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Thunderhill Raceway Challenge - Making History At The 25 Hours Of Thunderhill

Twenty-Five Different Drivers Taking A Turn In The Same Mazda MX-5 Cup Car During The Longest Road Race In The World-A Recipe For Disaster Or Stroke Of Genius? Only One Way To Find Out.

David Pratte
Mar 15, 2010

Mazda is clearly a company with a lot of passion for motorsports. From its involvement with SPEED World Challenge and the Playboy MX-5 Cup to Grand Am, Star Mazda and Formula D, this small Japanese automaker has a big presence on the American motorsports landscape. But Mazda isn't just passionate about racing, the company puts its money where its mouth is via its incredibly strong contingency program (cash payouts to top finishers in everything from solo to club and pro road racing to Formula D and Redline Time Attack) and parts support program. Add to that the fun and affordable nature of racing a lightweight and nimble RWD machine like a Miata, MX-5, RX-7 or RX-8 and it becomes pretty clear why Mazda is in the enviable position of having more than 9,000 racers piloting its cars (more than any other automotive brand in America).

When an automaker with this kind of racing pedigree invites you to drive one of its cars at an event as hardcore as the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, it doesn't take long to respond in the affirmative. Adding to the speed in which I replied, "Hell yes!" to the invite was the unique approach Mazda had in mind for the #26 MX-5 Cup car. Rather than sharing driving duties with the usual four or five other drivers, Mazda cooked up the ballsy idea of what has become known simply as "25-in-25," where the plan was to run a different driver in the car for every hour of the race. This feat has never before been attempted at any around-the-clock race we're aware of, so being a part of something so strangely inventive was impossible to resist.

Part of the genius of Mazda's 25-in-25 plan stems from its racing driver ladder program, where top Mazda drivers in lower-level series get support from the factory to move up the motorsports ladder to race at the pro level. This meant Mazda has a deep roster of highly accomplished drivers to draw from for the 25-in-25 team, guys like SPEED World Challenge and Spec Miata champs Jason Saini and Eric Foss. Add to that an impressive list of Mazda employees who also happen to be accomplished grassroots racers along with a small group of journalists/wannabe racing drivers like myself and you've got an intriguing mix of professional and amateur pilots.

Jumping into a race car for an hour and having some fun is a pretty simple thing, really. But running a team with 25 drivers and a support crew is a far more complicated task. Luckily, we had Rick Weldon on the job, a man who turned out to be part juggler, part magician and part mad scientist. Rick the Juggler had to deal with a number of unexpected curveballs going into the race, including finding four last-minute replacements for drivers who couldn't make it, as well as finding a fifth during the race when Charles Espenlaub suffered burns to his hands and arms from an in-car fire while driving for another team. And Rick the Mad Scientist had to crunch the numbers to come up with a drivers lineup that took into account all sorts of variables, including when to schedule those drivers who had never raced at Thunderhill before, never raced a MX-5 before and/or never raced at night before. That's some serious Sudoku right there!

Since I've done a few stints in the dark at Thunderhill before, I drew one of the coveted graveyard shifts. I was originally scheduled to run at 3 am but missed my shift due to my outstanding math skills, so Rick the Juggler slotted me back in at 5 am. Having wiped the sleep from my eyes and peeked at the timing board just before getting in the car, I could see we were pretty much locked into sixth in class based on the gap between us and the fifth- and seventh-place teams. Having started 33rd overall (out of 68 cars) and 10th in E1 class, it was amazing to see we'd move up to 23rd overall and sixth in class despite the handicap of hourly driver changes. Not wanting to be "that guy" who derails what had been a perfect run so far, I strapped into the little Mazda with just one thought in mind: "Hey, monkey boy, don't screw this up!"

