The 2008 25 Hours of Thunderhill Post Event Write-up

The United States Air Force 25, uh, 17 Hours, well, actually 28 Hours of Thunderhill 2008

by Rob Krider, NASA Staff Writer

As Americans, we like our stuff big.  We like our SUVs big, our hamburgers big and we like our automobile races big.  This is where the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) gives us what we like: The 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by the United States Air Force.  This is the longest automotive endurance race in North America.  Yup, it's that big.

The race is so big in fact, that the big folks come out to play.  Big factory teams like Mazda, Ford and Honda bring cars.  Big names in automobile racing bring talent like Boris Said, Eric Curran and Charles Espenlaub.  The whole thing is bigtastic.

The tag line for the event is "Survive the 25" which is simply, yet, very eloquently put.  Survival is the name of the game.  The pole position, or a gnarly testicular pass into turn one will not win anyone the esteemed 25 Hours of Thunderhill trophy (yes, it's big, 7 feet tall big).  Endurance, perseverance, and more specifically, "keeping your nose clean" will give you a shot at the giant trophy.  Facts are facts; you can't win the race sitting in the pits with a snapped tie rod, a crumpled fender and a drooling radiator.

That's where this big story here takes us, to the pits.  At the beginning of the race, at 11 a.m. on December 6, 2008, the weather in Willows, California couldn't have been better.  The sun was out, but the temperature was still cool enough to keep the tires from disintegrating after only one of the 25 long hours.  When the green flag dropped six different classes of cars barreled into Thunderhill Raceway Park's left hand turn one.  But not all of the 70 plus cars were actually on the track.  There were a few unfortunate cars and teams that didn't even survive qualifying or practice. 

In the pits, some crews worked feverishly to get their whips running, while others scratched their heads and just stared dumbfounded at non running engines.  I've tried that method of automotive repair myself, staring at the car hoping it will fix itself; it has never worked for me either.  I talked with a crew member from one of the teams which had a car sitting motionless in the pits as the first precious laps of the race clicked by.  The crew member said the car had an oil leak, but he didn't appear to be in any panic or hurry to get to fixing it.  He just shrugged his shoulders and said, "It's a long race, we'll get the car out there."  True, 25 hours is a long race, but while he and I shot the breeze about the complexities of the modern internal combustion engine, the rest of the cars were making laps while his team's car continued to make a larger oil puddle.  I'll save you the suspense, these guys didn't win.

    Races are all about being first and winning.  Team GTI Racing, in their #07 EO classed BMW, was the first team to take the green flag and then come right into the pits.  The car was overheating after one single lap.  That one glorious lap was all they completed for the entire weekend.  For doing that, they actually did win something.  They won the title of being the first team out of the race.  Hey, it has to be somebody.

    Outside of the world of the pits (where cars came to die), there was an actual automobile race going on.  Cars were blazing around the hills of Willows at unbelievable speeds for the amount of cars on the track and the length of the race.  Some call that ludicrous speed.  After his first stint, I spoke with Dean Thomas, driver of the #65 Evil Genius Racing E2 classed Mazda Miata, who described the start of the race as "hectic."  He said it was obvious some of the drivers were unfamiliar with the 15 turn course that comprises Thunderhill and that some teams were driving way too hard for a long endurance race.  Thomas's assessment was proven accurate by the number of cars I witnessed going off in the dirt early in the race (specifically a wonderful lawn job done by the Prototype Development Group GTM-R #4 ES classed car coming out of turn 10) and by the number of cars already on the hook.  The #94 E2 classed red RX-7 of Team B.A.M.F. Racing was being towed out of turn 11 before the first hour was up.  The #85 E0 classed Factory Five Cobra, from Team Racing 4 A Reason, found itself spending time with a hooker as well after a broken throttle cable left it abandoned on the track near the chute.

    The #65 car was leading E2 early in the race when the motor suddenly ran out of oil.  This minor set back of not having oil led to an inevitable engine failure, which thus led to an inevitable engine swap.  The impressive part was the Evil Genius Racing crew was able to pull it off in an hour and forty minutes.  Truly amazing.  What's curious is the fact that when a shop charges by the hour for an engine swap it takes 12 hours, but at the race track they can somehow do it in less than two.  I guess motivation is a fantastic thing.

