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Night Terrors: Staying Alive at the Thunderhill 25

“When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

When Steve McQueen utters those words in “Le Mans,” they have the ring of truth. (Then again, Steve McQueen could’ve probably read a Chinese takeout menu and made it sound like prophecy, or at least really, really serious.)

In our experience, however, the film got it wrong. A lot of racing is waiting—especially when it’s endurance racing.

These events are viewed by many drivers as the ultimate test, not only because of the extreme demands they place upon the cars, but also because of the mental challenge they offer. Drivers must endure a combination of excitement and boredom without letting it dull the reflexes.

NASA ups the ante with their 25 Hours of Thunderhill, billed as the most severe endurance race on the planet. Longer than either Le Mans or Daytona, the Thunderhill round-the-clocker has grown in just five years to attract a large and increasingly talented field that includes teams from all over the world, from Daytona Prototypes to Miatas. The race is also starting to attract interest from manufacturers as a test bed for new performance cars like the Honda S2000 CR. Mazda had five “factory” MX-5s in this year’s field, plus a swarm of privateer Miatas.

Among the entrants at the 2007 U.S. Air Force 25 Hours of Thunderhill was our own J.G. Pasterjak, who was there to get the story for the magazine and hopefully also conquer a couple of personal demons along the way. J.G. is an old hand at endurance racing and has a pretty good record: He’s trophied in every 12-hour he’s ever entered. In fact, these trophies were never for anything lower than second place.

The story gets a little messier when we look over his complete race history. You see, J.G. has not only never trophied at any enduro that was longer than 12 hours, he’s never even finished one.

I’ve always finished my shift,” he says, “but the cars have failed to finish each time due to mechanical failure. Well, technically, there was one Moroso race where the car did cross the finish line, but it had spent, like, the last 13 hours sittin’ around doing nothing, so I don’t know if that counts.”

Although J.G. has never made any secret of his enduro curse, he still gets invited by nice people to co-drive their race cars at these events. That might be because of the campaign-worthy spin he puts on his record: “It’s consistent. It’s predictable.” More likely it’s because people like to see themselves in a magazine, even if it’s under the headline “Failed Again.”

The invitation for this most recent Thunderhill 25-hour came from Goodsport Racing, an independent team that built the first 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer race car on the planet. Goodsport finished second in E0 at the ‘06 event in a Lancer Evo, with only two drivers competing the entire race. For the latest event they planned to run just the ‘08 Lancer in E2, which is usually dominated by Miatas, but as interest developed, they decided to run the Evo as well. So while J.G. accepted a ride in the Lancer, Tony Swan from Car and Driver signed on to drive the Evo. Here’s how it went.

Friday, November 30 Well, my plan this year was to write the story in real time, pausing every so often to hit the laptop for an update and give folks a feel for what it’s like to endure an endurance race.

Some plan.

Maybe tomorrow my grand scheme will be easier to implement, but today, I had to help finish building a race car.

Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds, because most of the hard stuff was already done. And the project—building the first ‘08 Mitsubishi Lancer race car in the country—was an ambitious one for an independent team. Goodsport Racing, headed up by longtime NASA vet David Bongiovanni, is a true privateer effort. David and the gang have support from a generous list of sponsors, including FIA/Method 4, Yokohama Tire, Robispec, Ground Control and Innovate Technology, but the vast majority of the wrench turning on this brand-new car has been done by David, with help from some friends. Evil Genius Racing constructed what looks to be a seriously impressive cage.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that Goodsport Racing—originally slated to be a single-car effort—is now a two-car team. David revitalized the Lancer Evo that he drove second in class at the event last year; that car will compete in E0 while the Lancer aims for the podium in E2.

But first we had to finish the Lancer.

Actually, it wasn’t so bad. As it turns out, the stuff that wasn’t done—like installing the seat—worked out for the best since we didn’t know the sizes of the drivers until today. We also learned today that for once I’m not the shortest driver. Glory Fernandez, a young lady who has been making waves on the Puerto Rican time trial scene and who recently completed a test in a Koni Challenge car at Daytona, has that honor.

Glory was originally supposed to drive the Evo, but it simply couldn’t be adjusted to fit her. So NASA Time Trial champ Yang Tang switched from the Lancer to the Evo, and Glory hopped on board with us. She and I will share driving duties with Ralph Alexander, racing dentist Art Muncheryan and Formula Mazda pilot Ken Mollenauer.

