2016 NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill Race Report

Photos by: Meghan Frolli and James Chartres

The fantastic Thunerhill Raceway is home to the longest race in North America, the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The event occurs every year during the first weekend of December. The 2016 race was the 14th running of the grueling endurance challenge. 

The race sees 60+ cars competing on the 2.86 miles / 4.61 km counter clockwise road course. Cars include budget racers (Mazda Miatas and Honda Civics), accomplished race cars (BMW M3, Nissan 370Z, Mazda RX-8), high performance production cars (Porsche GT3 Cup, Audi R8 LMS, Lamborghini Gallardo Super Trofeo) and exotic prototypes (Ginetta LMP3, Riley Daytona Protoype, Wolf GB08). 

The race attracts many amateur racers, such as myself, but in recent years has started to see more and more professional teams and drivers. This year the event featured pro drivers such as Bryan Herta, Al Unser Jr., Tanner Foust, Ryan Eversley and Tyler McQuarrie.

The various cars have a large difference in performance and the drivers have different levels of experience, but everyone must survive the challenge of 25 hours. The cars are split into 6 different classes that makes for great racing with battles up and down the grid.

We were competing with the CSR Performance endurance version of the Spec Racer Ford Generation 3. The car is upgraded with a larger 12 gallon fuel tank and modified aerodynamics including a front splitter and rear wing. Our team consisted of 4 drivers; Bob Breton, Rod Simmons, Todd Butler and myself (James Chartres) who would each take 90 minute stints.

The Friday evening before the race has a twilight qualifying session. Bob Breton had run and placed us 38th overall out of the 61 cars.

Before the race you can see the teams making the last minute preparations before getting the racing machines out onto the grid.

All the hard work from the past few months had led up to the start of the race. We managed to grab a quick team photo of the drivers and crew before the famous call to start your engines.

The start of any race can see chaos. Bob had a lot of experience running the 25 Hours so we all thought he would be the best choice to take the first stint. Rod used the same pedal positions so he would go next. For Todd and myself we needed to move the pedals further forward so we do that for his stop and I would go last of the four drivers.

The race starts with all the cars following the safety car out on track for the first lap followed by a hot pits drive through with the cars in single file.

The cars line up on the back straight as the safety car pulls into the pits. The race then gets underway as the green flag flies.

The starting order depends on who was in the car and how well qualifying went. This can result in a lot shuffling of the field in the first few laps as everyone gets to their race pace.

During the first stint Bob made quick work of the slower cars and did an excellent job moving us up 18 positions.

I helped out in the pits, either on the radio or getting preparations set for the first pit stop.

At the end of the first 90 minutes Bob had worked us up to 19th place overall.

The Race was going well as we got ready for the first pit stop.

We filled up with fuel and handed the driving duties over to Rod.

We lost the outer tail pipe and hanger for the muffler, leaving the muffler unsupported and floating in place. We switched over to a straight pipe with integrated hanger while we worked on a solution to support the muffler.

This time of year Thunderhill is quite green due to the recent winter rains. We were lucky this year with no rain or fog, cooler temperature and just some slight wind. Past events have seen heavy rain, freezing temperatures and even thick fog that called an on track halt of the race.

While the other drivers were out on track, I took some shifts working the radio and followed our progress on race hero.

Rod pitted for fuel and to switch driving duties with Todd. During the pit stop we switched back to the muffler. The team had devised a way to support it on the car using some safety wire to help hold it in place. As Todd went out in the first few laps we got black flagged for sound. Gene on our crew checked with race control and the violation had occurred before switching back to the muffler. With the muffler back in place we were given the all clear to continue.

The issues with the muffler and extra stop due to the black flag had dropped us down to 41st place.

As the sun started to set I got ready for my first shift in the car.

A quick pit stop and I was in the drivers seat. Getting comfortable with the traffic and the speed differential between Mazda Miatas and the super fast prototypes.

Unfortunately only a few laps into my stint, on lap 139, I ran wide in Turn 14 and felt a loud bang at the front. As I proceeded, down the front straight I suspected something was wrong. Entering Turn 2 I could see some coolant on the nose. I pulled off track and stopped near the Turn 3 corner station.

