It’s easy to be nonchalant about racing at Buttonwillow. After all, NASA SoCal visits Buttonwillow more than any other track on its calendar.
But that familiarity belies the track’s complexities. When it gets dark at Buttonwillow, it’s pitch black. Then there’s the dust, which hangs in the air in the corners when there’s no breeze to clear it. There’s also the track itself, a twisting band of asphalt where you’re either shifting, steering or braking at darn near every spot on the track. It’s relentless, as were the 31 Western Endurance Racing Challenge teams who took it on in April.
Team Das Boot Motorsports battled the dust and darkness like everyone else, but the team gambled early in the race. There was an incident early in the first hour and they capitalized on a flagger not having a yellow out. That move put them ahead of their competitor, who was turning faster lap times, and officials were still reviewing it after the race was over, but in the end, the team took first in E0 and third overall.
“We had a pretty good idea what our fuel window would be, but it really came down to when our competitors pitted, and really pacing them,” said John Capestro-Dubets, who drove the whole three hours. “We knew we didn’t have the outright speed and we knew we were down on fueling, so what we really needed to do was pace them or get enough of a gap that we could have a cushion when we came in to pit.”
Team TAPG Motorsports came to Buttonwillow fresh off a win at Willow Springs in March. The team gets its name from the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground, a test track located 40 miles outside Phoenix.
One hour into the race, Team TAPG lagged back in fourth place in E1. Two hours in, same story, but by the time the race ended, Team TAPG was first in class on the same lap as Team Technik/AGM in second and Team Performance Plus tires in third.
“After we won at Willow, the car was hooked up perfectly and we thought we should make this one change to be even better, and it was actually killing front tires,” said driver Mike Donick. “We corded them in practice today and we finished the race with corded tires Then about two hours in, we had the exhaust fall off. We came and had to do a last-minute exhaust repair and go back out. We weren’t in first place until five minutes left in the race.”
Team RDR/Old, Fat and Slow proved to be anything but in its Mazda RX-8. The team led E2 at the one-hour and two-hour marks, despite severe obstacles. One was foreseeable in that the RX-8 uses a lot of fuel, so it has to stop twice for fuel during a three-hour enduro.
The other obstacle was driver illnesses. The first driver had a stomach issue, so they changed drivers at the 1:15 mark. The second driver, Nathan Edmonds, suffered an asthma attack due to dusty conditions, so they had to put the first driver back in. In all, the team pitted four times, served a pit penalty, yet still took first place in E2.
“We served a penalty for speeding in the pit lane. My fault. 33 mph. I didn’t know they were going to be that accurate today,” said Robert Davis, who drove the first and last stints. “The car ran great. We’re still fighting a few gremlins with the fuel system, but other than that it’s perfect. We’re getting ready for the 25.”
Team Racing Ruined My Life not only has one of the funnier names for an enduro team, but it also has had a string of successes early in the WERC season. Having won round one at Willow Springs, the team picked up its second win at Buttonwillow, despite not doing anything to improve its terrible lighting system and using a co-driver competing in his first race ever.
“It was when the sun went down and the dust started hanging over the track that it was bad,” said rookie driver Ryan Keeley. “There was no wind to clear the dust, so it became very difficult to see, especially going over Phil Hill, and through the Bus Stop. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t hit the dirt anymore to make this any worse.’ Traffic was pretty good. I didn’t have too many issues.”
Team Roadshagger Racing has a solid track record of wins in the WERC series in its tried-and-true BMW E36 chassis. When the team arrived at Buttonwillow, they debuted their new car, a front-drive Audi RS3 LMS that set the fastest lap of the race at a 1:50.619.
The win didn’t come without its share of drama, though. Just after the green flag, driver Gavin Ernstone got the car way out of shape.
“I nearly took out the entirely field in Turn 1 on lap one when I got incredibly sideways and slid all the way through the dirt and everybody backed up behind me,” Ernstone said. “It takes a lot to warm the rear tires up on these, so lesson learned.”
Team Rangers ran unopposed in ESR. The team posted the second fastest lap time of the race at 1:51.490.