They call it one of the world’s toughest endurance races for a reason. Despite a performance advantage over those chasing us, our transmission seemed sure to fail. We were just nine hours into this 25-hour marathon and already we were limited to running just fourth and fifth gear.
This should have been the end of the story. We had put on a good show, one we could be proud of. We led most of the early hours, and proved that we were the car to beat. But prototype-style racers from the ESR class aren't designed for durability, which is why one has never won outright at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. We weren’t going to break the trend this year.
Only we did.
What looked to be a story of hard luck turned into one of triumph. Rather than admit defeat, we dug deeper into our toolbox and found an extra-large dose of resilience. In this race that always favored the slow and steady over the fast and fragile, the hare prevailed over the tortoise.
The weekend begins Saturday night in Willow, Calif., (two hours outside of Sacramento), under torrential rain. One of my three teammates, Brian Frisselle, is laying down a stunning pace to secure pole position. I’m watching with fellow sports car aces Randy Pobst and Kyle Marcelli, with whom I’m sharing driving duties. Our socks are wet and our fingers numb, but the beauty of headlights streaming through the downpour is about as evocative a sight as you can witness.
For this year’s NASA-sanctioned 25 hour race, our Davidson Racing Norma M20F features a new engine. It was lifted from an E36 BMW M3, then massaged into a 3.5-liter good for 415 hp. The car itself weighs just 1,600 lbs., which means acceleration is somewhat akin to a detonating nuclear warhead.
Normas are typically seen on hill climbs; one won Pikes Peak last year in the hands of Romain Dumas. As stock, the M20F has roughly the performance of a Radical, but due to the aforementioned engine upgrade as well as a 6-speed Sadev paddle shift gearbox, ours is considerably faster.
The only car capable of keeping pace is JFC Racing’s Wolf. It’s basically an open-wheel race car with more bodywork – and it’s probably quicker than us over a lap. Their drivers are stellar, too, including Indy 500 legend Al Unser Jr. But while ESR-class cars are known to be fast, they aren’t known to finish. We realize our biggest threat actually comes in the form of a far slower Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car, a previous winner of the race with the reliability of a Dabbawala.
This is the tortoise.
Frisselle, a permanent fixture on the Davidson Racing team, starts the race. He immediately opens up a lead over Team Quick Racing’s Superlight SLC with Mike Skeen at the wheel, partnered with factory Acura driver Ryan Eversly. Davidson Racing's second car is also filled with hotshot racers like Dion von Moltke, Anthony Lazzaro, Burt Frisselle (Brian’s twin brother), Brandon Kraus and Dominic Cicero. Even NASCAR star Kurt Busch is competing in the E0 class, along with a slew of big-name drivers, many of whom have stood on the podium at esteemed races such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans.
What was once a race only for amateurs has morphed into one filled with professionals. But don’t be fooled, the 54-car field is still littered with amateur drivers in cars of varying speeds – from first-gen Miatas to aging BMWs to everything in between. There’s even a Chevy Silverado NASCAR-style truck (which was pretty quick) and a twin-engined Mini Cooper S (which broke). For the amateur, America’s longest endurance race (formerly the world’s longest race) has ballooned into a defining, bucket list event.
The closing speeds between the fast and slow cars is what makes this race so spectacular. As I jump in the Norma for my first stint, a 2-hour 15-minute monster, I pass around seven different cars – from a Lotus Exige to a Honda Fit – in just one straightaway. I enter turn one at 160 mph in sixth gear. The Fit does so at about 80 mph. (Imagine passing a stopped car in the middle of the highway; that’s what’s it like approaching the slower E3-class machines.)
Over a given lap I’m overtaking roughly 10 to 15 cars, many of whom are busy racing their own race and don’t see me coming. Running the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is an art you must learn: slicing through traffic, minimizing delays and keeping it clean. With our fragile Norma, we know that one mistimed pass could be catastrophic.
I’m taking it relatively easy, lapping between 1 minute 42 seconds and 1 minute 45 seconds, depending on traffic. The Wolf, with Little Al at the helm, is running a similar pace, and the Superlight SLC a few seconds slower. The tortoise? Low 1 minute 50s.
As the hours roll by, our competitors falter. The Wolf and the Superlight SLC have electrical gremlins, and start to fall back. Our sister car at Davidson Racing, a 700 hp brute called the Eagle (a machine most on our team thought the likeliest to claim victory) is out. Like others, the issue was electrical.
At around 10:30pm, moments before my next stint, I’m told we too have electrical issues. The gearbox isn’t shifting correctly. Typically we hold the throttle flat and simply click the paddle; now, a blip of the clutch is required, and even then it takes a few stabs to get it to engage. The car is drivable, though, but at this stage of the race, this is an ominous sign.
Worse still, just as I’m preparing to put my helmet on, news of a crash rings through the now-dark pit lane. Robert Ames in his Miata ran out of gas and stopped on the unlit back straight. Out of power, the lights on his car ceased to work, and an Acura ILX driver hit him at over 100-mph. Ames was airlifted to hospital with a concussion and a collapsed lung.
