The World’s Longest Motor Racing EventBy Mike Finnegan
For those of you who thought racing was done for the season, guess what, it’s still going. Out in Willows, California, the race known as The World’s Longest Motor Racing Event is running right now.
“It was a little sketchy out there on racing slicks and not on rain tires. And certainly when it was starting to rain hard on the back section of the track.
“We managed to skate by and get it up front, we’re pretty happy.” This information came to us after Dave qualified his Ford GT Xtreme third for the “25 hours Of Thunderhill,” held this weekend in Willows, CA.
Smith will be the initial driver of the Team Copa Genoa Racing Ford. Powered by Red Line Oil and Primary Sponsor Copa Cachaca with assistance from Hyperfocus Motorsports, Muscle Milk, Go Pro Cameras, 15th street fitness along with Freightliner and Sport RV
Smith has run the Thunderhill race for the past four years. His experience at the track will be essential as many variables from dry, wet and even snow conditions could be prevalent at the track. This year, rains have set in and will provide a heavy challenge for even the most experienced driver like Smith.
“It makes for difficult track conditions and many people are losing a lot of grip out there. (The Race) has mainly amateur drivers on track but is picking up an interest with pro racers.”
“The amateurs have a learning curve out here with guys flying off and back onto the track which brings road debris back onto the track, making it difficult to drive on and the visibility is poor.”
The three are joined by amateur race car driver and owner Steve Tarpley along with Jason Montgomery VP of Copa, who Smith teaches both at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. Tarpley and Montgomery started road course driving in personal vehicles on track, where both migrated into full race prepared machines.
Tarpley developed a street legal Ford GT based on the 2005 model into a purpose built race machine specifically for the Thunderhill race. The power plant is a 5.4 Liter Supercharged V8 engine that has 700 horsepower under the hood.
Add into the fact that Smith and his co-drivers will be racing in a field of 60 other cars in three classes on the track. It gets congested out there where your windshield gets very, very dirty and difficult to see the car in front of you.
Smith commented that the differences between the Pro and Amateur drivers bring a wide variance of lap times which can bring challenges to even the most experienced racer.
“Most of the pros are driving high end (Mazda)MX-5 Cup Miata’s or Porsche Cup Cars and their not used to driving with amateur guys out there so their patience wears thin. Their frustration goes up with the amateur mistakes on track where the pro drivers are not used to seeing those errors anymore, making it difficult for them.”
“With the amateur drivers, they can be easily intimidated by the Pro drivers coming up on them where they make mistakes where they can take their eyes off of the road.
There are so many challenges out there. It’s one of those races that anything can happen.”
Thunderhill is a three mile fifteen turn road course with numerous elevation changes. The track can be a challenge for the drivers. One section of the track is named “The Cyclone.” This part of the track has a steep elevation change with two sharp corners. The race uses a lower section of The Cyclone which offers its own challenges.
“The lower road is called the bypass which has a blind corner going up over a hill which (the drivers) call it “The Jump.” “When you jump over it, it has an off-camber landing to it.”
“You never know who’s spun out on the other side. A lot of people make the mistake as they go up and over that portion of the track.”
The other challenge for the drivers will be near the end of the circuit where turns 11 through 13 are a sharp left followed by a quick right and left esses corners. You have to be on the throttle and shifting at the same time. “You can unbalance the car easily, if you make the wrong up shift. A lot of people make mistakes there,” said Smith.
With the race being 25 hours, not only the weather brings challenges, but the lack of lighting on the track will bring its own challenges. “When it gets dark on the track every corner can be a challenge.
“Every straightaway can be a challenge because there’s so many cars on the track you are trying to decide if you want to thread the needle past a few cars that are slower hoping that they see you and they don’t move over and take you out.
One wrong move can take a team out for the race that has a huge investment. The Thunderhill race is a non-paying race that teams from many countries come out to get ready for the 24 hours of Daytona. Sometimes the budgets for teams at Thunderhill can equal the Daytona race.
