You never know what to expect from the 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by the United States Air Force. Certainly you can expect to be challenged, to be cold, to go without sleep, to experience highs and lows like you’ve never known. You can expect to break things, to have your spirit broken, or maybe, to have it renewed.
But make no mistake. The variables greatly outnumber the constants.
That was certainly true for teams who entered this year’s event, now celebrating its 10th year. Eighty-two teams entered, but only 69 started the race, which means for 13 teams the race was over before it began. Of the 69 cars that started the race, 44 finished. Among the 44 finishers, there were blown engines, bent suspension, spins, rolls, body contact, scorched brakes, blown tires and other obscure mechanical failures you wouldn’t expect — all of which were repaired or ignored so they could continue racing.
Much as discussions of weather are irrelevant after an event, it often plays a big part of the incalculable game at Thunderhill. In years past, teams have had to deal with extreme cold, but it only dipped into the 40s this year. They also have raced through rain, sleet, snow and fog so thick the race had to be stopped for several hours until it cleared.
Another big part of what makes Thunderhill so challenging is the disparity among the cars entered. For example, this year’s fastest lap time was a 1:42.990 logged by Norma chassis sports racer in the ESR class. Contrast that with the fast lap of 2:15.411 turned by a Porsche 944, throw 67 other cars in six classes turning everything in between on the 3-mile, 15-turn racetrack, and you have your hands full.
One thing, however, is certain about racing at Thunderhill. The competition gets tougher every year, and if you expect to win, you will need a more than grit and determination. You will need a crew bigger than “Ocean’s Eleven,” and twice as handy. You will need practice. You will need lots of spare parts. You will need strategy. Oh, and you will need money. The more the better, but even that’s no guarantee, because if winning the 25 Hours of Thunderhill correlated positively with a large budget, any well-funded team could do it, and that just isn’t the case.
“Obviously each year, the class of cars that show up for this race, the level of prep is raised each year,” said Ron Baker, crew chief for the No. 18 Superlite car that took second in ES and second overall. “It’s no longer the end of the year club racer coming out and having a last hurrah. These are seriously built endurance cars. The level just keeps coming up and up, which is making the race itself more of a prestigious race. It really is.”
Ten and a half hours into the race, Team Pure Performance held the E0 lead by two laps over Hankook Tire/El Diablo in second, and Achilles Motorsports in third.
Hankook Tire/El Diablo had its share of problems during practice and in qualifying. Crew chief Peter Guagenti explained that the team barely made it out for qualifying and even then got only one good hot lap to stake out its place on the grid. They qualified deep in the pack, but worked their way forward to the lead, which they relinquished to Pure Performance by 9:30 Saturday night due to mechanical problems.
As dawn broke the next day, Hankook/El Diablo was still running in P2. The team made the call to put fresh tires on the car and fix a couple of things that weren’t working, then make a charge to the finish.
“We put so much pressure on the car in P1, they started pushing and blew their motor,” Guagenti said, adding that they finished fourth overall. “Once that happened, we were able to run our laps and dominate right to the end.”
Third-place finisher Achilles Motorsports, which won its class in 2008, arrived at Thunderhill this year with two drivers who had never run in the 25-hour race.
“They did an amazing job,” said V.J. Mirzayan who co-owns the Achilles Motorsport team with Mino Iorgaveanu. “Our car had absolutely not a single scratch on it, which is unbelievable running 25 hours. I just want to thank NASA for putting on a great show.”
This year, E1 was one of the smallest classes on track, with nine cars, but it was the most hotly contested. By 9:30 Saturday night, after more than 10 hours of racing, E1 was the only class in which the top four cars were all on the same lap.
Team 949 Racing battled with CJ Wilson Racing for the lead all race long, and were never more than two or three laps apart for the entire 25 hours.
“It was a dogfight. It was a sprint race for 25 hours. We were running the car as hard as we could and so were they,” said team owner and driver Emilio Cervantes. “We had a little bit more consistent speed than they did. They occasionally would drop a little faster, then they’d get a little slower.”
