There is something special about Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Something that has me hooked, I want more, more seat time, more experience, more opportunities for a hot lap. This track, more than any other, creates a desire within me to go fast. I need to beat myself, every time I go. I need to find a way to make time. Maybe, if I eat less and don’t drink as much water the day before, I will be faster. What can I do to get an edge? How do I make up a few tenths of a second? I know that I’m leaving time on the table, but where? Why does this track swirl around the back of my mind, like smoke, and infect my thoughts with temptation? I have to go back, I have to be faster, I know that I can go faster.
Why? What is so special about this track that it’s the one I dream about? Why do people talk about lap times of faraway tracks like Nurburgring, and I get stuck on Buttonwillow of all tracks?
Why, indeed. Here’s the rundown: It’s centrally located.
Buttonwillow is 250 miles North of San Diego, and 250 miles South of San Francisco. It’s a common ground for racers across the state. There’s no reason why a SoCal native would be at an advantage, or disadvantage with a NorCal local. Conversely, one would assume that someone who lives in NorCal would have the advantage of setting a hot lap at Thunderhill, due to proximity, in much the same way that here in SoCal, Autoclub Speedway is nearby. This means many different cars, and many different drivers have thrown down at Buttonwillow. A fast lap here translates well for anyone in the state.
With so many drivers contributing their hot laps into the gauntlet, it’s easy for a geek like me to digest the numbers. A common trend emerges when you listen to trackside chatter, or Internet claims: 13CW is the common configuration that most people have run. Everyone wants to crack the 2:00 barrier running 13CW. If you are sub-2 minutes on street tires, you are fast.
It had been quite some time since I had last run at Buttonwillow. That was back in June, in which I ran a 2:15.1, and was not happy about it. That also happened to be the last event on the old pavement. Yes, Buttonwillow got a fresh repave and reseal this year, and word on streets is that this new pavement had more grip, to the tune of 2-3 seconds. Also noteworthy were the TC Kline Single Adjustable Coilovers that I had installed in the car, replacing blown shocks with stock springs. The car was then corner balanced and ready for war. With two large variables at play here it was time to go back.
In what seems to be the de facto duo, it was Mika and I heading to Buttonwillow. The Flying Finn in his FR-S, and the Teutonic Titan in his 135i, a rivalry that always leads to a good show. With maturity and foresight, we decided on booking a hotel near the track, so that we could stay the night before, and actually get a decent night’s rest, as opposed to cannonballing it at 3AM and then tracking all day. Our goal was to get there relatively early, perhaps 9PM, and be ready for a 6:30 wake up time.
We left O.C. around 6:00pm, figuring that although we would hit some traffic in L.A., that once past it, it would be nothing but smooth sailing.
We were wrong.
L.A. was surprisingly breezy, in that we only had about 30 minutes of stop-and-go traffic. However, once we were North of L.A., things took a devastating turn for the worse. All four lanes came to an abrupt halt. It was around 7:00pm at this point. We had hit the point on I-5N where the topography gets hilly and rocky. We were stopped on a steep incline, with the pace eventually upgrading to a crawl. Stop and go traffic, moving inch by inch, up a steep hill, in cars with manual transmissions.
I refuse to burn up my clutch.
Darkness had fallen, and all that we could see ahead were miles of tail lights, stationary beacons breaking up the black screen of night. We had to think quickly, how do we get through this without the wretched smell of destroyed clutch?
Follow the trucks.
We weren’t the only ones caught out by this. A long row of truckers had congregated in the right lane and were creeping up the hill. They had the right idea, by making a gap, and gently rolling off the clutch with no gas and riding the gear, we could creep slowly enough to not continually ride the clutch as traffic inched up the hill. So it began. creeping and crawling, only clutching in when absolutely necessary.
When you read this, you will probably think “Surely he’s exaggerating, it can’t have been that bad.” As we creeped up the hill, there were many cars pulling over on the side of the highway to wait it out. Why? They were all cars with manual gear boxes, or cars that had overheated creeping up a step hill with no air flow to cool the engines and transmissions down.
