The 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the longest road race in America, but only if you are running at the end.
To do that, you have to be ready when it starts. And that was the challenge before us, as we huddled beneath the glow of a pair of high-intensity lights, methodically gutting a MoPar V-8.
During practice for the race, the engine in the Dodge Charger ran strong. And it ran cool. But it kept blowing water out of the radiator catch tank, soaking the engine bay and lubricating the left front tire. There was no water in the oil and no oil in the water. Even after the engine cooled down, the system held pressure. We tried a lower water level. We tried a higher one. We burped the engine. We checked for flow and restrictions. Nothing changed but our level of frustration.
Finally, there was no other option. We began tearing apart the engine, knowing we didn't have the parts on hand to put it back together. We had already dispatched drivers to distant parts houses in search of what we needed, and we knew we'd have a couple hours of daylight the next morning to finish the job.
The "too stubborn to admit you are licked" mindset is the essence of endurance racing, competition that can be as tough on the crew as it is on the car.
Perhaps the hardest endurance race in the country is the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The 3-mile road course sweeps up hills and charges into the valleys of rolling agrarian landscape. It's a 14-turn track that can be hard on brakes, clutches, gearboxes, and bodywork.
Consider that the car that won the race in December covered 760 laps, for a total of 2,280 miles. That's four and a half times the length of the Daytona 500, or enough miles to go from Charlotte to Los Angeles in just over a day.
Sixty-six cars started the race, and when the checkered flag fell, the winning car had lapped the Second Place car 23 times, making thousands of passes on slower cars-and more than half the race was run in darkness-in the process.
Driver Howard Johnston cuts...
Driver Howard Johnston cuts holes in the dash to accommodate a trio of moveable defroster vents from a Miata. Endurance racing calls for a number of additions-lights, wipers, defroster-that short-track racers don't have to consider.
In the dry at Portland International...
In the dry at Portland International Raceway, the Snapware car was the second-fastest vehicle on the road course. Not bad for its maiden road course voyage.
The major difference between...
The major difference between racing endurance events and competing on ovals is staying on the track in all kinds of conditions . . . even rain.
We were relative rookies running in the major leagues. The list of drivers included well-known names in the road racing crowd: Indy 500 veteran Lyn St. James, former Champ Car driver Dominic Dobson, road-racing icon Randy Pobst, and others with multiple trips to Le Mans, Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Few teams elect to race stock cars in endurance events. The chassis aren't nearly as sophisticated as what comes out of the factory at Porsche or BMW, and the big V-8s have an appetite that keeps the fuel crew scurrying between the pits and the gas pumps. And the price tag for the 500 gallons of fuel we planned to use was dwarfed by the bill for 13 sets of tires we mounted up for the trip.
Unlike the nimble sports cars they share the track with, stock cars don't adapt well to the tight turns and long straights, off-camber corners and hairpin turns. Tires? The Goodyears run out of steam just about the time the drivers do.
But in spite of their drawbacks, the cars are impressive on-track. They are big and loud and all eyes and ears follow them as they charge down the straight past the pits. Surrounded by Miatas, Porsches, and Acuras, the big Charger looks like someone invited a linebacker to ballet class.
What the car lacked in finesses, we hoped to make up with muscle.
And does it draw attention. Jaws dropped when the crew dropped the trailer door to roll the multi-colored MoPar onto the tarmac. In a paddock populated by high-revving four-cylinder imports, it was impossible to ignore the throaty thunder of the Dodge Magnum when it fired up.
The Dodge wasn't the only full-bodied car at the nation's longest race. We were pitted next to a pair of V-8-powered pickups and a second stock car was parked about 20 spots from our pit spot.
Our car was built for the Great American Stock Car Series, a Portland, Oregon-based operation that runs both ovals and road courses. It pounded the wall at Iowa Speedway early in the 2009 season and came back to the GASS shop for a new front clip.
The constantly-changing weather...
The constantly-changing weather at Portland gave the team lots of practice going from wet to dry setups and back again. The Hoosiers used at Portland were replaced with Goodyears for Thunderhill.
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.
Troy Bates, left, and Paul...
Troy Bates, left, and Paul Smith put on fresh brakes for Thunderhill. It was a practice session for an anticipated mid-race change after 12 hours of racing.
Troy Bates, left, and Jerry...
Troy Bates, left, and Jerry Boone work under the glow of portable lights as they prepare to pull the heads off the Dodge engine.
The 3 miles of Thunderhill...
