2012 NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill
By David Ray, www.hookedondriving.com
I had the good fortune to drive in the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill with some really great folks, the owners, drivers and crew of Team Prototype Development, out of Stockton CA. A grassroots effort that you may have read about from our race a couple of years ago, progress had been made leading up to this venture and our band of enthusiasts had high hopes for a successful race.
If you are a driver and have never driven in an endurance race, especially one in the dark, I highly recommend that you put it on your bucket list. It’s just an amazing experience. The PDG team did admirably this year, with a very solid 4th place overall finish in a locally developed car that did encounter some issues during the 25 long hours of this contest. But almost every team encounters issues…it is those who overcome them quickly, calmly and with a little luck, that are there toward the top at the end. We have to give out a shout of congratulations to the Mercer Motorsports Team, as their highly professional (dare I say, Le Mans level) effort – aggressive yet amazingly safe driving and flawless team operations kind of made it look like the varsity vs. the JV. But give them their due – they kicked our butt and deserved the win. Could we have done better? Yes, but the win was not in the cards for the old PDG team, so a 4th was something that we all celebrated.
But this article is not about the race, but what I learned while driving in it. Or maybe I should say “relearned.” Yes, these were things that I knew, but had been taken for granted and maybe not focused on. And, in the dark of the night, with some issues with the car, these lessons came back to me and made a huge impression. You might chuckle at the simplicity of what you’ll read below, but remember that these lessons were learned while running hard in the dark, with 60 or so of my “close” friends accompanying me around the awesome Thunderhill track. Vision. As drivers, our eyes are a primary way we find the proper line around a race track. Yes, I said “primary” as there are others…sound, feel, G’s, raw speed, and probably more. But we start with our eyes. I was the fourth driver, so both of my stints were going to be 2.5 hours in the blackness that is Thunderhill at night. Oh, and I got to drive in to the sunrise at Turns 1 and 15….a religious experience.
Really. So how do you find the line when you can’t see the track? No worries – use your trifocals for every dollar they are worth and get your eyes up and seek reference points on the horizon. As I jumped in the car with everything going well except some questions about the gearbox, I set about finding a rhythm and correct lap time to satisfy the crew and owners. But I have to say – the first few laps in the dark, with no practice since last year – is just a bit of a nightmare. Is the light in the mirror the Mercer Porsche, a reflection, or did you just pass a bank of lights that mark the emergency worker station?
NASA does a good job of putting some reflectors out – especially where the track is totally dark, from turns 6?10, in to T14, and turn 2 are primary areas of total darkness. And frankly, the headlights just aren’t that helpful. If you’re going fast, your vision HAS to be beyond the range of the lights. On my first lap, I quickly realized that the reflectors were different than the previous year, so I had to re?learn them.
This time, they placed them at eye level rather than dots on the road’s edge. Yikes. As I approached turn 7 at my normal rate of hauling the mail, I see that they have a row of reflectors along the left side of the track approaching the turn 7 apex, and then they continued them on driver’s right at the exit of the turn. But upon the approach, they looked like a row of sequential reflectors. Good news. I picked the correct reflector to use as a turn in guide. Bad news. My lights left the second row of reflectors and I looked in to darkness. This was the first time I’ve ever actually been disoriented while behind the wheel, and I was clipping around 110 mph! Two blinks and I got my bearings. I had hooked the turn and was driving down the left edge of the track approaching the turn 8 turn?in point from the wrong side of the track! Whoa, Nellie….a MAJOR lift and we slipped in place to make the turn.
As the old eyes adjusted, and I got accustomed to doing laps (I started to say comfortable, but you just can’t get comfortable), the extended vision and focus on reference points became my friend. I realized that if anyone took out the reflectors marking the turn 8 apex, we’d all be in a world of hurt. Every lap of the 2.5 hour stint, I HAD to spot ONE single reflector as THE SPOT to aim for. And it always worked.
Approaching turn 3, you drive toward the middle of the scoring tower. Approaching the bypass, I used the left?most light tower from the turn 7 worker station. I was driving within a second or two of a normal lap, with almost no vision of the actual asphalt for 2/3 of the course! You gotta try this folks. On the highway at night – try to extend your vision past the headlights (don’t cheat with halogen brights) and see if you can get smooth and drive confidently. Then translate this to driving in the daytime.
If you can extend your vision and have TOTAL focus on what’s ahead – way ahead – you will be a more confident, smooth and consistent driver. This skill, applied at any time will make you MUCH safer as well.
Momentum. We had had an issue with the gearbox before my stint. We had lost 5th gear. So the owner had coached me to shift selectively and carefully. Then, about 30 minutes in, the crew chief came on the radio and pronounced “Dave, we talked to the manufacturer of the gearbox, and he says don’t shift.” I said, “What?” “Don’t shift.” “Keep her in fourth.” “OK,” I said, with a curse under my breath. Well, I’ll admit, we had a pretty quick car with an LS?1 Corvette motor pushing us. So 4th gear is not that bad of a place to be. Kind of like having a 5 iron if you only have one golf club. But, man – the car lugged out of the slow corners, and I started having to lift at the end of straights…not so much fun.
And I had 2 hours to go (IN THE FIRST STINT!). So, time to adapt and prosper….and as time passed, the lap times came back down. Wait a minute, we’re now driving in the dark, stuck in one gear, having to give up some passes and the lap times are in the same ballpark? Ah yes…rhythm and momentum.
Instinctually I started working to scrub as little speed as possible at turn in. Kinks became straightaways, and maybe the biggest thing – I got on the throttle NOW coming out of a turn. With little torque, there was no risk in getting throttle too early…so I went for it. It also seemed that braking became less important…after all, “Brakes only slow you down,” I’m told by my wise guy friends. The bottom line here is that if we were going to hold our position in the top five at the time, we all had to muster lap times that were reflective of a super smooth line, anticipation of turn?in points based on stretching our vision as far as the eye could see, and getting to the gas as soon and as often as possible. And it worked.
As I turned the car over to top SCCA shoe Darrell Anderson, he launched that bad boy in to the light of day, with a pro BMW M3 breathing down his neck, held them off and locked down our very respectable 4th place finish.
Lifetime driving lessons learned – you’ll always be faster if you look far ahead, smoothness gives instant.