The 2009 racing season is officially on. For the National Auto Sport Association's So-Cal region, the first event was held at its home track, Willow Springs International Raceway. The other tracks in the area may attract more attention with Auto Club Speedway hosting televised events and Buttonwillow being home to the now infamous time attacks. But for local racers, their wins, losses and lap times on the "Big Track" at Willow are what everyone remembers.
The track was built in 1953, just down the road from what is now Edwards Air Force Base. The skies above the circuit announced Chuck Yeager's first sonic boom and propelled the X-15 to Mach 6.7. But the 2.5-mile track at Willow has its own history of incredible speed. The lap record has been shattered countless times, including in 1965 by Richie Ginther in Honda's RA272 F1 car, then again by Nigel Mansell in 1982 in a Lotus 91. Michael Andretti's 20-year standing lap record of 1:06.05 had an average speed of 136 mph. That's fast for a road course! But the legends of the sport couldn't keep the current field of NASA racers from raising the bar, at least in their respective classes, anyway.
Just as in professional racing, there was a lot of uncertainty in the off-season as to who would be able to race this year. After seeing Subaru pull out of the WRC and Honda dump its F1 program, it was hard to predict who would have the funding to compete. But while many competitors are dropping out of the expensive series like Grand Am and World Challenge, some of the smaller series have been picking up these Ronin racers. The result has been the mixing of talented semi-professionals and established amateurs battling head to head.
One of the groups that has held strong is the Honda Challenge series. The stock motored H4 class had its usual contenders, but the H2 hybrid class showed some real growth. Greg Neuwirth, the owner of AEM brought out his DC2 Integra. Benoit Pecquer also debuted his CTR-powered Civic coupe. But nobody could keep pace with last year's champion, Renan Bayar. Despite being too cheap to buy new motor oil, his qualifying time was more than 2 seconds faster than second place Ryan Flaherty's B16A-powered CRX.
The dominance of Bayar was so ridiculous that instead of racing for position, he and Flaherty made a side bet to see who could re-pass Pecqueur the most times during the race. While this provided great entertainment for most of the spectators, for others it was a bit disappointing. Those two taking the great sport of racing and turning it into a game was a blatant violation of the Bushido code. To make sure that doesn't continue, this journalist will be joining the series shortly with his own CRX in an attempt to keep the racing honest.
Another series that always promises great action is the Spec Miata class, and it certainly delivered. No fewer than 21 competitors took the green flag. When the checkers dropped, less than a second separated Jonathan Christian, Grant Westmoreland and William Christian who stood on the podium in that order.
While the racers were in the paddock, the track was filled with drivers pushing their street and time attack machines to their limits. The fastest lap in the time trial competition was a 1:22.6, clocked by Bart Carter in his Viper. To do that requires an average speed of 109 mph around the nine-turn course. But not everybody was as hell-bent on speed. The HPDE-1 beginners school was filled to maximum capacity with drivers who were happy just to keep their cars on the pavement while experiencing their first taste of track racing. The filled school just goes to show that despite economic uncertainty, people who want to drive fast are still going to do it, and this is going to be a great season at the racetrack.