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I’ve been involved in auto racing since I was a kid and look forward to every opportunity I can get behind the wheel. I’ve had a lot of great experiences, but none of them can even come close to racing at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. There’s truly something special about the race, the energy, camaraderie and effort required to cross the checkered flag at the end of the race. It’s truly a team effort and it certainly couldn’t be done without the tireless efforts Mazda, the Robert Davis Racing team and everyone else involved. Many thanks to all of them for contributing to another wonderful 25.

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This was my second year driving with Mazda at Thunderhill. You can read a bit about my first year here, otherwise I’ll give you a quick overview of the event before jumping specifically into my experience the second time around. Long story short, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the longest endurance race in the United States spanning two rotations around the clock plus one hour. It serves as the last big racing hurrah of the season and for this reason it draws a big crowd. While amateur in nature, the event regularly draws a number of professional teams that compete in endurance series, touring car series and elsewhere. This year alone over 25 professional drivers participated in the race that began at 11am on Saturday and ended on noon on Sunday. While 70 odd cars started the race, many didn’t make it to the finish after succumbing to mechanical errors, driver errors and “other driver” error induced damage.

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The field is made up of a diverse field of cars, including this Audi R8 LMS Ultra campaigned by Flying Lizard Motorsports, a professional racing team

When you tell people you’re going to race in California they immediately think of sunshine and warm temperatures. That’s rarely the case at Thunderhill Raceway Park. While balmy by Minnesota standards, the tracks location in Northern California makes it prone to prolonged rain, fog and temperatures below freezing. This year was a bit warmer than years past, but made up for the warmth with a healthy dose of rain. More on the rain, and some truly extraordinary rain tires, to come.

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Upon arrival at the track on Thursday I was happy to see a lot of familiar faces from last year. The four MX5 Global Cup Cars that greeted me upon arrival immediately blew me away.   These cars, the first four production models built of this dedicated race car, were our chariots for the race and we would be instrumental in endurance testing the cars prior to them hitting the public early next year. I could hardly wait to hop inside. Fortunately, Thursday would present me with three practice opportunities, two in wet conditions.

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The #56 driving squad from L to R: Camden, Mike A., Ben, Mike B.

After salivating over the cars I met up with my driving partners. Four of us were assigned to drive car #56 – me, Mike B., Mike A. and Camden. Three of us had run the 25 before. The fourth had not, but possessed more endurance driving experience than the entire team combined including multiple runs at the Rolex 24, Sebring and Le Mans. Our car seemed to be in good hands and we spent the rest of Thursday getting acquainted with it.

 

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The view from inside the #56 Mazda MX5 Global Cup

Friday was much of the same. Get to know the car. Get to know the track. We also had an opportunity to work get coaching from fellow driver, and Continental ST driver’s champion, Stevan McAleer. The experience and coaching helped us all improve our times and get more comfortable on track.

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Whereas most race qualifying occurs during the day, Thunderhill 25 qualifying occurred at 5:15 in the dark. Knowing that qualifying is always filled with incidents Mike took the car out to try to get a couple clean laps before calling it a day.   When it was all said and done we qualified in the 47th spot. We were comfortable with that knowing that in a 25 hours race where you start has little bearing on where you finish. To finish first you must first finish.

Qualifying at Thunderhill occurs in the dark

Qualifying at Thunderhill occurs in the dark

When running a 25 hours race you must prepare to be up for two days straight. It’s an inevitability of overnight endurance racing. With this in mind we hit the hotel early Friday evening and tried to get a solid night’s rest. Still, I found myself having weird race related dreams. I have a recurring dream before races where no matter how much I try, I end up delayed to the grid because the car is not ready, I don’t have my helmet or there’s some other distraction. Despite the expected recurrence I did get a solid eight hours of sleep and treated myself to the finest breakfast the Holiday Inn Express had to offer. Hopefully you can sense the sarcasm here.

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The Mazda/Robert Davis Racing team poses for the obligatory pre-race photo

We had a team meeting first thing Saturday morning at the track. I soon learned that I would be the lead-off driver, taking the car past the green flag and setting the pace for day of racing ahead. I’ve started over a hundred races yet still get anxious leading up to the race.   I tried to relax a bit, hydrate and get prepared for the 11am start. Leading up to the race start we took our official team photos and rolled the car to grid. After a short pre-race program on the grid that included a helicopter fly over I hopped in the car, strapped in and waited for the start.

