Anyone who has raced at Buttonwillow Raceway knows about the infamous “Buttonwillow dust.” Once it gets inside your car, it will always be inside your car. In the daytime, it can present a genuine peril on track because it occludes a driver’s vision of what’s ahead. If there’s no wind, it just hangs over the track like fog over San Francisco Bay. Breathe it in too deeply and you could end up with a nasty case of valley fever.
At night, it’s even more dangerous because all your headlights do is illuminate the dust, and what lies ahead is as good as invisible. Eastern and Midwestern readers probably tire of reading about it, but the photo that opens this story should provide some idea of what it’s like.
When the Western Endurance Racing Challenge series met in October at Buttonwillow Raceway for the last race before the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the dust was about to fly.
Just after the green flag in Turn 1, a melee ensued and the race went double-yellow for a few laps. That mixed up the field, but as the race wore on, the usual suspects began to appear at the front of their respective classes.
Lang Racing Development notched a milestone in its 2021 WERC season, qualifying on pole, holding the lead at the one-, two-, and three-hour marks and taking the overall win and first in ESR.
The team’s Norma M20, which is powered by 300-horsepower Honda K20, has always had the pace to lead the field, but they have suffered mechanical difficulties that have hampered their efforts.
“The problem with these cars is they’re not that reliable, so we’ve been working really hard to fix all the little bugs, and it seems like it finally worked out,” said team principal and “iron man” driver Andrew Lang.
“We just had so many little issues, electrical problems and heat issues. These things were built to do short races in Europe. At Willow Springs, we had an oil line burst from heat, so we just had to really think about what would make this car run for a long period of time, and address every little thing. I mean, we’ve been working on this car for two years. At that, I think our starter is out, so they had to push-start me after our fuel stop because it died on the way in, so that was fun.”
Team Chill Motorsports has been on a tear this year. With car setup and coaching from Brett Strom, team owner Chris Hill has typically been handing the car off to Brett Strom in a good position at the driver change. Team Chill was second in class at the one-hour mark, and took over the lead by one lap over Team Premat at the two-hour mark.
When Strom took the wheel, all he had to do was bring it home, which is what they did at Buttonwillow in October, scoring first in ES and second overall — and darn near upsetting Lang Racing Development for the overall win.
“With like 10 laps to go, suddenly I was catching the Norma, and I caught him, but somebody must have told him I was there and he was like, ‘Later!’ Strom said. “Chris Hill started in the Porsche and he ran awesome. I think he was third when he brought it in. And I just drove the last hour and a half and just did laps and tried to stay out of the mess. There was a lot of dust, as expected. Not surprising. A couple of times going through Talladega you’d be like, ‘I don’t know where I am. I’m just going to keep this arc and hope I come through this.’ So, that was fun.”
Team BMW Z4 has been largely unbeatable this year. In the races the team has started in 2021, it has won all but one of them, and even then the team took second.
The Buttonwillow event presented Team BMW Z4 its share of challenges. Their transponder didn’t work in qualifying, so the team had to start farther toward the rear than it is accustomed to, and the Turn 1, lap-one melee certainly didn’t help.
However, by the end of the first hour, they were first in class and 12th overall. By hour two, they were in ninth overall and had a 10-lap lead over second in class, which would come in handy for the last third of the race.
“The big one for me is that I was going really strong for the first three quarters of the race and my light bar cut out. So, the last 30, 40 minutes of the race I had just stock headlights, so I was driving by Braille,” said lone driver Dean Mansour. “It was dusty, but people were being good. People were being friendly. People were being kind. It was a nice race.”
Team EVOQ Motorsport had a front-row seat for the Turn 1, lap-one incident. Driver DJ Quint said the start was difficult because the field was heading west, straight into the glare of a setting sun.
“The sun was in everyone’s face, so it was really difficult to see exactly what happened, but I saw the Valkyrie car go up on somebody, and it felt really weird when I got on the brakes,” Quint said. “It felt like something was on the track, and that may have contributed to what happened, but everybody just kind of went super wide. I think everybody out-braked themselves, and they just all rolled out of the way. It was like the seas parted, and I went inside. I knew there was going to be a full-course yellow coming.”
They emerged in P2 overall, which is far forward for an E1 car, but they held that position all the way up to the two-hour mark. After faster traffic pushed through and the checkers flew, Team EVOQ retained the class lead, but fell to fourth overall, which is still pretty astonishing for an E1 car.
Such an effort was rewarding for the team, which struggled to repair a leaking radiator plug just minutes before taking the grid.
“We ran around for 30 minutes trying to find a plug and this car actually has an OE radiator, not an aftermarket one. We couldn’t find one. When we tried to tighten it, we broke it,” Quint said. “Somehow we got it out and this is like with 10 minutes to go. We got it out and found a bolt with the same threads and found the O ring and it worked. We were throwing water in it and I thought we were going to miss the grid.
“We’ve been super competitive at every race. We’ve had some issues, but most of the time we’ve made the most of what we had,” Quint said. “Today, I think was pretty representative of everything working.”
Talk about a game of strategy. After surviving the Turn 1, lap-one melee, Team GOneppo mixed it up with faster-class cars for the first hour, but when another full-course caution was signaled later in the race, driver Peter Oneppo changed his team’s strategy to one pit stop instead of two.
Because he had the advantage of coming out ahead of the incident in Turn 1, he began saving fuel by short-shifting. At the one-hour mark, the team was in third. Two hours in, they were still in third behind Team Lucas Racing in second and Team Bittneracing in first.
Team Bittneracing had some trouble and fell back, which put Team Lucas Racing in first. For the second half of the race, former Teen Mazda Challenge driver Matt Million was behind the wheel, and the team determined they had enough fuel for Million to push.
“I handed it over to Matt exactly at an hour and a half, but because we had the two full-course yellows we decided to switch to a one-stop strategy,” Oneppo said. “We ended up doing one stop and the guy who was in P1, we basically drove him out of gas. I was trying to keep pace with him in my stint and I couldn’t quite do it, but Matt Million is a fantastic driver and he ran him down at the end on the last lap. Matt passed him and Lucas ran out of gas after that, so it was right down to the wire.”
They finished seventh overall and picked up the championship in E2
Team Abergel Motorsports completed 39 laps as the only competitor in E3 and picked up the win.
The E3S class has pretty much been the domain of Team Thundercock Racing for 2021. The team has won three of the four races it’s entered — they skipped the Utah race — and took third in the one they didn’t win.
Teammates Andrew Clark and Steve Stepanian compete against each other in Spec E30, but in E3S, they have proven to be a force to be reckoned with. There was only one other car in E3S at Buttonwillow, but Team Thundercock took the lead early and held it for all three hours, winning by eight laps over the second-place competitor despite mechanical troubles that surfaced in the second stint.
“My co-driver Steve Stepanian was in the car on the first lap and he got through there pretty clean. We survived that and once we went back to green, he put in an awesome stint and did great,” Clark said. “We came in, did a driver change and then about 10 minutes into my stint I started to lose fourth gear and with about 45 minutes to go, fourth gear was totally gone, and we still managed to click off laps shifting from third to fifth for the last 45 minutes of the race. It was more eventful than the results showed, but it was still fun.”