Monday, December 03, 2007

Thunderhill 25 Hours - A perfect end to the racing season

Earlier this year I wrote about the Britcar 24 Hours, an ostensibly amateur 24-hour sportscar race that had become well-loved by the entire racing community and was attracting big names who enjoyed its relaxed and laid-back energy.

This weekend I was able to attend an event which could lay claim to being the American equivalent to the Britcar 24 Hours, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The race had attracted more than 70 entries, from a Daytona Prototype and some Norma sports-racing prototypes all the way down to Spec Miatas and Honda Civics. Teams were generally amateur, and the vibe was friendly, grass-roots, supportive yet competitive.

Thunderhill is a terrific drivers track. I've done trackdays there both in cars and on bikes, and its diversity of corners and interesting gradients make it fun to drive on, whilst the huge amount of grassy run-off means it's incredibly safe. About 3 hours from San Francisco near the rural town of Willows, it is somewhat in the middle of nowhere, but this adds to the general feeling of camaraderie amongst everyone attending.

My friend Bob and I got there at about 4pm, with dusk approaching. My most recent 24 hour experience was at Le Mans, which starts at 4pm and doesn't get dark until 10pm, so it took some adjusting of my internal clock to deal with this. The race had kicked off at 11am, and by now the three prototypes had a healthy lead. We watched from a number of great vantage points before grabbing a warm cup of coffee and checking the scoring in the comfy clubhouse. With the leaderboard in hand we spent the next couple of hours wandering the pits and paddock, talking to teams, watching them at work and checking out pitstops. Drama was unfolding everywhere. There was the completely bare-bones effort from some local guys in an E30 BMW who had cracked an oil sump and were working feverishly to scavenge parts off a donor engine they'd brought in the back of a pickup truck. Then there was the big budget MER Mazda team (whose driver clients included Patrick Dempsey from "Grey's Anatomy") who had one of their five cars up on jackstands whilst they replaced the entire right-rear suspension, occasionally going over to a brand new MX5 they'd brought along to see how things were supposed to fit together.

Every now and then we'd see another car dragged into the paddock on the hook of a tow-truck, another victim of the night. Team members (or drinking buddies or work colleagues or family) would pounce on the cars, trying to figure out the problems in order to get their car back on track. It was motorsport at its most basic, survival of the fittest and survival of the most desperate.

The energy in the paddock was buzzing. Ten hours in, and the cans of Rockstar and Red Bull were disappearing from underneath RVs, whilst Gatorade and water remained untouched. The diversity of crazy marker lights punctuated the night like an Aston Martin's door mirrors at Le Mans. Barbecue grills smoked, generators hummed away, mig welding torches crackled and sparked, breath froze in the chilly night air and the constant background noise of straight-fours, V8s, inline-sixes and of course rotaries filled gaps in conversation.

Endurance racing, whether it's the multi-million dollar kind at Le Mans or the few-thousand dollar version at Thunderhill is essentially the same.

Unlike Le Mans, we opted for a proper night's sleep and returned the next morning, tea and croissant in hand, to find a gray, sad paddock. Rain during the night had hampered or ended many efforts. Crews who had retired had already vacated their paddock spot, whilst those still running were starting to clean up, given the three hours remaining. The wind howled across California's Central Valley, chilling everyone to their bones, as the 40 remaining cars pounded out the laps, covered in grime, trailing broken pieces of fiberglass and struggling for grip on the dusty, damp track.

With an hour to go the battle for third was truly on. MER Mazda number 92 held a slim lead over the factory-backed Honda Research S2000 effort, and before long the Honda took the lead. A final pitstop by the Mazda had effectively handed the podium spot to Honda. As we returned to the clubhouse for a final check on the scores, the Honda was leaving the pits. A pass under yellow had earned them a penalty, and the Mazda took full advantage, holding the spot all the way to the end.

As the final minutes ticked down, excitement returned to the paddock. People gathered on the pit wall to watch crews try to get their battered machines back on track for that one final lap, whilst the leader, the Parallax Racing Daytona Prototype, struggled with battery issues, praying for that checkered flag. The clock ticked over to midday and their prayers were answered. One by one, the cars crossed the finish line, and you couldn't help feeling that, even more so than at Le Mans, everyone who finished here was a winner.

What an event, and what a way to end what has been the busiest and most exciting season of racing spectating I've ever had. Wandering the paddock of Thunderhill at night stands equally with watching the sunrise at Arnage at Le Mans, cheering on shootout contenders at the top of the Mountain at Bathurst or watching in awe as the MotoGP field funneled into the Andretti hairpin at Laguna Seca.

Bring on 2008!


Dan Vukmanich said...

Great post! I'm amazed at how few spectators were there. We petrolheads are a dying breed, marginalized by society, I'm very sad to day. Damn you Al Gore!! LOL. I'm looking forward to next year. Here's a short video of the race I made if you're interested:

See you in 2008!

Pee Wee said...

I'm with dan, great post!

I've attended a half a dozen plus 24-Hrs at Daytona, most of them sleeping in the grandstands opposite the pits, and there's nothing that compares to a 24 hour bang by drivers, teams and equip.

The sun coming up over the banking after a case of beer and inhabiting a sleeping bag is totally over the top, every time.....