25 Heures du Thunderhill
We’ve been anxiously awaiting this year’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill, thinking of shots, going over ideas, planning, and waiting. But then sometimes the unexpected happens. Just a week or so before North America’s longest endurance race was set to start, Geoff got a call from NASA Race Director Jeff Mohler, to see if he’d be interested in flying to Willows with him in a Cessna. Of course Geoff wanted to do that, but he also arranged for Jeff to give Joe and me an aerial ride around the track so we could shoot photos once we got there.
Airplanes sure have a lot of gauges.
After this flight, Geoff vowed never to drive to an event again.
I finished my two and a half hour drive to the Willows airport and met up with Joe, who was already there, just before Geoff and Jeff touched down from their one hour flight. Joe and I hopped in and we headed over to the track to shoot some practice.
Geoff and I kept the airplane plan a secret even from Joe, lest our competition find out and rent a helicopter or something.
Geoff got to shoot Thunderhill from a helicopter a few years ago, but neither Joe nor I had seen it from the air. This was super exciting. Since it was a secret, Joe wondered why he had to come down from Oregon the day before the race started, but after getting this ride he said it was definitely worth it.
See how excited I was?
And just like that the ride was over, since we all had to get to the track for qualifying. We can’t thank Jeff enough for this opportunity!
Race qualifying is way faster than drift qualifying since all the cars go at the same time and the only thing that matters is lap times. We almost missed the whole thing, but at least we got to see every car. The Team 510/Dublin Nissan BRE replica 510 qualified 51st.
After winning three years in a row, the Mercer Motorsports Porsche was absent from the track. I couldn’t complain though. After all, Porsches are pretty common. Panozes on the other hand, are a bit more rare. BAMF qualified their #94 car 33rd.
We got to see a pretty nice sunset too. For a December event, the 25 has escaped bad weather surprisingly often. It’s usually held on the first weekend of December, but it was moved to the second weekend because of the PRI show. If it had happened on the first weekend it would have been during a rain storm. The drivers and crews might not like rain, but it sure makes for some awesome photos.
The Motorsports Solutions #64 Porsche was looking strong as a possible winner for 2012. They ended up qualifying 3rd, while their teammates in the #00 Porsche qualified 6th.
This Fiat 500 Abarth rolled in practice the day before, but the team was able to get it back on the track with plenty of time to spare before qualifying, where it came in 54th. It’s also the first 500 to run in the 25.
After a night on the town, we got up late Saturday morning but ready to attack.The start of the race is always exciting. The cars grid up, the National Anthem is sung, and F-18′s fly up the front straight.
After that the cars do a couple parade laps and the green flag drops.
The cars start out pretty crowded but it only takes a handful of laps to spread them around the track pretty evenly.
Remember this Cobra? It dropped its fuel cell and caught on fire during the night in last year’s 25. It was rebuilt and qualified 10th.
APM/Stoptech/Scion Racing had the first FR-S to run in the 25. It qualified 41st.
As usual, the bulk of the field is made up of your typical club racing cars. Miatas and E30s abound.
034Motorsport had their new Audi TT at the race. Qualifying 5th, I was expecting it to do well. It was also one of my favorites just based on looks.
Who doesn’t love a Factory Five GTM?
I sure wouldn’t mind building one someday. Prototype Development Group qualified this one 11th.
The 500 did get a little wrinkled.
Tyler McQuarrie was one of drivers in the #00 Porsche. He had class wins in the last three 25′s, but if the team won ES class this time it would more than likely be an overall win too. They would have to get by the #64 car and 034′s Audi, as well as the Radical and Norma.
That Audi though…so good from every angle.
I still think it’s weird for prototypes and Miatas to race side by side, but that’s what makes the 25 so cool.
I made it a point this year to shoot from spots I don’t usually shoot from. Sometimes it didn’t pay off and sometimes it did.
It was an unusually clear day at Thunderhill. Lassen Peak is visible fairly often, but not usually with such detail. We could also see other snowy peaks in the Sierras, which is super rare.
Geoff didn’t shoot photos on track that much. Instead he was shooting video of Joe and me shooting the cars. Wait for that video, coming soon!
The TT is actually on lease from Audi Customer Racing, and it’s the only such car outside of Germany. It’s in the US until April. Unfortunately it had a gearbox issue late in the day and had to retire since they didn’t have a spare. If that happened to a Miata, someone’s Miata in the parking lot would get cannibalized in a hurry.
Just before sunset I headed over to the inside of Turn 10 to see if I could see glowing brake rotors. Nothing from the FR-S.Not even from the 997 Cup car.
I guess it was still too light out, but I did see a rabbit cross the hot track. I wish I was allowed to do that.
Joe hung out with the corner worker for a while, shooting Turn 9.
Cars get a lot of speed coming down the hill.
By sunset, most teams were at least on their second drivers, some maybe even third.
It’s a lot of pressure on the next driver to maintain or even improve the team’s position in the field. A typical stint is three hours or so.
In the rainy season there’s a lake near Turn 12. This might be a cool spot to shoot sunrise.
The sunset itself was less than spectacular, but the ambient purple glow was still pretty cool.
The Lynan Racing/Jagermeister Silverado’s flames got easier to see as the light faded.
