Twenty-five hours of continuous racing seems like an eternity. It certainly seemed so for many of the teams at the U.S. Air Force-sponsored 25 Hours of Thunderhill" endurance race held at Thunderhill Raceway in Northern California. Very few teams finished the race unscathed. Racecars with mechanical problems were an epidemic. Bent sheet metal from collisions could be found on just about every car. But that's to be expected when you combine a challenging track with rain and mud, 73 cars, 25 hours and mental and physical fatigue.
Endurance races, also known as enduros, generally feature a wide variety of cars and this race was no exception. Porsche GT3s, with over 415 horsepower on tap, shared the track with sub-100 horsepower Honda Civics and Mazda Miatas. Winning a 25-hour race takes reliable rides, fast and consistent drivers, a dedicated crew and a bunch of luck.
One of the teams that had its share of misfortune was the Toyo-Endless-5Zigen-Alaniz (TE5A) team, but we'll get to that later in our race diary. This is the play-by-play of the TE5A team's effort to win the E0 class and finish in the top ten overall. The TEB5A team consisted of five proven drivers: car owner Sam Higashi, 2003 West Coast Honda Challenge H1 series winner Andy "Import Legend" Hope, 2003 WCHC H4 runner-up Steve Ellsworth and Toyo Tires' Tom Okihisa. The team also consisted of a trio of dedicated crewmembers including Higashi and 5Zigen's Tsuyoshi Inoue. Without this crew, this story of triumph over tremendous adversity wouldn't have happened. Toyo Tires, Endless Brakes, 5Zigen, Alaniz Tuning, and GT-Pro were the primary sponsors of the team. The racecar was a beautifully prepared 1993 midnight blue Honda Civic hatch with a J-spec Integra Type-R motor. Preparation involved more than three weeks of 12-hour days to make sure it was fast and reliable. Many major components on the TE5A Civic were thoroughly checked over. The 210-hp B18C engine was compression tested to ensure freshness. The five-speed transmission was thoroughly inspected and the vital fluids were replaced. At a track like Thunderhill, the brakes take a beating so the calipers were examined and new prototype Endless enduro compound brake pads were installed. The wheels were exceptionally light and strong 17-inch 5Zigen FN01-RC's wrapped with gumball Toyo 205/40R17 full-tread RA-1s. Yes, the equipment was first class all the way.
The racecar was loaded onto the trailer the Wednesday evening before the race for the nine-hour drive from Los Angeles to Willows, California. Cold damp weather and a fast and twisty road course greeted the 73 teams of racecar drivers and their crewmembers. Most of the enduro teams arrived on Friday morning for testing, and for some of those who had never been to Thunderhill, it was a chance to learn the track. Learning a new track is often a humbling experience for a driver. The first couple laps usually feel awkward and slow. This track is very fast, with three completely blind corners and lots of elevation changes. Going consistently fast here will require patience and many laps of practice to get the driving fundamentals right. Learning the fastest line around the track is essential.
The TE5A drivers took it easy for their first two or three track sessions until they felt comfortable enough to push the pace. Pushing the car too hard on a new track would be a recipe for disaster. Flying off the track and damaging the car was the last thing anyone on the team wanted to do. Thankfully, the whole team got through the practice without incident. Our team was now ready to do battle in the race.
In an enduro, all the cars are separated into six different classes. In each class, cars of similar overall performance race are combined. Cars in each class are racing one another and not the cars in another class. This means that there are really six races taking place on the racetrack at the same time. The enduro classes range from the unlimited ES class down to the E3 class. Cars types span from the Porsche GT3, BMW M3, Honda Challenge H1 hybrids, and powerful BMW E36 328s.There were also Honda Challenge H4 cars, Honda Civics, Miatas, RX7s and LS Integras in competition.
Teams were comprised of both professional and amateur drivers. Pro drivers included former Indy car driver, Davy Jones, SCCA Speedvision race winners Bob Endicott and Roger Foo. Speedvision top guns Taz Harvey and Paul Bonaccorsi were also in attendance. From Japan, the Spoon Sports team brought a beautiful right-hand-drive Honda Accord, which has the same body as an Acura TSX sold here in the U.S. It was the diversity of the cars and drivers that made this a world-class event.
Friday, December 5, 2003 - 8:00 AMThe TE5A Civic received one last inspection. Each driver did fifteen or twenty minute sessions on the track. After each session, the tire air pressures and temperatures were recorded. Inspection of the tire data revealed that the car had too much static negative camber in the left front tire. Excessive negative camber tends to wear out the inside edge of the tire. The negative camber was adjusted.
Friday, 5:30 PM: Race QualifyingQualifying for the enduro was a thirty-minute session that was used to determine the grid positions for the race. Andy Hope was chosen to qualify our car. Our Civic was noticeably down on power compared with some of the other cars in our class. The BMW 328s, which are also in our class, were reportedly putting out over 250 hp to the wheels, while our Civic puts out only about 170 hp. That aside, we still managed to post a very good time of 2:08.9 to qualify third in the class.
Saturday, 11:00 AMJust before the race started, 30-mph wind gusts and moderate rain began to dampen the track. Higashi started the race for the TE5A team.The Civic was slotted in about 23rd place overall and fourth in the class. Higashi stayed in the car for over 3-1/2 hours without incident and then Okihisa replaced him as the driver. He made contact with a lapped car, which caused minor front-end damage. Ellsworth replaced Okihisa on the next pit, while duct tape was applied to the front-end damage. We were told to bring the car into the pits to serve a five-minute time penalty because while fueling up some gas overflowed onto the ground. At this point, we were falling back on our laps. Soon after the gas incident, Ellsworth radioed in that the headlights weren't working. He brought the Civic into the pits where it was determined that the alternator belt was missing. At the next pit stop, I replaced Ellsworth in the driver's seat. We were still fourth in the class when I took over.