    As the race continued on, drivers and teams began to get their groove and the pace on track seemed to settle down to a reasonable endurance racing level, which is somewhere around 7.5 to 8 tenths.  That equals about 500 revs below redline, maybe a foot of track on the outside exit of each corner, ten feet shallower braking zones and a little less tire squeal.  For the teams that didn't heed this new pace and continued at ludicrous speed, attrition embraced them one by one.

    One of the more interesting cars competing in the event was the #1 ES classed Volkswagen Beetle of Team Fun-Cup.  As the car motored around the track at speed it looked like the world's fastest Volkswagen Bug (don't get jealous Herbie).  After it ate a flywheel, I got a chance to look at the car up close in the pits while the team feverishly tried to swap in a new part.  Writers for Car & Driver magazine were drivers on the team and explained that the only part of the car that is vintage Beetle is the windshield wiper arms.  The car is a tube frame spec race car from Europe with a mid-engine water cooled VW Gulf motor which runs on E85 (Friday night the team endured a 400 mile all night road trip through the Bay Area frantically searching for a 24 hour E85 pump with a credit card reader).  From the guys who make a living writing about cars and racing, the only quote I could get from Car & Driver as their racecar sat in several pieces was, "First few hours were great.  Now, not so much."  Cut, go to print.

    The real beauty of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is at sunset.  Teams try to adjust their pit schedule just right to do a driver change, add fuel and then strap on some five gazillion candle power lights to the hood of their cars so drivers can see in the vast darkness.  As the sky goes purple, the lights on the race machines start to come on.  And as the light in the sky continues to dissipate, you begin to see the red glow of the brake rotors as the cars dive deep into each corner.  It is a really cool thing to observe as the race transcends into the night.

    When the sun set on day one the leader board read as follows: Leading overall and class ESR was #06 Team Cytosport driving a Pontiac Riley sponsored by Muscle Milk with a solid three lap lead over the #87 Honda powered Team Green Alternative Motorsports Norma.  In ES the #70 Team Trimtex/Fall Line Motorsports BMW had the class lead.  In EO the #16 Team Dreams Motorsports Honda Civic Si was leading its class.  E1 showed the #29 Team MazdaSpeed/Team MER 2 new generation Mazda Miata winning.  E2 class had the #2 Mazda Miata of Team on top, with the #23 RJ Racing Mazda Miata in second and in third the all ladies team of Diva Speed driving their #5 Acura Integra.  It would be only one of these class leaders that could hold on from their sunset standings to finish as a winner.

    The great weather at the beginning of the race ended up actually being a curse for the event.  The warm weather during the day combining with rapidly dropping temperatures in the evening was a recipe for thick fog.  As the fog settled low with over 17 hours of racing to go, officials threw the red light on the tower and brought the teams in.  Good news for the support staff: everyone could get some sleep.  Bad news for the teams: nobody can work on their cars during the red flag.  Instead of getting a chance to fix a leaking hose or re-align the steering, crew chiefs laid in their motor homes trying to sleep, but instead tossed and turned, obsessing about when they could touch the cars and how quickly they could fix any problems and get back on track.

    One crew that had a very busy weekend was that of the ES class #27 car of Team MPME/Team Scion/Modified Mag in a white Scion TC.  It turns out TC is the acronym for Traffic Collision as the Scion rolled during practice.  The car was thrown back together and a new door was sourced from somewhere (it's possible that I saw a white rental car with its passenger door missing in the parking lot).  After getting the car back on track for the race start, the crew later had to swap out a transmission prior to the race starting over after the fog lifted.

    After an eleven hour delay due to the fog, at 5:00 a.m. on December 7, 2008, the green flag was waving again at Thunderhill Raceway Park.  Teams were rested, tires were cold and the road to the finish was in the driver's sights (well, almost anyway).  Due to the weather delay, the end of the race was postponed to 3:00 p.m. (as opposed to the scheduled 12:00 p.m.) thus making the race 28 hours in length as opposed to 25, with around 17 hours of actual racing.  As the race got back underway the overall leader, Team Cytosport in their #06 ESR Riley, was looking like the team to beat.  Just one little corner changed all that.

