Experienced Teams Strengthening Driver Rosters and Honing Strategies
The 15th running of the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by Hawk Performance is attracting past winners and teams who are still looking for their first class win. The twice-around-the-clock plus one-hour race is set to run Dec. 2-3, 2017.
Peter Hopelain with Team Technik/AGM Racing is still chasing a class win at Thunderhill, and the team has come close in years past. Team Technik lost an engine in the middle of the night while enjoying a two-lap lead in 2014, then scored a third-place finish in 2015. The team sat out the 2016 event and has spent the majority of 2017 prepping their BMW E46 chassis and crew for competition in the E1 class.
“We have spent the last six months developing the car and developing the team,” Hopelain said. “The specifics of what we’ve been working on is that there is not much left we can do, per the rules, to speed up our pit stops. It’s become a real distance-traveled-over-time type of race, and a matter of survival. So, we’ve changed around a lot of the setup over the last few years to get the car to run more efficiently, and at the pace of the leaders. So, we’re able to get two hours of driving time on 15 gallons of fuel.”
Hopelain was quick to thank team owner Sean Neel, who has overseen development of the car and provided the team with first-rate equipment needed to take the class win.“If we’ve asked for it, Sean has gone and gotten it for us,” Hopelain said. “He’s very committed.”
The Team Technik/AGM Racing driver lineup includes Hopelain, who will start the race as the first driver, but will act as crew chief for the remainder of the event, Neel, who has a long history of success in Porsche club racing, 25 Hour veteran Shawn Sampson, Robert Dietz who just won the PTE Championship in October, and Mark Mitchell, formerly with 2017 WERC E1 champion Team GTI Racing.
The E2 class wins in the 2014 and 2015 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by Hawk Performance have gone to the Robert Davis Racing team driving “Kermit,” a green and silver Mazda RX-8. That car has since been retired and the team has a new Mazda RX-8 to compete in this year’s event. It will be the only rotary-engine-powered entry on grid.
Team driver Jeremy Barnes said the team has taken everything it learned from racing “Kermit” over the years and poured all that knowledge and experience into the new car, which the team has been quietly developing this year.
Although rotary engines make prodigious power relative to their displacement, their fuel economy presents some challenges in endurance racing, and with a stock fuel tank that holds 16.9 gallons, the team has to stop every hour to refuel. Barnes said the team incorporates fuel consumption into its strategy.
“We know we’re a lot more fuel thirsty than any of the cars that we run against, so it’s making sure that the rest of the package is so good that we don’t have a reason to stop other than putting fuel in the car and doing driver changes and tire changes,” Barnes said. “So, if we can stay out of the pits and stay on track as much as possible, and just take care as much as we can the weaker points of the car, then we think we’re going to be in a good place, and we certainly proved that the last few years with Kermit. I think we’ve made a car that everyone said couldn’t be competitive and couldn’t be reliable both competitive and reliable.”
The team’s driver lineup includes Barnes, 25 Hour veterans Jim and Dennis Holloway and Lee Papageorge, and Mazda’s long-time IMSA driver Joel Miller.
Team RA Motorsports owner Ron Gayman has two wins in the E3 class, in 2015 and 2016, and he’s bringing the same two Mazda Miatas again this year, plus another to compete in the E1 class. The E1 Miata is powered by a General Motors 2.4-liter EcoTec engine, which is roughly 30 percent more powerful than a stock Mazda 1.8-liter. It also will be a little faster thanks to suspension, tire and aerodynamic upgrades.
“This year, we hope to gain a few seconds in lap pace, and be more competitive,” he said. “We were not competitive in lap times last year. The fastest in the class were running 1:59s and we barely did a 2:03.”
Gayman notes that luck plays a role in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by Hawk Performance, and that he’ll take it when he can get it, but there’s much more to winning than good fortune.
“People say it’s all about luck. Well, luck is in the preparation,” he said. “The simple thing is I put new parts on the car that we consider wear items or break items. We put new hubs, fresh brakes and rotors and a fresh motor, typically.
“Last year, we got lucky,” he continued. “We were the only one that didn’t break. We would have had a one-two finish if our other car hadn’t broken.”