The 3 miles of Thunderhill Park Raceway snake over the rolling landscape of Northern California, and include everything from long straights to hills where a driver is blind to what's on the other side.
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.
Furnace duct from a motorhome...
Furnace duct from a motorhome and a soda bottle from a crew member made an inelegant but effective defroster at Portland.
But even with their guidance, it took almost two hours to get the car through the NASA technical inspection and receive a logbook. We all know there is no sense arguing with a tech inspector, and many of the "suggestions" he made were valuable. But there also were times I wondered if he and I were reading rules from the same book. It was only after we finally passed inspection that we were told the Dodge was the first of 18 cars that had shown up for logbook tech to actually get one.
Well, we already finished first at something and we figured it was a good omen. We were all very wrong.
The cooling issue showed up early Friday. It was similar to one we had at Portland, where a new radiator cap seemed to fix the situation. This time it didn't.
We wasted hours on cell phones, talking to the engine builder and the GASS shop, trying to diagnose the problem by long distance. Nothing anyone suggested made any difference, and the problem seemed to be getting worse.
When we ran out of magic bullets, Troy Bates and Paul Smith, brothers of the car owner, and I agreed to pull the engine apart. At that point we had nothing else to lose, as the Dodge wasn't going to go out again the way it was.
We discovered the intake manifold bolts on one side were barely tight and about half the head bolts on both sides had lost torque. The head gaskets showed signs of breaching between the center cylinders, and there was evidence of gas leaking from the bores to the water jacket.
It appeared that sometime before it was bolted in to our car, the engine had run very hot . . . hot enough to expand the aluminum cylinder heads and compress the gaskets. When the engine cooled and the heads shrank, the bolts were loose.
In retrospect, it was something we should have checked before we left Portland for a race that was scheduled to go twice around the clock.
Working late into the night and before dawn the next morning, the engine team got the heads back on and the valves adjusted just in time to get the car gridded. Smith, the lead driver, was already in the car when it came down off the jackstands.
While it was in the air, we noticed a couple drips of oil from beneath the car, but nothing that looked bad enough to worry about.
On the pace lap, Smith radioed in "we've got a problem . . . the clutch is slipping."
By the second lap, whatever was on the clutch apparently had burned off and Smith was moving up the field, passing three or four cars per lap. Within a half hour he had moved up 43 spots.
Then it all went very wrong.
"I'm bringing it in, I've got no clutch," he said on the radio.
Jeff Smith fights for track...
Jeff Smith fights for track position with a BMW as the two drivers head toward one of Thunderhill's 14 corners. The stock car was able to keep up with most cars through the corners, and thundered by almost all of them when they hit long stretches.
By late Friday night, the...
By late Friday night, the heads were off the Dodge and re-assembly was underway. Paul Smith cleaned the block on the driver side while his brother prepped the head for reinstallation on the right bank.
Compared to the mostly imports...
Compared to the mostly imports on a road course, a stock car takes up a fair bit of real estate and can be an intimidating view as it approaches in the mirror.
The couple drips from the rear main seal had turned into a substantial leak, coating the underside of the car in oil.
We wiped off the bottom of the car and used every kind of sealer we could find to try to cap the gusher. And then we crammed a couple rags in the bell housing to serve as a diaper.
But after another 30 minutes on the track, things had gone from bad to worse.
Smith brought it in a second time as we tried to decide how often we could repeat the clean-up and diaper process. Our hope was to give all five drivers at least some track time in competition. And that was when we discovered cracks around the gearbox tailshaft and signs that the rear bearing wasn't getting any lubrication. Without a spare gearbox, we had to admit defeat and end our 25-hour race after only 23 laps.
Everyone on the team was devastated: the four other drivers who got almost no time in the car, the crew that took time off from their day jobs to work on the Dodge, and the crew chief, who bore the responsibility for not double-checking everything on the car when it was delivered to the team. Packing up after that type of weekend is always a somber experience.
We loaded the tire and pit equipment trailer first and sent it and three drivers back to Portland about an hour before the rest of the team hit the road. But we caught up with them about three-quarters of the way home. Although the rig was headed north, their transmission went south, leaving them stranded alongside Interstate 5, about 100 miles north of the California border.
It simply added insult to our injuries.
"I just can't believe how many things could go so wrong in the same weekend," Smith said. "It has to be the worse race I've ever had. We drove all this way, spent all this money, and some drivers only got four laps in while scrubbing tires.
"Any idea when the next race is scheduled?"