The weather has always been a wildcard at the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance, so teams never know whether to expect rain or fog at the northern California track into late fall.
It was an unusual sight to see crew members walking around the paddock in shorts and sweatshirts as the sun was rising on the Thunderhill Raceway, more than 20 hours into the 2023 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Organizers had moved the endurance race to November from early December, in part, to avoid weather conditions that had shortened the past two 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
Organizers had perfect weather for the 20th anniversary of the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill, one of the most grueling endurance races in all of motorsports. With great track conditions and a full 25 hours of racing, the GT entries knew they would be logging a lot of laps on the 3-mile road course.
After 742 laps and more than 2,200 miles, Three Thieves Racing won its first overall title at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The Audi R8 racecar was a model of consistency all weekend with the drivers producing the fourth highest laps total by a winner in the event’s 20-year history. The record of 780 laps was set in 2017 by Flying Lizard.
“It absolutely takes the whole team,” said Tom Burt, one of the Three Thieves Racing co-owners. “We’re well fed, the car ran great, the pitstops were perfect and all the drivers did their job. That’s what it takes to win the 25 Hour.”
The Audi R8 running with AR Motorsports support started the race Saturday morning chasing GT competitor Kleen Blast/David’s Racing Performance but within an hour had taken the lead and never looked back.
Three Thieves Racing was 34 laps ahead of second-place overall finisher and GT competitor TruSpeed Autosport, which was campaigning a Porsche Cayman GT4. Honda Racing finished third overall running a Honda Civic Type R car.
Honda Racing crew chief Andy Hollis was pumped up after its cars finished first and second in the EO class. Even more notable, the Honda Civic Type R cars were third and fifth overall at 2023 25 Hours of Thunderhill. That’s impressive for a team of volunteer employees from Honda business locations around the world.
Honda Racing crewed an extra car at 25 Hours of Thunderhill, entering it in E1. With a mix of new and experienced crew members at Thunderhill Raceway, Hollis knew the team was up to the challenge of running the Civic Type R cars, which were hand-built in about six months for the endurance race.
“These are completely street cars. We upgraded the brakes, wheels and tires and obviously the safety stuff that you have to do to make a racecar out of it,” Hollis said. “But these are streetable cars, so you can just put a tag on this thing and go drive it on the street if you want.”
Patience was a virtue for the Honda Racing group as it watched the Toyota Supra GR run by Doteki Auto Solutions had a 1-lap lead three hours into the race. The Toyota Supra, which had a prototype cooling system and suspension, developed some engine problems on lap 155 and the Honda cars took advantage of it.
“This was a moonshot for us,” said Rich Farler of Doteki Auto Solutions, which finished fifth in the EO class. “We’re a very small company. We don’t have some of these toterhomes and the money that these guys have, and we’re trying to build this product.”
Among the fastest cars in the field was a MINI JCW, which finished sixth overall and third in the EO class. It was the first endurance race for the LAP Motorsports team, which runs out of NASA’s Florida Region. The MINI Cooper JCW was basically stock with a 300-hp engine, and two hours into the race a bearing went out, requiring the drivers to run in fourth gear the entire race. The team still had a best lap of 1:58.759, among the top in the field.
“This is a TC car that we built for SRO and we decided three weeks before the event to come and try this out,” said Luis Perocarpi, team principal for LAP Motorsports. “The interesting thing is in the 25 hours we did three seasons of our normal racing in one go.”
With back-to-back class wins at the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill for the Honda Racing team, Hollis was looking forward to getting some sleep.
“I tell them at the beginning of the event, ‘I’m going to be awake for 25 hours,’” Hollis said, noting it had been 32 hours since he last slept. “You guys need to stay on top of it because my brain is going to stop working here pretty soon, so you’re going to keep me straight.”
For three years, Tazio Ottis has been trying to win the E1 class with a Honda Civic Type R car the team has dubbed “Christine” after the possessed car in the Stephen King novel. The Tazio Ottis team tamed “Christine” for the weekend, winning the E1 class over Honda Racing 3.
