As darkness set in on Thunderhill Raceway on Saturday, the barbecues were going in the paddock as the teams got ready for a long night ahead of them at the 2023 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by Hawk Performance.
The scene Saturday night was far different than the previous 25 Hours of Thunderhill, where crew members huddled under heaters, tarps kept the rain off the equipment and the fog slowly crept over the course. This year crew members were wearing windbreakers and looking forward to a night under the stars in Northern California.
“I have to say the weather is much more pleasant this year than last, and some other years,” said Andy Hollis, crew chief for Honda Racing. “You know, I don’t mind the cold, but being cold and wet at the same time. My shoes didn’t dry off for like three days the last go-round.”
Rather than dealing with the elements, teams are looking to rack up more laps during the night. Most teams are proposing double stints for their drivers over the night, including the overall leader Three Thieves Racing, which was holding a two-lap lead over fellow GT competitor Kleen Blast – Davids Race Products.
Here’s where the classes stood at the 6 p.m. hour.
Seven hours into the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, Team Three Thieves Racing had stretched to a two-lap lead over second place Team Kleen Blast – Davids Race Products, but all was not sunshine and rainbows in the leader’s camp. Despite having installed a new starter and having no signs of trouble leading up to the race, the team discovered the starter was malfunctioning during a pit stop.
Click, click, click is sickening sound when you’re looking to hear the engine fire up and catapult the car out of the pits.
“We dealt with an issue like this last year, and we thought we had it fixed on the new starter. We’ve run the car a bunch this year and everything was good. But of course, you know, do the whole test day with no problems and then like third pit stop it went out,” said Martin Sarukhanyan, motorsports director for AR Motorsports, which is running the Three Thieves Racing Audi.
The team’s goal through the long night is to keep the car on track as much possible and to keep it running. They’re conducting their pit stops methodically so as not to incur any penalties. Because of the great racing conditions, they were pushing to keep their lap times in the 1:45- to 1:50-second window.
“The starter might come back randomly if it cools off, but probably not,” he added. ”So as long as we don’t spin on track and kill the engine, we’re going to be fine. Spin on track, then it’s a fun game of recovering the car and nobody wants to play that.”
Over in the Honda Racing 2 pits, the team had taken over the class lead from Doteki Auto Solutions’ Toyota Supra, but not without their share of drama, which is what might have hampered them in the early stages of the race.
Crew chief Andy Hollis, has been looking after all three cars the Honda Racing team is fielding this year, two of which are in E0 and a third in E1. A splitter fell off one car, and each car had left behind a few parts after early pit stops, which means they had to call the cars back in. They also have have tires wearing before they had estimated, something that might be attributable to the warmer weather than is customary for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
“So we’re dealing with a bunch of little problems,” Hollis said. “There’s always drama. One this is a 25-hour race. Two, these are hand-built cars. The two Type R’s were built from bodies in white. They literally pulled all the parts out of the parts bins, put the car together. They didn’t start with a running car. So they had started with an nonrunning chassis and had to add all the parts till it came up with a running car. That’s just asking for something to not be right. You know, literally every nut and bolt on the car has been put on by somebody. So, you know, we expect drama. But that’s part of this, it’s a team-building exercise for Honda associates. That’s why we do it. And so we know something’s going to happen.”
Team Tazio Ottis Racing had notched the quickest lap in E1 in qualifying, but they tried a new fueling strategy that might have set them back a bit early on. But the team has things ironed out and the race is coming together for them. Their drivers are doing double stints to minimize time spent in the pits.
“The lap times for everyone are good. We just did two extra early stops to get completely full of fuel. So that’s what brought us back in position. But we’ve slowly clawed our way back up with that different strategy. And I think it’s paying off now,” said team principal Tazio Ottis, who was planning to take the wheel later this evening. “I think we’re going to continue to double stints for everyone. And we kind of have a sequence and how we’re driving right now, that doesn’t hurt the car, hurt the tires and makes everything last. And as long as we can kind of keep the same delta where we’re at, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”
Ottis credited past experiences at the 25 and a full season spent racing in NASA’s Western Endurance Racing series, and earning the season points championship in E0.
“With WERC, with this car we learned a lot. So, I think we kind of have the car figured out now,” Ottis said. “So now we’re just making sure everything lasts and trying to be as nice as we can with what we have.”
It certainly wouldn’t be an endurance race without the random distribution of fortune and disfavor. Team Spark Performance’s Mazda MX-5 has been turning trouble-free laps, which has helped the team stay on top in E2, but some mechanical gremlins in their competitor cars have shifted the team’s focus from not just finishing first in class, but maintaining their fifth-place overall position throughout the evening and morning hours and, of course, till the checkered flag waves at noon Sunday.
“We just got a good solid car. OK, now I think unfortunately the other teams have had some problems. So that’s kind of worked in our favor for sure. So, now we’re looking for top five overall. So that’s what we’re going after now,” said driver Kevin Pyles. “I think we’re there right now. We just need to keep it all together. No penalties and good consistent driving.”
Lesher Motorsports’ Mazda Miata already has one of the largest leads of the classes by building up an 11-lap lead and continuing to hold it over Original Racers, which is in second place in the E3 class running an Acura Integra.
The Mazda Miata’s best lap (2:09.101) is a full second better than its in-class competitors, who already have completed 200 laps in the race.
“We like how things are going, but we still have a long race ahead of us,” said Crystal Lesher of Lesher Motorsports. “A lot can go wrong the next 18 hours, but we’re ready.”