My first laps in the dark are eerie. The only night race I’ve done is the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and with all the floodlights, vision is not a problem. At Thunderhill, it's a different tale. Braking points are now gone. You can’t see where to turn into the bends, and the slower cars appear out of the blackness like strange alien life forms. I think of Ames’ accident during some of the sketchier moments in my stint, and then quickly squash any negative thoughts and keep motoring on.
The car is physical to drive. Due to three-inches of padding so I can reach the pedals, my back starts to spasm. My neck, too, hurts as the headpads aren’t in the right place for me to utilize them. I spend the next 2 hours 30 minutes straining to hold my head up under heavy acceleration and cornering, all the while muscling the car through turns without the benefit of power steering.
What's more, the gearbox is a larger issue than I thought; it takes about five clicks of the paddle to get it to engage. A second gear corner is now taken in fourth, with the only shifts being up to fifth and back. The 911 GT3 Cup is over ten laps down and running 1 minute 54 second lap times. I try to lap as slowly as I can – fast enough to keep pulling away but easy enough to eliminate stress on my machinery. At this point, going quickly won’t help us, as weird a mentality as that is for a racecar driver.
I pit with my best lap a steady 1 minute 46 seconds, with many laps landing closer to the 1 minute 50 second mark (a snail's pace for our car). I inform our engineers as to the gearboxes’ continued issues, and we take vague comfort in the fact that, while bad, it doesn’t seem to be getting any worse.
Exhausted, I eat some food and try to sleep in our small camping trailer located within the paddock. It’s specifically for the eight Davidson Racing drivers, but with the Eagle out, it’s quieter than I expect. With almost five hours driven already, I have only one two-hour stint to go. I wonder, when I wake up, will the car still be running?
In endurance races you don’t sleep much. The adrenaline pumps through your veins, and the endless engine noise rings through your head like Frozen’s “Let It Go.” But you can't let it go, or shut down your mind. You keep checking the lap chart on your phone, as well as counting down the hours until your next stint.
It’s 5:30am. I’m back in the trailer putting on my race suit (we have to be ready two hours before our stint in case of any unplanned pit stops). My stomach feels odd. I decide to go sit in my rental car for a minute and gather my thoughts, but before I can get there, I begin to throw up. “It’s OK,” I think. “Get it all out and you’ll be good to go… this is merely a product of endurance racing.”
But it wasn’t.
Kyle Marcelli had finished his stint and walked by on his way to the trailer, witnessing me crouched down in a pool of my own vomit. “You OK,” he says, looking a bit confused.
“Yup,” I lie, and pick myself up.
Back in the truck and my stint is fast approaching. I don’t feel any better, and with a 15-lap lead, I wrestle with the decision of whether to tell the team or just get my helmet on and tough it out. I’ve been ill in a racecar before and your brain goes foggy. Concentration is tough, and in a race like Thunderhill, that’s not good.
I tell team manager Ron Carroll. We decide it’s not worth risking it so close to the finish – not with so much on the line. For Davidson Racing, winning this race has been a dream for years, and bar one second place finish, it has always ended in heartbreak. This year feels like it could be ours, despite the mechanical issues. We just need to keep rolling, and thus far, the Norma is doing just that.
As for me, I keep throwing up – as do a handful of our crew guys who ate the same iffy batch of bacon sandwiches. Nevertheless, the sun rises and we are indeed still moving – despite a scare when the car had to stop on track due to a red flag; with a dead battery, it wouldn’t start, and without power, Frisselle’s radio wasn’t working. Amazingly the Norma had a phone on the dashboard with an app that informs the driver of any on-track incidents. It turns out that phone also had Skype, so Carroll called the car to offer ideas as to how to get it bump started.
As the hours fall by, so do our cylinders. What was once a six, is now a four. And yet unbelievably the little Norma keeps going. Spluttering down the straight she never falters, despite a few worrying whimpers. At the 40 minutes to go mark, we breathe a sigh of relief. Our lead over the 911 GT3 Cup car is so large we can’t be caught – even if the Norma stops moving entirely.
Team owner Bob Davidson dusts off his race suit, pulls on his helmet and climbs aboard. After years of heartbreak, this is his moment. For the team, the tears begin to fall. Giant bear hugs are welcomed and the emotion is infectious. This is a year-long ordeal. The crew guys work day and night for these 25 hours, and to them, this is Le Mans, or Daytona, or Indianapolis. It’s the Holy Grail, and witnessing how much this means to them is very special.
At midday on December 7, after 1,910 grueling miles, history is made. A bug-splattered race car as sick as me crosses the finish line to claim victory in America’s longest endurance race – something it had no business doing. And yet thanks to the amazing people at Davidson Racing, it did.
See, the template for Thunderhill is simple: prototype-style ESR race cars go out fast and then inevitably break. The GT cars slowly catch up, until eventually the tortoise outruns the hare. Only this time, the hare didn’t sleep.
Photos: Jinsan Lee Photography