C.J. Wilson Racing crew chief Jason Saini cited mechanical gremlins all race long that kept his team from breaking away from Team 949 Racing. The No. 55 car had an ABS failure and the No. 57 car lost an engine after a rock punctured its radiator.
The No. 55 car was driven by a team of “young guns,” two of whom were driving in the Thunderhill 25 for the first time. They included, Elliott Skeer, who won the 2011 MX-5 Cup Shootout, Stevan McAleer, the 2012 Mazda MX-5 Playboy Cup Champion, Tristan Nunez, the 2012 IMSA Lites Champion and Spencer Pigot, runner-up in the 2012 USF2000 Championship.
“My first run was the absolute scariest I have ever been in a car. It was absolutely insane,” Pigot said. “Most of the corners are blind here and it’s a really scary track to drive. Once I got the hang of it and worked out where everything was, it was a blast to drive! The car feels really balanced and by the time I finished my second stint, I felt really comfortable.”
The lead between 949 Racing and C.J. Wilson racing went back and forth basically with pit stops. It was fight to the finish of the 25-hour race in which seconds still counted.
“If you look at the lap charts, we were just more consistent,” Cervantes said. “We had less deviation. For the bulk of it, our deviation was only about 2 seconds and theirs was about 4 or 5, and that, really, in the long run, that’s what it was.”
Team 949 Racing finished ninth overall. C.J. Wilson’s No. 55 car finished 10th overall.
Late Saturday night, Atlanta Motorsports Group was down five laps to Robert Davis Racing. By the time the sun was up and blinding drivers the next morning, the team was up by 21 laps over Sector Purple racing, a team assembled by NASA Rocky Mountain and Texas Regional Director Dave Balingit.
“It was a typical 25 Hours,” said AMG crew chief Tony Silva. “It was really cold and really stressful, and the hardest part is pulling back on the drivers and not allowing them to go full bore and beat the cars up. Go at a steady pace the whole time, watching what you’re doing, perfect pit stops every time, with no penalties and no mechanical failures.”
Silva said the biggest drama they faced was their radio communication system, which kept cutting off. The team resorted to keying the radio to make static and using it as sort of a Morse Code.
“We came up with our own code to communicate back and forth,” he said.
Sector Purple’s crew chief Dave Balingit had put together a bunch of guys who don’t race in Northern California and who had never raced a Miata.
“I’m very proud of my knuckle-dragging CMC drivers, who I was actually able to coach to drive a Miata,” Balingit said with a chuckle at the podium ceremony.
The AMG car finished 14th overall.
With 25 cars on grid, E3 was the densest of all classes at this year’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by the U.S. Air Force. Team Miatacage brought two cars, and at 9:30 Saturday night, they were P1 and P2 over the third-place team.
By the next morning, the only difference was that the two team cars had swapped positions, but it was still a Team Miatacage one-two punch.
“This is one of the most fun races we do all year,” said crew chief, driver and Miatacage owner Sean Hedrick. “We’re a fortunate team in that all of our drivers are mechanical, so they work on the car. We build the car as a team and drive it as a team. The fact that we have a great Mazda product underneath us and a bunch of guys who put in a lot of time was outstanding.”
The team won the race back in 2010, so the team has been here before. Given the domination of the top spots throughout the race, and as difficult as it is to believe, they almost made it look easy.
“We did have to do one brake change that was a little unexpected late in the race, but drama? No,” Hedrick said. “We just stayed out of trouble and hit our marks. We had a couple of minor pit violations, just spilled a little bit of fuel.”
The No. 30 car finished 13th overall. The No. 2 car finished 15th overall.
The ES cars are always fun to watch because of how much faster they are than much of the rest of the field. It also doesn’t hurt to see drivers like Memo Gidley, Elliott Forbes Robinson, Johannes Van Overbeek and Jon Fogarty pulling stints.
