As the sun began to set at Willow Springs International Raceway on the last day in the leap year of February, 25 cars took to the grid for the season opener of the Western Endurance Racing Championship series.
There were some familiar cars, but the new hardware on grid was impressive, along the lines of what you might find at an IMSA race.
Team PMG Awareness was prepping a factory-built 2019 Porsche GT3 Cup car. Team GRS Autosport/Team Premat was putting the final touches on a factory-built Mercedes-Benz AMG GT4. Team Lang Racing Development brought a Norma M20 FC, and Team Chill by Strom Motorsports had a one-race-old factory-built Porsche Cayman GT4 MR.
The Lang Racing Development Norma was on pole, followed by Team Prototype Development Group’s Factory Five Racing GTM and the Team GRS Autosport/Team Premat Mercedes-Benz AMG GT4 in third.
When the green flag flew, Lang Racing Development leapt out to an early lead and held it for the first hour, but only by one lap over Team Prototype Development Group’s GTM. The overall lead lasted only one lap more. Lang Racing Development dropped out on lap 34 and the field settled in for the remaining 2.5 hours of the race.
At the two-hour mark, Team Prototype Development Group had the overall and class lead, but fell back by one lap behind Team Chill by Strom Motorsports. Team Prototype Development Group posted the fastest lap time of all cars that finished, which was good enough for the class win and second overall in a race that saw a wide swing in temperature from day to night.
“We don’t have to stop to replace a tire, ever, even if, as today, ambient temperatures went down much more than we had expected, so we were a little conservative on the pressures, and we lost a little grip, but the tires held up, the balance of the car was good. I cannot for the my life understand why more teams here aren’t running the Hankook tires, so they can reduce their tire budget and just run one set of tires for the whole race or a couple of races,” said first-stint driver Carl Rydquist. “Beau (Borders) was able to manage it after our single pit stop. We just did fuel and driver change and he brought it home.”
Team Chill by Strom Motorsports had swapped the ES class lead between themselves and Team GRS Autosport between the one hour and two hour marks. By hour three, Team Chill had the overall lead by just one lap. With just a half hour remaining in the race, team owner Brett Strom held on to take the win in ES and overall in a car they were still dialing in.
“That Porsche is freaking awesome. It just goes,” Strom said. “This is the second race we did with it. We’ve run it once before and in a couple of tests. We’re still figuring out the setup. We came and tested here last week to figure out tire wear, which was our main concern.”
Driving the 2005 Mustang that DIG Motorsports drove to a second-place E0-class finish at the 2019 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Team Men on a Mission qualified their ninth in a field of 25 cars.
In the early stages of the race, they had their hands full with Team BMW Z4 leading them and posting lap times as much as six seconds faster. But, enduros being enduros, the car must last the whole race and Team BMW Z4 had mechanical troubles that knocked them out on lap 25. That left Men on a Mission up front in the two-car class. When the checkers flew, Men on a Mission had circled the track 108 times to take the E0 win.
Driver Phil Robbins took the first and last two stints in his first enduro at Willow Springs, which also is the first track ever raced on.
“Phil started off the race for us. He was fantastic out there, very consistent,” said co-driver Kevin Madsen. “A lot of dust was getting kicked up on the track out there, some rocks on the track, so that was adding to our tire degradation, so that wasn’t planned, but the good news is that our competitor in E0 had some negative fortune, but overall, this madman here, Phil, stuck it out and did the final two stints in the car, didn’t turn a wheel wrong, made some fantastic passes, so we’re really proud of him. DIG Motorsports did a great job with the car, and that certainly will influence us in the future in maybe doing this again.”
When Brett Strom jumped out of the Team Hemisphere Endurance E36 BMW, he jogged over to the Team Chill by Strom Motorsports Porsche GT4 MR pit space and jumped in it to take the ES and overall win. Strom handed the car off to owner Jean Luc De Fanti, who drove it to the finish and the E1 win. The team held the E1 lead from flag to flag.
“I’ve done an enduro before, but never at night, so it was tough,” De Fanti said. “But after three laps, I got used to it and I actually did my best lap time at this track in my second stint, so it was great. It was a real rush.”
Seldom content to leave well enough alone, 2018 25 Hours of Thunderhill E2 class winner and 2018 and 2019 E2 WERC Champions, HQ Autosport did aerodynamic development work on its BMW 128i, adding a front splitter and a rear wing.
HQ Autosport qualified 11th of 25 and by the two-hour mark, the team had inched forward to third-place overall. Firmly in command of E2 for the entire race, HQ Autosport lost some time in the last few minutes after contact with another car, which allowed Team TAPG Motorsports to gain on them. In the end, however, HQ Autosport finished about 30 seconds ahead of TAPG on the same lap. It’s also worth noting that HQ and TAPG finished ahead of all the E1 and E0 cars.
“The drivers drove a great race,” said team co-owner Rob Henretta. “We worked on the car in the offseason. We made some changes and it looks like it all came together for us. We kind of rebalanced the car with less power and added a wing and a splitter. We’re happy with the result. It has a lot to do with how competitive the whole E2 field is. We’re all looking for every scrap, every second, so to have Toyota finish three and a half hours later, you know, just 30 seconds behind us or so, it was a great race.”
One of three cars in E3S, Team Big Papa Brings the Heat qualified 25th on grid, behind chief competition Team Thundercock Racing. At the one- and two-hour marks, Team Thundercock had the E3S lead, but by hour three, the team had dropped out after having completed 61 laps.
Team Big Papa Brings the Heat lasted another 28 laps before its engine expired with driver Tony Graf at the wheel.
“It’s interesting the mind games you start playing with yourself: Can I optimize this section a little bit better? Can I gain a couple of tenths here? Can I be a little bit smoother through this bit?” Graf said. “What I did find really interesting is that this is the first time that I was more comfortable when I was off by myself than I was in traffic, because the speed differentials were so high. When I’m off by myself I could drive my line and that was a lot more gratifying, especially since this is the first time I’ve ever driven this car. So, adjusting to a lower horsepower car with less grip and playing with carrying speed through different places, it’s a lot of fun.”