As I sat on the side of the track watching cars fly by, I closed my eyes and listened. The sound of brakes squealing, the blips from downshifting, the occasional tire squeal. Even though I was wearing four layers of clothing, I was freezing and I was all alone. There was no one around but me and the drivers in their race cars. I took this time to picture myself inside the cars and instead of shooting them, I was driving them. I knew what it was like to be inside one of those wonderful machines. This was last weekend.
This was the first all day and all night long race that I have shot since I popped my endurance racing cherry in Japan earlier this year at the Idlers 12 hours of Motegi. When it comes to driving in a racing environment, I don’t claim to be an expert at all and am by far a rookie. However, after that little taste of it, I at least have an inkling of what it’s like to play an important role in something amazing.
One of the things that surprised me the most was how loud it is when flying marbles and debris hit your car when you’re driving down the straightaways.
It’s the little things. I found that it was so easy to lose track of time and before you know it, your stint was over and you were left to watch someone else pull out of the pits in the car that you had grown attached to. The car that had become an extension of your body.
This was the 11th year of the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill but it was only my second time covering the event. This is still the longest sports car race in the world and while most racing series have ended for the season, the famous endurance race gives amateur and professional endurance drivers one final shot at glory before the end of the year.
This was racing in its purest form. Man and machine battle fatigue together. Life-long friendships are created, champions are born and dreams are crushed. I can’t tell you enough how much I love it.
The dedication that the crew guys have is unparalleled. Most of them are racers themselves and they do it for nothing more than the love of the sport.
It makes me wonder what it would be like if I gathered up a bunch of my friends to form a team. Just a bunch of photographers going racing. We would probably come in dead last but at least it would be documented well!
Last year I followed the Honda Research West team as they were breaking-in the then-brand-new Acura ILX. They ran two cars and although there were a lot of mechanical problems along the way, both of them finished. Not in the position anyone had hoped for however, especially considering they had Edward Sandström as a ringer.
This year they were back for blood. Even though this appears to be a factory-backed team, it’s not actually the case. All of the mechanics, drivers and helpers work for Honda, but they don’t get paid a dime to go racing.
In fact, they have to spend their weekends and countless hours of their own time to prepare these two cars for racing. After a year of running them at various regional races, the team have ironed out most of the gremlins that they encountered last year.
The defending champions from the Award Motorsports/Ehret Family Winery team returned with the same Porsche 997 GT3 Cup car they ran in 2012.
Winning this year would be harder than ever thanks to the super-stacked field of GT cars, but they were up to the challenge. They nearly gave it away last year when an axle failed near the end of the race.
One of the drivers behind the wheel was Tyler McQuarrie, who has driven this race for nine years straight. With a win in class each year, last year he finally helped nab the overall title. Tyler’s friend and Formula Drift colleague, Daijiro Yoshihara was also driving.
This was his very first endurance race and he was driving for the Spoon team in a Honda CR-Z. Competing in the longest sports car race in the world is certainly one way to start.
Dai told me he was a bit nervous at first but he was super eager to learn about this side of the racing world. Also driving was Mr. Spoon himself – Ichishima Tatsuru.
This was the only hybrid entry this year and the Spoon team were competing against the much faster and more powerful Mazda Miatas.
Joining the crew as a fuel man was Rob from the Always Evolving crew. He was good friends with Roger Rodas and Paul Walker and as a dedication to the two, the Spoon team ran a few decals in their honor. Rob also wore the race suit that Roger used while driving in the Pirelli World Challenge.
For the first time ever, the Spoon team finished without a major incident and barely a scratch on the car. Maybe Dai brought some good luck? Either way, I could never get used to him in those colors. Although I’m not a materialistic person, I could definitely see that jacket in my wardrobe.
Last year the Rotek Racing/034 Motorsport team brought the Audi TT-RS VLN race car over to North American soil for the first time, with hopes of taking the overall win.
There’s a reason why there is a #SurviveThe25 hashtag floating around. Unlike many of the endurance races in Europe, the extraction crew at Thunderhill actually bring you back to the pits if you break down, allowing you to rejoin the race if the car can be fixed. It may not seem like much, but that final hour of racing is very brutal and a good portion of the field gets knocked out before the finish.
The TT-RS was leading by a large margin last year but only a few hours in, the transmission decided to quit. This year things did not go to plan either – a melted ECU during testing proved to be the cause of much frustration.
The team thought about flying someone straight from Germany with a fresh ECU, but moments before qualifying they were able to fix the original one. And as you might have heard by now, the Rotek Racing/034 Motorsport team took the overall victory.
Of course the main attraction of this race for me is the overwhelming amount of amateur race drivers that compete in the lesser classes.
I just loved seeing this EF CR-X out there in a field largely dominated by the Miatas. It must have been just out for testing though, because I didn’t see it on race day.
One of the fastest cars on the grid was this Superlite SLC run by Team Quick Racing Products.
Their fastest lap time during the race was 1:44.761, which was almost one second quicker than the Audi TT-RS.
For some reason there were many heavy hitters that entered this race this year. The majority of the field was still made up of amateur competitors of course but with world-class teams like GMG Racing coming out to play, it definitely shows that the race is growing.