“She has a mind of her own and she always has,” Ottis said of his racecar. “So, we just honor that.”
The race between the two Hondas was evenly matched with just nine laps separating the two cars at the finish. Early in the endurance race, Tazio Racing did two early fueling stops and fell back only to improve its lap times as the 25 Hours of Thunderhill grinded on.
“They kept it close enough to keep us honest,” said Ottis, who was also driving for the Spoon Sports team. “We were kind of lucky to build a gap in the early morning where it went from one to three to four to five laps. Once we kind of had the five-lap gap, we tried to maintain that and leave that as our buffer.”
Honda Racing, which was running three cars, used the Honda Civic Si racecar to give its newer drivers some seat time at 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The Civic ran last year’s 25 Hours, so the team knew it had a good car going into the endurance race. Other than problems with the car’s high-beam lights and a brake caliper, it was a strong weekend for the Honda team.
“We lost a little time in the pits, fell a few laps behind and were trying to catch up,” said crew chief Mike Aylward, who competed in his 13th NASA 25 Hour of Thunderhill. “We were pretty much even pace with the lead car, so it was a little hard to gain ground.”
The Tazio Ottis Racing drivers completed 654 laps, the most for an E1 car since 2018, while the Honda drivers completed 464 laps. For Ottis, it’s a weekend he’ll always remember, having attended his first 25 Hours of Thunderhill at age 12.
“It’s probably one of the best weekends of my life joining Spoon (Sports),” Tazio said. “To come over and be a driver for them, 15 years later, feels like a dream come true.”
Driver Hernan Palermo has tried for 12 years to win his class at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill and the dream became a reality. The Spark Performance team dominated the E2 class and its 125-lap differential over the second-place finisher was the largest of any class at this year’s 25 Hours.
The difference in 2023 for the Spark Performance team was less preparation, joked Palermo, who races in Mazda’s MX-5 Cup series.
“For the first couple (25 Hours) it seems like we prepared for six months to get everything right,” Palermo said. “We knew the car was going to be pretty good and we just didn’t prepare as much. We were like, ‘We got to roll the dice and go with it.’ Honestly, we didn’t even test the car before. The harder you try sometimes.”
Spark Performance was eyeing a top five overall finish about 16 hours into the race when the Mazda MX-5 started developing a fuel problem. The team spent almost two hours fixing the fuel issue, yet still finished tenth overall with 609 laps on the weekend.
The team pulled the baby blue MX-5 car off the track early Sunday to take photos in front of the podium at Thunderhill Raceway. A couple of team members had to catch an early flight, and after taking group photos, the car was back on track for the checkers. Spark Performance’s best lap was 2:02.937.
Harvey Auto Group ran a Honda Civic hatchback in E2 and were fighting electrical gremlins, and then in the middle of the night had to replace the master cylinder, which a friend loaned a spare. By the end of 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the Honda hatchback was loud and wearing every one the 1,452 miles it had run.
“We had a great crew of people from the dealerships to maintain the car throughout the night,” said team owner Taz Harvey. “We’re really grateful for them coming out.”
The Speed Traveler, a BMW 328i, was a last-minute addition at 25 Hours of Thunderhill and the team finished third in the E3 class. Speed Traveler had just three drivers — most teams use four — and was testing new shifter parts and suspension components, so the team was excited to be on the E2 podium.
“We’re out here because we love racing and we want to enjoy the event as much as we can,” said driver Tyler Bolton, who also served as crew chief. “We’re just thrilled to be here.”
The owner who traded in a Mazda Miata to Harvey Auto Group would never guess where the car is today. It just won the E3 class at the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
Dublin Mazda in Northern California took the car on trade, and the 25 Hours of Thunderhill was the car’s third race and by far the longest race. The car ran 586 laps with a best lap time of 2:09.594.