Smith commented that, “Tarpley’s passion for Ford and the respect he has for Ford Motor Company and the GT, bringing that car back after the history it has had.” Smith added, “The GT has had a history overseas as well.” The GT has won 4 24 hours of LeMans events in the 60’s.
“Steve (Tarpley) is a promising amateur driver and he’s just happy to be out there with some pro guys with representing Ford with his efforts.” Tarpley hopes that the efforts will bring an ongoing partnership driving the GT.
In a separate interview Tarpley stated, “My love of the Ford GT and the respect for the company that built such an iconic car, coupled with the legacy of the original Ford GT40 and its race heritage motivated me to have a car that could compete in the longest road race in North America.”
With an endurance race such as the 25 hours at Thunderhill the setup of the car is essential, even with tires that are used. “We will be using Hoosier and Dunlap tires during the event. The Dunlaps prove to be long lasting. We will be able to get a lot of miles out of that.
“The Hoosiers seem to stick better.” Smith informed us that if the driver were to be in the car over the duration that included stops and no driver change, they would use the Dunlaps for over all racing. If there were to be a driver change, the Hoosier’s would be placed on the car to gain the time lost on pit road.
“The Crew Chief is John Rock who was an integral part of the build of this car. Jon has a long time history in IndyCar and Indy Lights as a crew chief and fabricator.”
“With John’s skill set, he has been able to keep us confortable in the car. We literally built the car to withstand endurance racing.”
The team has adjusted the car to use third and fourth gear during the race to lessen the usage on the transmission. The team also has set the engine to use less horsepower to increase the fuel mileage for the long run.
“We have a really good shot at winning this race. As long as we can be mistake free in the pits and the drivers being mistake free we have a good chance of being on the podium.”
Rock hails from Genoa Racing. The team manager is Ed Nelson who has many years of experience from several 24 hours of Daytona and LeMans events. “It’s those two guys who oversaw the build of the car.”
Smith adds his thanks to Robertson Racing with the assistance with the GT build. The team has assembled a variety of talent for pit road duties to assist in the capture of the podium. “You can see the professionalism the team has shown out here,” Smith informs us.
Here is a fact that may surprise many readers, the race, billed as the longest endurance motor event in the world, does not award any prize money. When asked what was the key attraction without a purse, Smith responded, “The adverse conditions in Willows, California, overcoming the weather it makes for a very big challenge and for us personally we want to accomplish this race and make this car last before we move further into the top professional level.”
Smith and the team has the goal of Daytona in 2011 or 2012. The race at Thunderhill is the preparation for that race as well as seat time for the amateur drivers. The race assists teams to get ready for the next season.
“To have success at Thunderhill our partners, our sponsors, our team owner would be a big boost in wanting to go to the top level in bringing this effort to Daytona, even LeMans. This is just some of the reasons to come here, as it is for many teams.”
When asked about his biggest threat at the race Smith said that Mercer Motorsports (Who landed the pole for the race today) was the big challenge with the collaborative efforts with Flying Lizard Motorsports who are top level Grand-Am and ALMS teams and drivers who are fielding a Porsche GT3 Cup car.
“It’s really Porsche versus the Ford GT. If everything goes right on both sides, it will be a battle to the end.” Smith tells us. Last year’s event, Mercer grabbed the win.
Mercer will be the challenge for Smith and his co-drivers in today’s race. “They (Mercer) have been racing the entire 2010 Grand-Am and ALMS season. They are very, very proficient in everything they do.
“We have put together a team that has not been running the entire season, but a lot of experienced guys are here for us and we feel that we can give them a run for their money.”
Smith will be starting the race and if it a close race with Mercer, he will be the anchor for the end of the event. If the team is well ahead of Mercer, or Mercer has issues, Tarpley will close out the team’s race.
SUN, Dec 5th – UPDATE AS OF 7am PST – Dave and Team Copa are running as the overall leaders and Team Mercer is down 11 laps. We will give a wrap up from Dave tonight.
SpeedwayMedia will be keeping an eye on the team and provide you updates of Smith and the team. If things work out, Smith will be a regular contributor to SpeedwayMedia for the 2011 season with his racing stories and experiences.