There are a lot of new developments happening with the 2023 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the longest closed-course endurance race in North America.
NASA announced last year that the event was moving to Nov. 10-12, 2023, which gets the event out of the middle of the holiday season and right at the end of the customary racing season, a move designed to boost appeal and attendance.
Since that time, NASA NorCal has made more changes and improvements to classing, tire rules registration processes and more. We have reported on those developments in Speed News previously, but we wanted to sit down with NASA NorCal Regional Director Jerry Kunzman and NorCal business manager Tasha Bigelow to get the “Federalist Papers,” if you will, the reasoning behind these changes. The comments below should provide more insight to changes made one of the world’s most challenging amateur motorsports events.
It’s easy to get the information you want below, but there’s a lot of it. Just look for the questions in bold type. That will tell you if you’re interested in their answer.
Q: What are some of the most important things that you think everybody should know about this year’s 25 hours of Thunderhill?
Jerry Kunzman: Well, I think the most important thing is to understand that the old Super Unlimited class is back. It’s called GT, and it’s for all vehicles except for prototypes, the LMP, Ginetta- and Norma-type sports racers. The Super Unlimited cars running against themselves again. Turn the clock back a couple years and that’s what we’ll have. The prototypes now run in EP.
I can’t really get that message out strong enough. I mean, that’s huge and the expense of running it on the slower end has come down because the lower entry fee and the treadwear at 180. So, I think those are the two biggest things. Plus we moved the date to mid-November, so hopefully that’ll make it a little bit easier.
You know, it was kind of nice in one respect to have the challenge of the weather in there, but I think it’s just getting old, having to go through year after year of the freezing this and the rainy that. Hopefully we’ll have a little better in weather in November.
Tasha Bigelow: I was just going to echo that. I think one of the most exciting things about it is the date change. It’s an endurance race, so there’s so many things that can happen in that amount of time. Then you add in that it’s winter and it’s at the end of everyone’s race seasons or whatever it might be. It’s a huge factor having it in December. I’m really excited to have it in November now. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how it pans out, especially since it’s kind of like early November.
Q: Let’s talk about classing. What was the reason behind the revised classing system?
Jerry Kunzman: Well, I think it’s really the old classing system except for the renaming of ES. It’s kind of complicated because we changed the endurance rules. So we had ES mean something for 25 years and we changed it. So, we had to make up GT. And what happened with the reclassing is it ended up putting all the GT3 911s or whatever would be Super Unlimited, i.e., the old ES, in with the sports racers, ESR. So I think it was very complicated. And things like the GTM prototype, the Flying Lizard cars, those kinds of cars, they can’t win because they’re running against a Norma, for example.
So, I did away with all that. E0 to E3 is still the same, still Super Touring mapping, but the new Super Unlimited is called GT and the new unlimited prototype is called EP. So, so simply put, EP is open rules, all prototypes and GT is open rules, everything but prototypes and sports racers.
Q: Let’s address the new rule book that applies only to the 25. Can you talk to me a little bit about the impetus for that?
Jerry Kunzman: Well, before it was self-contained, it was really two rule books, not including the CCR. It was the endurance rules plus the 25 hour supplement. But after so many changes to the endurance rules, there was a lot of stuff that didn’t work for the 25. So, I just took what I needed and made a new one new rule book.
Q: And have you gotten any feedback on that so far?
Jerry Kunzman: No. Well, we only used the single rule book starting at the last one, and except for a few corrections and omissions that I fixed, nobody had any comments, complaints or praises. Rule book’s a rule book. It worked.
Tasha Bigelow: Yeah, just to chime in, I haven’t seen anything from like the customer service side or anything. I usually forward rules questions to Jerry, but we haven’t had any pushback or praise or anything regarding that. So, it seems like it went pretty smoothly so far.
Q: Now, I didn’t see any classes for electric vehicles. Are EVs still able to race?
Jerry Kunzman: Oh, absolutely, encouraged. It’s just, we only had one EV and I mean, nobody’s contacted me, so it’s kind of hard to pit all EVs against all EVs. So, we’re going to take it on a case-by-case basis. I mean, if they pass safety, then that’s fine. It’s a matter of classifying and since we only have one at the moment, we just tell them to sign up for something and then we just change them in the timing scoring computer to, I think it’s EV or whatever it’s listed as.
