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To Hell and Back for a $2 Part


Thursday, March 13, 2014

To Hell And Back...For A $2 Part

Prototype Development Group and the 2013 edition of the 25hrs of Thunderhill.

Every good story has a distinct beginning, middle and end. The story of Prototype Development Group and their 2013 campaign is no different.

The beginning….

After a good, but not great showing at the 2012 Edition of the 25hrs of Thunderhill, team PDG owners Yvonne & Richard Migliori committed to a full racing schedule for 2013. Operating on the theory that iron sharpens iron, the focus was on competition and lots of it to gain more experience for the team and drivers and a deeper knowledge of the strengths and limitations of the Factory Five Racing GTM and of their competitors cars. To that end, Team PDG entered 5 endurance races in the ES class and 10 sprint races in Super Unlimited. 
The results? In the endurance races team PDG collected podium finishes in 100% of the races including a spectacular overall win at Miller Motorsports Park in Utah and their 2nd NASA WERC series championship.  In sprint races team PDG collected podium finishes in 90% of the races and again, won the series championship. 

An utterly dominant collection of podium finishes in 14 out of 15 races entered and 1st place in 10 out of 15.

While bringing home the hardware is great, the greater value is in the knowledge gained. The best example of this is found in PDG’s partnership with Mendeola Transaxles. The development of Mendeola’s road racing transaxle accelerated through the race experience gained with PDG in the 2013 season. The result is a highly dependable system that not only works spectacularly for Team PDG but will provide a great solution for other racers as well.  PDG and Mendeola have another development project in the works that will make the car faster, more reliable and provide a more attractive product to Mendeola’s customers. 

A key player in the success of the PDG GTM is MyRaceShop. They have developed many of the components that have been instrumental in attaining the reliability demonstrated in the teams results. Custom stub axles, 1/2-shafts, quick change alignment shim kits, wings & other aero bits and exhaust are just some of the development projects that we've partnered on. Incidentally, many of those items are available to the broader GTM community as upgrades to the standard Factory Five kit.

The team partnership with Baja Designs has netted gains as well. The lighting solution adapted from technology developed in the off-road racing environment provides a new margin of safety for the drivers through improved visibility and the ability to modulate the amount of front lighting as race conditions require. 
With the traditional racing season in the books the focus then pivoted to taking the knowledge gained and applying it to improving the car for the 25hrs of Thunderhill. Countless resources were employed by the team in designing and implementing aerodynamic changes to the car to improve downforce. A keen eye will spot them in the photos shown in this piece. A testing day in October confirmed the efficacy of those changes with new drivers Paul Edwards and Davy Jones. Further validation was found a few weeks later when driver Steve Zadig cut the teams fastest ever lap at Thunderhill. The car was ready.

On the logistical side of things, team owners Yvonne & Richard made significant changes as well. Adding talent and experience to the pit crew, utilizing past experience to streamline tactical decision making and putting in place people and processes to allow adequate rest for critical team members so that everyone would be on top of their game throughout what is known to be the toughest sports car race in North America, if not the world. Like the car, the team was ready.

The middle…..
The team arrived in Willows, CA for the 2013 Edition of the 25hrs of Thunderhill with a squad of drivers (Davy Jones, Paul Edwards, Mike Holland & Steve Zadig) possessing of a combined 93 years of road racing experience and a supporting team with roughly 2x that figure. The car, well sorted by virtue of the extensive summer racing program, a complete post season teardown, replacement of all critical components and numerous aerodynamic modifications all vetted by two test sessions was equally up to the task ahead. The car ran exceptionally well in Friday practice equaling the previous best Thunderhill time set by Steve Zadig despite heavy traffic during the practice sessions. 

As an aside, many teams at the 25hr do themselves a disservice on the Thursday & Friday prior to the race. It’s an understandably tough balancing act especially for those teams with non-local drivers who’ve paid for a seat. The drivers, justifiably, want to familiarize themselves with the track and on some level want better seat-time value for their paid ride. 

The problem is that a race car has only so many laps in it before something inevitably will break and every practice lap gets them closer to that point. Add in the risk of accidental car/car contact and you have a recipe for starting a very tough endurance race at a distinct disadvantage. Based on prior experience, Team PDG intentionally limited pre-race practice to little more than what was required to heat cycle the tires, bed brakes and do final systems checks. 

