For the first time in the history of the Western Endurance Racing Championship, the field of 31 cars gridded up at Auto Club Speedway for round three, a three-hour enduro.
Auto Club Speedway presented challenges to WERC teams, but unlike Buttonwillow Raceway, massive clouds of dust and pitch blackness weren’t among them.
For one, the race was run during daylight hours. The race began at 4:45 and ended at 7:45. Sunset was at 7:46. Two, Auto Club Speedway’s roval design has the longest stretches of wide-open-throttle of any track on the NASA SoCal schedule, so fuel consumption was greater than other three-hour enduros. Three, the pit lane at ACS is long, and with a 25-mph speed limit in the pits, stopping for fuel or tires or a driver change takes a lot longer than at other tracks.
Caution periods disrupted the race a bit. Pit stops shuffled the order around and the usual pitfalls of racing all converged to make round three the most exciting WERC race of the year.
The Team PMG Awareness Porsche GT3 Cup car has been unbeatable in ESR this year, notching two class wins at Willow Springs and Buttonwillow. Driver Tom Haacker wheeled the Porsche throughout the full three hours, besting the faster Norma LMP3 prototype of Team Atlantic Racing, and took the ESR win again.
The class and overall lead went back and forth between Team PMG Awareness and Atlantic Racing a few times in the last half of the race. With 45 minutes left to go, Team Atlantic had the fastest car on track, but was second in class and overall, and not on the lead lap. Team Atlantic got the lead back with a half hour left in the race, but lost it again when it pitted at 7:25. Five minutes later, the pace car went out due to a full-course caution. Team Atlantic couldn’t make up any ground at that point, and by the time the race resumed, there just wasn’t enough time left to get back to the front.
Haacke pulled off the ESR class and the overall win for the first time this season.
“I appreciate the NASA guys driving out there,” Haacker said. “Those guys are really great out there. They see you coming. They signal you by. They stay on line. There were some really good racers out there today. It’s always fun to run with NASA, and I’d like to give a shout-out for our PMG Awareness people, too.”
Team Atlantic finished second in class and overall. Team Fast Toys Club finished third in class and overall. Team PMG Awareness has a firm command of the points race going into the second half of the season.
Team EXR by Prémat principle and driver Alex Prémat brought a 2018 Audi RS3 LMS to Auto Club Speedway to do battle on the high banks of Auto Club Speedway. The Audi RS3 LMS is fast, but because of the front-wheel-drive platform, tire wear is a factor.
Team Strom Motorsports has notched two E0 class wins at Willow Springs and Buttonwillow using a 2016 model of the same car on Yokohama slicks, but always has to stop to change both front tires. Team EXR by Prémat was hoping for better tire wear from Michelin slicks during the event at Auto Club Speedway.
Having worked their way up to first in class and into the hunt for an overall podium, Team EXR by Prémat had to pit to replace a blown front tire. That knocked them out of contention for an overall podium, but it didn’t stop them from taking the ES class win.
“It was kind of fun, for sure, but we blew up some tires. We were in a good position. At one stage, we were like P3, P4. We blew up a tire in Turn 1, so we came into the pits,” Prémat said. “We’re pretty happy with the race until we blew the tires. It was the front right. We drove a little bit too much on the front tires, and we blew up in Turn 1, so that was kind of scary, but yeah, all good with the car.”
Team Strom Motorsports 2 finished second in ES, followed by Team Valkyrie Autosport Toyo Tires in its Nissan 370Z, which had a few mechanical problems early on, so only completed 49 laps.
Team Strom Motorsports has been unbeatable in E0 this season. With convincing wins at Willow Springs and Buttonwillow, Strom Motorsports has been dominant.
The team’s biggest challenge has been tire wear. The front-drive Audi RS3 LMS is fast and, according to owner and driver Brett Strom, easy to drive. However, they must stop for front tires during three-hour enduros. At Auto Club Speedway, the delta for pit stops was much larger because of the length of pit lane.
