Lotus Cup USA wound down the 2015 season in the luxurious confines of The Thermal Club, located near the sunny winter paradise of Palm Springs. The Thermal Club is a beautiful private racing facility that includes its own private airport and a three mile road course that will soon be expanded to roughly 4.5 miles. The track is ringed by member garages and casitas. The Thermal Club is home to series sponsor Sage Automotive Group’s Lotus of the Desert / Lotus of West Covina, which hosted the Lotus Cup race as well as the Lotus Advanced Driving Clinic the same week-end. Lotus Cup USA thanks them for their support and hospitality!
The track itself is divided into two halves. The technical “South Palm Circuit” is notable mainly for its long straights and tight corners. Corner exits and braking zones are of key importance there. The fast, flowing “North Palm Circuit” contains some elevation changes and high speed esses. A mistake in one corner usually carries consequences for several consecutive corners thereafter. The surface is non-abrasive and has good adhesion. The weather was perfect – dry with daytime highs in the low-to-mid seventies.
The 2015 season closed out on a high note, with action-packed races both Saturday and Sunday. Lotus Cup welcomed the return of 2014 Supersport Class champion Derek Wang, who qualified on pole for Saturday’s race in the Trophy Class Muellerized Exige. He would start alongside newcomer Allen Russak in the Lotus Exige V6 Cup R. The two battled neck-and-neck throughout the race. Wang took the inside line into the tight, left-hand first corner (Turn 3, as the start-finish line is on the long straight connecting Turn 2 with Turn 3), and emerged in first place. There he would stay for most of the race, with Russak trailing roughly 1.0 to 1.5 seconds behind. But by mid-race, Russak found his mojo and started closing in, in some places nearly gluing his yellow Exige V6 Cup R to Wang’s diffuser. On Lap 7, Wang went wide on the exit of Turn 3. Russak pounced, taking the inside line and getting on the throttle earlier, allowing him to pass for the lead. Russak then went wide into the triple-apex right-hander known as the Turn 5/6 complex, allowing the crafty former champion to retake the lead.
Russak didn’t give up though. He stayed close behind Wang through Turns 11 and 12, took an inside line through the left-hand Carousel, and got a good launch towards the “Hump” – Thermal’s blind crest approach to the right hand Turn 14, which is the first bend in the high speed esses of the North Palm Circuit. Wang took a conventional, out-in-out line into Turn 14. Russak, gaining fast, took an unconventional early turn in, hugging the inside line into Turn 14 and taking the lead again. Russak never looked back, leaving Wang to settle for second place, would have to settle for second place, 2.4 seconds behind.
Further back in SuperSport, the race was decided on Lap 1 when pole-sitter Tom MacMillan spun (while leading) as he came out of the Carousel. MacMillan would later discover that his VSA Motorsports Evora GTN was suffering from a bent rear toe link that made the car unpredictable in left-hand corners. “It’s like I had rear-wheel steering”, mused MacMillan, who later posted videos of the lurid slides his car performed in left hand corners. Immediately after his spin, MacMillan performed a NASCAR-style burnout to get his car pointed in the right direction. But by then, the damage was done. Robb Bonanno, the 2014 Production-Class champion, had gotten past in his green and gray Expressos and Exotics Evora GTN and would proceed to victory with a ten-second margin.
The Cup Class featured its own drama. Michael Reynolds qualified on pole in the orange #949 car (which Reynolds campaigned the previous two seasons), because his green and blue VSA Exige Cup car was still recuperating from the damage it sustained during the win at Auto Club Speedway one month earlier. In a see-saw battle reminiscent of the Russak-Wang contest, Reynolds finished first with Dustin Zahursky coming second, only 3.8 seconds behind. Jeff Raggio completed the Cup Class podium.
The Production Class once again featured thrilling battles interspersed throughout the grid. Kevin Woods, the newly-crowned class champion, led flag to flag once again. Brandon Sloan drove a fine race, battling back and forth with Reynolds in the #949 car. Sloan would take the silver medal ahead of third-placed Ross Jaffe, driving the yellow and gray Dietsch Motorsports Sport Elise spare car after a collision in practice sidelined his customary steed. Bob Zurcher drove a solid, trouble-free race to come home in fourth, followed by Tony Lanza, David Anderson and Rob Capetz.
Fastest lap honors for Saturday went to Russak (Trophy), at 2:14.503; MacMillan (Supersport), at 2:18.063; Zahursky (Cup), at 2:23.014; and Woods (Production), at 2:18.965.
The last race of the season was held Sunday, December 6, 2015. This time, Allen Russak started from pole, with Wang beginning just to the right of him. A hotly contested Lap 1 saw Russak maintain his lead, with considerable battling throughout the field until an incident on the North Palm Circuit brought out a red flag. When the race resumed, the drivers made a single-file rolling start. Russak led from flag to flag, with Wang pressuring him the entire distance. Wang would finish second, just 0.883 seconds behind.
SuperSport was similarly contested. MacMillan started from pole but had his mirrors full of Bonanno’s Evora GTN. Bonanno would end up just 0.674 seconds behind MacMillan at the end of the race. The Cup Class had a new race winner by virtue of Dustin Zahursky’s outstanding drive, wherein he drove from his first pole position to his first-ever Lotus Cup win. Reynolds took the silver medal in the #949 VSA Elise, followed by Jeff Raggio in third.
Woods capped off a flawless season by driving yet another spectacular race, leading from flag to flag and mixing it up with the racers in faster classes. Brandon Sloan came in second place, followed by Ross Jaffe in third. David Anderson drove a solid, trouble-free race to come in fourth, followed by Lanza and Zurcher in fifth and sixth, respectively.
Once again, the fastest lap of the race was set by Russak, a blistering 2:12.938. Robb Bonanno scored the fastest lap in SuperSport, at 2:18.240. Zahursky capped off his race pole and win to score fastest lap honors in Cup at 2:20.268. Once again, Woods scored the fastest lap in Production, at 2:18.924.
Saturday night, after the sun had set over the desert mountains, Lotus Cup adjourned to its annual end-of-season banquet and awards ceremony, which took place at the Jackalope Ranch Grill in Indio, California. Food, drink, stories and much camaraderie were enjoyed by all. The 2015 class champions were crowned – Greg Nitzkowski (Trophy), Scott Gibson (Supersport), Michael Reynolds (Cup) and Kevin Woods (Production). Woods was named 2015 Rookie of the Year, and Reynolds was honored with the 2015 Sportsmanship Award. Nicolai Elghanyan received the Most Improved Driver Award for 2015.
2016 will bring new challenges for the Lotus Cup drivers. Sonoma, Willow Springs and Inde Motorsports Ranch will be returning to the schedule. Who will drive in which class? Will titles be retained or will new champions be crowned? One thing seems certain – as the competitiveness increases and the drivers continue to improve, 2016 should be the most exciting season yet.