The Spec MX-5 Challenge presented by Toyo Tires headed to Buttonwillow Raceway in April for round two of the 2022 West Region season. Seven racers in total were able to compete during Easter weekend, seeing Wyatt Couch and Clayton Ketcher showcase their skills while battling it out at the front for both races.
During Friday practice, the drivers came to grips with the unforgiving curbs of Buttonwillow, with many having to make adjustments before qualifying the next day.
Wyatt Couch put on a clinic during Saturday’s qualifying session, claiming pole position by more than half a second over AJ Zarcone, with Clayton Ketcher snatching third on the grid just .01 seconds behind Zarcone. Wes Mollno, Todd Launchbaugh, and Steve Borlik completed the first three rows, while new entrant Andres Prieto had electrical difficulties with his freshly built Spec MX-5, and was unable to qualify.
Later Saturday afternoon, the racers headed out on track for the first of the weekend’s two races. Unfortunately, Todd Launchbaugh wasn’t able to start the race due to a technical problem. After a great start for pole-sitter Couch, he felt the pressure from a fast-charging Ketcher just behind. Couch and Mollno went wide while exiting the “Bus Stop” corner, giving clear air to new race-leader Ketcher. As the racers finished the fourth lap, the running order was Ketcher, Zarcone, and Couch. Mollno then mounted an incredible recovery, reclaiming P4 by lap eight, and clinching a podium position the following lap when AJ Zarcone suffered a mechanical fault after a valiant effort to keep Couch behind him.
The last lap of race one showcased the talent of young guns Couch and Ketcher, seeing them bunched together again as they weaved through lapped traffic. Couch briefly took the lead on the second to last corner of the race, however ran wide in the final turn, with Ketcher able to keep it on track and claim his second victory of the season. Mollno landed on the last step on the podium 10 seconds behind the first- and second-place finishers, where Prieto had a great drive to get into fourth place after not setting a qualifying lap, with Borlik finishing in fifth.
Racers returned to the track on Easter Sunday for the last race of the weekend. The starting grid varied slightly from Saturday’s race, with Prieto and Borlik moving up positions, starting P5 and P6 respectively, and Launchbaugh heading up the rear of the field. Prieto had an aggressive start, sending the field three-wide into Turn 1 after the green flag waved, claiming P4, which he relinquished on lap three, with Mollno making a great pass.
Race leaders Couch, Ketcher and Zarcone steadily broke away from the rest of the field until lap six, when the Spec MX-5 racers begin to encounter out-of-class traffic. Zarcone went wide at the exit of the “Bus Stop,” creating a massive dust cloud behind him, with two more drivers following him off the track due to the limited visibility. Launchbaugh headed for the pits on lap nine after the off-track excursion, with Couch enjoying a 2.5-second lead over Ketcher. His comfortable lead lasted for two laps when the leaders caught more lapped traffic on the final lap of the race, resulting in Ketcher inching closer to Couch’s bumper only .200 seconds back. Couch then pulled away from Ketcher, seeing him win by over .670 seconds, and claiming a flag-to-flag victory – his second of the season. Zarcone would stand on the last step of the podium. The young racer’s first of the season, just over a second behind P2 finisher Ketcher.
After four races, just 3 points separate Couch and Ketcher in the West Region’s points standings. Mollno sits in P3 of the region, with Borlik, Zarcone, Launchbaugh, and new entrant Prieto close behind. The West Region will be back in action in May, heading to Portland to join the national option racers for round three.