It was there that Jeff Smith-the only driver in GASS to own his own car-agreed to sell his chassis back to the rent-a-ride operation in exchange for having the Dodge rebuilt for endurance racing. The conversion took much longer and cost much more than he anticipated.

The shop grafted on the new front end, fitted it with a road course suspension, and installed a 42-gallon fuel cell in what would traditionally be the passenger seat area.

Locating the fuel cell next to the driver creates an almost equal front-to-rear balance, with just 51 percent of the weight on the front tires. It also means the weight bias doesn't change as the car burns off fuel.

Because road courses generally are intolerant of fuel spills, the traditional fuel cell vent tube also was converted to a dry-break system, using military aircraft salvage parts.

Gassed up and with a 200-pound driver, the car tipped the scales at just under 3,100 pounds.

The Dodge was supposed to be delivered turnkey, needing only to be painted in the distinctive colors used in promoting Snapware, the high-end container system Smith helped create.

Its maiden voyage was a 12-hour race at Portland International raceway, which was to be a dry run for the longer California event. It was anything but dry, which pointed out some flaws in the package.

The GASS shop had fitted a defroster that drew cold air from the right side window and blew it across the windshield using a brake duct fan. In the rain, it was a far better fog machine than defroster. We cobbled together something that worked by borrowing furnace duct from a motorhome parked at the track and a crew member's soda bottle. A wiper motor from a nearby boat shop worked, but only for one lap, at which point the onrushing air spun the blade around so it looked like an antenna.

We left Portland having run about half the race . . . the half not in the rain. But when the car was loaded up, we knew what had to be done to be ready for Thunderhill.

The to-do list was short, but not without complications, because nothing on it was typical to stock cars.

It took multiple trips to wrecking yards to design, develop, and install a wiper motor that would work at speed, and then replace the windshield with thicker, scuff-resistant polycarbonate that wouldn't go concave at 130 mph.

We had to improve the lights for night driving and rewire the system to add multiple circuits, each protected with its own fuse. The fuses were added after one of the lights went into meltdown mode in the shop, complete with smoke, flames, and a lot of scrambling out of the car to douse the conflagration.

And we had to create a defroster that didn't include a soda bottle or motorhome ducting. One of the drivers built a plenum to mount beneath the dashboard. Now, hot air is fed from inside the car-just above the exhaust pipes and gearbox-into the plenum. Moveable eyeball vents from a Miata direct the airflow to the window.

We also were able to score a couple sets of Goodyear rain tires, originally built for NASCAR's top series when it races on road courses.

Six weeks after the Portland race, we loaded up two trailers, a pickup, and a pair of motorhomes for the trip to Thunderhill. The plan was to travel on Thursday, practice on Friday, and race, beginning at 11 a.m., on Saturday.

It turned out that we spent far more time on the road than we did on the track. Our problems began shortly after we unloaded.

The National Auto Sports Association runs the 25-hour race. As newcomers, we asked a lot of questions about rules and preparation, and the organizers were more than accommodating, often making suggestions to help us along.