I wish I had a more professional way to handle it, but the practical matter is we’re happy that we have an EV entry and we hope to get more, but right now there’s no sense of making a bunch of rules for cars that don’t exist yet.
Q: GT3 and GT4 cars seem to age out pretty quickly in high-end professional racing. How many do you think are out there still sitting around with no place to race?
Jerry Kunzman: Honestly, I don’t know enough about who’s got what car, but when the classes were merged from the old ES, i.e., Super Unlimited to running with the prototypes, that just killed off the GT3, if you’re talking about like the Porsche of GT3 and GT4. That pretty much did them in because they don’t want to run against the really fast sports racers and Radicals, Normas, and things like that.
Q: One of the more interesting developments in the 25 Hour this year is the new tire rules. Why did you decide that E0, E1, E2 and E3 must now use 180 or greater treadwear tires?
Jerry Kunzman: That was based on a lot of feedback from a lot of good people, and they all varied in their opinion as to what hardness or treadwear to use. But it seemed like it would be the smart thing to do, because one of the biggest complaints is just pure cost, and the tire bill seemed to be the common theme. Everybody’s tire bill is way too high.
Q: And how much do you think that new rule will save teams on their tire budgets in terms of percentages or, or some other equitable way to express it?
Jerry Kunzman: I really wish I knew. I guess it depends on what your tire bill used to be. I would imagine if it’s a slower class, their tire bills are, I don’t know, a few grand or something, and so maybe they don’t save as much, but the faster classes that are using really expensive tires I think are going to save quite a bit of money. I don’t know how much, though.
Q: We’ve been told that the registration process is now easier. How did you streamline that process?
Jerry Kunzman: That’s for Tasha.
Tasha Bigelow: One of the ways we improved it was on the back end because one of the challenges we we’re running up against was checking for licenses and medicals. As you know, we need to have our drivers be licensed and have a medical on file to participate in the event. So, our engineering team essentially made it helpful for us on the back end in restructuring the line item so that the teams can register a vehicle and a driver. That helps us to check for licensing and medicals.
It also makes it a little bit easier to take drivers out and put drivers in. So, it puts more of the control in the hands of teams and the drivers to be able to manage that online. They can contact me with any questions they may have and I’m happy to help. You know, it can be kind of a hectic time as we lead up to the actual event day. And so I’ve just made myself available to speak to team managers as needed.
Q: So is it accurate to say that it was a fair amount of IT work that that went into the streamlining?
Tasha Bigelow: There was, yes, and I really commend, (NASA CTO) Roman Vaisman and some of the other team members at the National Office for putting that work in for us. It was quite a lot of individual work to really check for licenses and medicals. That was a huge load on the backend before they changed the way that those entries could be made. So, it was a lot of it work, and I think that we really saw that was a huge help for 2022, and that continues into our 2023 season.
Q: Alert readers will notice that the 25 hours of Thunderhill now uses a graduated pricing system. What was the reasoning behind that?
Jerry Kunzman: I worked with some of the people that are closest to me, and they felt like making it a little less expensive for the entry level, slower classes made more sense. It was a small team of people, we all kind of put this together. Actually they did the work, I just approved it.
Tasha Bigelow: I’ll step in. Just to back up, the last couple of years, especially recovering from COVID, our entries have been less than they had been in previous years, and part of that was a financial barrier, you know, because some people were affected by COVID, and bouncing back and you know, maybe not having as large a race budget, and we just weren’t seeing as many entries.
So, yeah, we actually had a pretty thorough conversation. Jeremy Croiset had some really good input to help us structure that. The teams that have huge race budgets, with tire budgets in tens of thousands of dollars per weekend, then the entry price is not really the barrier for them. You know, it’s just another line item on their Excel sheet for their costs.
I think the overall consensus was that breaking this out into more of a strategized pricing structure would help to encourage entries across all of the classes, hopefully.
Q: Then, along the same lines, new rules say that teams will be charged for a minimum of four drivers. How can teams still enter with three drivers or less?
Tasha Bigelow: They do it the same way. In the last year, I think we had two teams that ran less than four drivers. They would just sign up. It’s just an additional fee that’s charged on the back end, essentially. I usually reach out to those teams that have less than four drivers and if they can somehow fill those seats, that’s great. And if they’re going to be running with less than four drivers, then I just apply an additional charge before the event starts.
