Every year, Lotus Cup returns to Buttonwillow Raceway Park.  But it seemed a little different this year.  The landscape was different.  The El Nino rains had turned much of the usually dusty infield into a series of small ponds.  The mid-April date was certainly different – in fact, the weather was cool and pleasant most of the week-end.  And the configuration was different – Lotus Cup would run the #13 circuit counter-clockwise for the first time since 2012.

On the other hand, Buttonwillow delivered the same thrills that keep Lotus drivers coming back year after year.  Intimidating hills, blind crests, high-speed sweepers, challenging esses and tight, technical switchbacks combined with rough pavement, tricky braking zones, hay-fever producing allergens and the faint whiff of nearby dairy farms to form a unique mélange enthusiastically described by VSA team principal Allen Strommer as “craptastic!”

Many Lotus Cup drivers had never driven the track counter-clockwise.  Defending SuperSport Class champion Scott Gibson liked the new layout: “[i]t’s slower, but more interesting,”  which echoed the consensus.  “Passing zones are fewer” said Lotus Cup driver coach Jonathan Frost.  Nevertheless, by the end of the week-end the Lotus Cup drivers would bring their lap times down to rough equivalence with last year’s times on the CW#13 configuration – despite the latter configuration’s supposed two-second advantage.  Indeed, the top two Trophy Class finishers would both break into the 1:49 second range – a first for Lotus Cup at Buttonwillow – and further highlighting the tremendous progress in skill and competitiveness throughout the grid.

Michael Reynolds captured the Trophy Class and overall pole forSaturday’s race in his debut with the VSA Evora GT4.  Nicolai Elghanayan lined up alongside him in P2.  Greg Nitzkowski was third-fastest, but was sent to the back of the grid because he spun in qualifying.  Gibson took the SuperSport pole, Russak was the fastest of the Exige V6 Cup Rs, and Mike Bryant and Mike Dean took the respective poles in Cup and Production.

The start was relatively clean.  Reynolds braked too early heading into Sunset, allowing Elghanayan to pass cleanly from the outside.  “I misjudged the braking zone and the braking power of the new car”, said Reynolds sheepishly.  For the first half of the race, the two drove a tight race; Reynolds catching up in Grapevine and the Cotton corners, but losing ground elsewhere.  But late in the race, Elghanayan cut through lap traffic more quickly and decisively, opening up a comfortable lead over Reynolds.  Elghanayan would take the checkered flag and post the fastest lap of the race, at 1:51.272.  Reynolds finished second. 

The hard chargers in Trophy Class were Allen Russak and defending-champ Nitzkowski.  Russak started in sixth place, but quickly moved up to fifth, where he had the best seat in the house to watch the spectacular battle between Tom MacMillan in the VSA Evora GTN and Scott Gibson in the VSA 2-Eleven.  Eventually, Russak picked off both SuperSport contenders on his way to claim the bronze medal.  Nitzkowski started dead last but managed to both stay out of trouble and pass nearly everybody on the grid to finish fourth in class – a remarkable accomplishment under difficult circumstances.  Lotus newcomer Fernando Barbachano, driving the Sage Lotus V6 Cup R, managed a very respectable fifth place.

SuperSport was nip and tuck the entire race.  Scott Gibson held off Tom MacMillan by the slimmest of margins.  MacMillan actually wrested the lead from Gibson on Lap 6, only to have Gibson take it back the following lap.  The two would finish barely 1.2 seconds apart at the finish, with MacMillan setting the fastest lap in class at 1:54.462.  Unfortunately, Robb Bonanno experienced mechanical problems with his Espresso & Exotics Evora GTN and was unable to mix it up with the rest of the class.

Mike Bryant was all alone in Cup.  He lead from flag to flag with a fast, consistent pace and brought home the fastest lap honors, at 1:57.980.  Jeff Raggio, who is getting faster and more competitive with every race, finished a very solid second.  Jeff Elghanayan also drove quite well, and took the last spot on the Cup Class podium.  2014 champion Kelley Spielberg went off the track heading into the Cotton Corners and could only manage fourth place despite showing enough raw speed to finish higher.

Maelstrom (noun) (1) a powerful whirlpool in the sea or a river; (2) bedlam, pandemonium; (3) a situation or state of confused movement or violent turmoil; (4) what happens when you put Mike Dean, Ross Jaffe, Brandon Sloan and Greg Strezloff together on a racetrack. 

And so it was, the Production Class battle was as intense as it was entertaining.  Dean started on pole but missed an upshift on the front straight right after taking the green flag.  Strezloff pounced on the mistake and shot into the lead.  Dean held onto Strezloff’s bumper for three more laps, with Jaffe and Sloan a stone’s throw behind.  Then on Lap 4, light contact between Spielberg and Strezloff heading into Grapevine slowed the Production Class leader just enough for Dean to make his move.  Dean shot ahead going into the Cotton Corners and stayed in the lead until Lap 10, when Strezloff, having a full head of steam coming out of Sunrise, retook the lead in the braking zone for Sunset.  Dean caught up through the esses and the sweeper, and seemed poised for a dramatic finish.

