Zack Novak didn’t plan to win a championship at the highest level of sim racing, but after a year of growing as a racer and team player, he’s now the man — well, teenager — on top.
In front of a national television audience Thursday night, the 17-year-old outdueled Keegan Leahy in a tense last-lap battle to claim the 2019 eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing championship — not to mention a $40,000 cash prize, the largest in series history.
RELATED: Watch Novak win on final lap
But earning the title of champion wasn’t on Novak’s mind when the season started. Despite winning the inaugural eNASCAR IGNITE Series championship in 2018 — an esports series designed to showcase young talent — Novak’s PEAK iRacing Series goals were modest.
“I wanted to finish top 20 and still stay in the series,” Novak said.
The promise of Novak as a prospect caught the attention of legendary NASCAR team Roush Fenway Racing, which drafted the Connecticut native in Round 10 of the preseason draft.
“I figured when I got drafted, as long as I could make them happy, keep them involved, keep them interested, that was pretty much my goal,” Novak said.
The driver-team relationship grew as the season progressed — including when the team provided Novak with a new sim-racing wheel and chair after his equipment failed him during the season. Now, the champ feels at home with his team.
“They’ve just been extremely supportive of me. I’ve felt comfortable saying I’m actually part of the actual Roush Fenway organization.”
Novak far exceeded his early-season goal of remaining top 20 in points to secure a spot in next year’s series, winning the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. And he didn’t stop there.
A notable turning point for Novak was his victory at Kansas Speedway, where it felt like something simply clicked between himself, crew chief Logan Sheets and spotter Brandon Coppinger. (And, yes, just like in real-world racing, crew chiefs and spotters play an important role.)
“Earlier in the year, I figured if the cards fell right we could win it, but I thought after that Kansas win we were good enough as a team behind the scenes and during the race to actually legitimately compete for (the championship) if we could just show up with speed every week,” Novak said.
Even with his tendency to find the checkered flag — which he did four times in 2019 — the third-year driver often struggled with bad luck and inconsistency throughout the regular season, entering the regular-season finale — at the tricky short-track bullring of Bristol, of all places — in danger of missing out on a top-eight points position following a setback at Darlington Raceway the week before.
Novak responded by finishing second after a late-race battle with Clint Bowyer Racing’s Casey Kirwan. It was enough for Novak to advance to the playoffs, where he survived three intense rounds and found himself in a four-way title fight heading into Thursday night’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The roller-coaster regular season helped toughen the teenager’s mental strength — something that proved vital in the high-stakes, high-pressure, nationally televised championship race.
“One thing I had to get over this year was just not getting in my own head and understanding that things are going to happen and just letting the race come to me,” Novak said.
But mental preparation alone doesn’t win championships.
Novak estimated his team spent upward of 70 hours preparing for Homestead the week leading up to the race. He entrusted his team to build the best setup possible so he could focus on his job: driving the car.
“Before this race I would often try to make a lot of setup adjustments and kind of go out of the box and maybe see if I could hit on something or just try to learn more about the car, how to set it up,” Novak said. “But this race I had a ton of support behind me so I just focused on driving and making sure that I was as comfortable as I could be.”
It all paid dividends for the No. 6 team at Homestead, where the highest finisher among championship contenders Novak, G2 Esports’ Keegan Leahy, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bobby Zalenski and Team Dillon Esports’ Blake Reynolds would be crowned champion.
While many considered Leahy the favorite to win the race with his notorious long-run speed that netted the Canadian two wins in 2019, he was forced to adjust his strategy when a late-race caution set up for a 20-lap run to the finish.
A late-race short run was Novak’s opportunity.
The two battled it out in the closing laps in the 10-year-old series’ national television debut with more on the line than ever before.
“He did a really good job maneuvering around the dirty air and just making sure that he could get runs off the corner on me,” Novak said of Leahy.
In short order, Novak pulled off the pass in the closing laps, racing toward the virtual checkered flag — and a very real $40,000 payday.
“I got to his bumper to make the pass and then it was all just defensive mode at that point and trying my best to run the most annoying line possible in the corners.”
On the final lap, Leahy made one final charge on Novak, a desperate side-by-side attempt to rattle Novak, but it wasn’t enough. The two avoided contact — somehow — and Novak crossed the line first. eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Series champion, Zack Novak.
Novak had kind words for his championship rival’s clean racing when the two spoke after the race.
“He handled it really, really well. Obviously he seemed pretty disappointed and I don’t blame him one bit because I would have been the same way. It’s a tough situation for him to be in and I gained so much respect for him after that because he could have easily just wrecked the crap out of me for it and he didn’t,” Novak said.
Though he’s still not yet sure what he’ll do with a $40,000 payday, he’s grateful in particular to his parents — who now-famously rushed into Novak’s room to congratulate him when he crossed the start/finish line — for supporting him, even if the allure of sim racing didn’t click immediately. He said it was the first time he’s seen his father cry in years.
RELATED: Emotions pour out for Novak family
“When I first started iRacing, they definitely had the outlook of it’s just some other game, but over time they kind of realized the legitimacy of it,” Novak said of his parents. “They really let me put all my effort into it to make sure I could go after the championship this year and just overall enjoy myself.”
Winning the championship has left Novak feeling star-struck, at least when it comes to hearing from people within the sport send their congratulations.
“Dale Jr.’s tweet was insane,” Novak said. “That was extremely cool.”
In addition to drivers, Novak also heard from his Roush Fenway Racing team co-owner John Henry, as well as team president Steve Newmark.
What’s next for the champ? While he’s not sure entirely, he said he’d like to go real-world racing — but only if the right opportunity presents itself.
“I want all the cards to fall correctly,” he said. “I don’t want to do it just to do it. I don’t really have the itch to just go race at my local short track with a beater or something like that because I get the racing fix on iRacing.”
Still, the future is bright for the 17-year-old, who’s living his best life — now with an extra $40,000 in his pocket.
“I think the whole goal in life is to make a profession or do something every day that you enjoy. I’m really lucky to be able to do that right now.”