A little over a month ago, I was offered the chance to witness exactly how a highly-organized race team approaches one of the most challenging events in American club racing. When standing alongside Honda’s crack team at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, I learned how this event demands the most out of every constituent element of the team—the drivers, the mechanics, the cars, the facilities, and even the food—to succeed.
Despite the race lasting more than a complete day, I felt an urge to find a foothold immediately and begin quizzing the knowledgeable figures. Honda were the family and I was the exchange student. Once I pushed aside the plastic flap and stepped inside their well-appointed tent, I was greeted with a warm collection of people clearly focused on their assignments. Some were quite friendly; one helped me to a cup of coffee—the first of five that day—and introduced me to some of the movers and shakers of Team Honda Research West.
When my primary contact, Lawrence Hwang, donned his HANS and racing helmet and stood waiting on the pit wall for his stint to begin, my attention was fixed on the pending pit stop. The team operated with surgical skill and precision, but as this event was a little longer than most sprint races, it lacked the frenetic urgency seen in IndyCar pit stops. While this was the case, it didn’t diminish the serious intent of every involved member. There was a definite electricity coursing through everyone in the pit crew. In fact, though no one was screaming or bouncing spastically around the pits, the quiet atmosphere was filled with people negotiating their area with definite intent and purpose. Everyone had a place to be, and a job to do.
One of whom was a man by the name of Derek Ferretti, who stepped out of the car and handed the seat over to Hwang. Not a diminutive jockey by any stretch, Derek was a big man with broad shoulders and a chest like an icebox. Perspiration was flowing from his forehead when he removed his white helmet, so I gave him a moment to catch his breath.
The Challenges of a Sharper Car
“It’s about 115 degrees inside the car,” he said, his chest rising and falling, after being asked what the toll had been. Clearly, the challenge of putting consistent laps in at the 1:58-range was tough on the driver, even in the cool ambient temperatures. The car had been sharpened for this year’s effort, making it more precise while asking even more of its drivers.
“The car was obviously much more responsive with HPD’s World Challenge-spec suspension setup, although the dampers were a little on the stiff side,” notes Hwang. In addition to giving the car a set of proper athletic shoes, if you like, they put the car on a stringent diet to hang with the cars that had been developed over a longer period of time.
“I think that most of the improvements in lap time came from the suspension setup and the 200-pound diet,” Hwang continued, “For example, the ‘antigravity’ battery dropped battery weight from 39.4 pounds to 3.5 pounds. Also, the stock exhaust was 38 pounds and the Ticon Titanium unit was only 14 pounds.” This weight loss helped greatly over one lap, but the FK8 used other assets to handle the challenges present in long-distance races.
The K20C1’s turbocharged torque and broad powerband allowed for easy navigation through traffic. A longer wheelbase—compared to the previous version of the car—made for greater stability in faster corners. For better endurance, the race version was fitted with strong Paragon brakes and a rugged Cusco limited-slip differential. That last item was a must, considering how this new K20C1 delivers its force-fed power.
The turbocharged nature of the motor changed the driving experience considerably from that of the more toss-able, less torque-limited older brother. To get more out of the powerplant, Hondata stepped in. Hondata’s Doug Macmillan, noted “tuning alone saved us two pit stops,” but equally as important, the tuning helped soften the torque curve; giving the front tires a slightly easier time. Still, they were in for a beating.
An estimated 360 horsepower at the crank makes putting power to the ground a challenge, even with slicks. “We’re anticipating changing our fronts every four hours or so,” said Douglas Chan, one of the drivers manning the Type R. Compare that to the two rear tire changes needed over the entire 25 Hours. Since making sure the consumables lasted as long as possible was a deciding factor in this race, Team Honda Research West put all they could into making this car manageable.
Later apexes, more trail-braking, and squaring off most corners were all changes the drivers had to make to suit the FK8. For the finer details, I consulted with Tom O’Gorman, a professional driver on the team. Getting the longer, punchier, front-wheel drive car around fast and slow corners in an efficient fashion, he applied the throttle in one of the most measured ways I’ve ever heard described in detail.
“I try to preload the differential with about 20-percent throttle on entry. This facilitates rotation into the apex, and I only get to full throttle when the car is about straight,” he began. Fortunately, the powerband is broad enough to run most of the course in fourth gear, but the delivery was still quite abrupt; this specific throttle application was still needed in the higher gears.
“We can get wheelspin in fourth gear,” O’Gorman said with a smirk. However, seeing the lap times achieved by a team of drivers of different skill levels and experience, it was fair to say the Civic Type R was approachable enough for the gentleman racer and challenging enough for the seasoned professional.
There was a confident, fun-loving, jovial atmosphere around the Honda tent that day, and for good reason — they had a well-organized team, sharpened and robust cars, and passionate drivers with strong technical knowledge.
Dicing in the Darkness
As the sun set, everything changed. The cars’ LED lights resembled fireflies dancing across the blackened landscape. As the temperature dropped — and it dropped as low as 29-degrees F in the wee-hours — the cars would cut through the air with an audible whistle. Every car sounded like they’d been fitted with turbos, though most were atmospheric. The cars also appeared to be moving faster, but it could’ve just been my fatigue.
If the shriek of the motors were quite energizing during the day, they were soothing enough to put me into a semi-dreamlike state at night. Perhaps it had simply been witnessing the cars running for hours already, but the setting seemed calmer—only occasionally would a backfire bring me out of my stupor.
Matthew Staal, one of the Honda team’s longest-running drivers, felt even more tranquil in the cockpit than out. “Everything slows down, and it almost becomes serene,” he recalled. “With less to see, it’s easier to focus on your marks and set decent times.” Still, at this point, the teams have settled into a running order, and are looking to maintain their target lap times. Taking big risks isn’t necessary—yet.
Anyways, that’s how it seemed from the sidelines. Under Honda’s tent, the team kept in constant contact with their cars, but the buzz had died down to a hushed murmur. Drivers and other team members caught a few winks of shut-eye in the corner, warmed by the sole space heater emitting the only light in that darkened corner of the tent. Some slurped noodles, some drank coffee. The food—endless trays of steaming hot lasagna and bowls of beef stew—was hot, which turned out to be one of the less obvious things that greased the wheels of this finely-tuned machine. When the race lasts as long as it does, the endurance of the consumables isn’t the only thing considered—keeping the team fed and focused is just as big a challenge.
Despite a broken gearbox and a broken wheel stud, THRW stayed on podium course until the last few hours. With forty-five minutes to spare, the hard-charging Valkyrie Autosport 370Z passed the lead Civic Type R for third place. With due credit to the Honda team, the Valkryie car had been the product of many years of development, whereas this was the Type R’s second year running. Still, bringing home fourth-place and seventh-place finishes with the Type R were quite impressive, especially considering the limited development time they’d had. To transform a road-going car into a endurance athlete takes a great deal of time, energy, and knowledge.
Running on a few hours’ sleep and enough caffeine to make a rhino fidgety, I shook the hands of the friends I’d made around the Honda tent. When the cars roar by for more than a day, they leave an indelible mark on your brain. The effort involved, the nerves, the tension, and the bravery needed to thread through a pack of cars in pitch black surroundings makes one slightly anxious just thinking about it.
Images of battlefields and bombers coursed through my mind for the following few hours on the drive home, and I understood what the appeal was. Because of the stress, the effort, the camaraderie, the finances involved, and the level of competition, this race— despite the seemingly comfortable atmosphere in the pits—is serious business. For many, the 25 Hours is war — albeit a friendlier version. I’m happy to have been able to sit safely on the sidelines.