During testing the GMG team had an off-course excursion which left the Audi R8 LMS pretty badly damaged. Any normal team would have given up at this point. But this is no normal team.
They worked through the night and had the R8 ready for action just a few minutes before the start of the race.
Everyone cheered and applauded the dedicated mechanics as they pushed their pride and joy to the back of the grid.
Just a few more minutes to go before the start of a long journey; which of course meant it was the perfect time for trackside selfies.The start
Then, just like that, they were off to a clean start. There was plenty of time to battle for position so the drivers were taking it easy. The last thing anyone wanted was to get taken out in the first turn of a 25-hour race.
The battle for the overall lead started fairly early, with the Rotek Racing/034 Motorsport Audi TT-RS working its way up from mid-pack.
This may sound obvious, but one thing that I learned about endurance racing is that even though you may be lapping the same course over and over again, each lap is largely different from the last due to traffic.
With many different classes of cars running on the same race track, that’s always going to happen though. The ESR class with open cockpit prototype cars kicks things off.
Then there was ES; this was the largest class featuring most of the fast cars. It included closed cockpit prototype race cars like this Davidson Racing Eagle.
The Team Quick Racing Products Superlite SLC was another; it actually lead for the majority of the race but had to retire due to a steering rack failure.
The rest of the ES field was mostly dominated by Porsche Cup cars.
The Barrett Racing Porsche GT3 cup car ended up finishing in second place, 28 laps behind the Audi TT-RS in first.
I knew going into the race weekend that everyone’s money was on the GMG Racing team but there’s just no way to tell what will happen in such a long period of time on track. It could be simple driver error or an incident with another car that ends your race prematurely. You just can’t tell what’s around the next corner.
Like the Audi R18 E-tron, this Mazda6 is powered by diesel. It was the team’s first time competing in the 25 Hours with this type of car and they managed 143 laps of the three-mile long circuit on a single tank of fuel. Not having to make so many stops helped them to finish third in E1 class – an amazing result with a new car.
Five of the six cars in E0 class were BMWs but the car that took the class win was the odd one out – a Ford Mustang.
The cars in E2 class varied greatly. Included in the mix was the Spoon CR-Z which earned third place after completing 592 laps.
The most competitive class with the closest racing was E3. It’s also the second largest group behind ES class.
While the classing system works to even out the playing field, I noticed that there were a few cars that seemed out of place. The Retro Racing Team for example, entered their car in ES class. Not everyone out there is competing to win.
It puts a smile on my face seeing cars like this Mazda RX-3 – which was still powered by a rotary engine – competing in endurance races. That’s a win in itself in my book.
By midday the sun came out from the cloud cover and gave all of us photographers some much needed warmth before nightfall. The beauty of this North American race track really showed with some amazing cloud formations in the distance.
Tyler McQuarrie piloted the 997 GT3 Cup car all the way to third place from mid-pack before giving up the controls to his teammates.
Leading the race was the #52 JFC Racing Wolf, which had legend Al Unser and his son Al Unser Jr. behind the wheel. It looked as if they were going to take the easy win with lap times around eight seconds faster than the rest of the field, but a bad wreck with another ESR car ended their weekend in the middle of the night.
As the sun started to dip lower and lower, so too did the track temperatures. From that point on, full-course cautions became more regular as cars started to fall off.Darkness
The battle for the lead was getting intense as daylight began to fade away completely.
From very last place the GMG Racing R8 moved all the way up into seventh position.
I don’t know about you guys, but I would definitely move out of the way if I saw a fast-approaching R8 in my rear-view mirror. Around this time, the GMG R8 went off-course and needed to be recovered, and in doing so, gave up many of the positions it had taken before it was able to get back out on the circuit.
With their pit strategy and quick lap-times at night, the team clawed their way back up to the battle for a overall podium finish.
At this point, all they wanted was a good result, as it seemed that everything bad that could happen to the R8 already had.
With about 12 hours to go, the #00 car was in second place. It looked like there was a good chance that they would take the top honors for a second year in a row, prolonging Tyler McQuarrie’s winning streak.
They pulled in for a full service, pit stop and driver change, but after a few laps they were right back in.
The driver got out with a look of disappointment as steam poured off his body. He knew the car was dead. Even if they could fix it, the team had lost any chance for the overall win.
It turns out the transmission had failed and repairing it on-site was not an option. Surviving the 25 Hours would not come so easy this year.
Slow and steady wins the race and that was exactly the case for the Rotek Racing team. I’m not saying the Audi TT-RS lacked pace – in fact it may be the fastest front-wheel drive track car in the world – but they were consistent and they stayed out of trouble.
At around 5am, just a few hours before daybreak, the Audi TT-RS took the overall lead.
Fatigue took its toll on everybody. Not a single car on the grid went without a penalty overnight, whether it be from car-to-car contact or simply spilling fuel while in the pits.
