2021 marked the 18th running of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance. It would have been the 19th running, but say it with me: COVID.

It felt so great to be back at the 25 this year. This event is like no other, and I really missed going last year. I love the anticipation and the ramp-up, the pageantry, the preparation, the incredible hardware and the innovative ideas and systems people bring to this race. Racers are brilliant when necessary, and this race proves it year in and year out. I love that teams come from around the world to take part in it.

The race itself already was something of an anomaly before it became the 25. It took place at a relatively new track, at a time of year that not much happens in sports car racing. The event grew from races shorter in duration, and in 1998, the Timex 12 Hours of Thunderhill was born. Just five years later, 12 would become 24, but on the way to the podium to announce the new format, NASA NorCal Regional Director and NASA co-founder Jerry Kunzman, thought, “Why not 25 hours?”

The result was the 2003 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the longest closed-course endurance event in North America. The event that attracted 77 teams.

I’ve been going to the 25 since 2012 as part of my duties with Speed News. I missed 2013 because of family obligations, but I must admit I’m not too sorry I missed that one. That was the year a polar vortex clobbered the Midwest and the effects could be felt as far west as Thunderhill. Nighttime temperatures plunged below freezing, and daytime wasn’t much more hospitable.

In 2015 there was a fair amount of rain, but nothing compared with 2019, when it rained — if memory serves — from just after sundown Saturday till just before checkers on Sunday. The cars looked like they had endured trench warfare and the teams were cold-soaked to the bone. Drivers all kept talking about the mud on the track and how treacherous the conditions were that night.

Drivers at the 2019 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance endured some 12 hours of rain and muddy conditions on track.

Though it might not have been intentional, weather can be as much an adversary at the 25 as any of the other cars lined up in your class. This year, we had a daytime temperatures in the high 60s and no threat of rain or cold. It was perfect racing weather.

Of course, Thunderhill in December being Thunderhill in December, that was all a cruel illusion, because a heavy fog settled in during the 6 p.m. course worker change. The track was already double yellow while a van drove around dropping off and picking up corner workers. By the time the new workers were ready to begin their shifts, the fog thickened and racing stopped. Fog has delayed the race before, so this was nothing new.

What is new, if you pore over the entries through the years, is an upward trend of the caliber of the cars people bring to the event, and this, I think, is a testament to the prominence of the 25. The caliber of the drivers also has escalated, making the 25 something of a “pro-am” event, another example of the stature of this race.

The winningest car for overall victory at the 25 is a Porsche 911 in one form or another, but during the time that I’ve been covering the event, the fastest cars have been getting faster and more expensive. Radicals have long been common, but now so are Normas, Lolas, Pragas and Ligiers, Ginettas and this year, a Duqueine LMP3 car.

These are incredible machines, and they are also a sign of how seriously teams have come to regard the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Among a sea of amateur endurance races across the country, the 25 stands alone as the most difficult to win and by far the most prestigious. If you want to win the 25, you had better bring your best.

Even bringing your best is no guarantee. Just ask any of the teams that have brought those high-end machines, the Ligiers, Ginettas, Lolas, Pragas and the Duqueine. That kind of equipment provides no guarantee of success at an overall victory. In fact, none of those high-dollar prototypes has ever captured the overall win, but it’s not difficult to imagine that will change in the next few years.

Bringing your best is about more than just a car. It means bringing the best people, and those people need to dig deep to bring their best, because that’s what the race requires, whether you’re running a 35-year-old E30 or an IMSA prototype. That’s what makes a win at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance as prestigious as it is. That’s what makes it so special, and I can hardly wait for 2022, when I hope to see you on grid.

Image courtesy of Doug Berger and Herb Lopez

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