But before any of us could get in the car, there was some business to take care of. The seat, belts and window net had to be fitted, auxiliary lights had to be wired and a host of other small items needed to be attended to.

It was actually rather nice getting my hands dirty with strangers, and I think it was a bit of a team-building experience for everyone. While it might not have been David’s original intention, having the team and several of the drivers involved in last-minute race preparation gave everyone a sense of ownership and accomplishment before the race even started. Now that many of us have lost blood and sweat on these cars, we have a stake in their future.

With the last-minute items firmly in place, Ken Mollenauer took the car out for its first laps in anger on a race track. Ken’s not exactly used to driving cars without wings and slicks, so he found the Lancer to be a little dicey in some corners. Still, it’s nothing that couldn’t be adjusted around.

Glory and I each took a few laps as well. Hers went smoothly, and I found that I acclimated to the car rather quickly—it was very easy to drive. The car had enough power to control the chassis balance with the throttle, but not so much that I’d upset things with a boneheaded throttle foot. In other words, an excellent front-wheel-drive race car. Everyone made their setup suggestions, and we readied ourselves for qualifying.

Practice and qualifying at the 25 Hour is a single session. The first half-hour is untimed, then the clocks are started and qualifying begins.

Unfortunately, Ken and a Factory Five Roadster came together before the clocks started.

It was a pure racing incident—one of those things that really couldn’t be avoided. The end result was a rearranged rear quarter on the Roadster and a bloodied nose for our Lancer. It was far from an ideal start to the race weekend.

While our hearts were in our throats for a while, the damage was found to be mostly superficial. Besides, all real race cars need some tape on them before they can truly have credibility. Ours had endured its metal-to-metal baptism, and survived mostly intact and fully raceable. We would not be stopped.

The incident did prevent us from qualifying, however. We rationalized it by figuring that starting at the back of the pack would be far safer than trying to survive a Turn 1 melee in the middle of 75 cars. Strategery indeed.

9 a.m. Saturday, December 1 It’s looking good for my real-time updates today. There are a few last-last-minute items to take care of, but overall things are about ready to go. Tony Swan will take the first shift in the Evo, and Ralph Alexander will start the Lancer. We’re thinking that the Lancer should be good for about 90 minutes per stint. We hope that if it’s as easy to drive as we think it is, the drivers will do double shifts if they feel up to it.

11:20 a.m. Well, it’s officially nut cuttin’ time. Ralph Alexander took the green flag and appears to be running well. He reports that the car is easy to drive and, except for the inside rearview mirror falling off, nothing seems to have gone wrong yet. We actually just made the grid due to a leaky fitting in the Canton Accusump line. A call to Mike Bongiovanni—David’s brother, who was still on his way to the track—solved the problem. Mike was able to stop at a hardware store to pick up a new pipe fitting to replace our ailing one. Crisis averted, race started.

The Evo is running strong with Tony Swan aboard, but he has called in to report what feels like numb steering or a tire going away prematurely. At any rate, he’s quick and consistent.

12:00 Noon Tony just brought the Evo in with a flat left-front tire. Once we got the wheel off, we quickly saw where all the air had gone. A clamping bolt on the ball joint had come loose and completely machined the wheel into two sections. It looks like it was cut on a band saw.

While the team has more wheels, the bad part is that the loose bolt has allowed the hole that the joint sits in to become ovaled out, which will make it difficult to get the ball joint truly tight in its little hole. They torqued it down as best they could and sent the car back out to see how it would fare while another solution was sought.

1:05 p.m. Well, we just successfully completed our first pit stop. I say successfully because everyone involved in the stop still has all their limbs, and the car entered and exited the pits under its own power. Although the fuel is dumping slowly into the car, it looks like our full stops, including driver changes, shouldn’t take any more than three to four minutes. That’s fewer than two laps at the pace we’re running, so we consider that a success.

Speaking of success, whether a pit stop goes well or awry depends directly on organization. If crewmembers don’t know what needs to happen or their roles in making it happen, they need to stay the hell out of the way. A poorly executed fuel stop can turn into a Three Stooges bit in nothing flat.

