Now that I’ve “Survived the 25” at Thunderhill two years in a row, it’s increasingly clear to me that the endurance branch of motorsports appeals to a particularly sick and twisted group of racers. At the best of times, racers support their speed addiction with money that normal people use to buy a house, and there’s enough late-night wrenching to put even the healthiest marriage to the test, but endurance racing ratchets up the madness to a whole new level. When you go racing for 25 hours in a row, you need more of everything—more preparation, more tires, more fuel, more crew, more spare parts and way more determination. And a touch of madness mixed with masochism, as this year’s 68-hour adventure of barrel rolling, junkyard shopping, fog ducking, tranny swapping, Muscle Milk chugging and trophy raising—as described by me and a few of my MPME Scion teammates—graphically illustrates.
Andrew Wojteczko: Driver and regular Modified Mag contributor
After arriving at Thunderhill Raceway for the Thursday practice, the first thing I noticed was the fog. Visibility was so poor that testing was on hold until the fog lifted, but shortly after lunch the track went green and the MPME Scion tC was ready to go.
I used my first 15-minute session in the car to build speed and learn this challenging circuit with all its elevation changes and blind apexes. Since the fog had shortened the day, I would have just one more 15-minute session to get up to speed before the race on Saturday. After a pit lane driver change, I quickly got back up to speed—a little too quickly, as it turned out. As I learned the hard way, the tC had some high-speed oversteer in it, so if you enter the fast left-hand turn 8 with less than 100 percent throttle the back end would quickly step out. I was unable to catch the slide and went off track, the tires digging into the damp soft dirt and barrel rolling the Scion two full revolutions. I don’t know that words can explain how horrible the feeling that followed was, but trust me, it was pretty gut-wrenching.
To watch a video of the rollover, search “MPME Team Scion” on YouTube.
Marshall Pruett: Team owner/manager, Automotive & Sportscar racing editor at SPEEDtv.com
How do you prepare for something like this? After a month of nonstop work to ready a racing car for a major event, investing large sums of money, having it painted to your exact specification, the graphics cut and applied to perfection, and sending the car out to do some test laps, what do you do when everything goes quiet and yours is the only car that doesn’t come back to the pits?
After my initial shock about the rollover wore off and I could see that Andrew wasn’t injured, I took a look at the remains of my tC and my initial assessment wasn’t good. The roof was smashed in, the trunk and rear wing had been twisted into a fine piece of origami, the right side door was gone, the windshield smashed, wheels and suspension broken, and presumably the frame and rollcage were beyond immediate repair. Or were they?
A good friend, Jim Dunford, took less than 60 seconds to do a complete evaluation of the car. Dunford, a master race car fabricator, assessed the tC’s rollcage and chassis and pronounced, “If you want to make the race, it can be done, but you’re looking at a lot of work. If you jump on it now, I bet you can be on track in 24 hours.”
After GST owner Mike Warfield powered the car and pushed the starter button, the turbo tC came to life. It was possible. The following day and night were a blur, but with the GST Motorsports team and all of the drivers pitching in, making the race wasn’t a question—it was a guarantee.
Gary Sheehan: Driver and director of marketing, Cobb Tuning
With just 15 minutes left in qualifying, I rolled out onto the track, where our patchwork Scion felt surprisingly good but still needed some work. Power delivery was strong, but with no time to fit a proper rear wing there was significant oversteer in medium-speed corners and the high-speed corners were downright scary. So I drove conservatively and put in two safe laps to post a lap time before qualifying was checkered. With a fastest lap in the mid-2:02s, this was good enough to place us 22nd out of 68 teams.
The whole team was thrilled by this result and attacked the car yet again, throwing a fresh coat of white paint on the new body panels, installing a new rear wing, machining the upper control arms for more negative camber, and dialing in a good four-wheel alignment just in time for the race start. Driving to our spot on the grid, many of the other teams cheered and applauded, just like they did when we first tested our half-stripped Scion in the paddock after swapping on new suspension arms. This show of support brought a tear to my eye and I radioed to the team to tell them about the warm welcome our tC just received.