This event is, after all, an endurance race and starting grid position isn’t horribly critical except for a desire to be in front of, rather than in the midst of, the first lap shenanigans caused by over-amped drivers trying to win the twenty-fifth hour..... 45sec into the first. That said, you still WANT to qualify well, if for no other reason than to show some pace to your competitors.
Qualifying at the 25hr is a unique proposition. A late afternoon practice session terminates just after local sunset and the 30min qualifying session begins immediately thereafter. 57 teams attempt a qualifying lap - In the dark - All at once. 

                                                                                                    Pure mayhem. 

We like Steve Zadig, but we made him qualify the car anyway. Amongst our drivers he has the most night laps at Thunderhill and given his pace at our last test session we felt good about our chances for an excellent qualifying result. 

We were able to get a few laps in but the opening minutes of the qualifying session were an absolute madhouse so we brought Steve into the hot pit. The goal was to wait for things to settle down or to pounce on a large gap in traffic and put down a flyer. When a gap presented itself we sent him back out with one car to pass to gain more than enough open track to lay down an excellent lap. That one car, an E-30 BMW on cold tires, provided an alternative outcome. One in which the E-30 slid off line mid corner, colliding with the left-front of the Factory Five Racing GTM and bending the steering linkage. 


All turned out well enough though as our initial time put us in the middle of our class. Team PDG’s lead engineer, Jim Haussler deftly repaired the steering linkage and within minutes we were ready to go for the race the next morning. 

Due to the stellar preparation of the car, we had little to do on Saturday morning before the race other than cleaning windows, checking and re-checking tire pressures and getting a good breakfast into our bellies as we watched a gorgeous, if a bit cold Northern California winter morning bloom before us. In a few hours, our lead driver Davy Jones, the last American to score an overall win at the 24hrs of LeMans would take the green flag.

When the green flag dropped, Davy got off to a great start handily passing a number of cars and the first two laps were both quicker than our 2012 qualifying time.

Endurance racing is a thing apart from other motorsports. It’s not a test of who can build the fastest car. It’s not a test of who is the fastest driver. What it is, is a test of fortitude, of commitment, of accountability, of leadership and of how you perform, not when things are going great, but when absolutely everything......goes absolutely wrong.
Our test came in the form of a pop quiz when, just 3 laps after the green flag dropped, this came over the radio from our spotter on the turn 9 tower:

                       “Davy, the car is on fire. It’s bad. Head for the turn 10 flag stand and get out. Get out. Get out NOW!” 

The sense of urgency in the pit went full-scale. Every crew-chief along the entire pit lane was immediately alerted to what was happening. We could feel their eyes on us and see the unspoken words on their faces. PDG crew members raced across the paddock to the back straight to assess the situation. Necks craned to get a look to ensure Davy was out of the car. A wife and young daughter stood horrified and helpless as we tried to tell them he’d be fine.

He was. Davy got out of the car unscathed and came back to the pit in the crash truck that was towing the charred hulk that once was a very beautiful race car. 

“You’re doing WHAT?”

A question that we’d hear repeated hundreds of times over the next 23 hours…. After the crash truck dropped off the car, we rolled it i    nto the pit stall and wrestled off or cut away the still smoldering bodywork. Everything from the driver’s seat aft was in one or more of the following conditions; Melted, charred or coated in a caustic crust of dry chemical fire retardant and AFFF. I noticed a growing column of light smoke coming from the cockpit and peered in to find that the cover on the racing seat had re-ignited. I grabbed a bucket of water and was dousing the flame when I heard Richard, standing at the back of the car with Yvonne utter the most unlikely combination of words possible at that time. So startled by what I heard I hit my head on the roll cage.

“Ok, let’s fix it.”

The first order of business was of course, to determine the cause of the fire. As it turned out, a union that connects the chassis fuel system to the fuel distribution rail on the LS engine failed. It didn’t come loose; it wasn’t improperly installed; both portions of the union remained securely attached to their respective assemblies. It failed internally and fell apart. In so doing, it doused the left side of the engine and exhaust in gasoline. More on this in the post script.

