Cheez-It bags on your toes: 32 hours with a misfit race crew

Thunderhill-note-feature
Kyle Smith

Last week I hopped a flight from Michigan to California on the invite of Sam Smith to join a motley crew of likeminded amateurs running an endurance race, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Since there was already a team of five drivers significantly more qualified than me to take the wheel of the spec E46 BMW, most of my time would be spent keeping tabs on the drivers over the radio headset and holding the fire extinguisher during refueling.

The goal of any endurance race is to turn as many laps as possible within the time allotted. This means outright speed is not always the solution; refer to the old saying about finishing first and first finishing. This crew brought a car ready to run for 25 hours, had drivers prepared to turn laps, and a crew primed to support. Sounds like a recipe for success? It’s not always that simple.

A lot of strategy goes into a successful endurance race: Who will drive what hours of the day, how the pit stops are handled, and of course balancing speed with reliability to keep the car alive for the duration of the race. It’s something I only have a small amount of experience with and was excited to learn—but I also knew the lack of sleep would likely take its toll on my memory, so I set an alarm on my phone every hour. Each time it went off, I wrote down what was happening around me.

Here are those notes, only edited for clarity. Enjoy a brief picture of what it felt like to be a part of a 25-hour race effort.

***

7:20 a.m., Pacific. Waking up from a good night’s sleep curled up on the couch of an RV just to the side of our pit stall. Carl, one of the mechanics, walks in with coffee looking for Mental, aka Christian Ward, one of the drivers, who is nowhere to be found. I think he’s in the shower. Carl shrugs and hands me the coffee: “This is a you-snooze-you-lose type of deal.” 

8 a.m. I’m taking a shower. The warm water feels amazing, since I know that the forecast for the day is brisk and wet. I take a note that the shower is an option for later. It takes three layers of clothes before I feel confident enough to open the door of the track bathroom and let in the 40-ish degree air. 

9:15 a.m. Rain moves in. A drizzle. I’m crouched in the race car where the passenger seat should be, moving the radio that plugs into the driver’s helmet in the hopes of solving a communication problem. Some drivers can hear and talk to the pit crew, some can only hear them. Luckily, the problem is mostly solved. The resident hotshoe, Troy Ermish, has a different microphone in his helmet that doesn’t play nice with the team radios. He says he will just deal without it. 

BMW on grid at 25 hours of Thunderhill
Kyle Smith

10:25 a.m. We are taking the car to the starting grid. It’s drizzling and maybe 50 some-odd degrees. None of us have umbrellas or any shelter from the weather. Everyone is jovial. Car looks slightly out of place in a grid full of really tarted-up racers. We look like the underdogs we are.

11:01 a.m. A Toyota GR Corolla is leading the field for a pace lap. It pulls into the pits but the flag stand at the end of the front straight holds off on waving the green flag to start the race. The spitting rain continues. Somehow the start is botched—the field of cars is too spread out. The whole situation feels chaotic. At one point the pace car goes counter-course to regroup the field. That is a huge no-no in any normal situation. Extremely odd to see that happen.

12:30 p.m. Our first pit stop: driver change and fuel. My task is holding a fire extinguisher pointed at the man dumping fuel into the car from 5-gallon race jugs. Two drivers help get the new driver belted into the car while the 10 gallons of fuel goes in. After the car leaves I get a talking-to by the NASA pit-safety man because I was standing in the wrong place. This pit stop felt especially bad due to the car coming in a lap earlier than expected, putting all of the crew behind the 8-ball, scrambling to get our jobs done.

1 p.m. The weather continues to be gray and gloomy. My feet are wet and they’re sucking the heat out of my body. Fresh, dry socks come out of my bag. I devise a plan to keep them dry by quickly eating two snack-sized bags of Cheez-Its and using the foil bags to cover my toes so that, even though my shoes get wet, my socks won’t. Why didn’t I pack boots or waterproof shoes? Great question. Running shoes were definitely a mistake. Luckily, Cheez-Its are tasty, and the bags are both water- and wind-proof, so my toes will survive.

2 p.m. Unexpected pit stop with Sam driving. One jug of gas dumped into the tank before pulling into the pits alongside one of the RVs to try and diagnose a problem. Rules limit the amount of work that can be done in “hot” pits, areas through which cars are still driving. “Cold” pits are on the other side of another safety barrier, and we can do anything to the car except add fuel. One mechanic cycles power to the ECU in the hopes of resetting the computer and making it think everything is okay. We also swap all four tires. Car sounds better as it leaves. We’ll see how long it lasts.

2:46 p.m. The car comes in again with the driver—I’m honestly not sure who is in the car right now—saying it is down on power. We swap the ignition coils on cylinders 2 and 5 for new ones. Hopefully this solves misfire issue that ECU is calling out.

