Late Model Leap Puts Donovan Strauss In The Fast Lane


Georgia native Donovan Strauss is early in his first season of late model racing. (Photo Courtesy AK Performance)

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Eighteen-year-old Donovan Strauss has been around racing for the last half-decade of his life. He’s just getting to see the sport from a much larger stage for the first time this year.

Strauss, a Philadelphia native who later found his way to Marietta, Ga., grew up as an avid fan of motorsports, from NASCAR to other disciplines. He just didn’t have the opportunity to step into the racing community in his own right until five years ago, through the iRacing online simulation service.

“You hear about drivers having success in real life because of time they spent iRacing, but I think that’s what makes my story and a few others unique, is because that’s why I started,” Strauss told Motorsports Hotspot recently during a wide-ranging interview. “It’s organic, the ‘sim to reality’ piece, and I think we may see it even more in the years to come.”

That virtual path eventually led Strauss from sim-racing to real-life race cars, competing in Bandoleros and then advancing into Legend cars by the time the 2021 season rolled around.

Three years of Legend car racing yielded several career highlights, including a pair of Thursday Thunder wins at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway – Strauss’ home track – last summer, as well as the INEX Pro Division asphalt national championship, the highest season-long honor in pavement Legend car racing.

After that kind of success, the next step to furthering his real-life racing career was obvious to Strauss: if he wanted to achieve his long-term goal of racing in NASCAR, it was time to seek out a late model opportunity.

“That’s the place you want to be, if you want to eventually make it to race on Saturdays and Sundays,” Strauss noted. “The competition in late models … you’ve seen guys like (William) Byron, Sam Mayer, even Denny Hamlin, all of them cut their teeth in late models and had success before they went (to) NASCAR.”

Enter AK Performance, the development organization started by multi-time NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner Austin Hill and noted short-track driver-turned-coach Kendall Sellers.

Though Hill is no longer able to spend day-to-day time with the team, due to his obligations in the Xfinity Series with Richard Childress Racing, Sellers is still the driving force behind the success of many grassroots racers across the country.

Aware of that prowess from his time in Legend cars, and eager to learn and succeed at a high level, Strauss found “the right fit” to make a leap into late model competition this season for the first time.

“Racing for Kendall was an easy decision because he knows my background, where I come from, and he respects what I’ve done,” Strauss explained. “I knew in the end, that was going to be the best decision to propel me forward in pursuing a career [in racing] and so far I feel like that’s been proven true.”


Donovan Strauss in action at Florence (S.C.) Motor Speedway. (Photo Courtesy AK Performance)

As part of a planned 16- to 20-race schedule, Strauss made his first two late model starts at Florence (S.C.) Motor Speedway over the past month. He debuted during the four-tenth-mile oval’s Icebreaker on Feb. 10 and added another appearance on March 16 during St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Notable from Strauss’ Icebreaker was the caliber of field that he was able to compete in right out of the gate.

Racing against star power like two-time CARS Late Model Stock Tour champion Carson Kvapil; reigning NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series national titlist Connor Hall; short-track journeyman Landon Huffman; and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. was something Strauss didn’t take lightly.

“Looking back on it, that was a big deal,” he admitted. “In the moment, when the race was going on, I was all focused on what was in front of me. But when I was off the track, that [thought] was definitely in my head. I’ve never raced against any of those guys, which was definitely big, because as a rookie I didn’t know what to expect from a lot of them.

“I feel like I had a bit of an advantage in Legend cars, because I knew who I was racing around and who I could be aggressive against,” he continued. “Now that I’m at a different level, I have to learn that again.”

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Though Strauss’ first late model race didn’t end on paper like he’d hoped, with an exhaust issue forcing him out of the 125-lap Icebreaker just past the halfway point, his return to Florence last weekend netted much more positive results both from growing his notebook and in his final finishing position.

A fourth-place qualifying effort, less than a tenth of a second off the pole, allowed Strauss to run inside the top five for virtually the entire 75-lap feature. He eventually finished fifth in the race won by Hall.

“Icebreaker was the biggest learning weekend of my life, but I feel like the things I learned in that start made me so much more prepared for the second race,” Strauss tipped. “I think the biggest thing is that it takes laps to feel confident in these cars, and as a rookie in late models I really don’t have that yet, obviously. But I’m slowly gaining that confidence and learning the limits of what I can and can’t do in them.

“[Racing in late models is] a whole different world,” Strauss added. “There’s so much more preparation behind things than at some of the lower levels. Everything I thought I knew, I had to throw it all out the window and now I’m rebuilding my notebook for what I need in late models.

“The next step from there is working on consistency, but I feel like if we can do that, a win will come our way sooner rather than later. I really believe it’s only up from here for this team.”


Donovan Strauss en route to his first eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series win at the virtual Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway. (Photo Courtesy Williams eSports)

Outside of his late model plans, Strauss remains active in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series, the only online racing series officially sanctioned by NASCAR.

In the midst of his third eNASCAR season, Strauss ended last year with his first win at the virtual Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway, and currently ranks a career-high fifth in the series standings through three of 18 races – just eight points behind leader Kollin Keister.

He’s affiliated with Williams eSports – the sim-racing arm of multi-time Formula One world champion team Williams Ltd. – and hopes to continue competing in the virtual world as long as he’s able to while also furthering his real-life motorsports goals.

“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,” tipped Strauss. “I got really consistent and that’s something I worked on with iRacing, is testing and being really consistent lap after lap. Everything transferred over to my real-life racing really, really well. With that 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.”

As the newest chapter of Strauss’ journey has evolved, his life both inside racing and out has undergone change as well.

Strauss put his title-winning Legend car up for sale at the end of February – following 17 wins, track championships at Lanier Raceway and Atlanta, and the Pro national championship – and recently finished a move north from his Georgia hometown to Mooresville, N.C., to be near his late model team.

“The move has probably been the biggest challenge for me, because it’s tough to go from somewhere you’ve been your entire life to a new place with a lot of unknowns, but when you’re chasing a dream sometimes you have to make the biggest sacrifices in order to achieve it,” said Strauss.

“The dream is in front of us … and seeing that clearer has me more motivated than ever to reach it.”

Strauss’ year will continue with additional late model starts at Florence, as well as expected appearances later on at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Tri-County Motor Speedway in Granite Falls, N.C., and Caraway Speedway in Sophia, N.C., before branching out into the zMAX CARS Late Model Stock Tour.

It’s the latest “sim to reality” story that was preceded by current NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series drivers Kaden Honeycutt and Rajah Caruth, and largely began with the meteoric ascent of recent Daytona 500 champion William Byron – who raced on iRacing for years before ever stepping into a Legend car in 2013.

“That [kind of] list is something that’s just cool to be a part of,” Strauss said with a small smile.

For more information, visit Strauss’ website at

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About Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman is Motorsports Hotspot’s News Editor and Race Face Digital’s Director of Content, as well as a veteran of more than a decade in the racing industry as a professional, though he’s spent his entire life in the garage and pit area.