kenseth just dominate those 1.5-miles.”
For now, Lyon ends his eNASCAR career with two top-five finishes. His best career finish, third, came in 2020. However, he views a race from his rookie season at Bristol Motor Speedway as his best race. The race came shortly after he was signed by Letarte eSports. Lyon qualified up front and ultimately finished eighth that night.
“My best would have been probably Bristol, my rookie season,” reflected Lyon. “I had qualified well up front, and it’s my favorite track. Put a lot of time into every time we went to Bristol. I had done really well that race.
“I feel like I had a really good handling on the car, and it was driving exactly how I want to use. It had a lot of turn in it, it was very loose, and I could just roll the bottom really well. Went up and then gradually was able to lead laps and just fell short on the win. A bad strategy call I made. That was probably the best race I had.”
Although he spent three years in eNASCAR, Lyon experienced his fair share of tough races. Each year he was relegated back to the ‘Pro Series.’ In 56 career starts, he finished outside of the top-30 17 times. In 2020, he finished 22nd in positions, two positions shy of avoiding relegation.
“(The tough races) showed me what we have to do,” stated Lyon. “At the same time, a lot of that stuff’s out of your control, that happens. But I started kind of seeing a trend of how these races were going, and situations I needed to either take advantage of, or kind of back out. And because of that, I became a lot more consistent, was not caught up in so many accidents because I wasn’t forced myself into bad situations.”
One of those tough races was Lyon’s final career eNASCAR start at Texas Motor Speedway. With limited practice, he intended to use the first run of the race to learn the car. Contact with the outside wall changed that. With a damaged No. 6 Ford Mustang, Lyon chose an alternate strategy, hoping for a caution. That caution never came and he crashed entering pit road, ending his race.
“It was just a rough race. The only good thing about it is that I qualified well. But I didn’t practice a lot for it. So, the first run, I was just kind of getting used to the car and I ended up just grazing the wall and it gave me 15 seconds of damage, which just pretty much ended my race at that point. My straightaway [speed] was so far off.
“So, I was just kind of riding around, just open for caution that I could get the damage fixed. Maybe try to get some track position by doing off sequence kind of strategy, like staying out there later than everyone else.”
Although he did second guess his decision for a time, Lyon is happy that he was able to leave the series on his own terms. Even with the relegation, he hadn’t technically fallen completely out of the series yet. That would have happened if he failed to finish in the top-20 in points in the Contender Series.
Ultimately, Lyon will miss two things about the series. The people that both compete in the series and make the series run, and the competition level of the series.
“I’d say yes, (I’m happy to leave on my own terms),” admitted Lyon. “I was pretty happy, I guess a lot happier than falling out and just not being able to get back in. I would hope for closure kind of looking back on it.
“(I will miss the) competition and everyone that’s involved in the series. It is such a close community. A lot of the people that race in the series, but also manage the series that, does media, painting. There’s just so many people that are involved in it. But definitely that competition side, because nothing even comes close to how competitive each race is. I’ve never experienced something like that in any other form of sim racing.”
Featured Photo Credit: Photo by Justin Melillo