3:07 p.m. The car comes in again. A code reader says the computer is declaring a moving misfire, now on cylinders 3 and 6, so the engine is again down on power. One mechanic tickles something under the hood and sends the driver back out. 

4:11 p.m. Moving misfire still not resolved. Cheez-It bags are working wonderfully for my toes. Gray weather, team feels pretty gray also. No solid plan for a fix of the engine issue. Consensus is to try a fuel pump replacement next. 

5:05 p.m. With as little gas in the tank as possible, it is time to swap the fuel pump. We have to do so by flashlight because the sun has set. Well, it wasn’t so much a sunset as darkness seeping in through the edges of the sky, blotting out any hope of easily finding what was causing the car to enter limp mode. We refuel as the car goes back out onto the track.

6:18 p.m. I’m beginning to think taking a few Ibuprofen would be a good idea. Somehow I ran competitively for 10 years and today is the first time I’ve ever had shin splints. Probably due to standing on uneven surfaces.

Sat in the RV for a bit to warm up and make small talk. Still have one more warm layer on hold in my bag just in case I need more warmth. Need to dry shoes out for fear of the toes getting worse. 

7 p.m. Pit stop. Scraping dirt out of the wheels after one driver took the car into the dirt on the backside of the track. There is mud on top of the car, so he must have really carried some speed into the clay. Putting my fingers next to the brakes is scary at first, then I realized they were the perfect temperature to be hand warmers. Still feeling strong mentally. Physically, a little rough. Stretching my lower back regularly is required.

mud around BMW race car
Christian Ward

9:15 p.m. The weather breaks a bit. Could swear it warmed up five degrees, and a few other team members agree. Thinking about how nice a warm shower would be. Car is not good. Will take a break to walk over and warm up with a shower if the team decides to diagnose the car in the pits for awhile. Will also try and shower if the car goes out and continues lapping in its current state. Probably won’t actually shower, though. Official crew member or no, I feel bad walking away from the pits with so much going on.

10 p.m. – midnight I somehow end up the one with the headset radio, “coaching” Troy through his driving stint. He still has no working microphone and thus can hear me but not tell me anything. One-way communication can be fun. I give regular updates—calling out his lap times and any news from the course/pits every two laps, usually—and also try out all my terrible attempts at standup comedy since he can’t object. This includes goading him into doing a prom-queen wave the length of pit row while being led by the pace car for a few laps due to the need to change out the corner workers. Surely at least one other team was confused by his waving hand as he passed by on track. I get a good laugh out of it.

12:30 a.m. A pit stop for fuel, tires, and a driver change. I’m starting to feel tired, but not nearly as tired as I should be. Gonna drink some water, brush my teeth and force my eyes closed for a bit to rest. I fall asleep before I find my toothbrush.

BMW racer in pits at 25 hours of thunderhill
Just a few pit stalls down was this much more serious E46 BMW. Kyle Smith

1:15 a.m. Sleep. So glorious. Sitting up, no less. I never sleep sitting up, and it feels so strange waking up that I am out of sorts for a good 30 seconds after waking up, a confused state brought on by …

2 a.m. “HE’S IN THE PITS!” I spring from the couch and out of the RV to jump over the wall to hold the fire bottle. The car comes in along the RV after fueling for a tire change. The rain starts up again. I feel surprisingly sharp. I either need to actually brush my teeth or get a cup of coffee. I punch the button on the coffee maker in the RV.

3:07 a.m. The BMW’s ECU keeps putting the car in limp mode and drivers have to turn the car off and back on every lap. We can tell when they do it by watching the lights on the side of the car turn off, then back on eight seconds later as they coast along the track. We have no idea why the ECU is unhappy. 

4:08 a.m. I walk away from the pit stall to take a shower just to bring my core temp up. While I’m warm, a second fresh pair of socks comes out of my bag and goes on my feet before the Cheez-It bags go back on. The air hangs heavy and damp, making the 40-degree air temp bite a lot harder than it’s barking right now. I should feel like shit, but don’t. Almost makes me scared. 

4:45 a.m. While on watch in the pit, I miss the headlight flash that signals our car was coming in, since this driver’s mic is not working either. It isn’t a planned stop. He drives right by where he should stop for fuel or other problems and parks like he means it alongside the trailer in which the car arrived. He waits for me to stick my head in the window to say, “It’s toast.” The clutch is slipping at a nearly un-drivable level, and the transmission sounds like a bag of marbles being tossed down a flight of stairs.

We are now parked. Our race is over.

BMW in cold pits at 25 hours of thunderhill
Christian Ward

5:15 a.m. Everyone handles the news a little differently. Some seem to halfheartedly brainstorm a fix, or suggest who or where a clutch could be sourced from. One driver just stands tall for three seconds before saying, “I’m going to bed,” and walking off. No one protests. A bottle of “hot chocolate” appears. Toasts. Shrugs. Laughter. 

