For those unfamilar with the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Western Endurance Racing Championship, it’s a series of races from 4 to 12 hours in duration held, not surprisingly, at tracks that dot the West Coast. While an amateur competition, the teams at the sharp end of the grid could easily slide into an IMSA team.
According to NASA the “Western Endurance Racing Championship (WERC) is a true team sport where cunning race strategy and luck, often determine the victor. Having the fastest car doesn’t guarantee a victory as you must first, finish the race. It’s a true test of the durability of equipment and endurance of participants. The WERC uses a comprehensive set of rules which allows for any racing car to be classed to participate. Teams consisting of just a single driver to 5 drivers compete against the clock, the track and other teams for victory”.
One such team is Valkeryie Autosport, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern Calfornia. The opeartion heade by Brian Lock is primarily involved in the fabrication of roll cages, prepartion of cars, and trackside support for customer cars. For themeslves the team enters two cars in NASA competion – a Nissan 350Z and a 370Z. Needless to say, Vlakerie identifies itself primarily with the Nissan brand.
The WERC is their season-long focus, and they put together a very competitive 2018 with a third at Willow Springs, a first at Buttonwillow, and a second at Sonoma. At the same time, though, they were building a brand new car for the NASA 25 Hour of Thunderhill, which, suprisingly , is not part of the WERC.
A Complicated Machine For 2018
Team Boss Brian Lock isn’t unfamiliar with the Nissan R35 GT-R—he raced one in time attack nearly a decade ago—but had never raced one in such a long-lasting format. The build of the car was the usual mad dash; starting the build from scratch in February, and only had one race—the WERC four-hour enduro at Sonoma—under its belt prior to the Tunderhill 25. To run in the E0 class, the GT-R was fitted with intake restrictors and required to meet a high weight limit. With an estimated 340 horsepower at the wheels pushing 3,600 pounds around, its turbocharged torque might not have been taken full advantage of, it was still the punchiest car in E0, and it had other assets that would help it in an endurance race.
Though its power-to-weight wasn’t as good as the sister 370Z, its turbocharged torque and paddle-shifted gearbox made it quicker in the straights. Also, the drivetrain offered them the grip needed to pass backmarkers off-line—and with as many as ten passes per lap, this meant consistency and tire preservation. Least obvious was its welcoming nature. The rookie drivers on the team were all getting down to target lap times much more easily than those driving the Z. When you minimize the challenge of shifting, and have some straightline speed in reserve—simply put, less is needed from the drivers.
Though it was easier to drive, the heavyweight GT-R requires a delicate touch if the tires are to last. It’s not quite like a Miata, in which many of the drivers had most of their experience. “You have to let it call the shots, since you cannot muscle a car that heavy,” said Lock. Especially since the electricity of the event tends to overexcite drivers, Lock had to coach some of his on their consistency, patience, and mechanical sympathy.
Fortunately, Stoptech provided a stellar brake setup that allowed Valkryie’s drivers to push hard, so stopping wasn’t a concern—which is remarkable, considering the weight of the car and the length of the race. Lastly, a computer-controlled heavyweight like the GT-R had many parts to break. With only a few months to iron out whatever teething problems they could, the chances of attrition were higher with this complicated car.
Toyo Tires, now onboard as a major sponsor, provided Valkyrie with Toyo RR slick tires for dry use, grooved Toyo RRs for intermediate conditions, and Toyo R888Rs for full wet use. “We were really hoping for wet conditions actually because we were armed to the teeth and ready for it!” said Brian Lock, the team’s boss and lead driver. His new car was the only car in the field sporting four-wheel drive, which would’ve given it a serious advantage if the heavens opened.
The Proven Sibling
Weighing 3,000 pounds and sending 280 horsepower to the rear wheels, their 370Z was the more reliable, sharper, and simpler machine. In fact, they’d decided to run in E0 instead of ES, since the sequential gearbox which made the difference wasn’t yet proven. Instead, they retained the original H-pattern. With years of experience in this car, Lock had learned how to get every iota of performance out of the car.
“The Z is much lighter, but has the same brakes and tires, so it’s harder to overdrive,” mentioned Lock. However, it’s more challenging in some ways. Without as much power as the GT-R, “you have to push harder to overtake, take more chances in traffic, and downshift properly,” he said. In fact, one driver caused Lock to grit his teeth in the middle of the race, when he accidentally grabbed second when intending fourth. “That revved the motor to 9,000 rpm, but the Jim Wolf Engineering valvetrain handled it, thankfully.” Again, years of development had ensured this car was stout enough to take some abuse. That would serve it well, ensuring reliability was only part of the challenge.
