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25 hours of thunderhill

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES: 

Increased competition and better weather make the 2016 version of this race a fast one!

This was my eighth year covering the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in Northern California.  Each year presents different conditions and challenges.  Last year, after a year of drought, we faced rain throughout most of the race and the number of laps turned were some of the lowest ever in this longest race in American motorsports.  This year the weather, despite weeks of rain beforehand, dawned clear and beautiful.  It would prove one of the clearest and warmest runnings on record in this early December race in Northern California.

Also notable, is the significant shift in big budget teams and fast cars attending this race.  Long known as a great amateur event with some factory support and a few professional teams, the top of the qualifying sheet would be filled with Radical race cars that you just knew, wouldn’t survive the entire 25 hours.  Now the list of professional teams and drivers gets longer every year.  As always, Mazda put huge support into their effort and has factory team as well as supporting many of their dealerships and of course, Mazda MX-5’s are always a popular site here.  Professional drivers included names like: Johannes von Overbeek, Daren Law, Al Unser Jr, Ryan Eversley, Bryan & Colton Herta and Colin Braun.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, it is run by NASA (North American Sports Association), this was the 14th running (the first year was a 12 hour race) of the event on the Thunderhill Racetrack located in the Northern California town of Willows.  The green flag dropped at 11:14:10 on Saturday, December 3rd and the checkered came out at 12pm on Sunday the 5th.

The course is 15 turns and 3 miles in length.  It’s a good mix of straights at full throttle, technical elevation changes and tight, off-camber corners.  NASA assigns the classified cars from nearly every sanctioning body in the country down to six classes: ES (anything goes), ESR (anything goes for sports racers), and E0, E1, E2, and E3 depending on prep level.  BMW’s participated in three classes this year: ES, E0 & E1

This year’s event was a clean race without many of the long yellow’s we’ve seen in the past.  However it wasn’t without its drama.  The battle for the lead was between two teams for most of the race; the two Ginettas of Ryno Racing and last year’s race winning Flying Lizard Audi R8LMS along with its stablemate, a Porsche 911RSR.  At the 21 hour mark, the number 57 Ginetta of Ryno Racing had a comfortable lead when it broke its right rear half shaft, dramatically driving into the pits on three wheels with sparks shooting down the pit lane.  They jumped on the challenge and began to fix it right there on pit lane.  Unfortunately during that extended down time, they lost the lead.  Their second car would face the same failure a little later in the race.  That too was repaired and headed back out.  In the meantime, that Audi R8, took the lead and with Darren Law jumping into the car with three hours left, they had a strong lead and were able to withstand a 15 minute penalty for on-track contact with under two hours left to secure their second straight overall victory.  The lead Ryno Racking car with Colton Herta behind the wheel finished 3 laps back, the Porsche of Flying Lizard a further 2 laps behind to complete the podium.

BMW’s again featured prominently in both the overall results and the classes they ran including 3 in the top 10.  The highest finishing BMW overall was the Tiger Racing/Bavarian Tuning #46 M3, it finished 7th overall with 695 laps and 4th in the tough ES class behind only the Audi R8 & Porsche 911 of Flying Lizard and a Lamborghini Gallardo Super Trofeo of CLP Motorsports.  They use the tried and true formula of having a car that was extremely well prepared and putting not a wheel wrong all race to minimize pit time to get to the finish.  Billy Maher, owner of Bavarian Tuning and lead driver of the team, said it was the most consistent and clean race they had run in all the years they’ve attended and he and team owner John Larson were so proud of their fellow drivers Chris Watson, Brian Ghidinelli and Scott Smith as well as the entire support crew led by team manager Peter Vinsel and crew chief Thomas Barrett.

 

Brian, who ran in the E1 class race winning #0 BMW of Grip Racing last year, had this to say, “The 25 Hour is a love/hate relationship for me.  There have been such highs and lows over the years.  This year was by all accounts boring!  No drama, no thrashing and not a single penalty.  It was a boringly perfect run, the kind that maximized the ability of our 13 year old car, to finish only behind an Audi R8, a Porsche 911 RSR and a Lamborghini, it felt like we won the race! ”

Speaking of Grip Racing, they won the E1 class for the second year in a row, but this time it was the Red Bull liveried # 95 2002 330ci which finished 18 laps behind Tiger and a 9th place overall.  It was an extremely tight finish with the Art Racing 2001 330ci finishing on the same lap, not far behind the Grip Racing team.

