Every year, the first weekend of December, a magical event occurs in the sleepy northern California town of Willows. Large car haulers roll into town with priceless machines built for speed. Professional racing drivers land in Sacramento and head north to Thunderhill Raceway Park. This annual event is the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill Presented by Hawk Performance, commonly known simply as: The 25.
A key component that makes this event special is that the big boys and girls show up to race, The Pros. They bring in pro cars, pro pit crews, pro engineers and pro drivers. The 25 has multiclass racing, which means the professional teams compete at the tip of the spear, driving factory-built race cars or prototypes in the ES or ESR classes, while the weekend warrior NASA club racers battle it out in slower classes, driving BMWs or Mazda Miatas in the E2 or E3 classes. This integration of club and professional drivers makes for some interesting racing over 25 hours, through the night and often in December rain. There’s no race in the world like it.
For your average club racer, The 25 is an opportunity to say you raced on track door-to-door against the likes of Bryan Herta, Kurt Busch, Simon Pagenaud, Al Unser Jr. or Boris Said. Yes, these are household racing names a lot of us have spent our Sunday’s watching on television in top-tier professional series like IndyCar, NASCAR and IMSA.
To gain a perspective of what attracts professional drivers to come out and play on a cold weekend in December, we chatted with three pros who have each won the race overall: Johannes van Overbeek, Dion von Moltke and Randy Pobst. These three drivers also have another thing in common, they have each won at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. So, why did these gentlemen come to Northern California to race the extra hour at The 25?
We started with the man who has won The 25 more times than anyone else, seven-time winner Johannes van Overbeek. He has six overall wins and a class win. When Johannes wasn’t ripping down the front straight at Thunderhill in a Porsche RSR while slaloming through Spec Miatas during the 25 for another victory, he was managing a 23-year career as a professional driver, raising a family, chasing sponsors and winning big races.
When I say big races, I mean the biggest races on the planet: 24 Hours of Daytona overall, Sebring twice overall, ALMS victories, and a podium finish at the Circuit de la Sarthe at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He made a name for himself driving for Flying Lizard Motorsports in their iconic silver-and-red-liveried factory-supported Porsches. He finished his career driving prototypes for Extreme Speed Motorsports, often sharing the seat with the CEO of Patron, Ed Brown. The duo had an epic battle in the WeatherTech Series at Laguna Seca, taking pole while being the only pro/gentlemen driver team in the field and won the race overall. He’s raced Ferrari 458 GTLM cars and Daytona Prototypes. Johannes is a professional in every sense of the word, but still found his way back to Thunderhill every year.
Johannes loves The 25 because he has always had a soft spot for the track itself. His first ever wheel-to-wheel race was in a Datsun 510 at the grand opening of Thunderhill, an experience he never forgot. He is a Northern California native, so when the opportunity came along to drive a good car for a professional team at The 25 he jumped at it. According to Johannes, the weekend in December when the event is held certainly helped him and other pros to be available for the race.
“The racing season is like baseball, spring to fall. Pretty much the weekend after Thanksgiving there is a lull in racing,” he said. “Almost every pro team and driver has it open.”
When discussing the differences between The 25 and professional races Johannes had this to say, “At Thunderhill you have a huge disparity in speed with the multiple classes, and a disparity in talent. There has to be some give and take involved. You come across people that have no business being out there. And you come across people that should be racing professionally somewhere else.”
For newcomers to The 25, Johannes had these priceless pieces of wisdom: “If you have a second driving suit and gloves, bring them. Putting on a sweaty suit at four in the morning when it is 20 degrees out is not pleasant. If you are new to the race, ask lots of questions. Be open minded. You need to control all the variables you can (rules, fueling, driver changes) and let go of the things you can’t control. When you are passing – when in doubt, don’t. Especially for The 25 Hour. You can’t finish if you do something stupid and take yourself out.”
When it came to the pace of the race, Johannes said being the fastest car on track almost never predicts the winner for The 25. “The last year we won it overall in the Porsche RSR with Toyo Tires/Flying Lizard Motorsports, we were racing against Bryan Herta, whom I really respect, and his son, Colin Herta (Americas best up and comer in IndyCar). They were in some sort of carbon prototype. We knew it would be a tough lift to take them down with our aging RSR. But we stayed out of trouble, and we weren’t faster, but we had the fastest average over 25 hours and that’s what you need to win.”
Johannes was kind enough to let us in on a little speed secret, which isn’t really a secret at all if you were paying attention in the paddock. “We were the first team to use tire warmers. We could come out of the pit lane hot, lay down a good time and really gain on our competitors with that out lap. Out laps at The 25 are hard because it is so cold. You have fast cars going slow and it confuses the slower classes. It takes a while to build up heat in the tires. One year, our fastest laps would be the out lap with the warm tires and then the car would fall off because it was so cold outside.”
