As we prepare for the 2009 25 Hours of Thunderhill, I thought it would be good to tell a little bit of the story about how this race became particularly important to us.
In 2008 The Miatacage.com team traveled to Willows, California with a car that hadn’t existed 2 months earlier. In fact, there had been no plan to do “The 25”, at all. If it hadn’t been for our success at the ICSCC 12 Hours of the Cascades, at Portland, just over a month earlier, nobody would have ever thought of it.
The drivers for Portland were Jon Davies, Chuck Hall, Will Schrader and me. We had built the car with Sean Hedrick at Miatacage.com in less than 2 weeks and installed Chuck’s “special project” Miata motor. For the Cascade enduro the classes are “displacement based”, meaning that the only concern is how big the motor is. We had a small motor with some special parts in it and it was a rocket. We won our class by 12 laps and finished 4th overall.
Two of our regular Miatacage.com teammates were not with us for the race, however. Ken Sutherland and Bruce Wilson, having missed all the fun, were now itching to do an enduro. We had over a month to prepare for the longest endurance race in the world – no problem. Sean offered to provide the car and lots of support – so the thrash began.
Thunderhill is a NASA (National Auto Sport Association) race. That meant we had to deal with yet another set of unfamiliar rules. Cars are “mapped” into an endurance racing class based on their performance (SM and ITA cars are E2, for example) – but our car wasn’t exactly either of those. After some discussion with NASA officials it was decided that we would re-prepare the car to be classified as PTE (Performance Touring E) which NASA also maps into class E2.
Performance Touring is interesting as it uses a points system to make it possible for nearly any type of car to go racing. We considered the parts available to us and did some math to come up with what we thought could be a competitive car. We knew that a Miata with a 1.8 liter motor would be preferable (on sheer speed, anyway) as an ITA car, but we have a 1.6 liter and what we believe was the best driver line-up on the E2 grid.
We had to throw together another “less aggressive” motor to make the car E2 legal and capable of 25 hours. The rest of the parts which were “mostly” SM legal (and importantly, SM based) stayed with the car. Ken Sutherland organized the preparation. We installed a new transmission, micro-finished hubs, specially made brake pads that would last the entire 25 hours, an improved radio system and away we went.
The race was red flagged for fog in the middle of the night. We had taken the lead during my stint (and not because of anything, in particular, that I had done) and had a substantial lead when the race was stopped.
As the race resumed, we settled into a solid rhythm and extended our lead to 5 laps when a part that never breaks, broke – and, we didn’t have a spare.
Ken Sutherland was able to scavenge a part and get the car running again in just over 20 minutes. The culprit was the throttle body – the shaft that controls the butterfly had snapped because of a small amount of corrosion that was hidden from view. That’s the kind of thing that can ruin your day.
We now had a choice to make – the only choice. The car was running on pace again, but instead of being 5 laps up, we were 5 down. We made a plan. We would go at “sprint pace” for as long as the car would last – betting that somebody (everybody) else would have at least a small problem in the meantime.
There are other choices to make when one makes choices… Our decision was to streamline our pit stops and only check under the hood (for oil level, as an example) when we were also changing a tire (this could gain us a full lap by the finish). Our motor was using a little bit of oil and this was a concern – not as big a concern as not winning, however.
We were running in second place (and gaining) with Ken in the car, running a scorching pace, when we developed a ventilation problem with the block. The problem was that you could see from one side of it through to the other and all of the oil had fallen out. That’s bad. And, it’s also why we must return.
The Miatacage.com travel team this year is mostly the same. The crew is missing two key members, Peter Lovejoy (to Fire Chief duties) and Garth “Crusher” Levin to his job making cruise ships beautiful for vacationers everywhere (I’m thinking tanned college co-eds and seriously considered joining him). The driving team this year includes Will Schrader (replacing me as I continue my recovery from the cycling injury). Will is the current Spec Miata lap record holder at Thunderhill and a great guy to race with. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have take my place. I’ll be there as member of the Miatacage.com braintrust making sure that Peter and Garth aren’t too badly missed.
Live blogging on the race should happen in this space – Thunderhill is known for intermittent (read: poor) data access. We will do our best to circumnavigate the challenges.
Photos by Carrie Sutherland