The NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill
Passion, Persistence, and a Ghost in the Brakes
By David Ray,
I recently;had the good fortune to be a part of the PDG #4 racing team's effort in the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill-2011. We finished a very respectable 4th overall. I immediately received several calls to do a story on this great result Friends emailed me congratulations; I flt relief and pride in the accomplishment. But there is much more to the story, and that will be my challenge. How do you put a lifetime experience in to words? Hey - it was just a race...yes, a very, very long race. and we didn't win. But I know that this will be a race that stays with me for the rest of my life...and yes, I already have grandchildren I can tell about it.
PDG (Prototype Development Group), sounds pretty fancy...maybe based in Indianapolis? Charlotte? Somewhere in the south of the UK? Actually, PDG is located in Stockton, Ca. Owned by Richard and Yvonne Migliori, the team is self-funded, with a few enthusiasts offering a bit of assistance along the way. Richard and Jim Haussler, the team engineer and guru, with the help from Ted, Don,Mike, Art and many other enthusiastic friends have spent hundreds of hours on #4. The car started life as a very handsome kit car called the Factory Fie GTM Supercar. A kit engineered to accept a Corvette motor and Porsche transmission, and intended to spend life turning heads and surprising those who sere unaware - out on the street. PDG pushed the car hard with a variety of drivers - and simply had to re-engineer the car in to a race car, especially since their goal was to win the NASA 25 Hours, the longest and maybe toughest endurance race in North America. With support fro Factory Five, America's Tire, Holland Financial Services, Factory Five owners, Richard and his team built a very capable endurance racer that can put down respectable laps while staying at or near the front by running long stints on track with a capacity of 44 gallons of fuel. This combination of speed and distance made the car a contender.
While the GTM has been ever present at the NASA 25 for 5 years, they've had many bad breaks, mechanical woes, a crash in the dark and rain, yet salvaged a solid 2nd in class (10th overall) back in 2009. But the team really had not put together what they thought was an effort that "hit on all cylinders."
2011 felt different. The car had gone through a thorough check and repairs from an incident earlier in the season and seemed ready to go. The transaxle, a weak spot previously, should be ok now as it was a racing/sequential box that had the pedigree to go the distance. We had two alternators installed, as that had been a deal breaker for us one year. We had new tires that were proven on the car. Ad the team of drivers all sere experienced and knew the car.
Saturday morning of the race, Richard held a drier's meeting where it became clear he was there to win, knowing that we had an uphill battle, yet committed to making our best effort. Normally Richard asks me, the driver , during a race event, "Hey Dave, how's your fun factor?" Intended to lighten the atmosphere and loosen us up. Not this time. The strategy was clear - show restraint on the track - run steady - don't take chances in traffic - save the car - "Let the race come to us" and be in a position to go for it in the end. I looked at the team and knew we had all the pieces to accomplish this.
But racing isn't done by s script, so the ability to adapt and modify plans along the way is essential to success.
We felt that the race had already started coming to us before it started, as several teams broke their cars during testing. Then mayhem set in during qualifying and several more cars were damaged and few scary moments took place - with our qualifying driver Darrell Anderson dodging trouble and bringing the GTM with a solid 8th place position. We weer right where we needed to be.