To ensure that everything goes smoothly, someone needs to be in charge. Every pit stop needs a coach, and that’s frequently the guy on the radio with the driver. This coach should go over the duties of everyone involved in the stop before the car comes in, including what to do in the event of foreseeable contingencies. The coach can then direct the flow of the stop as it’s happening, making sure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing and, just as important, that people aren’t doing what they aren’t supposed to be doing.

For example, in the 25 Hour, no work other than a driver change may be done to the car while the fueling is underway. The coach needs to make sure that someone doesn’t get overanxious and start Sawzalling body panels away while fuel is still being dispensed.

So, back to us. It looks like we’re going to safely get about 80 minutes of track time out of each fuel stop, which puts us on pace for more than 600 laps barring any trouble.

Ralph stayed in for a double stint to shake things down a little more. Once he finishes his current tour, Glory will go in for her first taste of racing action, American style—well, at least mainland America. She’s a little nervous, but I gave her a quick pep talk and told her that the first 20 minutes are the toughest. Since she’s really only used to running 20-30 minute sprints back in Puerto Rico, keeping her loose and avoiding stress cramps will be paramount. The key to enduros is finding the rhythm of the race and not working too hard and tiring yourself out. Nothing sucks more than cramps in a race car.

After Glory, I’ll take over for a stint or two as we head into twilight. Yay Transitions lenses!

2:36 p.m. Another uneventful stop, this one with a driver change as Ralph hopped out and Glory got in. Despite having only about two laps of practice yesterday, she’s acclimating quickly and settling into a comfortable and maintainable pace. The car looked brand-new, too.

Glory holds a marketing degree and does a lot of public relations work with her racing in Puerto Rico, but it’s looking more and more like her driving speaks pretty loudly for her, too. After very little practice she’s staying out of trouble and turning clean, consistent laps. The Yokohama tires appear to be wearing very little; Ralph also said the car felt as fresh after two-and-a-half hours as it did at the start.

That means I’m up next, so it’s time to get changed, start hydrating and stretch. Always approach a long driving stint as an athletic activity, because it is. Stretch and do physical warm-ups as if you’re about to play tennis or something—it will pay off in the car. Wish me luck.

3:47 p.m. Looks like Glory overcame her initial butterflies and is going to stay in for a double. A long yellow paid off in a chance to slow the car down and let everything cool, but the little Mitsu appears to be holding together pretty well so far. Our reliability has paid off in a steady climb up the ladder, from our 73rd starting position to 46th currently. Although we’re running between 5 and 10 seconds slower than the top cars in our E2 class, every time one of our competitors makes an unscheduled stop, we gain positions.

9:30 p.m. When it comes to the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, I have two favorite parts. The first is, obviously, driving a well-set up race car for hours at a time. The second is taking my Saturday night pit walk. In both cases, I get to see very interesting things.

I just got out of the car after doing a double shift, and honestly, I’ve never been less worn out after nearly three hours in a car. David Bongiovanni and his crew put together a superbly easy to drive little car, which is even more impressive given the fact that it hadn’t really been on a race track until about 30 hours ago.

Which is not to say that my stint was completely uneventful. At one point, someone (and I don’t know who, so everyone gets off easy) nailed me square in the rear bumper, sending me spinning off the outside of Turn 8 into the cold California night. Now, Turn 8 is about the fastest turn on the track, so going off there is rather pucker-inducing. Though I may need to get my suit dry-cleaned, the car survived the slide with only a cracked driver’s-side mirror and some very minor and tapeable body damage.

My stint was the first in darkness, and I got to see all sorts of fascinating driving. Barely a lap went by where I didn’t drive through a cloud of dust somewhere on track from a car that went wide and got a wheel or two (or three or four) in the dirt. Some of the restarts were interesting as well: As drivers who had spotters that were awake got the green flag call on the radio, they would zoom past drivers who had not gotten the word from the pits. One of the restarts was so chaotic that the restart melee brought out another full-course caution within half a lap.

Also, I just looked out the window of the clubhouse and saw our car in the pits. I’m getting that feeling again. Back in a few.

10:28 p.m. The problem was the left-front brakes, and man, was it a doozy. Art Muncheryan, who had relieved me from my post behind the wheel, ran the first 30 minutes or so of his stint with no issues at all. Then he began to feel a grabby brake pedal—and then the brakes just went away. When he was brought in, we found a left-front caliper that looked like it had just returned from a not-too-successful space mission. The outside pad was fine, showing moderate, but normal, wear. The inside pad, however, had almost completely melted and heat-welded itself to the piston.

