Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Dark Horse Rides: Moorewood Creative 2021 25 Hours of Thunderhill

The Dark Horse Rides

It's been a few years that Larry Moore took his Spec e46 race car beyond the spec class rules to maximize it for endurance racing.  I'd been aware of the car and his dastardly plans for some time, but it wasn't until earlier in 2020 that I happened to stop by the shop where the magic was happening, so to speak, and see what incredible lengths he'd gone to, and how far his madness dedication to that idea had progressed.  Even further, he'd managed to seduce Tony Dominici to join in with his similar e46 race car to make it a two car endurance team - one wrapped black, one white.  

While I had a full ticket of racing in 2020 planned myself, it so happened a number of different events came together that led me to find a place on the team for the National Auto Sport's halo Western States Endurance Championship event: The 25 Hours of Thunderhill.  

Day Before...A Beautiful Morning

December 3rd: Qualifying

After some discussion and review of our testing results from a few weeks prior, I was selected to drive 4th of the 5 drivers, and our leadoff driver Ian Barberi would be qualifying.  The rest of the E2 class was composed of e46s in NASA Spec e45 form or something close, ND and NC Mazda MX5s and a few other cars.  From our testing, we knew the entire team should be able to comfortably put down laps close to record spec e46 pace, but it was a surprise when Frasun Racing's e46 set down a speedy 2:00.6 lap to take 2nd behind the #72 Moorewood Creative White Car's smoking fast 1.58.0.  Ian's 2:01.5 was still 2 seconds free of the rest of the field, but given 25 hours of racing to come, nearly anything could happen.

36 cars, 7 classes and 983 bajillion crew 

December 4th: Race Start

Right at 11am 36 cars rolled out for sighting and pace laps, and after a 1st lap spin for one of the leading prototypes and a light oiling of T15 by another car on the second lap both Moorewood cars made it through unscathed and began moving up.  In the white car, Sean Webster settled into 5th overall and first in class, while Ian had more work to do starting further back in traffic.  In spite of that, he managed to move up steadily, pass cars in faster classes that had qualified faster, and overtake the Frasun Racing e46 handily, and move into second place in class.  As his stint came to a close, he'd put a lot of time on 3rd place, and our next two drivers Tony Dominici and Ed Fardos slowly pulled away from the rest of the pack.  

The Moorewood White car looked to be nearly unstoppable, except for a malfunctioning fuel rig which resulted in a spill while fueling early in the race.  This netted the car a 5 minute penalty which put the Black Car up several laps.  Even though the White car was making better time after 6 hours of racing things looked exceedingly positive for the Black Car.  

Team leader Larry Moore and Engineering Wizard / Master Tactician behind the scenes Justin Ross had very explicit instructions about driving style during this time - 80% effort, don't take any risks.  The true genius behind these cars was that even taking into account a healthy margin of error, they were still very fast and very easy to drive.  Rules in E2 permit one tire change per pit stop and the longer we could get them to last, the more pit stop time we could save, and the better we could protect our lead. 

Black Car Crew Chief Craig

Up to this point, everything was looking great for the Black Car... 

The Fog Is Getting Thicker! 

Given my position in the lineup, I'd figured that I would be getting in the car around 8pm or so, but I'd plan to be around and ready by the end of Ed's first stint just in case anything odd happened.  I had an early dinner around 3pm, took a nap for about an hour in anticipation of an exciting evening, and hung out in the ready area for a while.  As 6pm approached, the Black Car was coming due for fuel and a tire, but as darkness fell, a significant amount of fog came rolling in as well.  In the past, the 25 hour has proceeded at full tilt under the most egregious of conditions - torrential downpour, rivers of mud, and even snow in the past had challenged the teams, but if flagging stations could not see each other, then safety was an issue and the race would have to be suspended.  