6 a.m. The weather shifts and brings on a heavy fog, instigating a yellow flag that slows everyone left still on track. The pit marshal walks up to give us instructions for how to handle the inevitable red flag but I cut him off before he even starts: “We’re hard-parked. Broken. Nothing to see here.” He nods and strolls on by. The red flag follows shortly after, parking all racers on the front straight due to visibility-related safety concerns. 

7 a.m. I’m asleep. Get another 45 minutes this time. When I wake, Sam encourages me to look into shifting my flight to an earlier one than the redeye I had initially booked. Luckily I find one that works. He gets stuck on the redeye.

8:26 a.m. We start packing. It’s eerily quiet since all the race cars are still parked on the front straight awaiting the fog to break. No one is walking in the paddock. I hear that the drivers’ meeting room is filled with people sleeping on and under tables because it’s warmer there. 

In line for breakfast 25 hours of thunderhill
Kyle Smith

9 a.m. The packing is complete and our team loads up into whatever cars we arrived in and heads to a breakfast spot called Nancy’s. Diner fare. Stories of previous adventures and planning of adventures yet to come filled the air. Smiles. Laughter. No one seems phased by the abject failure we just experienced nor acknowledges that the race is literally still happening while we shovel bacon and eggs into our faces.

11 a.m., Pacific. I get dropped off at the airport. I’m on a plane and 30,000 feet over the Rockies before the checkered flag flies for those racers and team still at the track. 

11:30 p.m., Eastern. My flight lands in Detroit and get in into my Chevy Express van, headed for home to sleep. Already wondering how I can be a part of this again.

***

Obviously, this was not a polished race team with all the nicest stuff. The plan was never to shoot for a win: Our car was down on power and up on weight compared to the rest of the faster, better-prepared cars in our E2 class. This was a group of friends bound by shared experience, searching for one more round of chaotic fun—and we got it.

The car will be repaired. Everyone will sleep off the weekend and return to their day jobs for awhile before the phones start ringing: “Should we try that again? Are you in if we do?”

I know my answer.

I survived sticker
I stayed awake 32 hours and all I got was this sticker—and one hell of a good time with great people. Kyle Smith
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Comments

    what kind of racing is this? Is this a IMSA race series? If so. What is it call?
    The reason why I am asking. Is because I have a front wheel drive race car. Made from a regular street car. I am trying to look for the GT racing that will allow me to race in IMSA. So if you know. Please tell me OK. Yes it would be out of a 1990 Honda Accord OK.

    Great article. Been there done that. Our team had to cancel at last minute this year or this would have been my 5th running of the 25 as a driver. We were there in 2019, the wet one almost all 25 hours. We put almost 12 hours on the same set of soft rain tires, it was that wet. And cold. In open cockpit each time getting out of the car I could not have been wettter than if I was SCUBA diving. And last year we had a fog hold from about 6PM to 5:30 AM. It is never so cold as getting in the car at 3AM for your 3rd driving stint, and about sunrise you actually start to think you might survive. Great article…Oh I said than…but I mean it 🙂
    PS wore latex gloves under my driving gloves to keep hands warm! The vapor barrier tiick works!

    Oof! Yeah, we ran 2019 as well. Same car. Actually finished that year, mostly through sheer luck. I’d run a dozen enduros at different tracks before that, and been to the 25 as a journalist or crew four or five times, but never driven in it.

    The mud-coated track… the line that was not the actual line—dry or wet—but instead just the line carved through the mud… the perpetual rain…

    There was a fog hold this year as well, but after we retired. From around 6:00 AM to 10:30 or so, something like that?

    Such an awful race. I do love it.

    Thank you Kyle, great recap that made me laugh! You summed up well, and I appreciate all your your help in the 32 hours that we hung out. Mark

    Thank you Mark! You run a heck of a circus–and I mean that as a compliment. Hopefully I can join you all again one day.

    There’s nothing like shared fear, loathing, misery, and thrash-panic to cement friendships & camaraderie, not to mention an endless supply of dark humor & shorthand comedic wisecracks. As the saying goes, that’s why it’s called Racing, and not Winning. Amazing how strong the gravitation pull of that little ray of they’ll-know-we-were-here hope is, yes ?
    Bring some thick, comfy, weather-proof stuff next year…

    I don’t, actually. as much effort as we put in at the track we never got much closer than narrowing it down to being RPM and load based. The owners might have figured it out when they got home but I haven’t heard yet.

    Brings back great memories of the 24 hr events with the $500 organizations. I feel blessed that I was able to participate as many times as I did. I built up an engine overnight at Sonoma at one of those events. What a great experience!

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