I shut the car down and was towed back paddock by the emergency crews. We took the nose off and revealed a large gapping hole in the front splitter and a severely dented and twisted radiator.

Working with with the team we able to swap out the splitter, replace the radiator and get the car ready in under two hours.

I strapped into the car and got ready to finish out my stint.

A helpful push start from the pit crew and I was back on track. Unfortunately our night time repair had dropped us down to 50th place overall.

Unfortunately the Spec Racer Ford Gen3 engine takes awhile to burp out all the air bubbles and make sure the water coolant is full. Carefully watching the temperature gauge for any spikes, after about 10 laps I pitted for a coolant top up.

Back out on track and with the temperature steady I put in some fast laps. I had never raced at night but was surprised at just how much I could see. After awhile you also get use to the various lighting profiles of the cars and know which cars you are passing or being passed by. The closing and differential speed of the prototypes is amazing. A few of the prototypes were 20-30 seconds faster than us per lap. As some of them pass you it almost feels like you are standing still.

I finished my first stint and pitted for fuel and a driver change.

As Bob Breton drove off into the night it was time to get some fuel myself and a rest before my next late night shift. Big thank you to Toyo Tires for their hospitality suite. I was able to get some food and drink before having a quick nap.

My next shift was schedule to start at 1am. We had changed tires during the night. I got ready about 30 minutes before my shift and was waiting in the pits for Todd to finish his stint. Throughout the night we had worked our way back up to 45th overall. As Todd pulled into the pits I flagged him down. A quick driver change, fuel and I was on my way.

I drove and started to really enjoy the night time shift. I quickly got into a groove, turning consistent laps. In the middle of the night I got my fastest time of the race, a 2:01.816. Surprisingly I was faster at night than during the day.

I thought I might get cold in the car at night but was surprised to find I was really quiet warm. The racing workout combined with my race suit and nomex underwear meant I didn't really feel the cold, except during full course yellows.

As I approached the end of my shift the water temperature gauge spiked again and I came into the pits. The engine must have cleared an air bubble. We topped up the coolant tank, added fuel and Bob Breton took the wheel.

I stayed to help out with radio as others went to get a hot drink, food or some sleep.

The evening was cold and we took turns between the pit radio and taking naps. My next shift was scheduled to be the sunrise shift. I got a quick nap before getting ready.

As I waited in the pits the sun started to come up. We had survived the long cold night. The team was a little cold and tired but we were doing well.

Todd pulled into the pits and helped me get belted in.

Strapped in and all fueled up, I waited for the all clear. The radio crackled, all clear! I pulled out of the pits and was back out on track.

Kanga Motorsports NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill Pit Exit 2.JPG

The sunrise shift was amazing. Driving into the Turn 2 as the sun came up over the horizon there were so many different colours in the sky. Heading into Turn 3 with the sun behind you could see the paddock lit up in purple, red and orange.

If you ever get the chance to do the sunrise shift during an endurance event, take it. It was one of the greatest driving experiences I have ever had.

As the sun got higher in the sky more of the track was revealed with each successive lap.

It was also easier to pick out the different cars on track.

Throughout the night we had worked our way back up to 40th overall.

About 1 hour into my shift we heard from race control that we were losing oil. I immediately pitted and the crew looked to see what was wrong. We pulled back paddock and found that we had lost a coolant line. Rather than risk more damage to the motor we retired the car. 

After 21 hours our race had come to an end. A shame we didn't finish the full 25 hours but it was a fantastic experience and I learnt a lot. We finished 44th overall with 470 laps and a fastest lap time of 1:59.398 set by Rod on lap 80.

I really look forward to the next endurance event.

A big thank you to all the workers, volunteers, friends, partners and sponsor that made this possible. Special thanks to the team at CSR Performance, my co-drivers and my buddy Robert Devaney. Big thank you to Meghan Frolli for the fantastic photos and all the help throughout the weekend.

Other Race Reports

James Chartres

San Jose, CA