25 Days of Thunderhill

December 5, 2006

NASA held its annual "25 Hours of Thunderhill" race this past Saturday and Sunday. It is an endurance race where teams race continuously from 11am on Saturday until noon on Sunday. The team that completes the most laps during that time is the winner.

I got involved with this pretty much by luck. It started when I read an article that announced Car & Driver and BMW of North America would be campaigning two 335d's at the race. The BMW 335d is a Europe-only 3-series sedan with a 3.0 liter twin-turbo diesel engine. It makes north of 400 lbs-ft of torque just above 1000 RPM! Needless tgo say, it's a performance car through and through. BMW is considering selling their diesel lineup in the USA starting in 2008, so they wanted to use this event to introduce their technology to Americans. Car & Driver also saw this an opportunity to write up a very unique story and convinced BMW to add some of their biggest names to the driver roster, hence the partnership.

When I heard that one of the 335d race cars would be testing at a trackday that I was already planning to attend, I got pretty excited. It's not every day that a person like me gets to drive on the same track at the same time as a car that is about to become as famous as these cars.

At the Thunderhill testing day, I waited until the 335d was in the paddock and approached with my camera in hand. I recognized the team manager, Marshall Pruett, from photos that I had seen. I introduced myself, and asked him if I could take some pics of the car and put them on my site. He agreed wholeheartedly, and encouraged me to take as many as I liked. This was definitely a marketing exercise!

At the end of the day, I talked a bit more with Marshall about the cars. I shared with him just how cool I thought the project was, and promised to send him a link to the photos and video once they were online.

After sending him the message, he wrote back with an offer I couldn't refuse. Due to the time crunch getting the cars ready for the 25 hour race, the group building the cars needed some additional hands to help finish them up. He wondered if I'd be willing to spend some time in the shop (Impact Engineering in San Jose, CA) helping out. Uhhhh, OK! With Arti's blessing and encouragement, I spent several weekend days and weeknights over at Impact doing various things to the cars -- suspension stuff, brake stuff, and electrical stuff.

The week leading up to the race found the team really scrambling to finish up the cars. They had been shipped to Impact as street cars, and needed to be stripped, caged, painted, prepped, and decal'd as race cars. BMW Engineering had shipped two new engines to the shop that were tuned to produce over 500 ft-lbs of torque! I think the team worked around the clock for most of the week, given all the preparation work that needed to be done. It was fun to work with the Impact guys (Phil, Doug, Dave, and Anthony) and with the other "voulnteers" on the project (Lance and Marco).

Since this was a big-name effort, the parts that we installed on the cars were all top-notch. Moton 4-way shocks, TC Design aluminum suspension arms, spherical mounts, and strut tower bar, BBS wheels, Recaro HANS seat, etc. These cars were basically a track junkie's dream come true.

While working on the cars, Marshall offered me a spot in the pit crew for the race. This took a bit more consideration, since I'd be gone for 3 days and 2 nights. There's not much in Willows for Arti and Marina to do, so I was going to be away from them. Again, Arti was incredibly supportive of this opportinity, and encouraged me to take him up on the offer if I was into it. Well, I was!

I drove up to the track, leaving at 6am on Friday. Phil from Impact rode with me. The drive up there went by very fast ... usually I make that drive solo, so it gets pretty long. Having good company makes all the difference!

We arrived shortly after 8am. The team had a couple of RV's, as well as a semi truck that brought the cars and most of the supplies. The white car and most of the stuff had already been unloaded. The grey car was still in the truck, and was getting a new differential from diffsonline.com installed. I took some time to meet and talk with the other guys on the team. Some I had only "met" online, others were brand new.

I set up the "setup pad" -- which is a perfectly level surface that the car drives onto with scales under each tire. It's used to do critical alignment and corner balance changes, since the paddock surface is pretty sloped and bumpy. I also helped to set up the pit areas, positioning the fuel filling tanks that I had assembled back at Impact, moving tools and spares down to the area, and setting up and securing EZ-ups to give some protection from the sun.

The cars were ready to take the track for some practice after noon on Friday, which was much later than we had planned. The diff took longer than had anticipated, as well as other issues with both cars kept them in the paddock surrounded by mechanics.

We worked until about 8pm on Friday prepping and checking the cars, and were happy to retire to the comfort of the hotel to get some much-needed sleep (I had only slept about 5 hours the night prior). I was rooming with Brad Otoupalik, who started Evosport. I had talked with him several times before on the phone and through email, and it was great to meet him face-to-face. He's got a lot of valuable insight into the world of motorsports, and I enjoyed talking with him in our room.

I met up with Phil and Doug from Impact Saturday morning for coffee and some breakfast at the diner at the Willows airport. I figured we'd need a good high-calorie breakfast to endure the long long day ahead. We got to the track a bit after 7am, and started working on the cars and setting up the area immediately. We all changed into our uniforms, which were a sweet setup of Alpinestars firesuits, driving shoes, and gloves, we got started.

The cars needed to be on-grid by 11am. The team qualified in 5th (grey car) and 13th (white car) the previous day. It was great to see them lined up with the rest of the field in anticipation of the race. After a stunt aerobatics show, an Air Force honor guard display, and an AWESOME flyover of three F-15 fighter jets, we got serious about racing.

The start of the race was an emotional release for a lot of us who had worked on the cars. I can only imagine how much more intense the feelings were from the guys who really poured their blood and sweat into the cars over the past couple of months.