Saturday, 7:30 pmI was in the car for 45 minutes when disaster struck. I was on the inside dry line, passing some slower cars that were on the outside going into turn ten. Suddenly, one of the fast and impatient Porsche GT3 drivers rear-ended me so hard that my car was launched into an unsuspecting Integra. The Civic seemed fine at first, but within two laps my transmission wouldn't shift into any gear but third or fifth and I started to smell exhaust fumes. Since there was a full course yellow flag at this time, I couldn't enter the pits for repairs without receiving a time penalty. I radioed my pits and informed them that I had a bad headache and was becoming very lightheaded. A pit official determined we had a medical emergency. We were allowed to break the rules and pass all the cars including the pace car so that I could get out of the car before losing consciousness.
Saturday, 8:45 pmAndy Hope was next in the car. He immediately radioed in that the transmission only had third and fifth gears. We looked on the real time AMB race report and noticed that he was running fast and consistent 2:25 lap times. After about thirty minutes in the car, Hope reported that the transmission was making loud metal-to-metal noises and within fifteen minutes the tranny locked up. Our race was finished, or so we thought. Someone on our pit crew said, "Hey, let's remove the trans and see if someone else in the pits would sell us theirs." As it turns out, there was a team with an Integra GS-R transmission that we could use, unfortunately, the team that owned it wouldn't sell it to us. After thirty minutes of searching throughout the paddock, Hope ran into an old friend in the pits that knew someone in San Francisco that had an Integra Type-R tranny. Andy didn't think twice and drove 190 miles to San Fran to pick it up. Our crew guys swapped out the expired transmission with the newly-acquired unit. The new trans worked fine and Hope was back on the track. We lost a total of six hours with the transmission exchange, but it was worth it since we had our hearts set on finishing this race.
Sunday, 5:00 amWith only four laps on our new transmission, disaster struck again. One of the gas tank support straps broke and one end of the gas tank had fallen to the ground. Hope attempted to limp the car into the pits but he only made it to the top of the hill before a hole was ground into the tank. It was losing gas quickly and Hope had to get out of the car fast. Once again, the Civic was towed into the pits for repairs. We needed a new gas tank strap and gas tank sealant. We had to wait until 7 am for Wal-Mart to open so we could purchase some plumber's tape and gas tank repair epoxy. The plumber's tape wasn't needed since one of the crew found a plastic-coated cable that was fashioned into a strap. The crew once again earned the Macgyver title by miraculously transforming common items into racecar parts. After convincing the NASA tech official that the gas tank was secure, we were allowed to race again.
Sunday, 9:30 amThis time, Higashi completed a few laps before we got black flagged for leaking gas. It turned out the gas return line was leaking onto the track during right-hand turns. Unfortunately, a NASA official, who had been in contact with the race director, informed us that our car was disqualified because we incurred a serious repeated offense. Since we were officially disqualified, we would not be allowed to finish the race even if the problem could be fixed. There were two choices: We could accept the disqualification and pack up and go home or we could protest our disqualification. We weren't about to give up now, so we protested our disqualification and at the same time the crew fixed the gas leak just it was overturned.
To overturn a disqualification, official paperwork had to be filled out and then handed to the race director. We had to have a good reason to fight our disqualification. We argued that the leaking gasoline was actually a new problem. Since the gas wasn't leaking from the original source, we suggested that the fuel return line problem was not a consequence of the damaged fuel tank. After a few minutes, the race director reluctantly granted us one last opportunity to finish the race. Whew! That was too close. We just had to finish this race.
Sunday, 10:30 amOnly one and a half hours were left in the race. Nothing else could go wrong, right? Well, not exactly. Higashi took the car out on the track for twenty minutes and he reported that there was smoke coming into his car in turns 14 and 15. The smoke was due to C.V. joint oil landing on the hot exhaust. He immediately brought the car into the pits. During the pit stop, oil from the joint boot was leaking on the ground. If the official noticed this oil we could be disqualified again. Thankfully, the official didn't notice and Ellsworth replaced Higashi in the drivers seat. He immediately reported that one of the rear tires felt flat. He came into the pits and it was determined that there wasn't a flat tire. However, oil was still leaking from the boot. Without lubrication, the C.V. joint will eventually fail and our race would be over.
I was next to drive the car with only about 40 minutes left in the race. The car felt good, but the flat-tire feel of the car while cornering was still there. I was sure the joint was failing and there seemed to be excessive play. I brought the car into the pits for one last driver change.
With fewer than 20 minutes left in the race, Hope had the privilege of nursing the Civic home. He took it easy and avoided the pesky Porsches. It was finally over and we got the most important thing to us-the checkered flag. Our crew and all the drivers were positive throughout the race and that's what made the difference in the end.
Our Civic was beaten, dented, dirty and held together with duct tape and whatever Wal-Mart had in the do-it-yourself section. We were penalized, disqualified and driving a broken car, but we made it to the end somehow. Against all odds, we finished 257 laps for a total of 771 miles and earned sixth in our class. We will be back next year to win our class. All it takes is a little luck.