But the drama that unfolded was not what Dean wanted.  He touched the dirt on the approach to Phil’s Hill and spun over the crest, displacing what may have been an acre-foot of prime Central Valley topsoil.  This allowed the pursuing Jaffe and Sloan, never far behind, to jump ahead.  Strezloff would set the fastest lap (1:59.259) on his way to the hard-earned win, with Jaffe and Sloan taking second and third, respectively.  Dean finished in style by passing the checkered flag in fourth and then throwing the car into another spin – apparently eager for a date with MacMillan’s leaf-blower (team VSA’s tool of choice to remove Buttonwillow’s ultra-fine dust from car, clothing, hair, teeth, etc.)

Sunday’s race also provided thrills.  Nicolai Elghanayan landed pole with a scorching time of 1:49.789 (the fastest time of the week-end).  In a role reversal, Reynolds would start from the outside of the front row.  Both men started well, gapping the cars behind them and building a comfortable lead over the rest of the field.  Half-way through the race, however, Nicolai spun coming into the tight left-hand, decreasing radius Off-Ramp.  However, he had already built up such a lead over Reynolds that he was able to get his Muellerized Exige V6 back up to speed without losing first place.  Reynolds finished second, admitting “I just couldn’t match his pace today.  He [Elghanayan] drove so well.  He really deserved the win and I’m glad he got it.”  Elghanayan also scored the fastest lap of the race, 1:50.309. 

Nitzkowski brought his DRS 2-Eleven GT4 home in third place, after a race-long battle and furious challenge from Allen Russak, who finished less than two seconds behind in the VSA Exige V6 Cup R.  Russak gained tremendous ground over the course of the week-end, rapidly learning both car and track.  Fernando Barbachano stayed out of trouble and drove a consistent, measured pace to finish fifth in class.

SuperSport was again the scene of a heated struggle between MacMillan, who qualified on class pole, and Gibson, who lined up next to MacMillan on the outside of row three.  Gibson used the superior power-to-weight ratio of his VSA 2-Eleven to jump ahead of MacMillan at the start.  But the superior contact patch of the VSA Evora GTN was evident in the twisty sections, where MacMillan gained ground.  MacMillan would remain plastered to Gibson’s diffuser for most of the race, but Gibson ultimately pulled out a three second margin at the stripe, as well as fastest lap honors – by less than a tenth of a second.  Robb Bonanno finished the race in a solid third position, commendable given the intermittent reliability of his car over the course of that week-end.

The Cup Class featured notably less drama.  Once again, Mike Bryant drove a superb race, starting from pole and maintaining a strong and consistent pace that assured him of an unthreatened win.  He also scored fastest lap, at 1:57.812.  Kelley Spielberg rebounded nicely from Saturday’s race to finish a strong second place.  Jeff Raggio came home in third, for his second podium of the week-end.

Once again, the Production Class provided the most intense action on track.  Both Dean and Strezloff were relegated to the back of the grid following incidents in qualifying.  Pole-sitter Brandon Sloan and second-gridded Ross Jaffe held off the charge of Dean and Strezloff when the green flag waved.  On Lap 3, Strezloff once again got a good run on Dean coming out of Sunrise, which translated into a pass for third position in the braking zone for Sunset.  The next lap, with Sloan still leading the quartet of Production Class runners, Strezloff once again got a strong run out of Sunrise to put his yellow Dietsch-werks Elise in position for the pass heading into Sunset.  He then out-braked Jaffe and executed the pass.  Jaffe’s momentum was blunted, opening the door for Mike Dean to slip through on the straight leading up to the esses.  The order was now Sloan, Strezloff, Dean and Jaffe.  Strezloff was like “a blocking back”, quipped Jaffe, whose blue SP Motorsports spec Elise was now trailing close behind.   

The next lap, Strezloff out-muscled Sloan on the entrance to Sunrise and made the pass into first place.  This time, however, Sloan got the better launch out of Sunrise and was running nose to nose with Strezloff heading into Sunset.  Both cars braked early and hard, but Strezloff had the inside line and took the corner.  Meanwhile, Mike Dean, lurking less than a quarter second behind, took advantage of the error and made it past Sloan just as he had passed Jaffe the previous lap. 

Later in the race, Dean would miss the 3-4 upshift heading towards Sunrise.  Sloan jumped on the opportunity, re-took second place and resumed his pursuit of Strezloff, less than a second ahead.  Dean kept it close for a while, and was gaining furiously on Sloan through Grapevine and the Cotton corners when Sloan got wiggly in Cotton 1.  This forced Dean to lift, causing him to spin.  But Dean kept it on the pavement and lost only a few seconds – and any realistic hope of catching back up to Strezloff and Sloan, who fought a tight battle over the remaining third of the race to finish 1-2, Sloan trailing by less than two seconds.  Jaffe gamely fought on after a spin put him out of contention.  Ultimately, he had to settle for fourth, a fine result given his car’s defective left rear shock – a critical piece of componentry at Buttonwillow’s counter-clockwise configuration.

The fastest lap honors would go to Mike Dean, at 1:58.753.  But the top four finishers in Production (Strezloff, Sloan, Dean and Jaffe) all posted fastest times under 2:00.00, confirming the intensity of the battle at the front of the class.

Next stop: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Who will take the honors at this historic circuit?  Stay tuned!