As the green flag dropped, the noise of 68 race cars around me was awesome. I stuck to our plan and took it easy going into turn 1, staying toward the outside and watching things develop. Despite playing it safe, I accidentally passed six cars on the first lap. Many of the other drivers were so intent on the inside line and fighting it out with their neighbors that I just drove around the outside of the traffic jams. After a few more laps, the car felt friendly to me and I started to really pick up the pace.
That’s when I uncovered an ugly quirk in our car. Our tC still really liked to oversteer in turn 8 and I nearly threw the car off the track in the same place it rolled a couple of days earlier. It took me several laps to learn to get all of my braking for turn 8 done early and then get back on the throttle before ever turning the wheel into the corner. But the Scion felt surprisingly good otherwise, so I kept pushing and working my way through traffic, with my 74-lap opening stint moving our tough little tC up as high as Fifth Place overall with a fastest lap of 1:58.5.
Jeff Courtney: Driver of the World Challenge Viper
Having just learned the track on Friday, thanks to Cindi Lux and the MMSP team who let me find the line in their Mustang and Jason from Hooverspeed who was also cool enough to let me get a little extra seat time in one of their Spec Miatas, it was finally my turn to take the wheel in the Scion. Having Marshall on the radio with me was a real highlight, since at one point in the race I passed a Viper (similar to the one I race in World Challenge), and Marshall had a real field day with this. I almost had to pull over from laughing so hard!
But things started to get a little more serious toward the end of my first session, when we were about three or four hours into the race. First I got T-boned pretty good in turn 10, which did a little body damage but didn’t seem to hurt the car otherwise, and then I noticed fourth gear starting to become harder and harder to engage. Not a good gear to lose at Thunderhill, since fourth is the gear we spend the most time in at this circuit.
After Jeff’s stint in the car, Andrew went for his first laps since the rollover. To his credit, he did a great job keeping the pace while using just third and fifth gears for most of his session.
That’s when I got in the car for the first time, just as the sun was setting. Limited to third and fifth gears and being told by Marshall to take it easy and conserve the gearbox, I tiptoed around the track as darkness fell. Once the sky was fully black, the loonies came out again, just like last year, with cars spinning off left and right and dragging all kinds of rocks and dirt back onto the track with them. At one point there was literally a river of dirt across the track going into turn 3. Was this the Baja 1000 or the 25 Hours of Thunderhill?
To add to the madness, it was getting harder and harder to find third gear and fifth gear wasn’t much better. As a result, I was falling off the pace more and more, which left me mixing it up with the loonies in the slower cars. Not a happy situation, and after some radio communication with Marshall we decided to park the car to let the gearbox cool down so we could change the fluid and consider our options. Without a spare transmission on hand, things were looking grim.
That’s when the fog rolled in. Having parked the Scion no more than 15 minutes earlier, the race was red-flagged and we were no longer losing laps to the field. That’s when Mike from GST suggested we search Craigslist.org for a spare transmission. A bit of web browsing and a few phone calls later, we found what we needed. After that, it was all in the hands of GST wrenching superstars Tommy Wu and Mert Solis, who tore into the Scion once again, this time doing an emergency overnight tranny swap under the cover of fog.
From there, it was simply a matter of the drivers adapting to the lack of a limited-slip differential and bringing the car home in one piece. But in endurance racing things are never simple, as proven by the mysterious right rear brake lockup problem that emerged late in the race. Unable to completely fix the problem, and with ailing front lower ball joints, Dave McEntee, Gary and Andrew nursed our wounded Scion to the checkered flag at 3 pm on Sunday afternoon, completing 390 laps and finishing ninth in a class of 19 teams and 42nd overall. Not the glorious class victory we were all hoping for a few days earlier, but given what the last 68 hours had just been like, the feeling was just as sweet.
And that’s when things got even sweeter. Turns out event sponsor Muscle Milk was giving out the only cash prize of the event to the team that persisted through the most hardship to make it to the finish, appropriately named the “Muscle To The Finish” award. When our team was announced as the recipient of this award during the driver’s meeting, a huge cheer and a standing ovation erupted. This unexpected outpouring of support from our fellow competitors was truly the ultimate reward and made our 68-hour display of perseverance, madness and masochism one of the most fulfilling experiences a racer could ever hope to have.