Five up-and-coming young drivers from NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge series are headed to Thunderhill Raceway to take on the 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance, a grueling annual endurance race that runs from 11 a.m. Saturday until noon Sunday.
The 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance is the longest closed-course endurance race in North America, and one of the toughest endurance races in all of motorsports. Everything from weather and speed differentials among the race’s nine different classes play a role in its difficulty.
The five young drivers, Clayton Ketcher, Clayton Williams, Tomas Mejia, Jared Korth and Bryson Lew, are going to be campaigning a new Mazda Spec MX-5 in the E2 class under the name Team TMC. The car was prepped by Clos Motorsports and will have George Clos as its crew chief at the event.
Spec MX-5 is the latest racing class from Mazda Motorsports. It uses the third-generation NC chassis Mazda MX-5 Miata and a tight rules structure to maximize competition and to place the emphasis on the driver.
“I’ll be the crew chief and team owner. I’ll be in the pits,” Clos said. “I’ll oversee all the pit operations. Two of my technicians and I will be the core mechanical aspect for the team, along with that, I’ll be providing fuel and tire changes. We’ve been working the last couple of days at putting the rest of our team together.”
The rest of the team will consist mostly of family members of the drivers, many of who have long histories in karting, so these are what you would call “racing families.” In all, there will be about 20 additional volunteer crew members to help meet the needs of the team for the 25-hour race.
Clos has the car prepped and ready to go. He has fitted it with a brand-new engine and transmission from Mazda Motorsports, upgraded the hubs and bearings to beefier Mazda RX-8 hardware, which includes rear axle half-shafts, hubs and spindles.
The five drivers all race in Teen Mazda Challenge in the NASA NorCal region. All have raced at Thunderhill, and some have driven in the 25 Hours before, so the track is familiar territory.
Driver Cayton Ketcher is a native of Sacramento. He’s currently a student at Columbia University. He has raced in Teen Mazda Challenge for the last few years in Northern California and was chosen as one of the finalists in the 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout.
Clayton Williams started in karting at age 7 and began in Teen Mazda Challenge in 2018. He also has raced in TC America in a Mini Cooper S.
Racing karts since age 5, Tomas Mejia is currently studying at Santa Monica College with the goal of transferring to a University of California school to study mechanical engineering. He has raced in Spec Miata in the Teen Mazda Challenge, TC America and the EXR Series.
Jared Korth began in karting at age 8 and racing in Teen Mazda Challenge at age 15. Currently a freshman studying business administration at San Jose State, Korth is hoping to join the Spec MX-5 series in the next few years in the interest of furthering his career in racing.
Bryson Lew has been racing karts since age 8 and was the first American in 20 years to race in the French F4 championship series. He was also part of the youngest driver duo in GT4 America history.
The common thread tying all these up-and-coming Teen Mazda Challenge drivers is their relationship with Lisa Caceres, a driver herself and owner of Race Karts! Inc. Kart Racing Schools. Caceres and NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge Director Zach Rubin had discussed the idea of forming a TMC team for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance earlier in the year, but it didn’t come together till much later in the season.
“We were kind of late to the game,” Caceres said. “It was late August or September even, where we finally got a Spec MX car available to us to use. And so, I had met George (Clos) through the Spec MX-5 program. I forget when I first met him, but anyway, I just thought, wow, he would be great for this. And so, I contacted him and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that. I can put a car together.’”
The idea dates back even further than that. Teen Mazda Challenge founder, Ron Cortez, who owned the Aim Tires dealership in Northern California, had the idea several years ago, but sadly Cortez died in January 2018 before he was able to make that dream a reality.
“I wanted to kind of carry on what his wishes were, too. So, the past couple years we tried to get all the drivers together, a full team, but it never worked out. There were always some conflicts or something with that,” Caceres said. “So, for this year, what I wanted to do was introduce them to a Spec MX-5 car, if we could get one for the 25 Hour and put a team together for the drivers.”
Rubin and Caceres will be the liaisons for the drivers and parents who are volunteering on the team. That leaves Clos and his crew of two mechanics to focus on the car. The 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance has grown from six hours at its very beginning to 12 hours, then to 25. It’s now become something of a “Pro Am” event at a time on the calendar when there isn’t a lot of racing going on. Fielding a team takes a lot of effort.
“I come from professional car racing, on the endurance racing side, 24 hour races and stuff, but I’ve always been the driver,” Caceres said. “I’ve always been the hired driver. So, I used to just fly in, meet the crew, say hi, and then establish that relationship, and always offer to help. But aside from that, I never knew anything about the logistics of putting a 25 Hour team together.”
She and Rubin are about to find out. Rubin is flying to Northern California from Virginia to play his role on the team. Rubin was a driver in the Teen Mazda Challenge until recently. He has since turned 20 and aged out of the program, but he continues to race in Spec Miata.
Clos Motorsports will be bringing the car from its headquarters in the Denver metro area. The car is complete and ready for competition at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance, which takes place Dec. 3-5, 2021.
“I’ve replaced all the hub bearings and upgraded brakes to endurance brakes. I think that the package, the way it’s built, it’s plenty capable of handling a 25-hour race,” Clos said. “It depends on the driver, obviously, and whether they take care of their equipment. But this car, the way the package is, it’s a great platform for this type of racing.”