However, the happiness was short-lived. The white car ("my" car), which hadn't been out on track much before, melted a piston after only a handful of laps. It came limping back to the pits belching white smoke. The diagnosis came quickly -- terminal engine failure. We had to install the spare motor.

The team sprang into action. Three guys were instrumental in getting the car back to action. Mark from Evosport lended his skilled hands to the process, and Thomas and ___, the two Austrian engineers from BMW. Those guys just ripped into removing the old motor like they had done it a thousand times. I hadn't been involved in an engine swap before, so I was watching as much as possible what they were doing. I helped as much as I could, but that was mostly limited to muscling heavy parts around or finding tools for the guys doing the "real" work.

They got the new motor installed in less than 4 hours from when the car pulled off the track. The replacement engine fired up immediately -- without even an extended cranking / cursing / cross-your-fingers period. Amazing stuff!

The car went right back on track, but radioed in a few minutes later that it was overheating. We were crushed! Back in it came, and the cooling system was removed in minutes by the afforementioned wizards. The radiator checked out OK, as did the rest of the hoses. The guys removed the thermostat, just for good measure, and buttoned everything up. They filled and bled the system with great care, and the car went back out. No more coolant system issues after that.

Throughout the race, I changed tires, was the jack man, and replaced brake pads during various pit stops. It's quite an adrenaline rush to be working under such intense pressure, and it helped to have so much experience and skill around me.

As the day wore on, we were treated to catered meals in the "hospitality" area under the big awning attached to the semi. The food was really good, and quite hearty. I think we all appreciated this small detail.

I had planned for a bitter cold night. Previous days that week had seen lows of 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Friday night was extremely windy. However, the gods were smiling upon our long, long race with weather as lovely as we could hope for on Saturday night. Little to no wind, and temperatures not much below 38 degrees.

I spent most of the night alternating between pitting the cars and taking photos of the race. The diesels had large fuel tanks (34 gallons), great fuel economy (9-10 MPG), and tires that could go for 6+ hours between changes, so there were a couple of times where we'd have a couple of hours of quiet time. I took my camera gear and tripod to different spots on the track to play with some night photography. I think I came back with some fun stuff.

The pit crew thinned out over the course of the night. I think some guys found some really cozy spots in the RV! I stayed on until about 5:30AM, with the aid of a cup of coffee every hour, and then decided it was in everyone's best interest if I took a little snooze.

The RV was pretty much full, so I got into the car and reclined the seat as much as it could go. I faded in and out of sleep until about 6:15AM, then realized that I was freezing. I turned on the car and blasted the heater to get my temperature back up, then headed back to the pits. Not much sleep. Big mistake.

Crewmembers slowly reappeared as the sun rose over the track. It was beautiful out there, with Mt. Shasta looming in the distance over Turn 6 illuminated first.

The white car radioed in that it had been hit by another car. The driver had thought that a tire was cut, and he was coming into the pits. We all got a shot of adrenaline and lept into action. We got a new tire ready, and waited behind the pit wall. The car pulled in, and the tire looked just fine. We pulled it off to find that a bolt holding the suspension to the wheel hub had sheared, thus making the car feel awful in the corners. There was a mad scramble to find a replacement bolt, and we were back on track.

That is pretty much where I hit the wall.

After 20 hours of standing, running, lifting, thinking, and shouting, I was kaput. The pits seemed that they'd be quiet for some time, so I decided to head back to the hotel and take a shower or sleep a little bit. I was a man posessed with this idea, so I quietly slipped away to go recharge. In retrospect, I should have asked my buddies from Impact if they wanted to come too, since they had been working as hard or harder than me through this time. Sorry guys for not thinking of that at the time! I left for the hotel at 8am, showered, and soaked in the tub for 20 minutes or so. This was just what I needed. Fresh socks, underwear, and a shirt, and I was back in business in my uniform. I stopped at Starbucks to get a double short latte on the way back to the track. I got back at 9am, refreshed and ready to finish the race.

Only 15 minutes before the end of the race, there was another suspension failure, this time in the ever-reliable grey car. This one was a bit more spectacular, since the shock absorber broke as well as a bolt holding the suspension arm to the hub. The car limped back to the pits, barely able to drive in a straight line. The team's collective problem solving skills were amazing as ever. We decided that the car would finish the race, but with no spring or shock in that corner. The crew zip-tied the flopping suspension arm to the hub, just to keep it from destroying anything else, and removed the failed shock shaft and spring. They set the car down so that the shock body would rest on the beefy lower suspension arm (suspension travel, anyone?). This worked like a charm.

With 4 minutes to go in the race, we were in 4th place exiting the pits and enough laps ahead of the 5th place car so that we could keep our position. One slow lap around the track, and we were done! The team bosses radioed the two cars to cross the finish line side-by-side (photo op, anyone?). High fives and hugs were exchanged all around. Given the problems that these cars saw, we were stoked that they both drove across the finish line 25 hours after the start of the race.

It's now Tuesday morning as I finish writing this. My body is not as sore as it was Sunday night, and my feet are less bruised up. My chapped lips are now peeling, which is a welcome event. I no longer smell of diesel fuel or hear the roar of race car engines echoing off the hills around Willows inside my head. I went to sleep at a normal time last night, and woke up at a normal time this morning. I keep thinking back to the excitement and intense comraderie of our team, and the fact that we kept those cars working for so long. I'm still amazed that I was able to be a part of it.

Everyone tells me that this was the toughest 25 Hour that they had been a part of. Cool! So how long until next year's race? Anyone need a tire and jack guy?