This Porsche was the prime example. It’s driver had no consideration or mechanical sympathy, and just kept riding the clutch through traffic. It’s bad when I can hear it with the windows up, and this picture was taken when I started smelling it. Seconds after, the engine bay erupted with clutch smoke and left one frazzled Porsche driver on the side of the road.
Over the course of two hours we covered a whopping 3 miles. Mika and I had become separated in the fray, though there was cell service in this area, so through the power of text messaging, I was able to discern that my trucker route had put me ahead of him (for once). Once the 10PM mark had been passed, I began to see the light, literally. Traffic resumed it’s crawl towards a series of blinding lights, and I saw what the hell had caused this mess. Two big rigs had crashed into each other and rolled over, and there was a massive spill of some sort. There was a massive police force as well as the EPA (?) controlling the scene, and everything around it. This resulted in four lanes being funneled into one.
Mercifully, I managed to squeeze through the funnel. Nothing but open road ahead. I laid down a few patches of rubber with a massive celebratory burnout as I left the scene. The Police were too busy to deal with a hooligan like me. At this point, it was past 10:00pm, and there was still around 90 miles to go. I promptly set cruise control at some miles per hour and set off. Apparently, Mika hadn’t crossed the narrow pathway to freedom yet.
About 45 minutes later, I was the overnight holdup in Buttonwillow. Mika was about 20-30 minutes behind. I had managed to use a lot of fuel, huh. Any who, I checked in, found our room, and waited for Mika to show up, so that he wouldn’t be locked out, and promptly passed out. A cheap bed never felt so nice.
The next day, it was game time. Registration, driver’s meeting, pre-flight checks, and prep work all passed by in a flash, and like that, I was on track again. Our friend Jeff Yang was also there in his wicked fast Evo X, and he brought along a friend, Zack, with his well-sorted E46M3. I would later found out that Zack had the most seat time of us all at Buttonwillow, and his lap times reflected that.
The first session was just a shake down. I didn’t both recording since I treated it as warm up. Also, it was nothing but traffic. Despite that, I lopped off nearly 3 seconds off my previous fastest lap. Wow.
I like where this is going.
You know what else I like? Spotting test mules at the track.
This MP4-12C rolled into midday with this pre-prod Roush Stage 3 Supercharged 2015 Mustang (!!!)
A lot more pictures of this can be found on my tumblr account.
Still contending with traffic, but my pace was picking up. I tried some unconventional lines at first, and overcooked a few corners. However, as traffic lessened, so did my lap times:
2:09.8, not bad.
Amusingly, while I’m patting myself on the back for being sub 2:10, Billy Johnson and his crew were in the pits prepping their Acura NSX racecar for some test laps.
They are looking for sub 1:30 with the new engine setup, a turbocharged V6 Honda race engine. It’s scouting laps at low speeds were still faster than anything I was doing all day.
2:09.7. Lap times were getting more consistent, but only marginal improvements in performance. There’s more there, I’m just not putting it together right now. There are areas where I’m lifting unnecessarily instead of staying flat out and using all of the track. There are also a few spots where I should be working the shifter more to optimize my mph, i.e. shifting into 4th out out of Riverside, and choosing 2nd for Off-ramp. Looking back, it’s so obvious.
2:09.5. This was about as much as I had in me for the day. Some of my approaches into corners had been cleaned up, but I was still resisting using 4th gear. Looking back, I suppose my premise was, why bother upshifting if I’m going to be on the brakes soon anyway. That’s a flawed mentality for anyone who can heel and toe, so, shame on me.
This last session was just throw away. Between the traffic and my overdriving of the tires, there was no improvement in peak lap times (2:09.7). However, it did give me a shot at being right behind Mika, where a little dogfight emerged. For a while, it was actually a three way dogfight with Mika leading the way, and Zack and myself trading places behind him in multiple areas. Good times.
And like that, the day had come to a close. Jeff had dipped out of the event a bit early, having experienced some differential issues. Zack was heading back to school in LA, so all three of us hit the road together, southbound. The cruise home was peaceful and uneventful.
There were extended periods of silence as I reviewed my mental notes on the way home. Following the last season, having watched how Mika and Zack approached the course, a few things suddenly clicked, and like that I was ready for more. Scratch that, I needed more. Buttonwillow got me good.