If there's one form of motorsport that European cars can be safely said to dominate, it's endurance racing. Only five non-European cars have ever won the 24 Heures de Mans in its 92-year history. More European cars have racked up wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona in its 53-year history than any other. And as of the close of the 13th-annual NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the Euros added another win to their nearly flawless sweep of the race's entire history (if not for that pesky Miata in 2008!), with Team Flying Lizard's overall and ES-class victory from their no. 45 Audi R8 LMS.
But wait—a NASA-sanctioned event, isn't Thunderhill small potatoes compared to the aforementioned dynasties in endurance sports car racing? Absolutely not. Daytona and Le Mans are each prominent travel destinations, replete with airports, four-star lodging, and plenty to do. Thunderhill is in the beautiful middle of nowhere, just outside of Willows, Calif. - home to some fast food joints and $50 motels, and not much else. Daytona and Le Mans races take place in major venues, with lots of room and thorough accommodations. Thunderhill has a few rickety wooden bleachers and a parking lot. Le Mans happens in June, Daytona on the sunny/warm Florida coast. Thunderhill? Freezing cold and usually rainy. And if all this adversity doesn't already qualify Thunderhill as possibly the most grueling of the three day-long races, only at Thunderhill will you find some of the aforementioned pro races' million-dollar machines competing next to production cars at any arbitrary level of modification, various current and retired prototypes, and maybe even a NASCAR Camaro or two, all characteristically very different, piloted by racers with similarly different levels of experience.
Because of all this, Thunderhill is truly anyone's game. Preparedness, professionalism, and experience only get you a better shot at the winner's circle; a good dose of blind luck always plays into the win. Flying Lizard's Porsche and Audi competition cars and drivers have won or podiumed in every season championship of ALMS GT2 competition from 2004 to 2011, and continue to kick ass in Tudor GT competition to the current day. They've won at the Petit Le Mans, podiumed at the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans, and more, and still had an uphill fight ahead of them going into Thunderhill.
Award Motorsports/Ehret Family Winery's twice-winning and defending champion no. 00 997 GT3 Cup Porsche cup car posted consistently faster laps in practice and qualifying, and covered more laps in past years' races than the Audi did this time.
Faster still were a trio of ESR-class prototypes led by David Racing's no. 17 BMW-powered Norma M20F (clocking the fastest lap of the event, with a 1:39.937 around the 3-mile, 15-turn circuit), which led the first six hours of the race by an impressive margin, and showed no signs of slowing up under its own devices.
But when the Award Motorsports 997 suffered an uncharacteristic mechanical failure, and the rain began to fall and slowed the prototypes' speeds to where they couldn't take full advantage of their aero, the Flying Lizard Audi's added weight, fuel capacity, traction control, ABS brakes and Toyo rain tires gave it a competition advantage that would persist through the checkered flag.
Two prototypes claimed second, third and fifth overall, but stealing fourth and in ES-class competition was the no. 4 BMW M3 of Stammer Inc./Bavarian Performance. It was nice to see a finely tuned door-slammer play among the big boys.
The top four overall finishers hailed from ES class, but claiming fifth overall and nabbing the ESR-class win was one of our favorite cars of the race: Gryphon Racing's no. 69 Praga R1, a full carbon-fiber monoque, single-seat car produced in the E.U. and powered by a Cosworth-tuned, Renault turbo-four. In competition this year, it laid down a 1:46.850 fastest lap, and finished 626 trips around the circuit - 72 ahead of its next-closest ESR-class finisher. Impressive stuff.
BMWs swept the podium in E0-class competition, with El Diablo Motorsports' no. 30 325 leading the charge by 10 laps. What's really impressive is that until one week before the race, the car hadn't run in over a decade. "Last Sunday [we] were ready to throw in the towel on this effort," driver Cameron Evans said (one of six for the race). We'll bet they're all glad they didn't.
Another BMW topped the podium in E1: the no. 0 330ci of Grip Racing, which took the class win by a smaller, eight-lap margin over another of their own cars: the no. 95 Grip Racing 330ci. Consistency, it's said, wins races. This seemed to be living proof of that.
Mazdas and the occasional Honda filled E2 and E3 classes, with one exception: team rbankracing.com's turbo Saab 9-3, which has seen impressive past success (including its outright win of ChumpCar's "The 37" 37-hour enduro last year) ... but managed to complete only 16 laps at Thunderhill. Oh well, fifth in E2 class is still fifth in class!
One of Thunderhill's most challenging aspects - the diversity of its field of competitors -is one of the best things about it, as it invites so many drivers from so many walks of life to compete side-by-side. And as prices drop and aftermarket support strengthens around cars like the BMW 325, 330 and M3, it's exciting to see more enthusiast and club racers compete on the level of their professional brothers, and help defend European dominance of endurance car racing. We look forward to seeing more of them at Thunderhill in the coming years. Maybe one day more of them than those pesky Miatas!