The truck is fast too. It qualified 12th.
I finally found Larry Chen, thought he didn’t notice me until I fired off a couple shots right in his ear. This was his first time at Thunderhill, and he said he liked it, though it was frustrating having to search for shooting spots during the race. It’s especially hard with the outfield between Turns 8 and 9 closed, meaning if you’re shooting at 7 and want to go to 9, it’s a two-mile hike around the perimeter of the track the other direction.
Finally it was dark enough to see brakes, and boy did I see brakes. Davidson Racing’s RCR was one of my favorite cars of the race and it was fighting for the lead too.
The Norma M20F was also being campaigned by Davidson.
Aside from a few dirt drops, there hadn’t been any incidents during the race so far. None that we knew of anyway. No rolls, no fires. It was a pretty clean race.
The cars just kept going around and around and around. By the time it was dark, most teams had well over 100 laps behind them, and a few were approaching 200.
My long exposure shot from the water tower hill last year got on the cover of the Thunderhill Program, so I wanted to do something different this year.
I went up to the same spot, threw on the fisheye, and did some really long exposures. First a few at thirty minutes, then two hours. The track lights nearly blew out the stars in two hour exposure so I had to trace them in Photoshop (cheat). I guess the right way to do it would have been to composite my shorter exposures together. Whatever, it was cold as hell up there, and now it was dinner time.
When we got back to the track, Geoff and Joe went around taking pit stop shots.
The pit lane is almost always busy. If it’s not a routine stop, there will be people running around trying to figure out problems, hoping it’s nothing they have to go to the paddock to fix.
But most of the time it’s just routine, even though a routine pit stop can still be hectic.
Tires changed, fuel filled, and a driver change is a lot of stuff to have happen all at once.
With so many teams and so much activity going on, we don’t hear what’s wrong with most of the broken cars. Veteran teams know it well but rookie teams learn fast that the 25 will chew up a car and spit it out if it gets the chance. You have to have a solid plan and a solid car with tons of spare parts if you even want to thinking about getting to the checkered flag.
We decided to sleep in shifts this year so we wouldn’t miss anything, so when Joe and I went to sleep, Geoff went up to the control room to see what was going on. I wonder how long Operating Steward Robert Kinley had been awake. It looks like it’s been a week since he’d seen a bed.
There was nothing too exciting happening on the bridge, just making sure the race ran smoothly and any problems were dealt with quickly.
Joe woke me up at 6 and I rushed to get ready to shoot sunrise. Sunrise was at 7:17 but the darkness was already fading by the time I was putting my boots on. Geoff gave me a ride to the backstraight bridge and I jogged nearly a mile to Turn 3 with all my gear to set up and get this shot, just in time. It was a beautiful dawn and totally worth it.
Joe had a similar hike to the outside of Turn 9, also totally worth it. The 25 is the only event at Thunderhill that includes a sunrise, as race engines are usually prohibited that early in the morning. Most events don’t even start til an hour or two after the sun breaks the horizon.
You really can’t beat it when headlights are only marginally brighter than the sky.
This far into the race, some of the cars appeared pretty haggard. We don’t notice some of it at night simply because it’s dark. The #00 car had a broken headlight and its bumper and fender were duct taped together.
It’s really exciting when the lighting is completely different from lap to lap. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, you forget everything and just try to take in all the beauty.
As the sun rose higher and higher the sky got brighter but the cars didn’t. This made them into darker silhouettes. Cue Knight Rider theme.
Sometimes the sky almost looked like the backdrop to a Broadway show.
The intense brightness of the sun relative to the rest of the sky means you can fiddle around and make the sky really dark. It’s a weird effect to be able to darken the sky more the brighter it gets.
Look away from the sun and everything is still blue.
Before long it was almost full-on daytime again.
Joe stopped by Turn 10 on his way back down the hill. The side lighting on the drivers’ faces is so dramatic!
With more than 3/4 of the race behind them, the teams were on the home stretch. Even though the drivers try to get some sleep when they’re not in the car, everyone’s still fatigued and mistakes can happen.
The Turn 12-13 complex has a very photogenic shape, but it’s almost always backlit. Joe took this opportunity to shoot it before it was in direct sunlight.
The guys in the tire shop worked throughout the night. It must have been weird for them to be so busy and then see the sunrise through the open garage door. That kind of thing can remind you how tired you are.
After the sun was too high to be dramatic, we ran into town for a quick breakfast. Joe fell asleep at the table so we put stuff on him, as good friends should.
Back at the track we collected a few last shots as the announcer rattled off lap counts of the leading cars. All three of these cars are Miatas. Yep, even the white one.
The #00 Porsche was in the lead.
The first car to take the checkered flag was the Factory 48 Radical. It wasn’t the winner though. With 663 laps it came in third, seven laps behind second place Davidson Racing’s #18 RCR.
The winner was Motorsport Solutions/Ehret Family Winery’s #00 Porsche 997 Cup car. With 679 laps it was only nine ahead of the RCR, almost too close for comfort. They had an axle change late in the morning and lost a lot of laps, but they were able to just barely keep ahead.
And so ended another 25 Hours of Thunderhill. We were ready for 25 hours of sleep.
Photos by Ayala, Pitts, and Bohan