The guys in the Acura ILX from Honda Research West were even doing triple stints. That might not be a big deal for professional racing drivers, but these guys have a day job at Honda. Some of the stories the guys told me are amazing. One of them said that during his third stint in the middle of the night, he couldn’t stop thinking about Jessie from the ’90s TV show Saved By The Bell and had no idea why. What a nightmare!Full metal jacket
I was probably hallucinating at this point as well. Except instead of a high school sitcom, I saw a war movie. Instead of photographers on the horizon I saw soldiers armed with massive weapons. A lack of sleep can do weird things to you…
It was incredibly cold outside, with temperatures dropping to minus 10c (15F) and I couldn’t feel my fingers. It was hard to tell if I was pressing my shutter, because I couldn’t tell how much pressure needed to be applied.
We weren’t the only ones suffering: the corner workers and flaggers had also been up all night facing these horrid conditions.
When the sun peaked out it revealed the carnage that the night had left us, You could see hundreds of tracks that the safety and extraction vehicles had made in the grass.
Just like that, the sun greeted the paddock and there was a collective sigh of relief from the drivers and teams.
The GMG Racing Audi R8 continued to struggle but every time they got knocked down they bounced right back.
With just a few hours remaining, they were about 30 laps behind first place. It was the two Audis battling it out for top honors.
I was hiking to the backside of the track when I saw out of the corner of my eye a Mazda Miata fly off the course. It was the 949 Racing car competing in E3.
Although the car was nowhere near the track, one of its wheels decided it wanted to continue racing, so it popped right back on course.
So close to the finish, yet so far. With a few hours to go, one lapse in concentration or one tiny mechanical failure and all the hard work goes down the drain. That’s racing and it’s why we love it.
I had the pleasure of shooting this Lexus IS-F at Pikes Peak this year but since then it’s had quite a few upgrades. It sounded incredibly beastly – kind of like an AMG SLS GT3. The team behind it almost got third in class, finishing just a few laps behind the GMG Racing R8.
Less than two hours left to go and the front-wheel drive wonder was still in first place, but not far behind, stalking its prey, was the Audi R8 LMS. In reality though, the GMG Racing team was still about 28 laps in arrears.
The Rotek Racing team was very anxious to perform their final pit stop of the race. They would take their time to check every single corner of the car in and out, just to make sure they didn’t miss anything that could potentially cost them the lead they had worked so hard for.
After a slow but thorough pit stop, the #24 Audi was out on the track once again. No driver change this time – they would let WTCC champion Rob Huff take the checkered flag.
He carefully negotiated his way around the track; all he had to do was bring it home in one piece.
Rob found a comfortable pace to cruise at – not too risky and not too slow. Just enough to save the car.
With less than 30 minutes to go, the GMG R8 came in for its final pit stop. I was sure that they would secure a second place finish and to be honest, with all the stuff that they went through, that would’ve been a great result.
But after just one lap out on track, the R8 came right back in with smoke billowing out of the rear hatch. It didn’t look good.
It turned out the transmission had decided to give up. Apparently the team has had problems with it running hot during the previous few hours, but had hoped it would make it to the end. If it was a 24 hour race they would have finished in xsecond place – but this was the 25 Hours of Thunderhill and the last hour is a real car killer.
The team spoke to the officials and they were told that they would get third in class.
One of my favorite cars from last year was this Factory Five GTM run by Prototype Development Group. On its third lap into the race, the car was engulfed in flames.
The team stayed up all night sourcing parts to swap in a motor, working over 20 hours straight. The amazing thing is they ended up completing 44 laps.
All the drivers on the team took turns hot lapping the car, but the scars from the fire still remained on the outside of the body. The PDG won the ‘Spirit of the 25′ award for their utter dedication to get their car back onto track in a situation where most people would have just thrown in the towel.
After 705 laps and 2115 miles (3403km), the Rotek Racing/034 Motorsport Audi TT-RS won the 25 Hours of Thunderhill outright.
The Honda Research West team redeemed themselves and finished the Acura ILXs in first and fourth place in class. They finished seven laps ahead of second place, but because of driver Matthew Staal’s ultimate dedication and sacrifice, they managed to hold on to the lead even when he needed to pit in for ‘personal reasons.’ I always joke that if I was leading a race and nature called, I would gladly pee in my pants and continue driving.
It’s still crazy to me to see a front-wheel drive sports car do so well in endurance racing. My buddy Christian from 034 Motorsports was the crew chief for the Rotek team for this race and he told me that this is what happens when a manufacturer builds a race car from the ground up: they do it right and it’s blazing fast.
So what’s next for this fairly young but important race? Well, before I left, I hiked up over the hill to check out a sister track that Thunderhill is building known as Thunderhill-West. Combined, the two tracks will make one enormous mega-track that is every racer’s dream.
You can bet that the Rotek Racing/034 Motorsport team will be back to defend the coveted title. And you can bet I’ll be there to cover their every struggle.
After that weekend I’ve really had to reassess my own plans. I’d thinking about getting back into Solo2 with my 240z Ole Orange Bang but the thought of more wheel-to-wheel racing is just too enticing to pass up. I’m not saying that I’ll be the first one to do it – because someone may already have – but I really want to drive and shoot at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. And I want to do it soon.