Driving Buttonwillow for the First Time Cured My Track Day Blues
It's easy to do what is comfortable, but it's always worth pushing the boundaries.
I am guilty of a great transgression in the world of track driving. I’ll admit it here, folks: Until recently, I’d never driven a track beyond my home course of Willow Springs. Many tens of track days were spent honing my GTI on the slow-going Streets of Willow handling course until I slowly stopped signing up for track days and never really thought about why. The truth is I didn’t realize I’d become bored with track driving until I took my friend Misha up on an offer to go with him to Buttonwillow Raceway Park (BRP).
The most honest thing I could say is I enjoyed being just 15 minutes away from Willow Springs, whereas every other race track is easily an hour and a half away from me. Before my time as a writer, I would commute to the track on weekends to shoot cars for my previous job, and I quickly became jaded and never hit the reset button. I put a really stupid restriction on myself that I would never go to Buttonwillow if I could help it, mainly because I just didn’t want to be asked to work at another brownscale desert track.
But now, everything is different, and it took me a while to realize it. For a time, track days became linked with work days, but with this trip to BRP, I finally shook that negative connection, and I think I can finally enjoy track days again. I’m even excited to go discover even farther and more unknown race tracks.
My trip took place on a Friday and I confirmed with Misha on Thursday. It was an extremely last-minute thing, and my GTI, Six Iron, was barely ready. Six Iron has been on a decidedly street-based diet regimen for a few months, consuming light and easy street tires with a side of street brake pads. I always have a set of lightweight wheels and hardcore 200-treadwear tires in the garage for track duty, but cobwebs were beginning to form on my once proud set of WedsSport SA-97F wheels and Falken RT660 tires. Misha’s call prompted me to dust them off and do some minor track prep.
Prepping for a new track should involve a fairly major inspection and service that I frankly didn’t have time for. I gave my car a good once over, but I did not do any servicing, only a minor repair to fix a fuel leak. My engine oil was fresh, and my tires looked good, but my brake pads were wearing a touch thin. Lucky for me, this wasn’t a typical track day. It was with a group called Socal Drivers Club that hosts open track days for a bit more money than a typical session-based track day. Instead of only having 20 minutes of track time every hour or so, SDC allows you to come and go as you or the car pleases. An extra and notable bonus is the ability to do an afternoon half day so I could have a mercifully late start where nearly every other track day starts at the crusty eyed crack of dawn.
Because of this rare privilege, I could nurse my car if any issues arised. Still, I packed Six Iron with most of my tools, spare fluids, and my track tires to make the nearly two-hour trek to the California central valley.
And it was a beautiful day to do so. After weeks of cold temperatures and stormy weather (boo-hoo me, the Californian) the calm after the storm swept in with righteous authority. The drive was fair, fresh, and clear. The conditions at the track were absolute perfection because of this. A low ambient temperature of 60 degrees fahrenheit kept the air dense for my turbocharged engine and cool for my radiator and oil cooler, while the sun kept the track surface warm for optimum grip. The still air kept that same surface clean.
It could not have been any more perfect. I breathed deeply and my lungs filled with the thick San Joaquin air and unfettered combustion from the cars buzzing through the main straight.
There was something pure about being trackside, especially without the immediate need to snap photos for work. It was just me, my car, my tools, and an afternoon of tinkering and learning the new-to-me track. I logged simulator time the night before to learn my basic way around, so I was primed for the seemingly fun layout.
Fun was an understatement – I loved that track. It had elevation, variety, and most importantly a sensation of speed without the huge danger of Willow Springs’ main track. It also had a habit of high-speed kinks and wide-open curves that rewarded commitment just as much as it demanded technique.
What I loved most was the profile of the curbing on the track that encouraged British Touring Car style curb-hopping with plenty of two-wheels-in-the-air action. My softly sprung Six Iron could confidently use the whole track and soak up every curb-locked apex. As much as slow, deliberate, tight-radius turns like the ones at Streets of Willow beg for fewer mistakes over longer periods of time, a lot of the fast laptimes at Buttonwillow are found by optimizing rotation at corner entry and committing to a better exit from turn-in.
The texture and depth to the track were everything I was searching for, and I didn’t know it. There was also a general atmosphere of care and curation; the track facilities were new and well-kept, fuel wasn’t hideously overpriced, and the general vibe of the staff was that of genuine enthusiasm. It wasn’t just another Southern California desert track, people gave a shit.
Having Misha there helped a lot too. We rode right-seat in each other’s cars and had an unreasonable amount of fun. He scared me senseless with his McLaren 720S at full chat and we both giggled profusely as I hopped curbs at silly speeds, both agreeing that Six Iron’s core energy is that of a BTCC car.
So yes, my car search has recently pivoted from my idiotic second-generation Volkswagen Touareg TDI idea to finding a dedicated track car. Truth be told, Six Iron is a street car at heart, and I’m having trouble keeping its vitals cold at the track. This one track day has totally reinvigorated my desire to hit more tracks and lit the fire to do more of them. Where it seemed so distant to do tracks like Laguna Seca and Sonoma Raceway just last week, now it feels like I can plan for it at any time.
Try a new track if you’re getting bored. It’s more than likely worth the drive.
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