Driver David DePillo has been instrumental in setting up second-stint driver Brett Strom to bring home the win, and he did it again at Auto Club. He handed off the car to Strom, who brought home the E0 class victory.
“I was keeping the tires underneath it and making sure I keep it on track and keep it on the lead lap,” DePillo said. “I try to stay in first place, but keep a pace to where I know after an hour and a half we’re going to have enough tires left in the rear when we switch out the fronts so he can go out and bring it home.”
Team BMW Z4 finished second in E0, followed by Strom Motorsports 3 in third.
The top three cars in E1 were all posting lap times within one second of one another, so the race was going to come down to strategy and management.
One hour into the race, which was interrupted by a full-course caution early on, Team Performance Plus Tires and Team One Lap at a Time were both on the same lap, with four cars between them. By the time hour two rolled around, Team One Lap at a Time had advanced, and only two cars stood between them and Team Performance Plus Tires, which has two E1 wins this season.
Team One Lap at a Time kept closing in, but with 20 minutes left in the race, the pace car came out, so they weren’t going to be able to pursue the leader until it returned to the pits. When the pace car came off, there simply wasn’t enough of the race left to take the lead, and when the checkered flag flew, Team Performance Plus Tires took the win. Team One Lap at a Time was the very next car to cross Start/Finish.
“Tire wear was a lot better actually, so we solved that issue. We just clicked off laps, nice and clean, stayed on track. Tom (Paule) did his job very well. He kept the car in one piece for me,” said cleanup driver Karla Pestotnik, who also was celebrating her birthday that night. “We’re still struggling with some handling issues, but the car overall was a lot better than it was the last race. This track is a lot bouncier, a little bit more than we anticipated, so we didn’t really tune for that.”
Team Jackson Racing finished third in its 2006 Ford Mustang, the only car in E1 that wasn’t a BMW.
If you know how to follow an endurance race on your Race Hero app and match it up against what’s happening on the track, then E2 was a class to watch at Auto Club Speedway. Team Technik/AGM, Team HQ Autosport and Team Goneppo Racing were all within sight of one another for virtually the entire three hours.
Early on, Team Wake Ballast was in the mix, but dropped out after 44 laps. That left the remaining three front-running teams to battle it out. At the one-hour mark, Team Technik/AGM was had the lead and was posting the fastest lap times. At hour two, Team Technik/AGM was still out front, the HQ Autosport in second and Team Goneppo in third.
Throw in some pit stops for driver changes and fuel, and the podium spots got mixed up a bit. Then add in a full-course caution and the drama became amplified. In the end it was still Technik/AGM in the front, followed HQ and Goneppo, who were still bunched up toward the end.
“That was an amazing race. We had to make a call to try to slow our guy down. We were going to try to run him on fuel, and we did the math, and if we were wrong it would send us back two spots, and so we made the call early to switch and put me in, and then this race broke out that was unbelievable,” said Technik/AGM driver Peter Hopelain. “And were getting down to, what, 10 minutes or something like that, and the yellow flag came out, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, if he goes the distance under yellow.’ The rain came and it got greasy, but that was … epic.”
Two races after the introduction of the E3S class, seven cars took the grid and no E3 cars entered. Early on, Team Apex Racing had the lead in a Spec Miata, followed by the Spec E30s of Team Papa Brings the Heat and Team Speed Racers.
One hour in that order remained, but by the second hour, Team Black Swan Search, also a Spec E30, had come from deep in the field to take the lead in E3S, followed by Team Old Fat and Slow in a Spec Miata and Team Apex Racing.
As the race wore on, Black Swan Search had put a lap on the second place Apex Racing and went on to take the checkered flag first, but post-race inspections ended with a DQ for Team Black Swan Search for being underweight. That put Team Apex Racing on the top step of the podium, with Team Old Fat and Slow in second and Team Speed Racers in third.