The 25 Hours at Thunderhill - Racing in the E3 Class

They say that the 25 Hours at Thunderhill is one of the most challenging races in America. Prior to this event, I had worked behind the scenes in the 24 Hours at Daytona a few years, so I had a rough idea on how things could go over long endurance races, but never have I been involved in one this long let alone as a driver.

Dec 7th 2013 was the start of one of the most memorable experiences as a driver. Thanks to the generous invite of team owner and co-driver Tim Auger, I was able to enjoy the privilege of running in this race. Also driving with us was Shawn Sampson (long time Miata racer and owner of Sampson Racing Communications) and Mike Sweeney (former AM Performance Grand-AM racer, founder of Pacific Throttle House). Our crew chief, Phil Munoz (also former AM Performance / Grand-AM crew) was in charge of pit strategy and logistical organization.

The journey up I-5 is usually a long and uneventful drive from the Bay Area. A lot can creep into your mind when all you have to think about is pushing down on the gas pedal, drive straight and watch out for slower moving semi-trucks. Arriving at Thunderhill I felt very excited with the fact I was finally going to race in this event. The car wasn’t off the trailer at this point, but the pits were set up and everyone was already busy at work getting everything ready for Friday’s test.

The highlight of Thursday was the team “meeting” at Casa Ramos—the infamous “hot spot” for racers if you will. It was there were the team got to be a little more familiar with each other. It was going to be a long weekend and many things were on the to-do list. A few drinks later and food in our bellies, plans were sorted out, spirits were high and it was time to get some sleep.

Friday morning started fairly early with plenty of time for me to indulge myself in the routine Starbucks iced espresso, but also enough time to get the car tech inspected, waivers signed, wristbands strapped on, stickers applied on the car and helmet kits installed (thanks to SRC / Sampson Racing Communications). In my case, the helmet kit I had was in desperate need of updating (it was the first kit I ever used from my first enduro back in 2010 and I “ghetto-installed” myself into my current helmet).

Friday’s test was pretty much as smooth sailing as a test can go. I was first out in the car to check out the handling, all seemed sorted for the long haul. Each of us had a little time in the car to get familiar, then parked the car until qualifying. Co-driver Mike Sweeney was our man for the job. Qualifying was after sunset, which proved to be especially cold. So cold in fact it was extremely difficult for Mike to keep heat in the tires. We ended up P7 for the start.

Its been quite a while since I attended any NASA drivers meetings, but in doing so I recognized so many faces in the room. Not only from the NorCal region, but from other NASA regions as well, and faces I have gotten to know from my work in Grand-AM. There were some very solid drivers in that tiny space listening to the rules and for roll-call from NorCal director Jerry Kunzman on the mic. This drivers meeting was a multi-regional / multi-series reunion in so many ways.

Saturday was race day, and how exciting it was to commence my first experience at the 25. I have long trained in the gym and on running trails for this event to make sure fitness wasn’t an issue while in the car. I ate healthfully and drank plenty of water as if I was preparing for a heavy workout. Needless to say, these efforts ultimately paid off.

The pre-grid walk revealed all the competition in one stationary spot. 60 or so cars were in the line up—many more power cars at that. I knew that our team was going to be playing the part of “moving chicane”, but the percentage of high-power machinery far outnumbered momentum cars like ours a bit beyond expectation.

After years of shooting endurance races, I finally got to be a part of one and actually took pictures of the car I was going to DRIVE. I have always said I was a driver first and photographer second, but I cant say enough how true this was standing on grid with my teammates waiting for our starting driver to saddle up and get ready for the starting pace laps.

Mike took the green—the start was about as clean as it gets for such a large mixed crowd. Our pace was solid and we quickly moved up in position. It was the successful start of a very long race. From how some people drove, I think the sanity level was in check and for the most part everyone kept it clean.

About 2.5 hours into the race, it was my turn to drive. Mike handed the car to me in P3 in the E3 class. Our driver changes were dialed, spending minimal time in the pits. On my way I went after a refuel commencing laps for the team.

I’ve driven in a wide variety of cars, but if I had to add up the amount of seat time I’ve had in my life, most of it has been in a Mazda Miata. However, most of the time in those cars the traffic around me didn’t have a great speed differential. Not only were the approaching speeds pretty dramatic, but so was some of the aggression. Not everyone had the same level of patience in the corners. This took me a while to adjust to for lack of trust that the other drivers actually had any sort of sane judgement at all. Lets just say my history in Miata’s has led me to have a very deep respect for momentous energy involving heavy objects!