However, 10 hours into the race, it wasn’t a team of pro drivers in a high-dollar Porsche holding the lead in ES. It was two guys. In a truck.
Jeremy Croiset and Troy Lindstrom took the No. 66 Lynam Racing Chevrolet Silverado into the lead in ES — and the overall lead — and held it for some seven hours. Then as dawn broke, “the wheels kind of came off the bus,” as crew chief Darol Miller put it. At dawn, Croiset had side-to-side contact with the Mazda2 in Turn 6. Then they had brake issues. Then they blew a right front tire and had to hobble back to the pits as the tire carcass destroyed the bodywork.
“But we kept fighting back,” Miller said. “The guys all rallied. We got the truck put back together time after time and got it back on track, kept fighting and we ended up sixth overall and third in class.”
Up front, the Ehret Family Winery Porsche 997 ended up taking first in class and first overall. Their effort was confounded by a punctured radiator and a penalty for being too aggressive in traffic, and they were at one point down by 25 laps. They also had to replace a half shaft Sunday morning, and try to stay ahead of the Davidson Racing Superlite car, which was lapping the course 4 seconds faster than the Porsche.
“In this race, you have to drive conservatively, but like any endurance race, you can’t leave too much on the table because at the end, you could be on the same lap,” said closing driver Memo Gidley. “We were three laps apart today at the end, with a car closing that was significantly faster than us. It makes it exciting the whole time.”
The Davidson Racing Superlite finished P2 in class and overall, and by the time it finished the race, it looked like it had been driven through a mine field. Some of the issues the team faced were outside rearview mirrors that folded in with wind and vibration, a coil pack that went bad and took out a spark plug, a broken half shaft and contact in the closing hour of the race, which saw them head out for the last laps with no rear cowl on the car.
“This was a project I jumped on in February this year and I’m somewhat pleased with our results,” said Davidson crew chief Ron Baker. “Overall I think we had, I call her the big girl at the dance. She’s heavy, almost 3,200 pounds, so she’s a bit thick, but to make it go like we got it to go was a great achievement.
“It’s called a Superlite, but it actually starts its life as a kit street car,” he added. “The bodywork is quarter-inch fiberglass, so it’s very heavy stuff. It can take a pretty good hit and withstand it pretty well.”
When the green flag dropped, the No. 48 Factory 48 Motorsports Radical was in the catbird’s seat in P1. Then came Turn 1.
Factory 48 got to the first turn first, but spun, and ended up last.
“Well, starting on pole was great, but spinning in the first turn put us right in the back, so it kind of negated the pole position,” said Jeff Shafer, one of the team’s drivers.
But obviously, the Radical chassis has a speed advantage. In fact, its lap times indicated that it was one of the three fastest cars on the track. So they fought back and by 9:30 Saturday night, they were second in class, just four laps down behind TFB’s E30-based car. But the team had more than a Turn 1 spin to deal with.
The car came in for a routine pit stop, but the engine had a bad miss when they refired it, and they ended up replacing the engine and transmission assembly. That engine served its purpose for about four hours when it had a gearbox problem, so they installed another assembly, which powered them to the finish. At 8:30 Sunday morning, the team was still in P2 and down on the first-place car by two laps. By 11 a.m., they had captured the lead, which held till checkers.
“It was really close at the end,” Shafer said, adding that they finished third overall.
No. 90 Bimmerworld E92 M3 Pit Stop
The No. 90 Bimmerworld E92 M# executes a pit stop at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.
No. 48 Factory 48 Radical Lapping at Night
Take a hot lap at night aboard the No. 48 Factory 48 Radical
No. 161 Stammer Inc./Bavarian Performance/KMG E46 M3 Start
The No. 161 Stammer Inc./Bavarian Performance/KMG E46 M3 takes the start in heavy traffic at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by the U.S. Air Force.
No. 57 Rimicci Corse Fiat 500 Abarth Race Preview
Listen in as the team prepares to race a Fiat 500 Abarth at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.