I'll never forget the moment I opened up a car on the freeway for the first time. It was my mom's bone-stock 1995 Honda Civic sedan. I was alone, it was late at night, and despite having scoped out a long, straight, desolate stretch of four-lane highway just moments before, I was nervous as hell. I took one last look ahead, and floored it.
The Civic's 1.5L four-banger hissed to life between its factory air box and exhaust, screaming for air and fuel. First gear slushed over in the automatic trans before I could crack a smile. Second ... third—a quick look for cops—and then fourth, which seemed to hang on forever, revs and speed gradually gaining in unison. The excitement was almost unbearable when I let off and peered down at the speedo to see how fast I'd blasted over the past half-mile or so: 90 mph. Almost 100 mph! It was a moment of pure elation and adrenaline for young, new-to-cars me.
Fast forward 20 years and I've reached the end of yet another running of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill (as a photographer, not the race car driver I might've once imagined), and I've just finished roughing out some stats of now back-to-back overall race winners Team Flying Lizard and their no. 45 Audi R8 LMS machine. Over the course of the non-stop, 25-hour race their team of drivers completed 751 laps in it and drove a total of about 2,235 miles, for an average sustained speed of 90.12 mph—navigating the three-mile course's 15 turns and rival competitors (some of which were very slow), and making dozens of pit stops, repairs and driver changes along the way. The fastest, most exciting 20 seconds or so of my 16-year-old life was very literally a walk in the park for these guys amidst the sustained chaos that is the longest endurance race in the world, and the work they put in to win it. Cue ultimate humility and respect from one motorsports photographer.
The NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill is like no other race in the world. It clocks in one painful hour longer than the Rolex 24 at Daytona or the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and in cold contrast to their South Florida and France-in-June venues, it's traditionally run the first week in December, in the brisk and uncertain climate of Willows, Calif. It also invites a much, much more diverse field of competing machines and drivers than either of the aforementioned, meaning countless variables to consider when planning a winning strategy - flat-out speed among them.
ESR Class could be thought of as the racing prototype class, comprised mainly of radical race chassis and engines of nearly any configuration. These machines are typically the fastest on the grid when conditions are dry and they can make full use of their aero, but are limited by fuel efficiency and capacity, and seem to suffer more frequent mechanical failures than their door-slamming rivals.
The winning recipe for ESR machines: be the fastest around the track, and pray for good mechanical and meteorological luck.
This year's race saw hugely impressive performance from Ryno Racing and their two Ginetta G57s, powered by grunty, low-revving, 6.2L Chevy LS3 V-8 engines.
The no. 57 car qualified fastest and started the race in pole position, and held the overall lead for more than 21 hours of the warm and dry race (with their no. 5 car hovering around third).
But then an over-torqued rear lug failed and took the car out for a lengthy repair and allowed the Flying Lizard Audi to take the lead and eventual win. The no. 57 car did make it back out and finish the race, and closed the gap from the Audi to only six laps at the end of it all, claiming second overall, and first (with the no. 5 car claiming second) in ESR-class competition. Another hour and they might've retaken the lead they fought so hard for.
ES Class is where you'll find some of your favorite GT race machines that normally compete in IMSA, World Challenge, WEC and the similarly sanctioned series. These cars are often based on actual makes but are heavily modified for performance and reliability, and have earned more overall wins at The 25 than any other class of car. They can carry more fuel and are usually great wet-weather performers, are built to be every bit as serviceable as their ESR rivals, and in the fastest examples are backed by professional race teams with loads of experience. The strategy here: balance speed with reliability and fuel efficiency, and pray for wet weather or mechanical failure from your rivals.
Flying Lizard scored a handsome overall win in last year's wet conditions and relatively sparse ES-class competition, and were the odds-on favorites to do it again with either their Audi (which did), or their Porsche RSR. But that's not to say they didn't see some new competitors challenge their bid, namely the CLP Motorsports Lamborghini Gallardo Super Trofeo piloted in part by Tanner Foust and Tyler McQuarrie.
This is the same sort of car that nearly won this year's Super Lap Battle and proved itself as good an endurance car as a sprint car, clinching third in ES Class competition and fifth overall, just 38 laps from the lead. An AWD car in a field of RWDs, it didn't quite manage the fuel efficiency and likely power output as others, but it was chosen on the very likely chance that the event would at least be partially run in wet conditions. "If it would've rained, even a little," hypothesized Foust after the race, "I think it would've been a very different race."
Also worthy of mention in ES class competition was the no. 3 Tiger Racing/Bavarian Motorsports BWM M3 that nabbed fourth in class, just 56 laps from the lead. In a field of GT-class and prototype race machines, this modified former street car proves the tuning approach can be an effective one. Under the right circumstances, it just might have what it takes to win overall.
Moving into E0-E3 classes, the strategy changes. Competition here is within each class and not (usually) for the overall win. Teams are smaller, cars are less radical, more humble, and akin to something most of us can build or at least picture ourselves building. Speed, performance, fuel efficiency—those are important factors to consider but the chief strategy is simple: survive.
Here, you'll find BMWs, Miatas, Hondas, Nissans, and more, new and old, running largely alongside each other in the course of the 25-hour race. Mechanical failures, collisions, broken windshields, limited pit-lane resources, and fatigued drivers across the board seem to level the field here.
Brian Lock, co-driver of the no. 11 Valkyrie Autosport Nissan 350Z that took the E0-class win with a hefty 677 laps, might say his team got lucky after their car lost a steering rack seal halfway through the race, but suffered no other mechanical failures. "We were waiting for a catastrophic failure, but it never happened," he explained post race. "We must've poured 10 quarts of oil in that thing." It was the team's first class win at The 25.
The first- and second-place finishers in E1 class - Grip Racing and their no. 95 BMW 330ci, and Art Racing and their no. 46 BMW 330ci, respectively - also both logged 677 laps, which really shows how close a race this can be, even after 25 full hours.
BMW took another win in E2 class, where KD Motorsports and their humble E30 clocked 645 laps to take top honors just three laps ahead of next-closest finisher, the Mazda RX-8 of Mazda USA VP Robert Davis and his Team RDR. If ever there was an underdog story, the KD BMW tells it perfectly.
And at the bottom of the speed ladder, RA Motorsports' no. 38 NA6 Mazda Miata proved that even completing a total of 604 laps, for a total distance of about 1,812 miles at an average speed of just 72.48 mph throughout the 25-hour race, is good enough for a win with the work, commitment, and luck to see it through. Maybe I should reconsider that old Civic and my dreams of racing success ...
Click through our outtake gallery for more of our favorite moments of the 2016 25 Hours of Thunderhill.