It would be impossible to talk about the Western Endurance Racing Championship race at Buttonwillow without talking about the rate of attrition and, of course, the fire.
Starting at 3:30 in the afternoon, the 4.5-hour race the race settled into a rhythm as the soft orange light of the afternoon edged toward darkness. At the one-hour mark, the eight “Fun Run” drivers were shown their checkered flag, signaling that their race was over. As the WERC regulars continued, the fun run drivers celebrated with some cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in sizes that varied according to where you finished.
At the two-hour mark, Team Valkyrie Autosport still had the ES and lead overall, over two faster Ligier ESR prototypes that were suffering some reliability issues and were undergoing repairs back-paddock.
About two hours in, when Valkyrie came in for a fuel stop and driver change, the car burst into flames just as driver Brian Lock began to step out. The red flags came out while crews tried to extinguish the fire. When the fire was finally out, the race resumed. No one was seriously injured, but the Valkyrie Z was a total loss. Speed News will be publishing more on the fire in a safety-oriented story later this year.
“As far as we can tell, there was probably a leak in the vent or the fuel line from the heat in the car. He was starting to smell fuel, but it was when he was passing cars, so it was sort of unclear whether it was from our car or not, and he was about ready to come in for a pit stop anyway,” said Christina Brady, co-owner and crew chief for Valkyrie. “He started to see some smoke in the cabin and he came in. Basically, our guys started to fuel, saw fuel dripping down in the rear cabin of the car, and I saw flames coming up the diffuser and it went in a matter of seconds. And then it was engulfed. That’s how fast fuel problems can happen.”
By the time the checkered flag waved, lots of cars had dropped out. This is how the last WERC race before the 25 Hours of Thunderhill unfolded.
Team Chill Motorsports by Strom was on the same lap as Valkyrie when the fire broke out, so they took ES class and overall leads before the pace car had left the track.
Driver Brett Strom started out driving for Team Hemisphere Endurance, and halfway through, when he jumped into the Team Chill Motorsports by Strom car, they were leading ES and overall, a position they would hold till the end.
“We were battling with a couple other ES cars, and I actually had a lot of fun for the first hour,” Strom said. “I was like, ‘Hey guys, I need to pit. We’re going to pit soon.’ And then I was like, ‘Nevermind, there’s a huge fire,’ which I feel really bad for those guys, because that sucks. I don’t wish that on anyone.”
In a car the team had prepped at the last minute and just barely made it to the event, Team Cat Racing finished second in ES and third overall.
Despite the fire, Team Valkyrie Autosport finished third in ES.
Team Intermedia Racing delivered a convincing win at the Seaside Cup 6.5-hour enduro, despite nearly running out of fuel during a yellow and a fan motor that caught fire in the pits.
Buttonwillow, however, didn’t go as well for the team and its Ligier LMP3 prototype. While the red flags were out, the team couldn’t get the car restarted. They got towed in, but the compressor that controls the shift module overheated, so all they had was second gear, which required a lengthy stop for repairs. Even after they got it fixed, they were still having problems shifting due to the replacement compressor getting hot, so they elected to leave the car in fourth gear.
Later in the race, they were “meatballed” for a loose body panel that covers the front shocks. Through all that, the team still took first in class.
“Perseverance. It’s a long race and we kept our head in the game,” said driver Tom Hope. “Unfortunately our competitors had some problems as well, but big picture, we needed to just start the race to win the championship for the year. So that was the big thing. So that’s what we’re excited about in ESR.”
Team Lang Racing Development ESR finished well back in the lap count, but took home second place.
Team Prototype Development Group also dropped out early, but finished third in ESR.
Team WERTEKNICA hasn’t made any appearances in the WERC series this season, but When they showed up at Buttonwillow, they put on a clinic of endurance racing.
Driver Will Wattanawongkiri had the team in the E0 class lead at the one- and two-hour marks. By hour three, they were five laps up on Team Occupy Pit Lane and 15 laps up on Team Tazio Ottis Racing. By the fourth hour, they had extended those leads, respectively, to six and 19. When the checkers flew, Team WERTEKNICA had the win E0 class win well in hand.
Team Occupy Pit Lane finished 19 laps behind the E0 class winner to take second in E0.
Team Tazio Ottis Racing spent some time undergoing repairs in the back paddock and finished third in E0.
With drivers like Brett Strom and Dave Schotz on its roster, Team Hemisphere Endurance had the right stuff at many races this year, but some mechanical gremlins had surfaced, which hampered their chances at success. Team owner and driver Jean-Luc De Fanti and his team finished first in E1 and a triumphant second overall.
“Second overall, for an E1 car, that’s pretty good. First in class. We led from start to finish. The car ran flawlessly,” De Fanti said. “We’ve had a lot of mechanicals this year, you know, throttle problems at Utah and Cal Speedway, so it was great to finish on a high and have the win. The car ran beautifully. Everything was great. Beautiful race. I really love enduros. You know, that’s my favorite thing with NASA. And so I hope to be back next year for more.”
Driving an Infiniti G37S sedan, Team Land Yacht Racing scored its third podium finish of the 2022 WERC season.
After a strong second-place finish at the Seaside Cup, Team Jirafa/Lang Racing Development finished third in E1 at Buttonwillow.
After winning everything at the NASA Championships and the Seaside Cup, Team Palomar Racing WERC had the E2 class lead locked from the first hour. Later in the race, they started chasing an ES class car, Team Cat Racing, for a shot at the overall podium.
“I was pushing so hard at the end trying to keep up with Cat Racing, because I was actually in front of him right up until the yellow, and then he got behind me for the restart and then he just out motored me on the straightaway,” said driver Nik Romano. “It wasn’t until the full-course yellow that he was able to get in front of me. I think I probably could have held him off for an overall third if that didn’t happen.”
Team Palomar Racing WERC finished first in class and just off the overall podium.
After having to administer no small amount of repairs after the Seaside Cup, Team HQ Autosport finished second in E2.
Making their first WERC appearance, Team PF finished in third in E2.
Team Wilson Lam pulled off course midway through the enduro for unknown reasons, but finished first in E3.
Team Stand Racing finished six laps behind Team Wilson Lam for a second-place finish in E3.