After a cold and wet winter, Lotus Cup USA commenced the 2016 season at Willow Springs International Raceway.  The series last visited the track known simply as “Big Willow” three years earlier, in 2013.  The self-proclaimed “Fastest Track in the West” is an intimidating track that is hard on cars and even harder on egos.  If you want technical, go next door to Streets of Willow.  Big Willow is all about power and downforce, speed and bravery.  The typical Lotus racecar runs flat out from the apex of Turn 5 through the braking zone of Turn 9.  Along the way, the Lotus jockey and his delicate British mount will experience brutal pavement cracks, humps and bumps, varying degrees of adhesion and abrasiveness, and unpredictably savage gusts of wind while strafing the Turn 8 apex at speeds exceeding 130 mph.  Mistakes can lead to tragedy but victory is reserved for the courageous. 

Lotus Cup welcomed familiar faces back to the series.  Mike Dean, returning from a back injury, wasted no time in serving notice of his intent to win the Production Class in 2016 by capturing the class pole for Saturday’s race.  In addition to Dean and the hard-charging Brandon Sloan, Production would also feature the wily veteran Ross Jaffe, driving the SP Motorsports Elise (last seen winning the Production Class in the hands of Kevin Woods.

 Mike Bryant and Kelley Spielberg, former Cup Class champions, duked it out for Cup Class pole, with Bryant posting a flyer barely two tenths faster than Spielberg.  But class pole would go to Dustin Zahursky, who banged out some truly amazing lap times the whole weekend.  Clearly, Zahursky’s Cup Class win to close the 2015 season at Thermal was no fluke.  Jeff Raggio returned, but due to delays in the reconstruction of his Cup Class challenger he was forced to begin the season in a naturally-aspirated Elise better suited to compete in the Production Class.

Once again, the SuperSport Class would be dominated by the dueling duo of former champion Thomas MacMillan in the VSA Evora GTN and 2015 defending champ Scott Gibson in the VSA Lotus 2-Eleven.  Gibson posted the fastest SuperSport lap in qualifying but was sent to the back of the grid for missing the driver’s meeting earlier in the day.

Trophy Class featured the defending champion Greg Nitzkowski in the DRS 2-Eleven GT4 and Nicolai Elghanyan in the supercharged Exige, who would fight each other for overall pole.  Nicolai would take pole by seven tenths.  The Trophy Class also featured two Exige V6 Cup Rs – one piloted by Allen Russak, who drove superbly to victory in the last two races of the 2015 season; the other by newcomer Fernando Barbachano, a dashing young driver from the Lamborghini Super Trofeo series.  Both cars came courtesy of Sage Automotive Group’s Lotus of the Desert / Lotus of West Covina; Russak’s car having been tuned and set up by VSA Motorsports, while Barbachano relied on the Sage Lotus team to tune and prepare his LF1-liveried machine.  Michael Reynolds, the 2015 Cup Class champion, also decided to contest the Trophy Class this season.  Alas, his VSA Evora GT4 was not ready for the start of the season, so he was forced to compete in Trophy with last year’s bright green #714 VSA Exige Cup car.  Like Raggio, Reynolds would be out-gunned in his class but determined to maximize the possible points-haul for the weekend.

The race itself was characteristically dramatic.  Nitzkowski passed Nicolai at the start and led the first lap.  Reynolds passed Zahursky and MacMillan at the start but gave back both positions before Turn 2, and was then passed by Spielberg and Bryant.  Zahursky then passed MacMillan and put in a series of blindingly quick laps to win comfortably in the Cup Class.  “I had a lot of help from Jack Olsen”, said Zahursky, humbly attributing his pace to some in-car coaching from the legendary Porsche man.  Spielberg finished second; Bryant came home third and Raggio managed a very solid fourth-place finish in the NA Elise (which had neither the power nor the downforce to be class competitive).

Russak drove a clean race from P3, only to emerge on Lap 2 in front of the pack after Nicolai collided with Nitzkowski in Turn 3.  Debris was strewn across the track-out point from Turn 3.  “Didn’t much like the rock garden there” quipped MacMillan after the race.  Both Trophy Class contenders appeared to be out of contention but managed to get back into the mix.  Unfortunately, Nitzkowski’s engine would suffer damage from the encounter.  On Lap 10, it began spilling oil along the racing line through Turns 8 and 9, and forcing the DRS 2-Eleven GT4 to retire.  This caused several near-crashes, as other cars slid across the oil slick in Turns 8 and 9.