    Collisions in motorsports always have two versions regarding how the crash happened, and this collision was no different.  But regardless of whose story you hear, some facts are irrefutable.  Fact #1: The #06 ESR Team Cytosport (overall leader) and the #24 EO Acura RSX driven by Team Honda Research West 1 made some type of contact going into Turn 8.  Fact #2: The overall leader suffered a cracked bell housing and was unable to continue thus losing the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.  The car never came back out onto the track, while the Acura RSX was repaired and back in action.  That takes us to Fact #3: There are more Acura spare parts lying around in Willows, CA than there are Riley parts.

    That collision was an all important lesson in the crutch of Surviving the 25.  Racing in the 25 is all about traffic.  With six different classes, there was a span of differential speeds ranging from the pole position time of 1:45 at 102 miles per hour, to the DFL qualifying position time of the #83 E2 class Team Goodsport Racing 2 in a Mazda RX-7 2:21 at 76 miles an hour.  With different speeds comes passing, lots of it, all day and all night.  With passing comes the possibility of conflict.  With the possibility of conflict drivers have to be on their A game not to take chances.  Like the type of chances that will put their team on the trailer as opposed to on the podium.  At the 25, risky drivers were punished and careful drivers were rewarded.

    And this year the 25 did just that.  The blistering qualifying speed of a Daytona Prototype car was trounced for the overall win by that of a Mazda Miata.  The #19 ES class Mazda Miata of Team Mazdaspeed/Team MER 1 (which qualified with a 2:00 lap time at 89 miles per hour) covered 477 laps for the overall win.  Doing some quick math, the pole position was 15 seconds faster than that of the winning Miata, which means that 477 laps should have given the pole setter a near two hour lead.  Of course, this was not the case in 2008; when the checkered flag flew over the #19 ES class Miata, the ESR class pole sitter sat motionless in the pits with that pesky cracked bell housing.

    The #19 overall winning Mazda Miata and class ES winner was driven by Charles Espenlaub, Jason Sani and Charles Putnam.  Taking honors in E0 and second overall (on the same lap) was #44 Team Achilles in their BMW driven by Ara Malkhassian, Boris Nizon, Billy and Gil Cervantes.  The ESR class win (and fourth overall, one lap down) went to the ethanol race fuel machine of the #87 Norma of Team Green Alternative Motorsports driven by Dennis Pavlina, Steve Zadig and Michael Kantor.  The class win in E1 (and fifth overall two laps down) went to the #29 Mazda Miata of Team Mazdaspeed/Team MER 2 driven by Ken Dobson, Mike Harvison, Nick Mancusa and Tyler McQuarrie.

    One of the most entertaining races of the weekend was that of the heavily competitive E2 class.  John Pagel of Evil Genius Racing was campaigning two yellow and green Mazda Miatas painted in the British Racing green and yellow Lotus colors.  His two cars, the #64 car named "Scrappy" and the #65 car named "Oren" were built specifically for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.  I had a conversation with Pagel after a NASA Spec Miata race at Infineon earlier in the year.  He told me back then that he was "absolutely going to win E2 at the 25 this year."  I thought that was pretty big talk for a sunny day in July, months away from the actual race.  Pagel teamed up with Miller Motorsports and Kumho Tires and put together a fantastic effort, including an army of support crew.  You couldn't go anywhere around Thunderhill without seeing somebody wearing an Evil Genius Racing t-shirt.  "Scrappy" was driven by Doug Clark, Juan Pineda, Jeremy Pike, Laura Thomas and Dan Gehringer.  The car had zero major mechanical issues and all of the drivers kept the car on the pavement and out of trouble with a little help from Dennis Clark (Doug's Dad), spotting from the top of the hill.  They stayed out of the pits, drove steady and got Evil Genius Racing the E2 class win (19th overall) with 447 laps.  John Pagel said he would win back in July and he did it.  Apparently, he can see into the future.  Now if I could just have him give me some stock tips.  

    The NASA 2008 25 Hours of Thunderhill presented by the United States Air Force is in the history books.  When it was over everyone looked elated while at the same time absolutely beat.  Twenty-eight hours of drama and suspense and that's not counting any of the set up, practice (repairing) or qualifying.  The 25 Hour is an incredible experience.  If you have never enjoyed the adventure of Surviving the 25 I would definitely recommend it.  There's only one phrase that can sum the whole thing up: it's big.