“We had it as kind of a village bicycle and the staff was driving it around,” said Taz Harvey, whose family owns seven Mazda and Honda dealerships. “Then one day, I thought, ‘You know that would make a great Spec Miata,’ so we turned it into a racecar.”
Harvey Auto Group took the lead shortly before 9 p.m. Saturday when Lesher Motorsports’ Mazda Miata blew an engine, leaving a trail of oil between turns 6 and 7. Officials black flagged the course for 20 minutes for track personnel to clean up the spill.
2022 E3 winner Lesher Motorsports team had the engine replaced and the car back out on the track within 2-1/2 hours. After fixing an electrical issue, the team finished the race 40 laps behind the class winner Harvey Group. Lesher Motorsports’ efforts earned praise from team co-owner Crystal Lesher and her E3 class competitors.
“In endurance racing, finishing is winning, and on some level, you would love to be P1, but to finish P2 with a car that’s running absolutely flawlessly after replacing an engine, you can’t not be proud of that,” Lesher said.
Original Racers ran the lone Acura Integra at 25 Hours of Thunderhill and were third in the E3 group. The Integra had electrical issues and the team parked it around midnight before bringing the Acura out for the last two hours of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
“We actually raced something similar back in 2003 for the first 25 Hour,” said driver Mike Davis. “We brought this back from hibernation just to get it out here because we didn’t know if this was going to be the last 25 Hours or not.”
For Harvey, this year’s 2023 Hours of Thunderhill was memorable, what with sharing the driving duties with Taz Harvey were his sons Vit and Vaclav, and nephew Ken.
“The whole family got to drive, so it was really fun,” Taz said.
Three Thieves Racing led the 25 Hours of Thunderhill for all but two hours and made it look easy. It was anything but easy, as the drivers and AR Motorsports, which was supporting the Audi R8, will tell you.
“Every driver of the group has been out here trying to win this race for years,” said Tom Burt, one of the Three Thieves Racing co-owners. “This one takes every component to be perfect.”
The team had a near-perfect car all weekend, turning 742 laps, the fourth highest laps total by an event winner in its 20-year history. The record of 780 laps was set in 2017.
After taking the lead from fellow GT competitor Kleen Blast/David’s Racing Performance, Three Thieves Racing turned that lead into 35 laps by 9 a.m. Sunday. The only hiccup the team faced was an intermittent starter that improved as the temperature dropped.
The team averaged 89.1 mph on the 3-mile Thunderhill Raceway with driver Thomas Merrill turning the best lap of 1:41.186 mph.
“The guys from AR Motorsports did a fantastic job prepping the car,” Burt said. “We had to drive it with the four drivers. We had me, Rick Wright, Thomas Merrill and Eddie Nakato, and nobody put a wheel wrong the entire event. But then the crew was fantastic. With all the pitstops, we had the fastest, cleanest pitstops of anybody on the line. So, it was just perfect all the way through.”
TruSpeed Autosport finished second overall and runner-up in the GT class campaigning a Porsche Cayman GT4RS. TruSpeed finished 34 laps off the leader, but for the Thermal, Calif.-based team and owner Tyler Tadevic, it was about the journey.
“We were here probably about 10 years ago and we were fortunate enough to get a second-place finish. We got beat by the Lizards’ GT3 car, and are getting a little bit of the same treatment today,” Tadevic said. “Ultimately, it’s a pleasure to be here. This event definitely has some history behind it and it’s sort of a badge of honor when you can just finish the event. To get a podium is actually a pretty great accomplishment and we’re stoked about it.”
Kleen Blast/David’s Racing Performance, which finished third in GT, set a milestone on Saturday around 6:30 p.m. The team has competed in every 25 Hours of Thunderhill and estimates the Chevrolet Camaro cars the team has run have gone the circumference of Earth, or 24,901 miles.
“We’ve done it 25 hours at a time,” said Tim Spurgeon of Kleen Blast/David’s Racing Performance. “That’s a long way in Willows, Calif., — and a lot of fuel.”