Just a wee bit of fog...
The Black Car, parked out there somewhere

As it happened, the team ended up missing the window between just foggy enough to race and getting the pit stop done, missed coming in before a fog-induced full course yellow by just a few seconds.  Certainly, the car would go a lot further circulating at pace car speed, but the officials took their time to assess the fog situation, so the car was forced to pit under yellow a few minutes before the race was red flagged.  NASA endurance rules prohibit getting an advantage by pitting under yellow, so Ed pulled when the car in, the team wasn't allowed to even touch the car to prepare it to go out again.  Once the race was finally stopped the other cars were lined up on the main straight, and the forlorn former E2 class leader was parked in the pits.  

A restful night's repose...mostly.  

An emergency driver's meeting was called, and teams were informed that as soon as the fog cleared there would be a 30 minute warning, then racing would continue.  In addition, the finish time would be pushed out as late as 3pm to account for the time lost while the race was suspended.  But how long would that be?  A day or two previous it was also uncharacteristically foggy in the evening, and it hadn't burned off until 9am.  Amidst some pro-level amateur weather sleuthing which turned out to be largely incorrect, drivers and teams scurried around and found relatively warm nooks for the evening and tried to get some rest.  

A few minutes before 04:30 I awoke in the Moorewood Creative Driver's Lounge which consisted of a few folding chairs, a drying rack and a space heater in a one-car enclosed trailer.  Had I just heard an announcement over the PA?  I was thinking about moving from my warm spot to investigate when NASA Safety let loose with every siren, horn, and noise-based warning device at their command.  I foggily recalled from the driver's meeting that the NASA officials had promised to do their best to alert us, and NASA Safety was performing their duties with unbridled enthusiasm and dedication. 

I stumbled out of the trailer, helmet in hand just in time to run into Justin marching by on a mission.  

"Andy! Car! Now!" he said, leaving no doubt as to what was happening next.  

A few minutes later I found myself in a very cold and dark race car, peering through a completely fogged windscreen, rubbing my gloved hands and stomping my feet against the floorboards to get warmed up.  The car was still technically in parc fermé, but the entire team stood by on their toes ready to service it the second the track went green.  As the rest of the field slowly took off and began circulating, I knew they were out there getting their tires warm and toasty, sighting out cold and slippery spots, and putting us even more laps down.  In all, we lost 8 laps off our lead from the fog's inopportune appearance, but the moment the track went green, the skilled Black Car crew jumped all over the car.  I got a new tire, 10 gallons of gas, a fresh clean windshield, and sent all in record time, and I chugged down the pit lane on the speed limiter ready for my first laps in the race. 

And what excitement!  Overall the car was in pretty good shape, but T2 was still pretty foggy, the tires were stone cold, and while I'd raced there plenty of times in the past, let's just say the lighting was something new considering the typical sunny day in the summer when I typically raced there.  As I was starting to get the feel of things after a few turns, a few cars bombed past me, and I found the AOA Racing Mazda MX5 Cup car hotly followed by the Frazen Racing e46.  This was it - I needed to stay with these guys or forget making up the time we'd lost.

The e46 was working on the MX5 pretty hard, and after a few laps, he pedaled by using his straight line advantage.  The MX5 stuck to his bumper especially in the 1st half of the track, but shortly I was able to get by as well, then follow the e46 for a few laps to get my bearings further.  Once I'd figured out where grip was and wasn't in these conditions thanks to my helpful competitors, I slipped by the Frasun e46 and set off down the road.  Given the field was still a little clumped up from the earlier red flag, I was able to really set some good uninterrupted times down and make up some time on the field. 

Moorewood Black Car, Frazen e46, & AOA Motorsports MX5...prior to the early morning fun...

Of course in the midst of this, the fog began rolling back in between T2 and T4, and I wondered if we'd be parking it again before the night was up, but after several laps the fog fairies headed for bed for good, and left us to race under a relatively clear night sky. 