By the time I pitted for fuel, I felt increasingly dialed turning quick laps that kept us well in contingency. I drove from the afternoon through sunset—and how beautiful it was. The transition from light to dark is amazing and wonderfully fun. I have never driven this track at night before and found the reference points easy to learn. Our light bar had been rather erratic, so I used the standard headlights instead. Given I drive these cars on the street everyday and often at night, it felt right at home. I was able to take advantage of some passes while others adjusted to the darkness of the track.

About 2-hours into my stint I noticed some trouble with the clutch. “Oh no, not this early…” I thought to myself. I wasn’t able to replicate the problem consistently enough to bring the car in, but informed Phil of our problem. To be safe I double-clutched when necessary, or shifted very patiently to ensure 4th gear wouldn’t get stuck. The clutch issue didn’t really effect pace and so we carried on. At the 3 hour mark, I handed the car off to Tim in P3.

It was at this time I relieved myself from the pits and sought out some healthy food and to get some early sleep. I cannot stress enough how much a healthy body equals a healthy mindset. After I was properly fed, I was able to sleep for HOURS. Occasionally I was woken up by the sound of what I like to call “ambient caution noise”—the sound of the track environment when all the cars were driving slower under yellow flags. Any racer will agree that it has a very distinct rhythm, or tone if you will. While laying under the covers I tried to avoid looking at the race monitor, but I simply couldn’t resist.

At one point during a yellow I noticed we were several laps down and were in P6. I eventually came out to check what had happened and apparently I missed all sorts of action. In the night we lost a clutch pedal. Yes, an actual PEDAL. I was relieved to find that it wasn’t the clutch itself but glad to know I was dialed into a problem that eventually revealed itself. Tim made the call into the pits that the pedal was under his feet and on the floor. What an epic experience that must have been! I am glad it wasn’t the brakes… that would have been exceptionally exciting. Once the pedal was fixed we were on our way again.

Next up in the car would be Shawn—who apparently lives for the “vampire stint”. Shawn certainly held his own and kept us on the steady state of progress with no incidents. I fell asleep at some point in all the excitement when Shawn was in P5. I later woke up to Phil tapping my shoulder giving me a heads up that I had an hour before I got back in the car.

Mike was currently driving and more trouble had taken place during my slumber. Phil explained that we lost an alternator—a common failure in long races such as this. As simple as a Miata is, the alternator was a quick fix with a fairly standard procedure. However, the car didn’t like to idle anymore and required push-starts to get moving again. We were only a few spots away from track-out, so getting the push-start procedure right was going to be imperative. Phil joked about it with me before I got in, but he was also somewhat serious!

Adding to the humor of the situation, I have never had to push-start any car before—and for the record, I got it right the first try. No way was I going to let the guys tease me about screwing that up!

It was 5:30 in the morning and I was fresh after a long solid sleep, ready to rock n’ roll. I had a healthy breakfast, plenty of water and even brushed my teeth. You might laugh at how much effort I put into pampering myself at a race, but having worked at multiple 24-hour events, I know that taking care of the core necessities makes life in the car at such an early hour that much easier.

At this point in the morning, the track temperatures were about as low as they have been for at least several hours. Ambient temperatures were hovering around 21 degrees. IT WAS COLD, the coldest temperatures I have ever raced in. Because of our idle issue, keeping the car from stalling under slow-moving yellow flags was a challenge. The car felt OK to start, but something felt off from the get. I took my time easing into pace—but just seemed very challenging to get the car to go faster. Coming into a brake zone of T2, a little brake pressure went much further than it did the previous lap and caused a minor lock up making an existing vibration that much more aggressive.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said to myself. “Is it really this cold!?”

My team over the radio continued to encourage me to run faster, harder, dig deep. I will say it was at this point in the game where I realized that something was going on with the car, far more than just a vibration or a flat spot, and far more than just lack of heat in the tires. But I tried to put away much of my own mind-game and push myself further.

Pushing the car harder only made it feel worse—and at this point the car had tremendous under-steer. So much so that the car drifted wide under power in T15 just before the straightaway. I gathered it up but my driver-side mirror smacked one of the flexible reflectors standing out of the dirt at the edge of the pavement. It didn’t take me long to realize what had happened. I look to my left to spot for oncoming traffic and saw nothing but a shiny silver bolt sticking out where the mirror once was.