In the spirit of racing, it’s great to see new blood come into the sport, it’s so gratifying to see the passion passed down.  One of those drivers is Mason Filippi who is 18 years old and a student at Diablo Valley College.  He has been racing cars since 2014, starting in Spec-Miata. In 2016 he raced the Global MX-5 Cup and Pirelli World Challenge in TCA. This year, Mason is racing a BMW m235ir in the Pirelli World Challenge representing his start-up company Shmib.

Mason who was in the #95 car, had this to say about the event, “This race is amazing, at the end of the 25th hour, the intensity is incredible when there were only a few seconds between first and second.  You always learn something new with endurance racing and I could not believe we won E1 two years in a row. Grip Racing and my teammates put in 100% effort to overcome the challenges that come with the 25 Hours of Thunderhill!”

With those top two finishers, it took a Mazda MX-5 pipping the other Grip Racing BMW to prevent BMW’s from repeating a 1,2,3 finish in class. This particular class is one that really suits the older BMW race cars. 

The other class that featured BMW’s was the E0 class.  Unfortunately last year’s class winning El Diablo Motorsports/Bimmerworld 325 couldn’t repeat its success, instead finishing in third this year.  Speaking to Lance Boicelli of the Clayton, CA based team, it shows that you need a definite mixture of skill and luck to do well in an endurance race of this magnitude.  Even though they qualified third in class behind a 350Z and a Lotus Elise Cup car, they felt good about their pace and on lap 12, Lance was able to put together a lap that eclipsed the fastest qualifying lap for their class.

Leading their class, they’d see three problems that scuppered the team.  The first was a pinhole leak in their radiator caused by a foreign object that cost the team 20+ minutes to fix.  The second, a brake line failure, cost another 30+ minutes of race time.  Finally, driver James Colburn lost all forward drive heading into turn 1.  It turns out that they sheared off one of the rear stub axles.  That took just under an hour to fix.  Only a quarter of the way into the race and the team was 56 laps back of the class leader, dead last in E0.  But they didn’t give up and continued to claw their way back up and while a third straight victory in class was not possible, they did a hell of a job coming back to finish 4th in EO.  A job well done to the drivers Lance Boicelli, Cameron Evans, James Clay, Dale Sievwright, James Colborn and Charles Postins and of course the whole pit crew to get the car back into the fight!

 

There were several notable BMW’s that didn’t make it to any podiums this year.  An absolutely beautiful F82 M4 prepared by Strom Motorsports.  Fast and well prepared, it qualified 3rd for the fast ES class.  Once again, misfortune struck. The M4 made contact with another car around midnight, forcing it off track and into a dirt embankment, snapping a tie rod in the process.  With the damage to the car, it put paid to their 2016 efforts.

 

Another M4 competing for the first time at the race was prepared by the veterans over at Yost Racing. Unfortunately neither M4 would be a player at this race.  The Yost team’s issues started right at the beginning of the race with an electrical transmission gremlin that caused them to come into the pits and reset the electronics.  This meant starting out at the back of the field.  With a 25 hour race like this, that isn’t actually that big a deal.  However during the early evening hours, they had the dreaded contact with other cars… twice!  The first time was just some rubbing and the car stayed out.  The second time however bent the factory tie rod and they were forced to the pits.  They didn’t have this spare and actually called around local dealerships for the part.  Unfortunately on such a new car there weren’t any available.

 

Showing the true spirit of the 25 however, they went over to the only other team with a M4, the aforementioned Strom Motorsports who had a spare M4 in their paddock.  Strom gave them the part of their second car and Yost were able to get back out!  However repeated transmission and brake issues, meant frequent trips to the pits and they were clearly out of contention for any type of good finish.  Ultimately a brake issue put paid their race effort and they parked the car, bringing it back out to run the last few laps and cross the finish line at the 25 hour mark!

 

This brings us back to that old E46 M3 of Tiger Racing/Bavarian Tuning.  How do you do well at the 25?  You stay on the track, hopefully avoid contact and pray that nothing breaks.  If that happens, you can compete against faster competition.  It’s not called an endurance race for nothing.  Every year there are more professional teams, drivers and faster cars.  It will be interesting to see how much longer BMW’s can remain competitive at this most grueling of races.