 One such episode occurred when Scott Gibson – who had made an heroic charge from the back of the grid all the way up to third place overall (just barely passing MacMillan on the second to last lap) – slid on the exit of Turn 9.  The wobble blunted Gibson’s momentum out of Turn 9, leaving him vulnerable to MacMillan, who was still in hot pursuit.  MacMillan almost pulled off the pass, but it turned out not to matter.  Gibson blew the checkered flag and was assessed a thirty-second penalty, handing the SuperSport victory to MacMillan.

In Production, Mike Dean held the lead going into the final lap, with Sloan and Jaffe closing in fast.  Dean tip-toed across the Turn 9 oil slick while Sloan took the risk and charged right over it.  The gamble paid off, as Sloan managed to eke out a victory at the finish line by a mere .009 seconds!  Both men came into the pits wondering who had finished in first, such was the proximity of the two cars crossing the line in parallel formation.  Jaffe would round out the Production Class podium in third.

Trophy class honors would go to Russak, who drove a clean, consistent race and stayed out of trouble.  Newcomer Barbachano took second, with Reynolds flogging his underpowered Exige to collect the bronze medal.  Russak would also take the first-ever trophy for being the highest-placed finisher in the V6 Exige Cup R, which is proving to be a very competitive and reliable factory turn-key solution for Lotus racing enthusiasts.

Sunday’s race would prove to be equally dramatic.  Reynolds passed Barbachano at the start but the daring young rookie would not be denied for long.  On Lap 2, Barbachano took advantage of big V6 power and a clean launch from Turn 9 to pass Reynolds going in the braking zone for Turn 1.  “First priority is to get Reynolds’ Evora GT4 finished” conceded VSA team principal Allen Strommer.  Barbachano would go on to finish third, another terrific result for the newcomer.  Russak took second after nearly being taken out by a hard-charging Zahursky – see below – while Trophy Class honors would go to Elghanyan, who set the fastest time of the week-end (a blisteringly quick 1:27.9).  Nitzkowski salvaged as many points as he could, finishing fifth in the “T-Car” – a Cup Class car normally driven by DRS teammate Roy Sakioka.

Gibson was not to be denied the top step of the SuperSport podium.  He drove flawlessly, consistently, and quickly to finish ahead of MacMillan. 

For his part, MacMillan had the best seat in the house to watch the drama unfold surrounding Zahursky’s charge through the field in his all-black Cup Class car.  Zahursky made several passes on the outside of Turn 2, carrying speeds that can only be described as “gutsy” (this is, after all, a family-friendly report).  But then gutsy turned to crazy when Zahursky tried to pass Russak on the inside of Turn 9 – only to put his right side wheel over the inside curb into the dirt, bumping Russak and sending Zahursky spinning across the rock-strewn landscape at over 100 mph. 

Remarkably, Zahursky managed to get his DRS-supported Exige Cup car moving again, only to be passed by MacMillan, Barbachano, Spielberg and Reynolds.  The indefatigable Zahursky once again charged through the field, passing cars in the most unlikely of places – only to push too hard in Turn 4, going off the track again and earning a 30-second penalty that relegated him to third place.  The Cup Class victory would go to 2014 champion Kelley Spielberg, with Bryant coming in second.  Jeff Raggio gamely stayed in the ring and kept swinging, ultimately finishing fourth despite his handicap in power and downforce.

The Production Class was closely contested as well.  Mike Dean started on pole.  Brandon Sloan parlayed a brilliant start to pull past both Dean and Ross Jaffe on the inside of Turn 2.  Sloan overcooked the middle of the corner, however, backed off and got loose, sliding across the track and coming roughly to a halt in the unforgiving terrain on the outside of that vast right-hand sweeper.  Dean took evasive action but spun as well.  Jaffe expertly avoided the tempest and charged into the lead, where he would remain until the penultimate lap.

Meanwhile, Mike Dean, who had stalled following his spin, got moving again.  He passed Sloan’s wounded steed going up the hill towards Turn 3.  Sloan would retire shortly thereafter.  Then Dean began pouring on the coals in his quest for victory.  By lap 8, he was bearing down on Jaffe at a furious pace.  On lap 10, he got a strong launch off the Turn 9 apex and just after the start/finish line passed Jaffe on the inside, in the braking zone for Turn 1.  Dean would take the checkered flag the next time by.  Still, second place was a strong performance from Jaffe, considering that he is still growing accustomed to his new ride for the 2016 season. Once again, Russak scored the V6 Exige Cup R Trophy, courtesy of Sage Motorsports.

The 2016 saga will continue to unfold next month, when the traveling Lotus Cup circus moves on to Buttonwillow Raceway Park.  Watch this space to see what happens next!