Q: Overall, what are you hoping to see at this year’s 25 compared with years past? What are your goals?
Jerry Kunzman: Well, the bottom line is to get the car count up, and I think one of the ways to do it is to reduce expenses, and bring some more of the fun back to it.
I think last year we had maybe one of the old ES Super Unlimited type entries and we put him in GT. You know, it’s a stock car and he can’t run against Ginettas and the sports racers. But I’m not really sure what the problem is if people haven’t just gotten the message that the old ES is back. You don’t have to run against the sports racers. It’s just that you have to understand your new class is now called GT, not ES.
Q: Is it possible that the race became so popular with the high end teams that it almost became a victim of its own success? That it was so attractive because of the challenge of it, the level of commitment and the level of resources that teams began to put into the race that it began to stray from what initially led to its success?
Jerry Kunzman: I don’t know if that’s the case, but it is possible.
Q: What makes you think that that’s not the case? I’m curious.
Jerry Kunzman: I just haven’t studied it enough in that context to be able to tell. I know that some of the lower-end teams have found other endurance racing that’s cheaper. They went that route. And some of the higher end cars, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we kind of put them in with sports racers and prototypes and they didn’t want to play anymore, but I don’t know that for sure.
But, you know, but there’s probably a novelty factor as well, so maybe it’s at least partially true what you said. I mean, a lot of this, you know, running and putting on NASA events and making up classes is kind of guesswork, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Q: Now, refresh my memory, I think it used to be that teams weren’t allowed to drive or race at Thunderhill in the weeks preceding the event. Has that rule gone away, or has that rule also been revised?
Jerry Kunzman: No, it’s still the same. I just changed dates, of course. The thought behind that was to reduce the chance of some rich guy just renting a bunch of days and him and his buddies go out and just get a leg up on everybody else. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen, but I would hate to not have that blackout period, and then some rich guy come in and just ruin it for everybody and discourage everything else.
Certainly the local people have a home track advantage, but no matter where you hold a race, that’s always going to be true. By and large, I think the majority of them are not NorCal drivers.
Q: I had a kind of a crackpot idea. Given the number of OEMs, — Mazda, Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevrolet — that now offer affordable factory race cars, I’m wondering how we can get more of them interested in competing at the 25?
Jerry Kunzman: If we can bring that to the 25 hour, and do the competition in that format, that would be really great. And I’d happy to work with any of these car companies to come up with rules. Mazda came up and they wanted to do a B Spec class. This was a long time ago, but we said absolutely. So we worked with them to figure out how we do that. Their idea, I thought it was pretty good, they had their Mazda2, and they wanted to go against the, like the Honda Fit and whatever the equivalent is from other manufacturers. And so Mazda tried to put that together. They did field an entry, but I don’t think any other cars signed up, but I’m honestly open if the manufacturers want to do something. Absolutely.
Q: Is there anything else? Did, did we miss anything?
Jerry Kunzman: Actually, I can add one thing, and this is based on data that we have from the last two 25-hour races. There were certainly fewer entries, and we did have a little bit of downtime for the fog, but comparing it to prior years we had like an amazing lack of calls, such as body contact, passing under yellow, things like that. The race has gotten a lot more sane in terms of better driving, way less penalties, way less contact. The last few years have just been amazing, and I know there was some time missing because of the fog, but I’ve adjusted for that mathematically, and the call log is just barren. It’s like an overnight change.
Q: What do you think is the reason for that?
Jerry Kunzman: Before COVID, it was a pretty good field, and it always was before COVID hit. We didn’t have anything in 2020. And then after that things kind of fell apart and I suspect that the people who did show up were the hardcore more professional types and just a better driving standard, I’m guessing.
But I’ve been working the last couple of years very hard with the officials to change the mentality that it’s no longer “gotcha.” We’re not there to find ways to issue penalties. We’re there to help the teams follow the rules and enjoy themselves, and have a good time at the event. We’ve switched to that mentality, and so rather than waiting until a team makes mistakes and slapping on a penalty, we do a lot more education.
So we’ve been trying hard to drill into our officials that the goal for us is to have a penalty-free, incident-free event. I think that’s important because for a while there it was getting the reputation of crash-and-bash fest. Nobody gets hurt, so it’s all fun and games till you’ve got to pay the bills, then the wallet hurts and they don’t come back. So I think that’s an important improvement.