The first Spec E46 event in Southern California drew four cars to Buttonwillow. A small grid, but a great start to a new series in the region. It was especially encouraging that two other E46s, which are well on their way to being spec, showed up to run in HPDE.
For Saturday, the track was set up in the No. 13 CCW configuration, which includes the Sweeper and Bus Stop. Peter Hopelain had the quickest lap time in qualifying with Ryan Keeley second, followed by Peter Oneppo and Michael Beale. The group decided that inverting the grid would make for the most interesting racing, which put Beale on pole for his first race since getting his license.
In the race, Spec E46 was to take the same flag as Spec E30 in a standing start. As the cars lined up, they left a gap between themselves and the Spec E30s. This, along with the inverted grid, setup an exciting start to the race. When the green flag dropped, all four cars got away cleanly. Oneppo was able to get a slight jump on Beale, putting him briefly in the lead as the E46s caught the E30s just as they hit the first turn, Sunrise. Hopelain and Keeley saw gaps and were late on the brakes as the E46s went three-wide into the turn and emerged into a pack of SE30s. The wild start worked best for Hopelain and Keeley, who ended up out front. The rest of the race saw the two of them battle for first as they made their way through the E30s, with Oneppo and Beale unable to reel them in. Midway through the race, Keeley was able to take the lead from Hopelain, but by the end, Hopelain gained the position back and held the lead with Keeley and Oneppo rounding out the podium.
For Sunday, there were only be three cars because Hopelain had to leave the night before. Also, the track was setup in the No. 14A CW configuration, which meant using the “A” section instead of Off Ramp, and the back straight instead of Bus Stop. Since this configuration was new to all the Spec E46 drivers, the warmup session was mostly spent figuring out the “A” section.
For the qualifying race, the grid was inverted and the E46s again lined up behind the E30s, putting Beale on pole in front of Oneppo and Keeley. The green flag dropped, and the cars were away. Despite some wheel spin from all of the competitors, Oneppo was able out drag Beale down the straight to take the lead. The E46s caught the back of the E30s before the first turn and began working their way through some of the E30s. Oneppo’s lead did not last long, however, as Keeley was able to get a strong run out of Grapevine and the two E46s went three-wide with a E30 through the Dog Leg with Keeley’s momentum putting him in the lead going into Riverside. Keeley kept the lead for the rest of the race, with Oneppo finishing second and Beale earning his first podium.
The final race of the weekend saw Keeley on pole, followed by Oneppo and Beale. As with the previous races, the E46s lined up behind the E30s, but due to some confusion on the start, ended up with a much smaller gap than anticipated. Things got settled, the green flag dropped, and the cars were away. Oneppo was able to pull to the inside of Keeley and cut off the inside line. This gave him an advantage going into Sunrise, and when Keeley was forced to brake early for an E30, Oneppo took the lead. The E46s and E30s went into the “A” section as a group, some of them two-wide before things started to settle going up I-5 and into Cotton Corners. The E46 drivers had their work cut out for them. The seasoned E30 drivers push their cars hard, making overtaking a challenge, even with the quicker E46 cars.
Keeley kept the pressure on Oneppo as they worked through some of the E30s. They battled each other, along with the famous Buttonwillow dust clouds being kicked up by the race in front of them. After a few laps, Keeley jumped all over a small mistake by Oneppo going through Sunset onto the front straight. This gave Keeley the run he needed to take the inside line though Sunrise and gain the lead. The roles were now reversed as Oneppo was putting pressure on Keeley. Keeley was able to get around an E30 leaving it between himself and Oneppo just as they came through the Sweeper. Oneppo was able to pass in the Esses, but not before Keeley had built up a lead. On the second to last lap, two non E46 cars touched coming out of Riverside and spun off either side of the track. The result was a massive dust cloud that completely obscured the view for the E30 and E46 leaders as they came out of Riverside and charged toward Phil Hill/Lost Hill causing them to check up and have to find the track again. It was extra excitement that added to an intense race. In the end, Keeley took first with Oneppo and Beale rounding out the podium.