The author poses in front of #56 right after learning that he'd be taking the green flag in the car

The author poses in front of #56 right after learning that he’d be taking the green flag in the car

The pace car slowly led us out on track and after what seemed like a dozen pace laps (it was only two) the pace car jumped in the pits, the green flag waved and we were off. Remarkably there were no on-track incidents on the first lap as cars jockeyed for position. I passed a few cars in the opening laps and a few other cars passed me. With hours and hours of racing ahead of me I had no issue with cars getting past me. My objective was to drive a clean, consistent first stint and safely handover the car to the next driver.

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A field made up of significantly faster cars means drivers must always be on their toes

I settled into a groove and let the laps tick by. It’s worth noting that there is a huge speed differential between the front-running prototypes and our production based cars. The speed delta can be greater than 40 miles per hour when they’re passing you and you always have to be cognizant of approaching traffic. Still, it’s impossible to anticipate every car from behind and for this reason it’s extremely useful to have a spotter assisting on the radio. For most of the race our spotter was Weldon and he did a great job letting us know when a car was approaching form behind, when it was coming alongside and ultimately when it cleared us. A spotter provides a lot or reassurance in a race like this where there is a high probability of preventable incidents.

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#56 stops for a routine pit stop

My first stint behind the wheel flew by and before I knew it our crew chief, Matt, came over the radio to pit for my second fuel stop. I’d been racing for three and a half hours and when I came in for fuel and a driver change (Mike B. hopped in) I was worn out. I didn’t quite realize it until I got out of the car and stood on my two feet. I was tired, sore, thirsty and was long overdue for a bathroom pit-stop.   It’s amazing how the energy behind the wheel makes you overlook all of this. I grabbed some food, sat down and decompressed for a while. Knowing that my next driver stint would be later that night and in the dark I tried to get some rest.

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In between driving stints drivers were encouraged to get some rest in one of the bunkhouse RVs

 

There were three separate bunkhouse RV’s for the driver’s to rest in between driving stints. An hour or so after I got out of the car I popped into my assigned RV to try to catch a nap. I popped in some earplugs to muffle the racing noise that surrounded me and tried to sleep. Despite being worn out and tired it was difficult to fall asleep. My mind raced and the adrenaline from being behind the wheel kept me awake. Despite spending two hours in the RV I probably logged 25 minutes tops asleep. Still, it was better than nothing I suppose.

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To quote Steve McQueen, there is racing and there is waiting. Here drivers wait around the makeshift fire pit for their next stint

In the movie Le Mans, Steve McQueen says something that is pretty darn true – “Racing is life…everything before and after is just waiting.” Truer words could not have been spoken as I waited for my next driver stint. Between 5pm and 9pm I sat around, wandered to and from the pits countless times and generally tried to keep myself occupied. Needless to say it was a lot of waiting.   Still, there is something to be said about having the opportunity to wait, rather than deal with a broken car or race related drama. Fortunately, we were running a clean race and ticking off the laps one by one.

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As day turns to night the race dynamic changes dramatically

At around 8pm Camden jumped into the car for his evening stint. It was standard procedure for the on-deck driver to be geared up and ready to go in the pits when the preceding driver jumped in. So, I geared up and waited in the pits. After running through a tank of gas Camden brought the car in and I hopped into the car. In the dark.   For my first evening stint ever.

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Our class included a number of Nissan 370Zs

Despite the dark surroundings the primary headlights, and supplementary LED driving lights outfitted to the car made it very easy to see the track ahead. I had no problem navigating the track and hitting my turn-in, apex and track-out points. Things got a bit hairier when overtaking cars came up from behind me though. The super bright LED lights that made forward vision wonderful for the cars behind me absolutely blinded my through my mirrors. It took a good 30 minutes to get used to the blanket of light as cars approached and went by me.

