By the time drivers in the Western Endurance Racing Challenge arrived at Buttonwillow in April, they had shaken the offseason cobwebs loose and focused on the task at hand: winning.
Teams that struggled with setup at the first WERC event of the season at Willow Springs in March had gotten things dialed in. But that doesn’t mean the race went exactly to plan. Some carnage early on and a late-race, full-course caution mixed things up a bit.
For example, contact early on between the Team USRD Ginetta G55 ES car and the Team HQ Autosport E2 car, knocked the Ginetta out of competition and brought out caution flags.
In addition to the mixed-class contact incident, Team Valkyrie Autosport blew its engine 10 laps into the race, ending its bid for an overall podium. Being the only car in ES, though, the team still took first place and collected the valuable points associated with it.
“We’ve had a remarkable run with those motors. We haven’t lost one in five years,” said team owner Brian Lock. “We’ve got probably 300 hours on various engines in the 25 Hour. It caught up with us today. We lost cylinder two, stuck a rod out the side of the block, so it ended our day early.”
Team PMG Awareness finished first in ES at the Willow Springs opener and second overall. At Buttonwillow, the team registered in ESR. Notching the fastest time and pole position for the race, Team PMG Awareness had the lead at the one-hour mark, but troubles lay ahead.
When driver and team owner Tom Haacker came in for a pit stop at 8 o’clock, the team spilled fuel and was penalized. Sitting out for five minutes knocked the team out of the overall lead, but not in ESR because it was the only car still running in that class. Team USRD’s Ginetta dropped out after contact on lap 11. Later in the race, the team ran into lighting issues, and at a track as dark as Buttonwillow, that signaled the end of their night, but they still took the ESR win and the points.
“The light bar was a 2011 Thunderhill light bar, so it’s about time we replace it. It gave us a little trouble in the last race. This time it gave us more trouble, so we’re going to replace that,” Haacker said. “I don’t know what the fuel spill issue was, but our guys are totally competent. It’s great group of guys working for us. We’ll be out at Auto Club looking at taking overall, but it’s great racing with these guys, and NASA is just a fun group of guys to run with, some really great people.”
Team USRD took second place in ESR.
Team Strom Motorsports jumped out to an early and convincing points lead with its class and overall wins at the Willow Springs opener — against faster ES and ESR cars. At Buttonwillow, well, they did it again.
Driver and team owner Brett Strom drove another car for the first half of the enduro before he jumped in his Audi RS3 LMS to take the second stint into the darkness at Buttonwillow. The team was first in class and second overall at the one-hour mark. At the two-hour mark, Strom Motorsports was leading overall and was two laps up on Team DasBoot Motorsports, which ended up finishing third overall. Team Valkyrie Autosport Toyo Tires in its Nissan GT-R, finished second in E0 and second overall.
Even when a car off the blind side of Phil Hill brought out a full-course caution at 8:30, Team Strom Motorsports was in control of the race.
“We’ve had some practice in that car, so our pit stops are awesome. We changed tires during the pit stops. I got fresh tires,” Strom said. “For the whole first part of the race, we just conserved tires, because that thing is pretty tire-intensive on the fronts, because it’s so front-heavy. It’s like 65 percent front, so it’s a lot. The car doesn’t have a ton of power. It just really carries speed through the corners. It’s such an easy car to drive, to be honest, that it’s easy to do fast laps around here.”
At the Willow Springs opener, Team Performance Plus Tires was having tire-wear problems due to setup, but they still managed to finish first in E1 over three other teams. Driver Tom Paule said the team addressed the setup issues before taking the green flag at Buttonwillow.
“We did a big test day yesterday, realigned and corner-weighted everything,” Paule said. “The car still had a push in it. We sent Karla [Pestotnik] out to start, and she nailed the pace we needed to put us in position, and we were able to nurse it to the end with one stop. We probably have three drops of fuel in it right now.”
At the finish, Team Moorewood Creative took second, followed by Team Bullet 1.
Team TAPG Motorsports takes a methodical approach to endurance racing, something you’d expect from a team comprised of engineers from the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground. The team has proven it can compete in E2, taking class wins at the Willow Springs opener and at round two at Buttonwillow in its Toyota 86 coupe.
Last season’s E2 champion and class winner at the 2018 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Team HQ Autosport was involved in an incident with an ESR Ginetta G55 on lap 11, which knocked them out of first in class. That put Team TAPG in the E2 lead, making it their race to lose. They needed to hit their marks and execute two pit stops precisely, because they knew others were on a one-stop strategy. With just a half hour left to go, Team Technik/AGM was nipping at their heels.
“Everything is important. I know that’s not really specific, but it’s really true. Everything is important,” said driver D.J. Quint. “If you make everything better, it’s a really big step. If you’re always focusing on the car, there’s a lot more to it than just the car. You’ve got to look at all the margins and figure out where you have the most to gain. That’s how we try to keep approaching it.”
Team Technik/AGM finished second and Team GOneppo Racing came in third in E2.
Team Abergel Motorsports had tire troubles at Willow Springs and wound up second behind Team DMC Velocity Racing, which was burning almost as much oil as it was gasoline. Team DMC Velocity Racing had been battling with Team Double Nickel Nine Motorsports at the one- and two-hour marks.
That left Team Abergel Motorsports in command, but as everyone knows, anything can happen in an enduro — and it did. A full-course caution came out and bunched up the field.
“I know when I got in the car, we were a few laps behind and I was just driving the wheels off it,” said driver Michael Omelko. “When the full-course yellow came out, I saw that I was behind Dietz, and they told me that we were already in second place, which was a surprise because the Acura was ahead of us. I think they had a technical problem. At the restart, I knew I had to pass Robert Dietz and get within the same lap and then I think like five or six laps later, they told me Dietz wasn’t out anymore and we were leading.”
Team Abergel Motorsports finished first in E3, followed by Double Nickel Nine in second and DMC Velocity in third.
One of the challenges of racing sprints during the day and a nighttime enduro is meeting all the scheduling requirements. Team Route 7 Motorsports learned that first hand. The Spec E30 race took place at a time that made it difficult for the team to race and attend the enduro drivers meeting. They missed the meeting, which meant the team had to start from the back of the pack.
The starting position lit a fire under first-stint driver Kasra Ajir, who blasted into first in class by the one-hour mark, a position they would hold till the finish.
“Kas did an amazing job to drive it into first place and then made my job super easy,” said second-stint driver Andrew Novich. “I just had to keep it up there. One of the things I was really impressed with was how respectful all the drivers were in the mixed-class racing. Everyone was still respectful and we had really good close racing, but really good space as well. So that was really awesome to experience and feel. The level of professionalism out there was just fantastic.”
Team Racing Ruined my 7 Series finished second, with Team Black Swan Search in third.