Lotus Cup USA returned to action October 10th and 11th with two races at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in California’s Central Valley. Lotus Cup used the popular CW#13 configuration, which features something for everybody – tight, technical sectors that place a premium on precision, gut-wrenching elevation changes and high-speed sweepers to test a driver’s courage. Although Buttonwillow’s pit wall has claimed its share of victims, the most common penalty for a mistake is an up-close, personal visit with the fertile Central Valley soil, which can make a car and driver look suspiciously like they just completed a dirt-track campaign. Lotus drivers have even been seen using a leaf-blower to remove the acreage of topsoil that was redistributed from Buttonwillow’s infield to the interior of their steeds.
This season, the weather was warm – even warmer than at Thunderhill six weeks prior – and the drivers had mixed opinions of the resurfaced asphalt. Patrice Gautier, competing in the Dietsch Motorsports spec Elise, claimed the track was four seconds faster. Michael Reynolds with Team VSA was dismissive. “I think Patrice is four seconds faster. The track feels the same to me.”
Regardless of the effect of the track surface, there is little doubt the entire field has upped its game. Lap times at all venues this season have come down and the competition has never been closer. Buttonwillow was no exception to this trend.
For Saturday’s race, the pole-sitters were Nicolai Elghanyan (Trophy and overall pole), Tom MacMillan (SuperSport), Michael Reynolds (Cup) and Kevin Woods (Production). The start of the race was nearly a disaster. MacMillan, starting overall P3 behind pole-sitter Nicolai Elghanyan, braked hard before Sunrise to avoid hitting either of the front row starters (Elghanyan and Nitzkowski). Reynolds, starting directly behind MacMillan, locked up all four brakes as he tried to avoid hitting MacMillan. This caused the green and blue Cup car to slide to the outside of Sunrise. Woods, by that time directly behind Reynolds, and Gautier, alongside Woods, took evasive action and were nearly collected by the pursuing pack of Cup and Production entries. Fortunately, everyone got through the first two corners without contact.
Elghanyan claimed the Trophy-class win and fast lap honors with a best lap of 1:51.86. From there, he drove a fast but controlled pace. Tom MacMillan drove a heroic race without third gear, which failed during the first lap. “I just had to carry more speed in all the corners so I could roll through in fourth,” he explained. He not only won the SuperSport class but also took the fastest lap honors at 1:54.25. Alas, the transmission in the Allied Plastics Evora GTN would fail entirely before Sunday’s race, leaving MacMillan with a serious deficit in the championship points.
The Cup class – and the entire paddock – warmly welcomed Roy Sakioka back to the grid. He drove his black, DRS-liveried Cup car very well, hardly missing a beat despite the lack of practice this season. However, it was Reynolds who scored the win in Cup class, also taking fastest lap honors with a time of 1:54.89. Kelley Spielberg took the silver medal this time. Jeff Raggio, hot off his tremendous debut performance at Thunderhill, rounded out the podium in Cup. Jeff Elghanyan, Roy Sakioka and Rod Drew finished fourth, fifth and sixth in Cup, with mechanical gremlins ending the race early for Sakioka and Drew.
Production was once again the scene of intense battling. Woods drove the SP Motorsports spec Elise to another Production class win, along the way posting the fastest lap in the class, 1:58.34. Dietsch Motorsports teammates Ross Jaffe and Patrice Gautier battled throughout the race. At the end, Gautier merited the second step on the podium. Jaffe drove a strong race but had to settle for the bronze medal.
Sunday’s action was just as exciting, even though the car count was reduced through mechanical attrition. Once again, Nicolai Elghanyan scored the Trophy class pole position in his V6 Exige. But this time the win would go to Greg Nitzkowski in his DRS-supported 211 GT4. The win solidified Nitzkowski’s position as the championship points leader.
A curious battle developed just behind the leaders in Trophy. Reynolds managed to qualify his Cup car in P3, on the inside of SuperSport pole-sitter and VSA teammate Scott Gibson. Reynolds started poorly though, which allowed both Gibson and Production-class pole-sitter Kevin Woods to get through before the second corner. Reynolds eventually got his groove back and, by the end of lap four, the order was Elghanyan, Nitzkowski (who would go on to win overall), Gibson, and Reynolds. Reynolds, on a charge, steadily ate into Gibson’s lead. Both men – with firm in-class leads and therefore nothing to gain but everything to lose – nevertheless drove as hard as they dared. “I was like a dog chasing a car – I don’t know what I would have done if I had caught him.” We’ll never know. Although Reynolds would eventually close to within 1.72 seconds, Gibson successfully managed the gap and finished ahead of Reynolds.
Kelley Spielberg once again drove a solid, consistent pace to finish second in Cup class, followed by Jeff Raggio in third. Rod Drew just missed the podium by coming home fourth.
The Production class podium looked similar to the previous day’s, with Woods taking the gold medal, followed by Gautier and Jaffe. Fast lap honors went to Nitzkowski (Trophy), at 1:50.96; Gibson (SuperSport), at 1:53.82; Reynolds (Cup), at 1:53.61; and Woods (Production), at 1:55.89.
The campaign continues its swing towards the Southeast with Rounds 7 and 8 in November and December, respectively. With all four of the class championships yet to be decided, anything can still happen. The next challenge will be the high, NASCAR-friendly banks of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.