Photo Credit: Hillary Anderson Frank

The sister car #07 turns laps in the dark. Photo Credit: Hillary Anderson Frank

My biggest problem was trying to discern which side the cars would pass. To make things a bit more predictable I adhered to the number one rule when being overtaken — hold your racing line and let the car behind pass you off-line. So, with a little skill, a little luck and some clenched teeth I soldiered on throughout the evening stint.

The view from the pit box

The view from the pit box

We knew that it would eventually rain sometime during the race and by some stroke of luck I was able to avoid it during the night time hours. Naturally, the minute I pulled into the pits at 11pm for a driver change the rain started to fall. We were in good hands though. Mike B. spent the most time out of all of us practicing in the rain, and possessed the most endurance experience of all of us, having run at Le Mans, the Daytona 24 and Sebring on multiple occasions. As he took over in the car I retreated to the RV to attempt to get some rest.

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We knew rain would eventually arrive. Weather reports helped us plan for it.

When I returned to the Mazda compound from my brief rest I learned that Mike A. had taken over driving duties and he was absolutely killing it.  This was despite losing 4th gear in the car – the gear we used 90% of the time on track. Regardless, the BF Goodrich rain tires we had fitted to the car were something magic and made up for the gear loss. Mike was able to pass nearly every car on track when it first started raining, despite having a significant power disadvantage. For several hours he got great satisfaction from sticking like glue to the otherwise rain soaked track.   Upon getting out of the car Mike A. proclaimed that he’d never had as much fun in a race car as he had driving our MX5 Global Cup Car in the rain that night.

As the race gets not the wee hours of the night team members try to get any opportunity to rest that they can

As the race gets not the wee hours of the night team members try to get any opportunity to rest that they can

Camden was in next and got to enjoy the transition from night to day, however since the rain was still falling the effect was a lot less remarkable than had there been a true sunrise. Still, it was reassuring to have some daylight return and have the opportunity to really extract the most from our BFG rain tires. He continued in the car until about 9:30.

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At 9:30 I got the call to hop into the car for the final driver stint of the race. It would be my first time driving the car in true wet conditions and using the highly lauded BF Goodrich rain tires. Not being a huge fan of wet weather racing I was a bit anxious, however as soon as I took the first turn my attitude changed. The grip provided by the tires was absolutely amazing. I could push the car well beyond what I thought it would do. Despite only having 5th gear at this point I had no problem reeling in and overtaking cars that were much faster in the dry. As I saw cars, shimmy, shake and slide off course, I reveled in the grip and balance the MX5 offered. I was a rain hater no more. I can truly echo Mike A.’s sentiment and say that I’ve never had more fun in a racecar than I did driving the last 2.5 hours of the race in the rain.

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The rain was no match for our MX5 Cup and it’s amazing BF Goodrich rain tires

Despite spending two and a half hours in the rain soaked car my final stint was all too short. Before I knew it the white flag waved signaling the last lap of the race. All four Mazda team cars lined up for the obligatory checkered flag photo op.   We did the unthinkable entering four brand new racecars in one of the most grueling endurance races around – and they all crossed the checkered flag.   In a race filled with attrition, Mazda engineering, the fastidious prep leading up to and remarkable crew activity by Robert Davis Racing during the race, contributed to an enormous team success. When the results were tallied our #56 Mazda MX5 Global Cup crossed the line in 29th place. Our sister cars finished in 40th, 23rd and 14th respectively.   The cherry on top was the first place in class earned by the #34 Mazda RX8 team entry “kermit,” marking the second class-victory in a row for the car.

All four Mazda MX5 Global Cup cars crossed the finish line in formation

All four Mazda MX5 Global Cup cars crossed the finish line in formation

All told the weekend was a huge success for Mazda, Robert Davis Racing and our partners in the race. The Mazda MX5 Global Cup Car is truly a wonderful racecar that will serve countless racers well. This spring the cars will get distributed to race teams and it’s no surprise that they already have an enormous order list. I hope to have an opportunity to drive the car and Thunderhill Raceway Park in the future. Until then I will have to endure the “waiting” that Steve McQueen most accurately talks about.

 

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Team #56 celebrates after 25 hours and 1,641 miles of racing, not to mention lots of rain and little sleep