In the Eastern foothills of the Northern California Coast Range, overlooking the vast expanse of the Sacramento River Valley, lies the 2.86 mile, 15 turn Thunderhill Raceway Park. The perfect location to host what is billed as the “longest closed road race in American History”. And now, at the eleventh running of the annual race, it has become clear that the event has embedded itself in the racing conscience, and is quickly becoming a race that more and more racers from all over the world are telling themselves they “have” to do. It’s just one of those things. Like Pikes Peak, or the Baja 1000, this race is becoming known as one of the more difficult automotive events to complete. Attrition rates are always expected to be noticeable in any endurance event, but adding that 25th hour seems to have made all the difference here. Anything can happen in an competition of this length, and over the years, it has. Everything from your standard four wheel-off, to the most stomach turning barrel roll, and even a first lap fire that burns a car nearly to the ground, as we say last year. Mostly, though, what is seen are a laundry list of mechanical failures which could pop up from literally any part of the car. Think about it – 25 hours straight of hard accelerating, even harder braking, tight turns, fast turns, and a hilltop that provides a little roller coaster like air time. That kind of action is pretty tough on parts.
Six endurance classes are on track (E3 through E0, as well as ES and ESR). Each class made up of a variety of cars that include a taste for everyone. You like spec Miata? They’re here. You prefer GT3 cup cars and heavily warmed over BMWs? They’re here. How about prototypes and open cockpit radicals? Yup, they’re here, too. All of that variety makes for some of the most entertaining racing of the year. It also means that there will be a steady stream of back markers to contend with for the full length of the race, and closing speeds by the faster cars of well over fifty miles per hour. Moving pick points by the dozens, and no small challenge even for the most experienced racer.
Make no mistake, though, the difference between winning and losing is not just a contest for the track. Victory or defeat can be realized just as easily in the pits. The second place car in the E3 class lost by a scant 46 seconds. Early in the race, on the first pit stop as a matter of fact, they were given a 5 minute stop-and-go penalty for a minor fuel spill. Not an uncommon mistake for any team, and it would take another 23 hours for the mistake to really catch up with them, but it did. Imagine racing for 25 hours and losing by just 46 seconds. You would think that a loss like that would sour your feelings a bit. I overheard the team owner talking after the race and he was disappointed, of course, but he was content with second place this year after previous DNF’s, and was quick to say that they would be back next year to go for the win.
As you’ll see from the photos below, the environment is as much a part of the event as the racing action itself. Rain is not uncommon here (and was a factor during qualifying), and even when the sun is shining, because the race is held in December, it makes an appearance for less than half the race. The sun hangs relatively low in the southern sky during the day, and an early sunset and late sunrise are the norm this time of year. Because of Thunderhill’s location in the foothills, fog can also play a part in the action. Even though we were lucky enough to avoid that situation this year, the threat was looming with moist, still air taking over quickly after sunset. And then there’s the sunrise – the best part of the race in my opinion. Incredible light like you’ve never seen before. Erupting over the horizon in a red and purple kaleidoscope that quickly gives way to a golden amber glow which is soon followed by a bright silvery-white sky that lets you know the race is almost over. I’ll come back every year if only for this moment.
Congratulations to all of this year’s finishers. Here are the rest of my favorite photos and moments from this year’s race.
Full results can be found here on the NASA 25hrs of Thunderhill website.
See you next year, Thunderhill.
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