Even in the darkest hours, between our crew chief Craig Evans and our spotter Milas Mills we got a great rhythm down calling out hazards, slow cars, fast cars and everything in between.  By this time things were warm and I was really enjoying myself - I have to really hand it to Milas who was sitting out on a hillside somewhere probably freezing his butt off.

The pace continued after a fuel stop and as the I motored toward the end of my second stint, I realized the sky had turned from black to grey, and finally a gorgeous orange sunrise and a beautiful clear morning giving no sign weather would be any hindrance to racing for the rest of the day.  

I swapped out to the next driver and hopped back over the pit wall elated - partly excitement partly working on moving my brain back from driving to walking on solid earth. 

Next off in the car was Paul Whiting - final driver in our lineup, who was a deeply experienced racer with several pro races to his credit.  While I availed myself of a stack of pancakes from the Thunderhill grill, he set off at a blistering pace in the early morning and set blazing fast times for three full consecutive stints, close to 3 and a half hours.  I'd kicked us back into a place where we could end up anywhere between 3rd to fifth in our class, but Paul put us right back into the thick of the competition.

Sometime during his stint as well, our main competition the Frasun Racing e46 suffered brake failure heading into T10, and took some time to get towed off, replace the brakes, repair some body damage from nerfing the wall, and rejoin the fray.  That left yet another e46 run by Legacy Motorwerks in our way for 2nd place.  As it turned out, they were running a strategy on harder than typical R compound tires with the intention of skipping tire changes to shorten their pit stops, but such was the speed of the Black Car combined with the pro level pit stops and Paul's triple stinting that by early afternoon Sunday, we'd pulled ahead into 2nd place. 

Lots of waiting between those busy 90 seconds

At that point, with our sister car ahead about 3 laps, the competition unable to match our pace, and with Paul and later Ed pulling through the field, we got the word to take things as easy as possible and take absolutely zero chances.  In fact as it worked out, as Ed finished up his last stint, and I was prepping to do one final stint to take us to the finish line, Chief Craig took me aside. 

"Okay - you're not to use third gear.  Sounds like some transmission problems."   He said. 

Another interesting challenge - Gearing on the Moorewood cars didn't seem to be too different from a typical e46, which made much of the lap in 4th and 5th gear - I'd even done 4th on purpose a few times rolling through T14 and 15, but pulling from T11, the slowest turn on the track, taken about 45mph  felt painfully slow.  Nonetheless, I took over and cruised the final stint turning similar times to our competition in spite of the handicap.  

Tony Dominici, Black Car Owner

Running through the final pit stop would leave us with about 30 minutes of leftover time so given the team didn't want to leave anything to chance, I was to remain in the car and bring it across the line for the end.  

Really, as well, having done primarily sprint racing for the past 20 years or so, there was never a moment while racing with Moorewood that the whole aspect and importance of a racing team was in doubt.  Justin, Tony, Larry and many others had spent untold hours pouring over the rules to maximize every possible way an E2 / NASA ST5 car could be enhanced for speed, reliability, and drivability.  Even longer, I suppose actually wrenching on the cars to make those changes work.  The crew having spent entire weekends practicing, pit stops on the Black car were flawless, and aside from some inopportune fog, we'd have been in a perfect position to win our class.   Same could be said of the White car, as a minor fueling rig malfunction put them back...just not quite as far.  No less than 25 team members contributed to the success from fresh clean windshields to race strategy to truly delicious freshly baked cookies.  

It was a challenge driving a cold car in the middle of the night, sure...but it was easy considering all the hard work the team put in to get us drivers in a place to do it.  

Andy, Milas & Justin, hamming it up.

As we came to the end of the last few laps, we synchronized where the cars were on the track and did a lo-speed cruise by the Thunderhill main straight in a picture perfect 1-2 finish.  As is NASA tradition, the crews gather on the hot pit wall and cheer on every car that's able to make it to the end of the journey.  It was epic driving the car across the line cheering too - Team Moorewood Creative - this one's for you!

Thanks Team!!!