Wednesday, December 22, 2010

25 Hours of Thunderhill or; How I learned that I'm getting too old for this stuff.

The last and longest sports car race of the year occurs the first week in December in Northern California. The North American Autosport Association hosts the 25 Hours of Thunderhill each year at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, CA.

I’ve participated in this race in various capacities for the last four years. This year, I had the good fortune to work with arguably this races most successful participant, MER Racing.

MER is among the finest Mazda Motorsports teams in the country. They have the “Zoom-Zoom” thing down to a science with successful campaigns in the SCCA Pro Racing MX-5 Cup, SCCA World Challenge, SCCA Spec Miata, Redline Time Attack and of course, multiple class wins and an overall win at the 2008 running of the 25 Hour Race.

For me, this was going to be quite a challenge. I’d worked on older Miata’s and on my old Camaro, but I had no experience on their new MX5 Miata’s and RX8 and of course, I’d never worked with these folks and it’s a huge understatement to say that they are good. How good? In pre-race practice we put 20 gallons of fuel in the car, changed four tires and swapped both front hubs…in two and a half minutes.
Interesting collection of drivers as well:

The No. 36 Hankook/Burger On/MER MX-5  was driven by: Tyler McQuarrie, Darin Polsley, David Cheng and Texas Rangers starting pitcher C.J. Wilson

The No. 73 Frank's International/PaveCon/Hoosier/ MER/Sparco MX-5 ES entry, was driven by Jason Saini, Jeff Mosing and Russell Walker.

The No. 74 Hankook/AE Performance/DRAW Portfolio MX-5 E1 entry was driven by Paul Walker, of the Fast and Furious movie franchise, along with Roger Rodas, Jeff Westphal and Carl Rydquist

The No. 80 MER/Hoosier RX-8 entered in the E0 class was driven by Eric Curran, Shannon McMasters, Dan Watkins and Ward Herst

Don’t let anyone tell you that sports car racing is a posh environment filled with rich playboys. While it’s true that professional athletes, international financier’s and Hollywood actors have income’s that most of us can’t fathom, participating in an event like this is seriously hard, physically grueling work and that’s just the drivers. The guys on the team worked their tails off getting each of the four cars prepared for the race.

There were a myriad of setup changes required for each car to fine tune the suspensions and tires for the specific track conditions. The four cars required hundreds of man-hours worth of pre-race checks, adjustments, and preventative maintenance and that’s just before the race started.

The No. 74 car experienced a raft of mechanical problems which necessitated a number of trips behind the wall for repairs. The team changed a transmission in less than 20min, changed a differential that was on the verge of bursting into flames due to internal heat and changed two smoking hot front hubs as well.

The No. 80 car had its share of difficulty as well. A faulty aftermarket exhaust resulted in a leak in the extremely hot RX8 exhaust system. The leak was directed at the Power Plant Frame, a structural component which links the transmission to the differential. The frame failed causing the transmission to drop and the frame to drag on the track. This is a component that NEVER EVER fails. Thus spares were non-existent in the MER trailer and those of fellow competitors. A trip to the on-track machine shop got it welded and back on track but the heat weakened metal would eventually fail again ending the No. 80’s race.

The No. 73 car was going really well. At one point it was running second overall in the race but the team experienced an engine failure early Sunday morning. The team was able to change the engine and get back on track in two hours and twelve minutes. Think about that for a minute.

…and throughout all of this there is a clock ticking…and ticking…for 25 hours. The sun sets at 5 and doesn’t come up again until just before 7 the next day. 14 hours of darkness. There’s weather to contend with as well. There have been colder nights in past races (it snowed for a bit in 2007) but this year we had rain to contend with. At times the rain was very heavy, and at others less so. This caused the teams to juggle numerous decisions regarding tires. “Is it too wet to be safe and fast on slicks?” “Is it too dry to keep from burning up the rain tires?” Each decision was made on a nearly hourly basis throughout the night.

The attrition that we experienced was negligible compared to some teams. The wet track conspired to cause a number of wrecks that ended people’s races. In one very unfortunate incident a driver lost control and actually hit a track safety vehicle that was tending to a previously wrecked car…that’s gotta be humbling to say the least. In one particularly bad incident in which both cars belonging to one team collided heavily with each other. Both of the cars were destroyed, the track was red-flagged for twenty minutes to facilitate clean up and one of the drivers had to be air-lifted to a local hospital for precautionary evaluation.

Through all of this the crew’s work. Changing tires, fueling, effecting repairs both major and minor. Awake and working for 25 hours straight after many days of prep work. The race itself is “only” 25 hours, but in fact the effort begins in earnest early on Thursday and doesn’t end until everything is packed up and back on the road around 4pm on Sunday.

The Results:
#36 finished  1st in the E1 class 6th overall
#73 finished 6th in ES class 25th overall
#74 finished 7th in E1 class 39th overall
#80 finished 8th in E0 class 48th overall

In my previous career I spent eleven years in Coast Guard Aviation. I’ve met and worked with some seriously good hard working folks over the years. The MER team is among the best, most skilled and hardest working group of people I have ever met. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with them and hope to have the opportunity to do so again.

The MER crew. 

Two of the battle worn MER cars.

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