The 25 Hours of Thunderhill
If you’ve never been to a long endurance race before, you’re missing out. At 25 hours, NASA’s annual enduro at Thunderhill is the longest in the world. Though it’s mostly amateur teams running, there’s no shortage of excitement, skill, determination, perseverance, hard work, and hard decisions.
Most teams have four or five drivers, who usually drive stints between an hour and a half and three hours long. Some drivers only race at nighttime.
Before the race starts, the cars are lined up on the starting grid. It’s a casual but busy atmosphere. Things are about to get serious but for now it’s fun.
Soon enough, the opening ceremonies begin. The USAF presents the colors and some lucky individual sings the National Anthem.
The grid is cleared of team members, staff, and media and the drivers are asked to start their engines.
After a parade lap and a pace lap, the green flag drops and the racing doesn’t stop for 25 more hours. Just for fun, I bought a pedometer to see how far I walked during the event.
Tyler McQuarrie was driving for CJ Wilson again, looking for a fourth straight win in E1.
After a few hours, most teams are on their second drivers. Adrenaline is still the driving force. Pretty soon they’ll get into a rhythm and stay in it as long as they can before fatigue sets in.
No matter what kind of resources a team has, you just can’t beat duct tape for a quick fix.
During the first six hours of the race, there is also a six-hour enduro. The cars still have to be tough and reliable, but there’s a conspicuous absence of lights, since that race ends right after sundown.
Thunderhill has some of the nicest scenery of any race track around.
Four hours into the race, it seemed pretty clear that Mercer Motorsports was going to win it again, if they didn’t have any problems.
With ALMS and Grand Am drivers like Johannes van Overbeek, Jon Fogarty, and Wolf Henzler behind the wheel, no one doubted they’d get their third win in a row.
The weather was clear due to a mild wind left over from the strong winds that swept through California earlier in the week. This made for easy racing and also kept the threat of night fog at bay. Fog is the only type of weather that can stop the race, due to the fact that the flaggers can’t see the race and the drivers can’t see the flaggers.
I got to test out my Life Blasters North Face coat in the chilly wind. I was actually too warm most of the time.
Our drifter buddy Jared Thompson drives race cars as well. This is the second year he’s been piloting the Ford GT in the 25. Unfortunately an oil pump failure put them out of the race sometime in the night.
The growing darkness could have been what caused the contact between the Mercer GT3 and Scion Racing TC. The Porsche suffered a broken wheel, and this was its only incident in the entire race.
With less than 30 minutes to go, the 6-hour cars were pushing the limits of unassisted visibility.
Sports Racers are so sexy. I wouldn’t mind shooting a race of strictly these cars.
The sun set just five and a half hours into the race, but that’s when the mistakes started picking up.
During twilight, it’s still light enough to see, but dark enough to make headlights look amazing.
The post-sunset twilight and dusk are fantastic times to climb the water tower hill and get a view of the whole track.
All the cars down there are just begging for long exposure shots.
Joe was the first one of us to need a nap. Apparently this was a comfortable position.
The AIM Tire Shop at Thunderhill was busy during the whole race, even with some teams doing their own tires.
Pit stops aren’t as fast as Formula 1 by any means, but the crews still work quickly on tire changes and refueling.
By midnight, a good number of the cars had over 300 laps behind them. That’s 900 miles! The Mercer Porsche had the overall lead by 20 laps.
Oh, this car. This guy passed us and five other cars all at the same time on Highway 162 on our way to the track in the morning. If you know him, please tell him that’s not cool, and he’s contributing to the local community’s dislike of the 25 and the track in general. It’s hard enough to get to run a race in the middle of the night without that kind of behavior going on.
By the middle of the night, many cars needed major repairs and had to go back paddock for a while. It’s not uncommon to see diff swaps, brake replacements, or whole engine replacements going on.
Robert Kinley, the Chief of Communications for the Nor Cal region on NASA, was kind enough to give us a brief interview.
Pitts: How long have you been with NASA?
RK: This is the end of my 10th year, about half as long as NASA has been around.
Pitts: Was there any point in time where you felt a big letdown that you couldn’t become an astronaut by joining this NASA?
RK: I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I knew it wasn’t the space agency. Hahaha.
Pitts: What do you do up here in the control tower?
RK: I’m in charge of doing the dispatching for the safety crews, making sure the event runs on schedule, and basically responsible for all the aspects of the on-track experience.
Pitts: How has the 25hr Enduro progressed since it started in 2002?
RK: The 25 has constantly evolved into new and more exciting things. The first year was utter chaos. We didn’t really know what we were doing, it just sounded like a good idea at the time, and we quickly realized that there was a lot more planning that needed to happen. Every year it’s just gotten better, more cars, more teams, more excitement. It’s a whole lot of fun.