Modp_1004_10_z+thunderhill_raceway_challenge+driver Photo 11/23   |   Thunderhill Raceway Challenge - Making History At The 25 Hours Of Thunderhill

During my first few laps, I tiptoed around and got a feel for the car and the track. The 25-in-25 Mazda felt amazingly fresh and well behaved, so I started to pick up the pace a bit after tucking in behind a faster MX-5. Having done most of my recent racing in higher-horsepower cars, it took a while for me to realize just how little braking the MX-5 really needed going into most corners. Its low mass, sticky BFG rubber and incredibly well-balanced chassis meant that little more than a brush of the brake pedal was required before getting back on the gas. It's truly a momentum car, but driving in a momentum style in the dark on a tricky circuit like Thunderhill took some getting used to. I was finally getting comfortable and starting to mix it up with some of the faster cars when the call came to pit. Apparently, time really does fly when you're having fun.

Twenty-four hours into the race and the #26 MX-5 was still running flawlessly. That's when John Doonan, MAZDASPEED business development manager, jumped into the car. There was already a sense of elation in the paddock as John rolled down pit lane, but it wasn't until the final lap as the 25-in-25 Mazda MX-5 cruised down the front straight toward the checkered flag that we all stopped biting our nails and started high-fiving and man-hugging. What seemed like an impossible feat 25 hours earlier was now a reality, this historical achievement-running a different driver in the car every hour of the race while finishing a very respectable 22nd overall and sixth in class-was made possible by the reliability of the MX-5 Mazda brought to the race, the hard work and adaptability of the entire crew and the amazing juggling act performed by crew chief and certified mad scientist Rick Wheldon.

The Evolution of a 25 Hour Race car Back in 2005, Marshall Pruett Motorsports Engineering and its partners ran a Subaru Impreza STI that finished third overall at the 25-hour race. Then in 2006, MPME ran a two-car diesel BMW effort before deciding to go in a completely different direction in 2007 by teaming up with Scion to build what was the first professional road racing tC in the world. It has taken a few years to fully develop this FWD economy class sports coupe, but at this year's 25-hour enduro it posted lap times comparable to fully race-prepared BMW M3s and other high-horsepower GT cars before its transmission failed at about the halfway point in the race. Here's a quick chronology of how MPME has steadily evolved its racing tC to the point that it's chasing down big-dollar GT race cars.

2007 Fastest Race Lap: 2:02.063 Built the car with what was currently available in the aftermarket, along with a few custom solutions.

TRD front big brake kit, LSD and short shifter were perfect solutions right out of the box.

Turbonetics turbo kit was chosen because its cast manifold design would be much more durable than a tubular manifold. This kit has now done three 25-hour races and has had zero problems and zero service required.

Custom front splitter and RTR rear wing designed to SPEED World Challenge specs were installed.

Moton developed a custom set of double-adjustable remote-reservoir motorsports dampers.

Custom wiring harness was built to interface with the MoTeC ECU.

The Scion's DBW throttle module was a major problem, so GST converted the tC to a mechanical throttle body and cable setup from a Subaru WRX.

2008 Fastest Race Lap: 1:58.564 Focused on developing the handling during testing, fine-tuning and refining damper and sway bar settings.

Mike from GST Motorsports refined the ECU mapping and turned the boost up slightly. Peak power was 280 whp and 270 wtq (up by 30 whp and 30 wtq from 2007).

2009 Fastest Race Lap: 1:56.190 Increased grip via improved downforce, wider front tires and rear suspension changes.

Indy Car front winglets from a '00 Reynard Indy Car were mounted on the Scion's hood, directly above the tires for best transfer of downforce (an idea carried over from the MPME '05 Subaru that also used these winglets).

Installed a new rear wing from wingshop.co.uk with a profile designed to work well at the cornering speeds the Scion would be achieving around Thunderhill.

Moved up from 235/40R17 front tires to 255s to achieve more mechanical front grip.

Adjusted the handling balance to match the improved aero and front tire grip.

A bigger rear antisway bar made by Hotchkis and softer rear springs and shock dampening.

By David Pratte
216 Articles

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