Sensory Overload

I and probably a thousand other people have just returned from the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the longest closed-course endurance race in North America. My eyes are itchy and red. My lower back and my right knee are tweaked. My feet are throbbing. I’m sleep-deprived, and the back of my truck looks like a percussion grenade went off in a camera shop that also sells sporting goods.

Compared with drivers and teams racing at Thunderhill, I had it easy. It was my first time to this facility and this race, and what lingers in my mind was that the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is an overwhelming, other-worldly experience that you have to see to believe.

Visually, the first thing that struck me was the scope of the event. I was floored by the number of tractor trailers on site, with license plates from as far away as New Jersey and Florida. The 18-wheelers were parked right next to guys with Suburbans pulling 24-foot trailers, and Class C motorhomes pulling open trailers, demonstrating that this race attracts well-heeled teams and those with more modest budgets.

The paddock was crammed with equipment. Generators, lighting stands, EZ Ups strung with Christmas lights, immense tool boxes, small tool boxes, hand tools, power tools, barbecue grills, stackable chairs, compressors, nitrogen and air tanks. There were more tires than people, power cords and air hoses snaking in every direction, floor jacks, parts cars, spare bits, pit mats, pit carts, tents, canopies, spare engines, engine blocks with big holes blasted through them, cases of water, coolers, crock pots, ATVs, bicycles, golf carts and Segways. One team even had a miniature Christmas tree in its hot pit.

I marveled at the facility, which has a near-perfect racing surface, real debris fencing, manicured green grass, power-generating windmills and an elevator in the tower. I gasped at the landscape, with snow-capped peaks in the distance and its gently rolling hills that underpin this roller-coaster race track. And I bristled in the chrome-cold wind that blew in from the northwest and tugged at my lens as I tried to capture images.

Because smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory, the odors of Thunderhill will stay with me forever. Walking the hillsides with a belt and shoulders laden with camera gear, I was inundated with the liquor-sweet smell of race fuel, burned and raw. The smell of burnt rubber was in the air, but also the smell of hot brakes and steaming coolant. As I was shooting pit stops, I could swear I smelled cinnamon in the brake dust on the No. 64 Porsche. As I wandered the cold pits, I smelled strong coffee, barbecue, beef stew, charcoal smoke, fresh tires, motor oil, gear oil, seeped oil simmering on a hot engine, perfume and perspiration.

The entire experience was visceral, and I really have to congratulate Jerry Kunzman, Will Faules and everyone who put the whole event together. I can’t wait to do it again, and my guess is there are probably a thousand other people who feel the same way.

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