The best guess we could make was that the outside pad, which was a custom-cut piece, was slightly undersized and had become wedged, no longer allowing the caliper to “float” back and forth. So the inside pad was getting the entire force of braking, and very little release. Ouch indeed.

Luckily, Tony Swan had been nice enough to drive an ‘08 Lancer from Mitsubishi’s press fleet to the track. He was also stupid enough to leave the keys with our team; or perhaps we have some pictures of him with some sort of animal that are a secret worth keeping. At any rate, we “sourced” a replacement caliper and were back in the race with only about 30 minutes lost.

10:45 p.m. During Art’s extended stop to correct the brake issue, we also changed out the first tire. Yes, tire—singular. The left-front Yokohama A048 looked like it was ready for a break after nearly 11 hours of track time. That’s pretty awesome; I’m too tired to come up with better adjectives, so we’ll have to go with that one.

I’m going back to the hotel for a little nap. I usually try not to leave for anything more than a shower, but things appear to be going pretty well now that the new caliper is in place, and it would be nice to catch some rest without race car noises in the background. A working heater wouldn’t offend me much, either. It’s been in the 20s in good ol’ Willows, California this weekend. My thin Florida blood isn’t used to this. Back in a bit.

1:52 a.m. Sunday, December 2 There’s no feeling quite like coming back to a race track to see your car in the paddock. And not just your car in the paddock, but your car in the paddock without a flurry of activity around it. After the brake fiasco was resolved, the car went back out and ran rather flawlessly again, until it broke. This time it was a custom ball joint spacer in the left-front suspension. It was a prototype piece that was designed to restore proper geometry after the car had been substantially lowered. It worked great, as the car handled extremely well with hardly a hint of bump or camber steer, but when it sheared off, it stopped working very well.

Ken Mollenauer was the lucky victim of this exciting ride. Ken was braking into the right-hand Turn 14 when the left-front let go. Initially the car turned hard left, then hard right as he got on the gas to try and correct it. He maintained enough control to duck into the pit lane before the suspension collapsed completely. Since this was a one-of-a-kind piece that broke, it essentially means we’re done. Time to go back to the hotel to check the pay-per-view lineup and get some sleep.

7:55 a.m. The clubhouse in the bottom of the tower is full of people either sleeping or just waking up. It’s been incredibly cold at this year’s event, with temperatures skimming the high 20s at times. On top of that, there was a brief, heavy shower a few hours ago (and even some snow flurries, apparently). The continuously cloudy skies aren’t making it any nicer.

On track, though, things seem to be going smoothly. One of the Honda R&D S2000 CRs rolled overnight coming out of Turn 5, but the driver was fine. The other factory Honda S2000 CR is locked in a tight battle with a factory Mazdaspeed Miata for the E1 win. The Honda is currently in third overall, with the Mazda in fourth place on the same lap. The Honda is a little faster on track, but the Mazda is going a little farther between stops. This one may come down to some last-minute strategy.

The Lancer, having been essentially retired by the ball joint spacer problem, is being stripped of the parts that were borrowed from Tony’s press car. The Evo kept plugging along pretty well all night, though it had to make frequent stops to have the ball joint tightened. Finally, though, all of that tightening caught up with the car; threads began to strip and holes further distorted. A few minutes ago the decision was made to park the car and not risk any major damage to the vehicle or drivers. They might trot it out for the last few laps to get in on the limp-around photo op, but it’s done for now.

10:55 a.m. The Miata pulled ahead of the Honda briefly after a round of stops, but with a little more than an hour to go, the battle for E1 rages on among the factory teams. Honda has put the S2000 back in the lead, but on the last lap they had only a three-second advantage over the Miata. Now it’s down to whoever flinches.

At the front of the field is the horse to bet on, the Crawford Ford Daytona prototype of Parallax Racing. It has led from the green and shows no sign of slipping. At this point they have a 25-lap lead over the Green Alternative Motorsports E85-powered sports racer. Our pal Kirk Feldkamp, from our ill-fated LeMons effort, did a lot of the electronic programming for the Honda-powered racers, so he’s excited that they’re doing so well.