Pitts: What do you think about the higher echelon teams attraction to this event?
RK: It’s so exciting to see the new teams coming in, and some of the pro teams consider this a marquee event in their season, which is just awesome.
Pitts: What makes the 25 special?
RK: For me it’s getting to hang out with my extended family for a day and a half, effectively. I came up Wednesday afternoon and we set up until Friday, and we’ll be here until Sunday, late, cleaning this all up.
Pitts: So it’s a big production then.
RK: It is, it’s the biggest production of our season.
Pitts: Bigger than nationals?
RK: In a way, yes. Just because of the logistics of running 25 hours straight. It’s one thing to run four ten-hour days, but 25 hours straight with all the different shifts and equipment needed, it’s totally different.
Pitts: What’s your favorite car out there right now?
RK: Uhh, that’s a good question! I don’t really have any favorite cars, but the club racing guys will always have a special place in my heart. That’s grassroots motorsports at its best.
Pitts: Have you ever raced?
RK: I actually have never raced before, but I’ve done a couple of High Performance Driving Experience events, but I’ve basically spent my entire racing career up in the tower doing event management, safety dispatch, things like that.
Pitts: Any hopes of jumping behind the wheel in the future? Or do you think after seeing what they do out there you don’t want anything to do with it.
RK: Hahaha. After seeing what they do out there, I’d rather stay on this side of the comm-line.
Pitts: What do you think about NASA vs. SCCA
RK: No comment on that one, haha.
Pitts: What do you think about President Obama?
RK: I try not to mix politics with pleasure.
Pitts: Is NASA your full-time gig?
RK: Actually I volunteer here, for work I’m a Network Administrator for a Financial Services company.
Pitts: What’s the worst crash you’ve seen during a 25?
RK: Probably the first or second year when we had a Radical CSR stopped on the back straight, and it just got creamed by another car and launched. That was pretty bad. The second-worst was probably yesterday during the test day! The Kiwi car rolled in Turn 8 in a pretty spectacular fashion.
Pitts: When do you start seeing the fatigue setting in?
RK: We usually start seeing stupid decisions around sundown and it just continues on from there. Most of the stupid decisions are fortunately just passing under yellows. Which we still come down hard on, in fact we just penalized a team 10 minutes for passing under yellow in a turn where our safety crew was. If you scare our safety crew, it’s not good.
Pitts: When have you had to stop the race?
RK: We’ve stopped the race a couple of times in the past, the most recent one was due to fog. We had to stop the race for almost seven hours because visibility was zero. We’ve also stopped the race a couple of times because of major crash cleanup or life-flight.
Pitts: Thanks for the interview, Robert. Is there anything you’d like to add in conclusion?
RK: Thank you to all the teams an officials that come out and support this great event!
The control room on the 4th floor of the main building looks like the bridge of an aircraft carrier or something, as it is lit only by red Christmas lights. It has to be dark to minimize reflections off the windows, and red light won’t cause the directors’ pupils to constrict, keeping them able to see the dark track easily.
Our pal Will Faules was working for NASA as a Race Director.
One of his jobs is taking care of the Segways. Of course he let us try one of them out. They’re weird but pretty fun once you get the hang of it.
Joe woke up and we suited up for shooting in the frigid December night air. Isn’t his Life Blasters scarf awesome? Geoff got one too.
We wandered over to the Team Nitto Tire/Bullet Performance pit, where our photog buddies Ryan Davis of Yaer and Alex Wong were shooting for Nitto. The E0 Class E36 had blown its head gasket, and the engine had just gotten cool enough to begin work.
They had an extra engine sitting around, but they elected to pull the head and just replace the gasket.
At first I thought this said “Driftsonline,” to which I thought to myself, “Psh, yeah, everyone drifts online.”
All of the techs knew their stuff inside and out. There were no Hanes manuals to be seen, but Ryan was still displeased with the shot he was getting.
They replaced the gasket in about an hour. Try to get that kind of service at your local shop.
Since race cars usually don’t have heaters or anything else not absolutely critical, Bullet put defroster strips on the E36′s windshield to keep the glass free of moisture.
While the head gasket swap was going on, team engineer Scott Cary gave us an interview.
Pitts: What’s your take on what’s going on right now? And how have you guys done so far today?
Scott Cary: Well, we’ve had some bad luck. You know, you do this race enough year and bad luck in these endurance races hits everybody. This year it happened to get us. We changed the diff on Friday night after qualifying, and this brand new diff out of the box, fifteen minutes into the race, was no good.
Pitts: Oh shit.
SC: Hahaha, the interviewer is not supposed to go “oh shit.”
Pitts: Hahah, so how many 25′s have you personally campaigned in?