With the cause of the fire identified, work began in earnest to repair the car. Richard hopped in a truck with crew-members Ray Ayala, Will Inskip and Robert Walter to make a 270mi round trip to Stockton, CA to retrieve a spare engine. Darryl Witbeck and his son began meticulously rebuilding wiring harnesses for the chassis electrical system. Jim Haussler and Mike Holland directed the process of removal of the old engine and transmission and evaluating the extent of the damage to the systems and components in the engine compartment. 

480hp lightly toastedEvery electrical connection would be checked. Every individual wire would be checked then replaced if critical or isolated out if not. Every fuel, oil, coolant and hydraulic line would be removed, cleaned, pressure checked and replaced if failed or damaged. All told, easily 1/3 of the lines had to be rebuilt on site.

GMG racing lent their engine hoist so we could remove the engine and transmission assembly as a unit. Their crew members made numerous visits to our pit through the night offering help, encouragement, and in a few cases, coffee. Lynam racing offered numerous spares as well and was instrumental in providing a few electrical components needed for the rebuild. Too many other teams to list lent fittings, tools and most importantly encouragement as the project drug on into the night.

A number of brackets and supports in the engine compartment were compromised by the fire and had to be fabricated on site by Jim Haussler or Richard. Darryl and I had to “paddock engineer” a means of flaring the lines to replace two fire suppression system nozzles that were damaged by the fire and had to be cut off. 

Replacement of the drivers harnesses, burned after Davy got out of the car, was a particular frustration. We purchased new set of harnesses from the “Pro Shop” at Thunderhill, only to find out that they were expired when the NASA scrutineer was checking over the car. I returned to the “Pro Shop” to find that every single harness they had in stock was expired. None would be legal to use in a race car. Thankfully, a crew member from one of the BMW teams found us a spare set of legal Schroth harnesses in their trailer. We still haven’t figured out who that was so if your team lent that harness, let us know. We’d like to return it.

Thanks for all the help Al!Through all of this, Alan Blaine, a member of the NASA technical inspection team made numerous trips to our pit to check on the reassembly and lend advice and guidance. He essentially did an annual inspection of the car, in real time, as it was being rebuilt.

Jim Haussler and Mike Holland did a great job managing the entire task. When Richard, Ray, Will and Robert returned with the new engine and critical parts needed for the installation all was ready for the swap to begin. Accessory drives, exhaust and electronics were installed and in short order, the new engine was mated to the transaxle and it began going into the car.
The car caught fire just a few minutes after 11am and just 15hrs later, the Factory Five Racing GTM roared to life. At that point a meticulous process of systems and safety checks began to ensure that the car wasn’t just running, but was safe to run. A few electrical glitches were identified and repaired and one of the two fuel cells had to be isolated. So damaged was the wiring to its internal pumps that it couldn’t be repaired without complete removal of the fuel cell assembly. This cut the fuel capacity of GTM in half, but at this point, pit strategy wasn’t a concern. Finishing the race was the only thing that mattered.

A persistent problem with the LS engine MAF sensor was identified that was causing the engine ECU to go to a default rich condition. The only solution was replacement. We decided not to cannibalize the part from someone’s street car in the event that something else went wrong and damaged it. We’d have to wait until the nearest auto parts store opened on Sunday morning to get the part. Yvonne was waiting at their doorstep when they opened and dashed back to Thunderhill and we were back in business. 

Mike Holland has more time in the Factory Five Racing GTM than any other driver and he is a team principal as well. As such he took on the task of taking the car back on track. I insisted that we run a single lap and bring the car into the pit for leak checks and that we repeat this process 4 times before we’d allow the car to go out and re-enter the race. Once completed we began cycling the four drivers through the car so they’d all at least get a chance to drive in the 25hr, even if only for 30min or so. 

All told, Team PDG completed just 44 laps and finished 661 laps behind the race winning Rotek Audi. But we finished and in so doing completed one of the most impressive undertakings I’ve ever seen in racing. The effort did not go un-noticed by the rest of the field and the race organizers. The Rotek team held the field back and ensured that ours was the first car back onto pit lane after the checkered flag flew and the race organizers presented Yvonne and Richard with the newly minted “Spirit of Thunderhill” award for a team effort that embodied the spirit of the 25hrs of Thunderhill.