11:10 a.m. The S2000 is stretching out a couple-of-seconds-per-lap cushion on the Mazda. I don’t know who to root for, because I have friends in both camps. Our pal Larry Webster from Car and Driver is on the team driving the S2000, but I also saw Mazda buddy John Doonan last night and he gave me a big man-hug. John’s heterosexual affections put a big smear mark on my glasses, though, so Larry may have the edge in this one. There are about 45 minutes left as I write this, and it’s a treat to see such good, close racing after so long.

11:12 a.m. As I walked out of the clubhouse I ran into David Bongiovanni for the first time this morning. I figured after the Evo was parked he headed to the trailer for some much-needed rest. He was fried, and his voice sounded like he’d been trapped at the bottom of a mine shaft and screaming for help for a week. He nearly fell over backwards trying to apologize to me.

He was pretty shaken up that neither of his cars finished the race, and he was taking it pretty personally. I told him to look around the pits and see all of the guys who didn’t even make it as far as we did.

11:18 a.m. The suspense is killing me. I have to walk down to the pits and see if either Honda or Mazda are prepping to stop. This one’s a nail-biter. The No. 92 Mazda Miata is being piloted by our buddies Jason Saini and Charles Espenlaub, among others, so I still don’t know who to root for. I can still smell John Doonan on me.

11:22 a.m. Both cars came in a little while ago for what should be their final fuel stops. Apparently they came in on the same lap, and the No. 92 Mazda left after only taking on one jug of fuel. The S2000 needed more than that to ensure they could finish without another stop, which handed the lead back to Mazda.

Honda came out of the pits on fire, though (metaphorically speaking), and soon reeled in the Miata to retake the class lead.

11:40 a.m. Saini began slowly reeling the S2000 back in as I started heading back toward the tower. The Mazda team was prepared for a stop, but they were hoping they wouldn’t need it; they just had their crew standing by in case of an emergency. The Honda guys looked to be in cruise control mode, and a brief chat with Larry Webster confirmed that they could go the distance.

I was almost back to the tower when a yellow came out that has since bunched up the field a bit. This isn’t over yet.

11:52 a.m. Well, now it’s over. Honda got pinched for passing under that last yellow and had to come into the pits to stand tall before The Man. Their stop-and-go has given Mazda enough of a cushion to cruise to the E1 win, barring any disaster.

Right behind that E1 battle are the ES Mustangs from Competition Associates. This pair is just a few laps back from the E1 leaders, ten laps in the ES lead and only a couple of laps apart from each other—a pretty dominant performance for a two-car team.

12 Noon The checker is out for the Parallax racing team after 661 laps in the cold California desert. Some folks will say that bringing a Daytona Prototype to the 25 Hour is like bringing a gun to a knife fight—matter of fact, I think I said that—but the Hoosier-shod racer didn’t exactly have the win handed to it. Honestly, its biggest competition was the track itself. Thunderhill is much tighter, narrower and rougher than the courses these cars typically see. For a car like this to make it the distance while avoiding major disaster is a true accomplishment. Their 23-lap win over the flex-fueled sports racer fielded by Green Alternative Motorsports is a legitimate triumph.

So my “perfect” record still stands: Another 25 Hours has passed, and once again my team failed to cross the finish line. I’m okay with that, though. I was sincere when I told David Bongiovanni that there was no shame in Goodsport Racing’s performance. You know, endurance racing is about as close as one can come to achieving a “moral victory.” Think about it for a second: More than 75 cars start this race, only one is going to win overall, and a few others will take class wins. Still, most of the folks who set up camp in the pits—more than most, actually—will go home without a trophy. If you come here to win, you’re missing the point.

One has to look at an endeavor like this in terms of accomplishments, not failures. David and the Goodsport crew took a car—the ‘08 Mitsubishi Lancer—which had, to this point, not been raced anywhere, turned it into a competitive race car, and for nearly 14 hours, it performed admirably against a quality field. More important, a bunch of people—many of whom had never met each other—came together and worked as a team, solving problems and making progress by applying their knowledge and skills the best way they knew how. Man, Fortune 500 companies pay big bucks for something like that. That’s special. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen every day.

As for my own endurance racing career, if someone’s courageous enough to have me, I will run another round-the-clocker. The way I look at it, my presence would bring an additional challenge that a team wouldn’t normally face—one of those woman-on-a-boat things that can only affect you if you believe in the superstition. It should be a team with a perfect record, though, just to tempt fate.

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