So, that was pro No. 1, Johannes van Overbeek. On to our next professional driver, Dion von Molte, who owns Blayze, a professional online coaching service at reasonable prices, who, like Johannes, also has won at Daytona. Dion has raced with numerous professional racing teams and has wins in multiple series including Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge with APR Motorsport, Rolex Sports Car Series with Alex Job Racing, and the American Le Mans Series with The Racers Group. He also has two class wins at Sebring, and of all things, Dion actually has a TED Talk about racing. He has competed in The 25 three times and has an overall win. He provided an unlikely start to the interview about The 25.
“Well, to be honest, when I first heard about the 25 Hours of Thunderhill … I didn’t want to do it. I kept hearing about how it rains and its 30 degrees outside,” he said. “Then I got a call one day from the right team, and I headed to California.”
His first stint at The 25 was racing for Davidson Racing in the Davidson Eagle prototype. “When the car ran, it was pretty fun, unfortunately the car didn’t run very much!” With some teething issues for the Eagle, Dion only scored about five laps in practice. The team resolved some issues and at the start of the race things were going good. He jumped in for his stint and after about two laps the gearbox started having problems.
“I brought it down into pit lane and the team started working on the car,” said Dion. “In the Eagle, it’s a center seat car and as the driver you are surrounded by the fuel tank. The team rolled out a welder, opened the door and started welding on the car right next to where I was sitting. They had a guy with a fire extinguisher pointing at my face. I suggested since I was surrounded by race fuel, maybe we let me jump out and push this thing into the paddock for repairs.”
Spoiler alert: Dion and his team did not win that year. But he did win in 2016. “I was in Spain testing the best car I had ever driven, the DTM Audi Sport. After the test, I jumped on a plane to Thunderhill to drive the Toyo Tires/Flying Lizard Motorsports Audi R8 LMS for Darren Law. We won it overall that year.”
Dion agreed with Johannes that the weekend in December chosen for The 25 is part of the success with pros attending the race, “It’s hard to find an open weekend between IMSA, World Challenge, Ferrari Challenge, and Super Trofeo. You are either racing, or testing or coaching.” Asked about the difference between racing in the pro ranks versus racing at The 25, Dion said it was all about the broader variance in speed.
“Ultimately, the big difference is the wider speed differential. Closing speed is very wide. I was in a prototype coming across a stock Honda Fit at The 25. Pro racing doesn’t have that. As far as drivers, the top-tier drivers at Thunderhill are the same as top tier drivers at IMSA. Overall, the standard of driver was better than I initially expected. The challenge at The 25 is you don’t always know who you are racing against. Because of that, I am more conservative how I race at the 25 Hour compared to how I race at IMSA.”
For advice to people looking at The 25 for the first time, Dion had this to say, “For your first race, come in and have no expectations with a mindset I just want to have a fun time. Patience is such a good virtue to have here. I always have traffic. I may never have a clean lap in seven hours of racing. That can be frustrating. The end game is survival. You are trying to go fast, but it is good to be a little more conservative in your race craft. You don’t know who you are racing, even if it is the same car, it could be a different driver. You really don’t have clue. So be safe.”
That brings us to our third and final pro. This particular gentleman doesn’t need much introduction to those familiar with racing at any level. We are talking about Randy Pobst, four-time World Challenge Champion, two-time Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona Winner, and of course, 25 Hours of Thunderhill overall winner, two separate times. Randy says one of his proudest accomplishments in motorsports was being chosen to be a factory racing driver for Porsche. He said his favorite car he has ever driven is a Porsche 993 911 RSR owned by Alex Job Racing in ALMS.
The car was engineered by Greg Fordahl who Randy says, “Can make a car handle!” It was the same Greg Fordahl who introduced Randy to Kim Hiskey who was putting together a 25 Hour effort for her Crazy Redhead Racing team. Randy detailed his first experience at The 25, as only Randy can, talking very quickly.
“This story is a good one. It rained! Obviously it is the wet season in Northern California. We were in a water-cooled 911 with ABS, but the ABS quit early in the race, giving the car ton of front bias, not good for the rain. The other thing that quit early in the race was the windshield wipers! And … we still won overall. It was an over-dog car. This was during the years before the big boy cars showed up at The 25. We had the best car for the race and we won.”
Randy showed up and won his first 25 Hour, but his second win came after some years of learning through mechanical attrition. “I got a ride with Davidson Racing, which was running two cars, the Davidson Eagle and a Norma. The Norma was a sweetheart of a car, not a big prototype, medium size, with a BMW 3.0-liter engine, sequential gearbox, and lots of downforce. It seemed like each year we would have some little mechanical issue here or there. One year we didn’t win because the exhaust came loose. I was driving when it happened, approaching Turns 13-14 and heard the change in pitch of the engine. I knew there are strict sound rules at Thunderhill so I radioed into the crew chief that he had 10 seconds to make a decision. Do I pit or stay out? After 9 seconds he said to stay out. I went by the pit entrance to do one more lap, and during that lap is when the exhaust burned through an important wiring harness. A major problem. The car was on fire. We lost that one. If I only had pitted!”
