Willow Springs Intl. Raceway and Buttonwillow Raceway have at least one thing in common: They’re both in the middle of nowhere, and when the sun dips below the horizon, it gets dark. Really dark. They’re so far out in the boonies, there isn’t even any light pollution — at least until the WERC series shows up!
Both tracks are challenging in their own ways. Dropping tires off at Buttonwillow produces dust so thick it can be deadly to cars. At least two WERC cars were totaled at Buttonwillow in April.
Willow Springs’ primary challenge is that it is one of the fastest tracks in the country, with average lap speeds of more than 80 mph, even for momentum cars. Couple high speeds with low light and you are in for a challenging evening, which is exactly what 33 WERC drivers came for in May.
Team BMW Z4 driver and owner Dean Mansour often drives an entire enduro by himself. For the four-hour duties at Willow Springs, Mansour asked another driver from up north to take the second stint, three-time 25 Hours of Thunderhill E0 winner Scott Smith from Team El Diablo Motorsports.
Team BMW Z4 started from first in class and 15th overall. They had only one competitor in E0, and they dropped out after two laps, so the team tried to claw as far forward on the overall ladder as possible. They ended up finishing 14th and first in E0, with a fast lap from the race 3 seconds faster than their qualifying time.
“We were having some tire difficulties, so we were not quite as fast as we had hoped,” Mansour said, noting that the rear tires were 2 years old. “Both of us had some big-time problems with oversteer with some hard tires. We ended up changing one and it made it a lot better, but we got it to the end and kept it going.”
Fuel consumption also was an issue, said co-driver Smith.
“Toward the end we were counting down the laps wondering if we were going to make it or not,” Smith said. “It was almost good that the restart was a little bit late. It gave us a little bit of a buffer.”
Team Bespoke Auto Labs finished second, dropping out after two laps.
To tackle the four-hour event at Willow Springs, Team Hemisphere Endurance brought in multi-time NASA national champion Dave Schotz as a co-driver in the BMW E36 M3. Team owner Jean-Luc De Fanti put together a strategy that included four fuel stops and changing all four tires.
For the first two hours of the race, Team Hemisphere Endurance trailed Team Evoq Motorsport, which also was campaigning a BMW E36 M3. Shortly before the beginning of fourth hour of racing, Team Evoq had car trouble and dropped four laps behind Team Hemisphere. Team Evoq got back in the game, but couldn’t get back those lost laps.
“We had a lot of tire wear, much more than last year. Last year was 3.5 hours and we didn’t change any tires, but Evoq had a mechanical and we got the win, but it was a competitive race,” De Fanti said. “I don’t know that four hours changes the strategy so much, but you’ve got to plan the tire changes. We ended up doing a four-tire change in the cold pits and I actually think that worked out because on a fresh set of Toyos they could finish really strongly.”
Team Evoq finished second followed by Team Jirafa/Lang Racing Development in third.
Competing in what was again the largest class in the race, Team Bruce X Racewerkz came out and took the win at Willow Springs. The team started from third in class, and by the end of the first hour, the team was in the lead of E2 and held it into second hour of racing. As pit stops and a brief caution came into play, Team Bruce X Racewerkz fell to third in class behind Team GOneppo and Team Bittneracing, an order that remained into the third hour of racing.
However, when the checkered flag flew, Team Bruce X Racewerkz was one lap up on Team Bittneracing, which finished second and Team GOneppo two laps down in third.
“It was great. I had a lot of fun. It was a lot less sketchy than Buttonwillow, not as much dust,” said driver Vadim Dzhalalylants. “It was a little calmer, not as crazy. The team did a great job. The strategy was great. We put four new tires on it, went out and did what we had to do.”
Looking to follow up on their win at Buttonwillow in April, Team The Kennelly Group had a bit more competition at Willow Springs, and a bit of adversity to make things interesting.
The driver spun the car on the out lap, thanks in no small part to old, cold RS4 tires, and their light bar actually fell off the car, which jeopardized the lead they had built by the end of the first hour. When the team pulled into the pits, crew chief Javier from JMP Autoworks in Canoga Park, Calif., had found a team with some extra light pods, which he attached their Mazda Miata, and off they went.
The team was back in second by the end of the second hour and had recaptured the E3 lead with two laps to spare by the end of hour three. When the checkers flew, Team The Kennelly Group had a 12-lap gap on second place Team JboogRacing.
“I ended up driving more than I planned to for the second half in the dark with these pods bolted to the hood. They’re just two pods, but they’re good pods,” said driver Erin Kennelly. “Honestly, I couldn’t really see much because they were pointed down, but if they were pointed correctly, it would probably be OK.”
Team Abergel Motorsports finished third.
Five cars lined up to do battle in E3S. In a class that was devised to accommodate Spec Miatas, Spec E30s and 944 Spec cars with no mechanical changes, Team Thundercock Racing has become to team to beat in the WERC series. So, someone did.
Starting from second in class, Team Velvet Thunder trailed Team Thundercock at the end of the first hour. By the end of hour two, Velvet Thunder was leading the class. The lead had evaporated by the end of hour three, and Team Black Swan Search had taken the E3S lead. That set the stage for the last hour of racing.
Team Velvet Thunder fought back and topped second-place Team Black Swan Search and third-place Team Thundercock by one lap to take the win.
“Oh dude, I just brought it home. Bailey did it all. He’s the rookie. We just went out there and held behind first for a while, and then they had a super small failure where the steering wheel was falling off,” said cleanup driver Neil Daly. “They brought it in real quick and that just gave us another lap up and we just held it.”
Team Chill Motorsports has been the team to beat in ES for the last couple of years. The team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 punches far above its weight, taking wins over faster ESR cars and winning the ES championship in 2020.
Starting from seventh overall, and second in class. Team Chill Motorsports climbed to first in class and fifth overall by hour one and held it till hour two. By hour three, Team Chill had moved up to third overall and by the time the checkers waved, it had a two-lap lead in class and had inched forward to second overall.
Team Rangers finished second in ES.
With one of the sharpest knives in the drawer, Team Intermedia Racing’s Ligier LMP3 started from second for the WERC race, notching a 1:20.038 lap time, some 2 seconds behind Team Lang Racing Development’s Norma M20FC.
Two hours and 85 laps in, Team Lang Racing was on top overall and in ESR, but at about the 2.5-hour mark, Lang Racing had to be towed in, and by hour three, they were out of contention, some 20 laps behind Team Intermedia, which also suffered a brief mechanical failure of its own. They were able to fix it and go on to win overall and, obviously, first in class.
“In the last stint, we broke a muffler clamp, and so we had to do two unscheduled pit stops and so we were really nervous about that,” said driver Tom Hope. “We had a two-lap lead, but with the broken clamp we had to come in and we actually lost the lead, and we just got it back with like four or five laps left. It was kind of scary there at the end, but it worked out.”
Team PMG Awareness finished second followed by Team Lang Racing Development in third.