It was many years ago when I asked a friend, “So what’s so special about endurance racing?”
I’ll never forget how he spun around with his eyes wide open and his face animated as he blurted, “You cannot tell someone how exciting endurance racing is! You have just got to enter one and experience it for yourself!”
Despite his initial remark to the contrary, he spent the next half hour telling me about various aspects of endurance racing and how an endurance race can be compared with a chess match, all of which plays out in a single race.
As my friend continued with his exciting descriptions, he had me riveted, and the part that really set the hook for me was when he told me about the time his team’s car was leading in a four-hour race. As his team was standing on the pit wall waiting for him to come around the final turn and onto the last straightaway, with less than a few hundred yards to the checkered flag, they saw the front bumper fall off and go under the car. The bumper caused a blowout and the car spun off track as the second-, third- and fourth-place cars passed to take the checkered flag. I remember the defeat in his eyes as he said, “Man … after four hours we were less than a few hundred feet from the checkered flag and we didn’t even get a podium finish.”
To start off in endurance racing, you need to figure out what it is you want to accomplish. You also need to read the rules (see “Zero to Hero” sidebar). Of course everyone wants to win, but winning an endurance race needs an explanation as to exactly what the definition of “winning” is. To win an endurance race can simply mean finishing. Believe me, that’s a win unto itself. Other definitions may mean making the podium, taking first in class or better yet winning overall.
There is an old saying, which I loved hearing my navigator use as we stood high on the podium in Mexico after winning the most dangerous stage of La Carrera Panamericana, one of the longest and most grueling and dangerous endurance races in the world. “To finish first, first you must finish.” Nothing could be truer.
There are lots of good things about endurance racing, especially for drivers who want to gain experience. The reason is simple. For one entry fee, you get lots of seat time. During this seat time you can watch other drivers and observe their lines. A very important lesson I learned as an Olympic skeet shooter is that until you surround yourself with competitors better than you, you will not push yourself to improve. This is known to world-class athletes as “turning up the thermostat.” As is the case with any other sport, if you are not pushed or find yourself being left behind, you will not feel any reason to strive harder to do better. By getting out on the track with faster cars or better drivers, you will find yourself going faster at the end of the race than you were at the drop of the green flag.
In the beginning, my goal was to enter a three-hour endurance race and make it all the way without breaking. At the same time I didn’t want to be the slowest car on the track either, and therein lies the first dilemma of endurance racing. How hard can I push my car and still finish? And from here the list of questions only gets longer and more complex. Remember I said it was akin to a chess game? Do I need a stronger engine? If the car breaks do I have the means to deal with it? Do I need extra lighting? If I drive at 90 percent will I have to fuel fewer times or possibly not have to change the brakes?
These variables depend on many others such as the length of the race, the weather and so on. There is another factor that no team can overlook that can place you on the podium or send you home before the checkered flag. She goes by the name “Lady Luck,” and the key factor for summoning her good graces can be expressed in one word: preparation. Show me a team that wins not just one, but many endurance races, and I will show you a team that is ready long before they arrive at the track.
As I walked around the paddock at the 10th anniversary running of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by the U.S. Air Force, I took my time to observe teams preparing for the race. I am still baffled to this day to hear owners and crew chiefs explaining to their teams how they will do things like drivers changes, who will fuel the car, and so on. Teams that perform well are teams that have this ready long before the race.
They practice and rehearse driver changes, fueling the car, changing tires and they have exact strategies ready and have all tools and parts laid out in an orderly fashion and so on. I call it, “what if” racing. What if a spindle goes bad? Do we have one? Who will change it? Have we rehearsed it? The more “what ifs” a team is prepared for, the better odds they have of finishing — or better yet, winning.
Endurance racers know there’s far more to endurance racing than winning. The camaraderie and sportsmanship are second to none. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have seen the same scenario. One year during a 25 Hour Race at Thunderhill, in the dark of night, while it was raining, there were two teams pitted next to each other in the hot pits whose cars were literally seconds apart after 20 hours of racing. As the two teams rushed to change drivers, fuel and work on the cars, one team’s power went out, leaving them in total darkness while attempting to change their brake pads.
Knowing they could simply drive off and leave the other team laps behind, thus helping them gain an advantage, instead their crew — and driver — stopped what they were doing to their own car and rushed over with one of their own light stands to help them get their brakes finished. I must admit this brings a tear to my eye because that team was none other than Barry Hartzel and Ralph Alexander, who have gone on to the big racetrack in the sky. They were two of the finest gentleman the sport of racing has ever known. How do I know so much about that incident, you ask? Because the other team was my team and yes, partially because of their sacrifice, my team went on to be the first team to win the 25 Hours of Thunderhill three times in a row.
I will never forget the year we won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill and my son, Will Faules, driving in his first nonrookie race, took the checkered flag for second place just seconds after one of his front wheels fell off the car. Talk about an exciting father-and-son finish!
Everyone who competes in endurance racing has his or her own idea of what is enjoyable about it. For years, one of my favorite teams to watch at Thunderhill was Tony Heyer’s team. This team approaches the race in a unique way.
They start the race at 11 a.m., drive until dark and take a break. During this year’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, while other teams were battling it out long into the night and into the wee hours of the morning, Tony and his teammate, NASA NorCal’s Medical Director, Dr. William Brown drove into town to the comfort of their hotel room. While other teams were suffering from sleep deprivation and having to endure whatever elements mother nature dishes out, Tony and Dr. Brown enjoyed a nice dinner, probably with a fine glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep.
The next morning after breakfast, they show up at the track, don their driver’s suits and rejoin the race. They will never win the 25 hours of Thunderhill but in the same breath, you have to give them credit for knowing they finish the race every single year and for their love of endurance racing.
There is a lot more to endurance racing than I can write about in the space allotted, but like my friend said, “You cannot tell someone how exciting endurance racing is. You have just got to enter one and experience it for yourself.” So pardon the pun, but don’t get passed up. Everybody knows the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the big daddy of them all, but NASA has an entire season of endurance racing to enjoy. So get signed up and see what’s so special about it. I promise you, racing will never be the same.