                                                                                                                The ending…

The usual post 25hr process for team PDG is to bring the car back to the shop in Stockton, wash it and then not touch it again for about two months. So involved is the preparation for that race and so strenuous is the race itself that Yvonne and Richard want to give themselves and the members of the team ample time to rest, recover and reconnect with family before working on the car for the next season. That would not be the case this year.

Immediately upon returning to Stockton the planning began to completely rebuild the car. The paddock repairs, though effective, didn’t address much of the damage caused by the fire. As such, everything aft of the driver’s seat would need to be rebuilt or replaced prior to the car seeing the track again. Jim Haussler and Richard, along with many other local crew members set about completely stripping the car down. 

The first task was halting and repairing the corrosion caused by the caustic firefighting materials used on the car. A new firewall would be fabricated and installed along with dozens of brackets and panels followed by a repaint of the engine compartment. The right side fuel cell, isolated out during the in-race repair due to electrical damage would be removed from the car, repaired and replaced. The entire electrical system and entire fuel and oil distribution system would be replaced. Extensive damage to the composite body of the GTM would be repaired and repainted as well. Numerous driver safety upgrades would be made along with a complete re-engineering of the fire suppression system utilizing the advice of NASA tech inspector, Alan Blaine. 

All told it would take over 12 weeks of late evenings and weekends to completely rebuild the car ahead of the first race of the 2014 campaign to take place in Mid-February.

In all honesty we looked at this race, a 2hr endurance event at Sears Pt. as a shakedown. An opportunity to run the car, ensure everything was correct after the extensive repairs and find out what if anything still needed to be fixed. 
The Factory Five Racing GTM still wore a few battle scars from the fire but those were merely cosmetic. In addition, the car was still running the team’s back-up engine. An old LS-1 that is significantly lower on power than our normal racing engine. We sent Steve Zadig out to run a few laps to break everything in. We ran some systems checks and made a few tweaks to the suspension and tire pressures specific to the track and weather conditions. 

As Steve took the green flag I congratulated Richard and Jim on the incredible work they’d done in rebuilding the car. Despite a full season of utterly dominant racing, exhaustive preparation, and planning for nearly every conceivable contingency, a driver and friend was nearly killed and the car was destroyed and rebuilt twice. All because of a failed $2 part. 

Emotions ran justifiably high the first time the Factory Five Racing GTM passed us at full song. All present recognized how close we’d been to genuine tragedy and the superhuman efforts required in bringing the car to this moment. None of us imagined at that point what would happen next. 

We knew we were down on power to our competitors that day but the car was still quicker than expected. As the race began to unfold we sat solidly in 3rd place but the two ahead of us were pulling away. The race moved into its later stages and one of our competitors suffered an engine failure then moments later another failed to manage fuel appropriately and dropped out as well and when two hours elapsed we stood atop the leader board in the ES class. 

The 2014 season would begin just as 2013 did with the Factory Five Racing GTM being reasonably quick, dead reliable and most importantly, atop the podium.

… script.

As mentioned above the fire was caused by a failure of an aftermarket union between the AN chassis fuel line and the GM fuel distribution manifold on the engine. Again, the union didn’t come loose; it wasn’t improperly installed; both portions of the union remained securely attached to their respective assemblies. It failed internally and fell apart. A part that probably cost $2 to make (though it sells for 9x that) failed and nearly killed a man while his wife and daughter were watching.  In the aftermath of this incident it has come to our attention that we are one among no less than 8 known failures of this particular component. Unfortunately, due to legal reasons I am not at liberty to disclose the manufacturer of this component. 

I will say the following; If you are running an LS engine in any form of competitive environment or if you’ve swapped an LS engine into an older car or hot-rod I cannot urge you strongly enough to avoid any form of quick-disconnect union between the chassis fuel lines and the fuel distribution manifold.  

There are two ways you can accomplish this task shown below. You can either weld an AN fitting onto the OE distribution manifold or you can utilize an aftermarket billet fuel rail with AN connections between the two rails and to the chassis fuel system. Any other solution is, in our opinion, unsafe and puts you and your vehicle at significant risk. 

For Media or Business Inquiries Contact:

Prototype Development Group

Mendeola Transaxles
1695 Cactus Rd.
San Diego, CA 92152

My Race Shop701 B St Ste 1830
San Diego CA, 92101

Baja Designs

Race photos courtesy of:

Posted by True at 3:21 PM   
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Labels: Personal, Sports