Each day as I walk around the Unser Racing Museum, where a plethora of racing history is on display, I find myself reading the countless reader boards, each of which shares a story of a winning car, famous drivers or some amazing race history about the Unsers, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti. The list is long.
It’s hard to explain, but it is amazing, and at times it leaves me with a lump in my throat at the realization I am standing right in front of the very cars in which these amazing drivers won races like the Indianapolis 500, Pikes Peak, and more. Nobody is allowed to sit in these cars or touch them even though they are not roped off in any way. Don’t tell anyone, but I touch the cars and I can attest as a driver, when I grab the very steering wheel of a race car that Al Unser Sr. held as he crossed the finish line to take the checkered flag at Indianapolis, it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
As teams from all over the country are making ready to compete in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, which is just around the corner, I thought I might point out a few things I see almost every year at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill that honestly just set me off, one of which is the most important one. I see teams with car haulers of all sizes, teams who have spent a lot of time and money to come here and try to earn a place on the podium, and rightfully so. After all, who wouldn’t want to be part of the longest closed-course endurance race in North America?
They show up, set up pits, paddock areas, motorhomes, check in at registration after having built a car in many cases, for an entire year. All of this is just part of how things are done, and it’s akin to a philharmonic conductor leading his orchestra. But wait, it seems so many teams showing up for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill are forgetting one very important fact. Orchestra conductors spend hours and days practicing, every, single, note. I can’t believe how many times that I’ve walked through the pits with only an hour or even minutes left before the start of the race and hearing teams say things like, “OK, guys, let’s practice driver change.” “Hey, I’ve got an idea, let’s try it like this.” “When I am dumping gas in the car, is someone going to put something down to catch spilled gas?”
I cannot believe my ears. Teams are setting themselves up for failure. If these teams truly want to find a place on the podium, they should have researched how close each team has finished between first, second, and third, because only then would they understand the importance of mere seconds wasted in the pits.
Having won my class in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill numerous times, I can honestly say, my team gathered several times a year to practice driver changes, which allowed us to figure out faster, more efficient ways of getting things done or to make changes. We also practiced tire changes, fueling the car, changing brakes, etc., until we were truly ready for any situation. My team was, in fact, a well-oiled machine.
To win the 25, strategy is key. Teams have got to use their head. They have to think out the entire race and have a plan and be able to adapt any situation. In 1970, Al Unser’s team modified their car, which resulted in winning the Indy 500 and the national championships, but when everyone changed over to Offenhauser engines, which offered more horsepower, they forgot more horsepower meant more fuel consumption, thus more pit stops.
As we all know, “To finish first, you must first finish.” Here’s wishing all of this year’s teams a fantastic 25 Hours of Thunderhill.