Then it finally came together for Bob Davidson’s racing team and Randy’s second overall victory, “No mechanicals!” exclaimed Randy. “The 25 is not easy. We had a good team, good co-drivers, and a good result. It’s a great feeling to have the lead and hand the car over to the last driver. We got Bob in the car to take the checker and we won! Bob had a goal and he accomplished it.”
According to Randy, the reason he goes from professional races back to The 25 is because he is addicted to racing, “I wanted to race all I can.” The other reason is because the race is 25 hours long, “More racing! I’m in! I’ve always loved endurance races. When I saw The 25, I was totally in. It was a no brainer. And my first team was good, they had a heater in the pits!”
Randy agreed with Johannes and Dion that the calendar date for the race is another reason he likes the event, “It was brilliant of Jerry Kunzman to create this event in the middle of this vacuum. There is a lull in racing in December.”
“In the early days of the race, there were loads of Spec Miatas,” said Randy. “Now there are more and more of those serious racecars. I’ve been part of the big dog teams, and NASA watched us like a hawk – easy to get a penalty, to keep us from dominating. The event is perfect for me. I’ve always considered myself respectful of traffic. I grew up in the slower classes and I respect those racers. You have to be careful in traffic. You cannot be too aggressive. It will be your fault as the fast car if there is car-to-car contact.”
According to Randy, the race provides good mix of pros and amateurs. “The best drivers are the top pros. They know what they are doing. The worst drivers are not the guys in the slower classes. Actually the worst drivers are the wealthy drivers who run pro races for the fun of it. I have seen this tendency for people to try to drive their stint like it is a sprint race. Not a good team player! This is a long race, don’t get heated up, don’t make risky moves. If somebody catches you, they are faster than you. Don’t block, let them by safely and keep going on your own.”
Randy holds nothing back when it comes to his opinions regarding on-track etiquette especially for a long race with multiple classes. “These wealthy guys are the worst ones in the race, driving prototypes that are fast in the straight, but they are slow in the corners. They want to race whatever appears. Leave me alone, you jerk! I’ve got a job to do here. We aren’t even in the same class. You are raising your risk and raising my risk.”
Randy provided an example of this problem from the 2010 race. “I was in a Porsche and I caught a prototype. We have 12 hours to go. It’s at night in the dark. This guy starts racing me. He doesn’t want me to get by. Uh oh, we have a hero here. He thinks he’s Ayrton Senna on the last lap of the F1 World Championship. Not in the middle of an endurance race. I put my lights in his mirrors, I’m faster, but he is racing me. He’s fighting, blocking, protecting the line. This guy is exactly the guy I’m talking about. He rented a ride. He has not done any endurance racing. His mindset is no production car is going to pass me! We head into Turn 8, a fast kink at 100 miles an hour plus, he comes along and hits a slower car that was at the apex of 8. Cars go flying and I drive by. This guy put himself right into the vortex of danger. He had pressure, then he made a bad decision, and he hit a guy and I got by. I felt so sorry for that poor slower-classed car. Not his fault.”
For someone who is new to The 25 Hour, Randy had some sage advice, “Keep in mind the big picture. This is a long race. You want your speed high, but your risk low. Go as fast as you can without hurting the car. That is the best advice that I have. No passing under yellow! Penalties will kill you. Stay away from penalties for black flags or pit lane infractions. Take care of yourself. Pace yourself. After you drive a stint, take a moment to calm down. Eat, drink and take a nap. If you can’t nap at least lie down and rest. When the sun comes up at 7 in the morning, you will feel good and be ready to race. Hydration when you get out of the car, not before you get in or you will have to pee like a race horse.”
Randy considers himself a grassroots racing guy, even though he is a pro driver, based on his own racing path over 40 years of motorsports experience. “I really like racing on more of a lower-dollar level. I feel like I’m home. I grew up auto-crossing. I ran my own car my first years of racing, so for me the atmosphere at Thunderhill, it just feels comfortable. People at the 25 are really doing it for the love of it. It isn’t the 24 Hours of Daytona or Indy. It isn’t a place to show off. The 25 is a place to race.”
Three different pro drivers, three different perspectives, and a very common theme: The 25 Hours of Thunderhill is a long race where there are thousands of opportunities to throw the race away. Don’t throw it away. Take care of yourself, take care of your car and take care of your team. And after all that, and with some racing luck, you too can be a 25 Hour winner.
Rob Krider is a NASA National Champion racing driver and the author of the novel, “Cadet Blues.” Full Disclosure: The incident in Turn 8 Randy Pobst was describing, Rob was the driver in the slower car, a Nissan Sentra SE-R, that was taken out by the wealthy arrive and drive person in the prototype that Randy was stalking. The racing world is a small place and the apex at Turn 8 is an extremely small space.