You just never know what’s going to happen in a Western Endurance Racing Challenge event at Buttonwillow at night. The race could go flag to flag without incident, or the infamous Buttonwillow dust can create havoc for drivers struggling to find their way through the inky darkness.
In the case of the April WERC race at Buttonwillow, it was the latter. Definitely the latter.
Early in the race, a worker in the control tower required medical attention and transport to an area hospital. That brought out the black flags till another ambulance could arrive to stand duty. Later in the race, with about 30 minutes remaining, a car went four-off in the Bus Stop and created a major dust cloud, which caused enough collisions to bring out double-yellows and the pace car. Debris and oil on track were too much to clean up in time for any more green flag racing, so control ended the race early.
The racing that did take place between the first green and checkers was fast and close, and a testament to the WERC series’ popularity and growth. Thirty-eight cars took the green flag, including 13 in the E2 class alone. Here’s how the race played out.
Team BMW Z4 has been in a strong position in E0 in past races, but stiff competition and mechanical gremlins have kept them off the top step of the podium.
By the end of the first hour, Team BMW Z4 had a one-lap lead over chief rival Team Bespoke Auto Labs. They stretched that lead to two laps by hour two, but by the time the checkered flag fell, their lead was back to one lap, which was plenty for them to take the E0 win.
“First two hours were just great. And I had good battles with people and it was just so much fun,” said driver Dean Mansour. “And then it got fully dark and people started going off, and big clouds of dust everywhere. And so it was really pretty wild driving by braille. I was missing turn-ins. I was missing apexes. So it was very, very rough driving in the dust and haze.”
Team Bespoke Auto Labs finished second in E0.
With eight cars on grid in E1, the second largest class at Buttonwillow, competition was as good as it gets. Team EVOQ Motorsport had a sharp scalpel in its E36 M3, and it did notch the fastest lap of the race in E1. With a two-stop strategy and two drivers to shoulder the load, Team EVOQ and Team Hemisphere Endurance were on the same lap at the end of the first hour.
By hour two, Team EVOQ had a two-lap gap over its nearest competitors. By the end of the shortened race, that gap closed down to one lap over Hemisphere and Team Jirafa/Lang Racing Development.
“We pulled out a pretty good lead for a while, then we had the double yellow, everybody kind of caught back up to us, but the car was doing great,” said driver Erik Davis. “Our team of crew guys were doing awesome. Our pit stops were phenomenal and that really kind of set the precedent for the race. I think we had a lap lead there toward the end when the unfortunate incident happened. But yeah, we were feeling pretty good.”
Team Jirafa/Lang Racing Development finished second, with Team Hemisphere Endurance in third. Team EVOQ Motorsport also finished third overall.
In the largest class in the Buttonwillow event, E2, the eventual winner, Team Bruce X Racewerkz came out swinging in its Spec E46 doing double duty in the enduro. At the end of the first hour, Team Bruce X Racewerkz had a slight lead over Team Legacy Racing and Team Bittner Racing, both of which were on the same lap.
That was the story at the end of hour two, with all three teams, and fourth-place Team GOneppo, locked in a tight battle on the same lap running lap times within a second of one another. Team Legacy dropped out five laps later.
When the checkers flew, Team Bittner Racing had dropped to third and Team GOneppo finished second, with Team Bruce X Racewerkz still on top for the win.
“It was really dusty out there,” said driver Vadim Dzhalalyants. “I didn’t realize that dust can create such vision problems, because it was just insane. You couldn’t see anything. I went off track a couple of times. I passed by the hairpin over there, just followed another car off.”
The ranks of E3 have thinned since the advent of E3S, which was designed specifically for Spec Miatas, E30s and 944s, but two Mazda Miatas took to the track that night. Team The Kennelly Group led from flag to flag with two drivers who had never raced at night.
“Yeah, I did the first stint, and it was just super fun ticking off laps, beautiful. It was so great,” said driver Erin Kennelly, who handed the car off to Adam Gershon. Though abbreviated by the late full-course yellow, the second half of the race proved to be more difficult due to the conditions.
“Yeah, I think it was the tale of two races because he got us multiple laps, and by the time I got out there, all I had to do was hold down the fort and not crash,” Gershon said.
Team Zumwalt Motorsports finished second in E3.
The E3S class had seven cars in it and all but one were BMW E30s. No stranger to victory in the WERC series, Team Thundercock Racing had the lead at the one- and two-hour marks, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Team Kasra Ajir was never far behind and always on the same lap for the duration of the race.
With that kind of competition, the race almost invariably comes down to pit stops, and that’s what sealed the win for Team Thundercock Racing.
“The first two hours, my co-driver Steve Stepanian, did a real good job, had a real good pace,” said driver Andrew Clark. “We did real well in the second stint. What happened with all those dust clouds was just unbelievable. I don’t even have words for it. I come out here a lot, and I’ve seen a lot of dust clouds, and tonight was the worst I’ve ever seen. To end on a sour note with that wreck was pretty bad, but our car ran flawless. Fueling was impeccable. Our team did amazing work. Without a doubt, it was a team win, especially with our fueler, because most of it was won in the pits.”
Team Kasra Ajir finished second, with Team Black Swan Race Juice in third.
Team Chill Motorsports has been a dominant figure in ES class racing for the last couple of years. Team principal Chris Hill has been driving under the coaching of Brett Strom and dropping his lap times as a result. Their efforts have led to a more consistent racing from driver to driver and, to no one’s surprise, more class wins.
“He’s made me a much better driver than I was,” Hill said. “But he’s picked up my pace so much, and I can’t thank him enough.”
Team Chill had the ES class lead by one lap at the one-hour mark and was running in fifth overall. The team stretched its class lead to two laps by hour two and at the end, after serving a five-minute penalty for speeding in the pits, it was back down to one lap over Team Cat Racing.
“We were trying to just do a single stop, but you know, there weren’t that many cars in class,” said driver Brett Strom. “We were trying to get more in the overall. Maybe at least get third. We were going to do a single fuel stop and Chris started and drove well. But yeah, that five-minute penalty kind of killed us.”
Team Cat Racing finished second in ES.
In the fastest of all the classes, Team PMG Awareness faced off against two prototypes and a Mercedes-Benz AMG GT4. As Team PMG Awareness has proven time and again in the WERC series, ESR is as much about consistency, strategy and execution as it is about pure speed. A little luck is always welcome, too.
At the end of the first hour of racing, Team Lang Racing Development’s Norma F20 prototype was running laps some 4 seconds quicker and had the class and overall lead, though both cars were on the same lap. Lang Racing Development extended its lead to two laps by the end of hour two, which was right about when it got dark.
By the time the checkers flew, Team PMG Awareness had managed to put a four-lap gap on Team Lang Racing Development.
“Yeah, it was intense. I got three good laps with good visibility, and then toward the end it was just completely pitch black,” said driver Connor Bloum. “Some of the worst visibility I’ve had during the race; it was incredible. Car was great. A big shout-out to the team for a quick pit stop. Yeah, lucky to be here.”
Team Lang Racing Development finished second in ESR and second overall. Team JMF Motorsports finished third in ESR.