“Ohhh, f@%$!” I said to myself.

Coming into the brake zone of T1 I realized something hit my left foot. It was my mirror.

“Hey guys…” I announced on the radio. “I hate to say this but I lost my driver-side mirror and its by my feet.”

Upon multiple attempts, I tried scoop it up or stuff it under my seat, my reach was far too short and my gloves too soft to grip the plastic. I found it almost unfathomable that the plastic base that held the mirror on the door had become so brittle from the freezing temperatures it simply shattered when the reflector touched it. Then came an unplanned pit-stop to relieve the mirror from the car and with it I lost a huge portion of my visibility. The rear window had been very difficult hard to see out of as well complicating the matter. Now, the last thing I wanted to loose was confidence in myself and the car.

It was under such circumstances this particular stint became one of the most challenging drives I’ve ever experienced. Not just the fact temperatures compromised overall grip, but the tires were heavily worn, my visibility was dramatically reduced, plus the psychological challenges I faced as I tried to keep myself and the car safe, all while pushing myself for the team to maintain our P4 position.

I tried to clear my mind of any interfering thoughts as much as possible—which was hard to do since I could not see any left-side oncoming traffic. To make matters more complicated not every corner was clearly visible to my spotter. I normally don’t care for spotters talking this much, but in cases like this I really needed a good set of eyes outside the car. That silver bolt where the mirror once was ultimately became a reference for passing traffic. I did this by judging the relative brightness of approaching car lights shining on the bolt, plus what I could make out of the rear-view mirror (rear window had plenty of duct tape on it) to judge approaching speeds. This approach was not always successful, and took a lot of what could probably be called ESP to determine when it was safe to get to the apex. I was as blind as a go-kart driver but worse, if not simply because I was playing with much bigger/faster competitors and any mistakes could potentially have much higher consequences.

My job as a driver was to drive the best I could with the equipment I had, keep the car in one piece and be able to hand the car off to the next driver in drivable condition. It was at this point when I realized that the car felt progressively more sluggish. I radioed in to notify the team that it felt slower and oil pressure was normal. Typically, approaching speeds up the hill at T9 before braking is around 95-100 or so. I was seeing numbers in the 70s and 80s tops. In my gut I knew something wasn’t right, but the team told me to keep driving until they brought me back in the pits for a driver change. Through all the drama on track, I never really got to enjoy the sunrise. I really did try though because the view was truly beautiful.

I had passed the car on to Shawn in P4, by which point his lap-times reflected a struggling car. It didn’t take long for him to bring the car in behind the wall, maybe after a half-dozen laps or so. The hood was opened and the team frantically tried to resolve the problem. The engine had started running very lean and eventually quit. We had several corded tires as well (which explains that under-steer problem). Unfortunately, our race ended 22hours in.

I’m not entirely sure what happened to our little car, but I do know that 25 hours of hard driving is very abusive on these machines. The fact that we had a slew of small problems but still managed to close 22 hours of racing in P4 is an accomplishment in itself. No doubt if our car would continue to run, our drivers were solid enough to claim a podium.

From a 25-hour race first-timer, I have to say I learned a tremendous amount and will forever change how I drive future equipment and communicate with teams. It is obious that a good driver uses all their senses to drive at the limit. However, racing this long in such variable conditions in an unpredictable environment tests the limits of any drivers ability and stamina. I am proud to say that I survived the 25 and cannot wait to race this event next year!

A special thank you to the team for putting together such a solid effort this year: Tim Auger for his unwavering positivity and for organizing the team. Phil Munoz for staying awake nearly the entire time and giving us a fighting chance for a podium. Mike Sweeney and Shawn Sampson for your solid driving and great team work. Perry Richardson and the rest of the crew for donating your time to support such a challenging race effort!

Also, a special thank you for everyone who supported the 25 Hours for Taylor Lynn Fundraiser (http://www.25HoursForTaylorLynn.com). Many thanks to Lagunitas Brewery for their donation of giveaway prizes for our donation contributors. Together we made this event a true success!

Until 2014… race on!

SRC / Sampson Communications (http://www.sampsonracing.com)
Pacific Throttle House (http://www.pacificthrottlehouse.com)

Photography by Camden Thrasher (http://www.camden-thrasher.com), Ingo’s Images (http://www.ingosimages.com), Dan Connortown…. and mom.


 

Posted on 12/11

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