SC: This team, in some form or another has done this event at least…this is like the 10th year? Every time. Between the 12 hours and 25.
Pitts: So you were doing the 12 hours before the 25 was even around.
SC: Yeah, the first two years was a 12 hour, so this team has done the event every year. In the E0 class, this has been one of the better teams. This team has won three of the last four years. We were going for three in a row this year, but it’s just not in the cars.
Pitts: So what’s your forecast for how you guys are going to finish after have to go through this [head gasket swap]?
SC: Well, we’ll get the car running, and it’s still another 12 hours and anything can happen. Maybe with some luck, other cars will break and we can still get on the podium. At this point it’s the other cars’ race to lose.
Pitts: How long do you think this head gasket swap has taken, start to finish?
SC: Vic came in at about 10:30. Now, we didn’t just start right away doing that. We thought about the diagnosis, had a team meeting to decide whether we wanted to give it a go. And we thought “Okay, pull the head and see what we think.” So we pulled the head and thought we’d just try the head gasket. We don’t think the head’s warped, but you don’t know.
Pitts: Tell us about the diff changes.
SC: After the first bad one, we came in and changed the rear diff in about 20 minutes.
Pitts: That was earlier today?
SC: Yeah, that was earlier tonight, maybe that was 7:30. Then once we did that and we had a good rear diff in the car, we were actually moving back up in the class. We were doing well.
Pitts: So you guys are fast as long as you stay running then?
SC: Yeah. But the secret is to keep running. Run and stay out of trouble. And that’s something that we just haven’t been able to do this year. We had to change the diff 15 minutes into the race, and then we had to change the diff again, and now we’re doing the head gasket. So that’s a lot of work.
Pitts: Yeah! Well thanks for the interview, Scott!
SC: Thank you guys!
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With all the parts back where they go, all the car needed was fresh water.
Ryan let me play with the new Canon 8-15mm fisheye he got from Borrowlenses. It can seriously see behind itself.
Joe tried to bite the hood.
The car was almost ready to go back out, so driver Blaine McNutt had to get ready too.
But not before we were done screwing around.
A C6.R tribute car was chilling in the paddock. I had to do a double take to make sure it wasn’t real.
While I took a nap, Joe and Geoff went back trackside to shoot glowing rotors. The Mercer Motorsports GT3 Cup car was fun to watch no matter what time it was.
The CEO of Thunderhill himself, Mr. David Vodden, was driving this Miata in the race.
Deep into the night, most drivers were on their second or third stints. This is the most dangerous part of the race.
After that, it was time for real sleep. But right as Joe and Geoff were settling in, I noticed that the cars had stopped running. Since the weather was still clear and breezy, we figured something spectacular must have caused it.
Geoff went to investigate and found out that the Boothman Cobra had dropped its full 30-gallon fuel cell after a pit stop, dragged it under the car all the way to Turn 1, where it caught on fire, and then kept dragging it all the way to Turn 2 where the driver jumped out. The flames were so big the emergency crew had to let it burn out before they could clean it up. That meant a 25-minute red flag and all the cars had to park on the grid. Luckily the driver escaped unharmed!
In the late morning, a mere two hours before the end of the race, this Miata dropped a valve. It had been running on three cylinders for 30 minutes prior to this, just trying to finish the race. It was towed to the infield and left there, as it would have taken too long to fix.
The Edge Motorworks/Apex Race Parts E30 managed to finish with exactly 600 laps, putting them in P2 in E0.
Team Racing Bacon was hanging in there and on pace to finish P6 in ES with 668 laps.
The G22Racing/Truspeed Porsche GT3 Cup was over 40 laps behind Mercer, but still P2. I really really really hate porta-potties. Can’t they at least paint them white?
Joe borrowed my 300 while we waited for the end of the race.
Not bad huh?
It’s really frustrating when you can see both the sun and your shadow.
Geoff was bragging about how he’d been to every 25 but never seen the finish.
But he mistakenly climbed up to the starter stand right before the Mercer GT3 got the checkered flag. At 741 laps, the car had gone 2,223 miles during the race. Other than the broken wheel five hours into the race, it was only routine pit stops.
In a race like this, just finishing is a major accomplishment. Winning is just a bonus. The Bullet E36′s new head gasket lasted and the car made it through the checker for a P5 finish in E0 with 577 laps.
The Mercer GT3 was put on display in front of the main building as the staff prepared for the awards ceremony.
Joe was sad that it was all over and we had to go home. Geoff and I were happy to not have to cover the 25 again for a whole year! Oh, can’t forget about my pedometer. I surprised myself with 14.07 miles. Sheesh!
Special thanks to emergency crew member Jameson Adams for the crash and fire photos.