The 25 Hour Challenge
There’s something hanging in the crisp air during the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Something blowing over those long, rolling hills in Willows, California, seems to stimulate the casual observer, the hobbyist, the ambitious weekender, and the seasoned professional all in equal measure. That varied group of attendees are participants in a truly unique event. Few race weekends have the disparity in competition, the wide array of cars and ability, and the oddly familial atmosphere, despite the pressure present in every trailer. That is, for all its quirky charm, there’s still a palpable level of competitiveness underlying it all.
Driving down the crowded pits, you see all manner of people. Casual observers dressed in camouflage blend in with the brightly colored jerseys covering the busy members of the big-league teams. Similarly, the branded and multi-colored professional trailers mix with the faded brown Winnebagos. Despite the serious level of competition, there are just as many folks happy to just be around a motor race. Everywhere, fans puff away on cigarettes, inspect the hardware, and exchange war stories.
Ensconced in the pits and motorhome just beyond the casual observers and relaxed conversation in the parking lot, Valkyrie Autosport’s operation made a startling level of commotion. With team members scurrying around, issuing orders, and making repairs, the tension was palpable. It was the end of a dramatic season.
A Full Plate
That was made easier by the obvious camaraderie within the team. “We work with the vast majority of our crew all year long, so everybody already knows their job and is experienced with how we do things,” said Lock. “So many efforts are thrown together at the last minute, or have guys that haven’t worked together before, and the opportunity for chaos goes up drastically. The 25 Hour is a team sport in the truest sense of the term, and team chemistry and ensuring the morale stays high is critical.”
Greeting the Sunrise
As the cars are now built to a much higher standard than they were at the onset of this race fifteen years ago, teams could no longer hope that half the field would break down as the sun came up. However, some mechanical attrition will always be a factor over the course of twenty-five hours—more than a typical year’s worth of club racing—and Lock benefited from it. While their efforts were hampered by a stray rock damaging the Z’s alternator and requiring a change, their spirits rose when the Honda Civic Type R running in Third place suffered a broken wheel stud, which reduced the gap from eight laps to four.
“We had brakes to spare, and we put our heads together on how to best do the pit stop,” he continued, “then gave our drivers the instructions to drive it into the ground!” Thus began a frantic few hours with Jeremy Croiset, Paul Terry, and Lock taking risks they wouldn’t have at a less certain stage.
Fortunately, in the final hours of the race, the standards of driving change across the board. “Most of the slower cars were incredibly good in giving an apex. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some teams were instructed to let faster cars by,” Lock remarked. This is seen in the footage below, as Lock scythes through the field with complete confidence despite running on a few hours’ sleep.
Some sections were exceptionally tricky, and forced Lock to pull off a few stunts. Note how he drops his outside wheels leaving Turn 15 (1:57) to avoid the two backmarkers taking up all the valuable real estate. Lock had to be gutsy here, and by keeping the 370Z reasonably straight with two wheels on the grass, he could keep his foot planted without fear of pivoting into the pit wall. In these frantic last hours, everything counted.
The one complication came in the form of a technical hangup: his communication system was down during the final stint. Fortunately, Christina, the team’s crew chief, hung one sign over the pit wall. It read, “Go fast!”
That hard charging allowed Lock to pass the Civic Type R for third with 45 minutes to spare. “We wanted to salvage our reputation. Had it not been for a few gremlins, both our cars would’ve been on the podium easily—so having one there was a great consolation prize.”
While the level of success they’re used to eluded them this time, they still managed a very respectable third for the Z and fifth for the first-timer GT-R. “To build a car starting in roughly February, from scratch, in uncharted territory, and have it complete the 25 hour with no major mechanical issues was truly amazing; a testimony to all our parts suppliers for the car. To think the car ran all of one single competition event before the 25 is pretty cool,” he reflected.
Had it not been for a few pesky mechanical gremlins rearing their ugly green heads, things could’ve been different, but not this time. Over the course of 75 pitstops, the team didn’t drop a single lugnut nor single drop of fuel. All the constituent elements worked well together, the tech-heavy GT-R survived its debut, and Valkyrie, once again, brought home some well-deserved hardware.