This is an amateur race, but NASA puts it on in a professional manner, and it truly is a spectacular way for drivers all over the world to get to know "World-Class" Thunderhill Raceway. With a classy opening ceremony by the U>S> Air Force, and a "Drivers start your engines" command, there was not a calm demeanor by anyone as the race began. A clean start - Darrell settles in ... makes a couple of moves and the race is on. What ensued was a very calm, deliberate march through the clock, knocking off hours, passing up to 20 cars per lap, and keeping out of trouble - possibly the most difficult challenge. Chris Durbin stepped in and was flawless. But there seemed to be an electrical gremlin setting in - the car would cut out - but when the power was switched off and then back on it seemed to run fine again. This was especially dicey when in traffic with someone on our tail, or in the middle of the pass, the power gives out. We have to offer kudos to the many other drivers who saw this happening and handled the situation cleanly without drama. then fifth gear seemed just a little shaky. It didn't want to stay engaged and would occasionally pop out. Richard was on the phone to the transmission company getting guidance, staying prepared. OK...we have a few issues early on, but they seem to be manageable. Mike Holland steps in and puts together a smooth, consistent and clean run. Our stints were to be 2 1/2 hours, due to the great capacity. This is a BIG workout folks. The GTM has manual steering and a less than ideal seating position for a tall driver, and we're ALL tall! And now it's my turn to put the laps down. With a solid pit stop and new front tires, I head out to discover the track in the dark. I know this track as well as anyone, but driving it with lights from all angles, darkness in the fast section, reflectors that were helpful but initially confusing, was pretty terrifying for a few orientation laps....I'd say about my 10th or 12th lap I settled in, and the word came in on the radio "Dave, don't use the gearbox, just stay in 4th gear." I said "repeat that?" Richard says "Don't shift, stay in 4th gear, we're worried that we could lose the gearbox." "Oh, and remember that if it cuts out just turn the power off, then back on. OK.... so there is at least some drama. I set my perspective to do something we at Hooked On Driving teach at every event - be smooth, go in slow and out fast while carrying as much momentum as possible. A groove settles in and we're "doin' donuts" as Chris says. then, the car feels like it pops out of gear, or downshift by itself....I rradio in with gearbox trouble...whoops...dummy me, the car just quit and I recycle the ignition and we're back on the gas. Once accustomed to these "issues" the stint settled down and we get back in a groove and move our times down to respectability, making progress while others are having worse troubles or falling out. The race is coming to us....This time, running in the dark, doing 105 at Turn 8 by aiming at one specific reflector is just awesome and impossible to describe. You go to another place I asked where I was in my stint early on - about 45 minutes of 2 1/2 hours...then didn't think of asking about tine till I was around 15 minutes from done. I have no idea where all those laps went.
The next round of driver stints gives us more good vibes. Yes, we have "issues" but they're not really affecting us that badly. With only fourth gear, we're a bit unpredictable in traffic. We sometimes are slow making passes without a downshift, so our judgment as drivers is tested...how and when to be aggressive while knowing you had little torque to make a pass stick. Here is maybe the thing I'm proud of on behalf of all the drivers - adjusted and got it done with a totally "no contact" run...not even a tap of a bumper.
More good news - Darrell, Chris and Mike nail their second stints and the morning beckons. Mike is plugging away at the 2 hour mark of his second run when he calls in urgently with a bad vibration in the back of the car. With just one lap notice, the crew snapped into action, rear tires were retrieved and used to replace the set that were in question. Sure enough - Mike had made the right call forcing a stop - the sidewall of the right rear tire - which takes the most load at Thunderhill, had failed and there was a 10" balloon out of the side of the tire. New rear tires, then Ted, another key crew member does his time check. They realize that if they leave Mike out with fuel, we'll be able to eliminate a stop and gain some valuable time back. So Mike is the trouper and takes her out for an extra hour over three hours on track without missing a beat. Then it was my turn for my final stint, bringing the GTM in to the sunrise - a fantasy that i'd had that I was about to live. All was pretty good - I know to restart her when she died, and fourth was the right gear to have if you only had one. I got my times down a bit more, as Richard was starting to feel more confident and wanted me to push a it. This is where I encountered the "ghost in the brakes" I had gotten in the car with us solidly in 5th overall, with all highly professional teams, drivers and cars ahead of us. I knew we would be happy with the finish in the position we held. And as I started to go to "kill" mode and try to snag another place, I'm now convinced that my mind played a little game on me. I was doing close to my better times with a normal gearbox - without a gearbox - and starting to uses the brakes quite a bit more. Then I felt the ghost - the sense that the brakes were heating up and fading, and I got paranoid. I remembered the failed transmission of the past, the failed alternator, the crash, and all the things that could go wrong and, sensing that I was using the car pretty hard with Darrell still needing to wheel the GTM for 3 hours after my stint, I guess I just got super conservative and wanted to save the possibly fading brakes, and preserve what we had with the 5th place position. I finished out the stint at a slower pace - and let a couple of cars unlap themselves against me. Looking back, if the ghosts had not set in we may have had a clean shop at 3rd, a podium. So I'll always wonder if I cost the team a position by going conservative. The our "clean up hitter" hopped in for a third stint, with the brakes hanging in there and picked up the pace nicely solidifying our position. Chris was on the radio to him as he cranked out the final laps and said "Take it easy on the old girl!" And Darrell finished strong, while holding off a charge by one of the M3's that had been ahead of us almost the entire race.
I know that this article hasn't captured the drama and sense of accomplishment of the PDG team. There's just no way without you doing it. Those who have driven in the "25" know what I'm talking about. Lifetime experiences and memories are made at this event. More hearts are broken than goals accomplished. But my congratulations go out to ALL of the teams that stepped up and took on this challenge. This is what motorsports is all about. And to the PDG team, I say a