Targa Miata
December 5, 2011 - I spent the weekend working for the 949Racing race team at the 25 hours of Thunderhill.
The two team cars finished 1st and 3rd in class, won the under 2.0 liter trophy and came in 8th and 11th overall. An excellent result, due to good cars, great driving and some very hard work by every member of the service crew - particularly when both cars had problems at the same time at around 1 am. And yes, that's what one car looked like at the end of the race.

It's really interesting to see what's involved in a successful endurance team. It's not just about going quickly, although that's obviously important. You have to watch your fuel use, because every moment you're not circulating the track your competitors are getting away. The cars have to be monitored as much as possible so that any failing components can be replaced quickly and before they become a major problem. Even something as simple as taking 20 seconds to check the oil every time you fill up can add 5 minutes of time in the pits over the course of the race. We practiced fuel stops, tire changes and driver changes with a stopwatch, trying to find a way to shave off 5 seconds each time. You could really see a difference in the pits between teams.

For example, on a four tire change, we had five guys. When the car stopped, two started lifting up the car with a jack on each side while a third lifted from the back. Two others pulled the rear lug nuts off with an impact gun. When the nuts were off, they'd move to a front wheel and start on those lugs. As soon as the car was up, the side jack guys went to the rear wheels, pulled off the old wheel and slotted a new one on to the lugs. Once the front nuts were off, the impact guns were tossed over to the guys at the rear wheels to tighten them on. When that was done, the front wheels had been changed and the guns went back to the front to tighten those up. The side jack men were back on the jacks by this point and the car was dropped to the ground. During all of this, the rear jack operator was placing wheels within reach and catching hot ones. Total time, less than a minute and every person and tool was busy the entire time.
And, of course, there are always repairs done while the clock ticks away. We had a car run off the track after brake use spiked up and the pads wore down to the backing plates - that left us with not only body damage, but also a damaged caliper. Another lost a wheel due to stud failure. Several hubs went out, along with an alternator. The team was ready for all of these with spare parts, but they still cost time and the repairs had to be done on a smoking hot car in the dark on a moment's notice. We had an excellent service crew and all of this was sorted out far more quickly than you'd expect with very little wasted effort. Quite a rush.

It's interesting to contrast the demands of endurance racing with something like the Targa. The latter's often called "the ironman of motorsports" because of the level of abuse the cars get. The total distance the vehicles cover is actually pretty similar in this case. But the track cars are at full race pace the entire time, with the clock running non-stop. Targa cars have long road sections in between timed stages, and there's always some down time during the day when the car can get checked over.
However, on the track the pits are never more than a couple of minutes away. Even with a wheel missing or running on a badly abused battery, our cars always made it back home - and if the car gets disabled on-track, it's towed in as soon as possible. On the Targa, the service crew could be a long way away and the cars might have to travel quite a distance for repairs. So you may have to perform a field repair with what's carried in the car. It's less a matter of getting it done in seconds and more a matter of doing what needs to be done to get to service.
The damage is different as well. On the track, things either wear out due to stress or (less often) get damaged when the cars make contact. If there are bad bumps on the track, the drivers know about them and will usually avoid or minimize them to protect the car. On the rally, damage is more likely to be related to impacts and pounding. Off-track excursions are usually much more serious due to the lack of runoff areas, and there are surprises lurking in the road that can punish everything underneath.
Some things are the same. Tires need to be managed, either because there's a limited number available or because it takes a valuable minute to change to fresh ones. You still have to trade off speed vs caution, whether it's preserving the car or taking fewer risks. The speech given by the crew chief before the 25 hour race started sounded much like my speech to the Targa crew, stressing the importance of getting the car home.
They're both long, tiring and very challenging types of racing. I'm glad I was given the opportunity to take part in the 25 Hour race with such a good team!
entry 1011 - tags: 25 hours of Thunderhill, endurance racing