ABOUT 90 MILES NORTH AND SLIGHTLY WEST OF SACRAMENTO, amongst farmland, trailer parks, and a Walmart, Thunderhill Raceway Park nestles in low, rolling California hills. It’s an unlikely place for the longest endurance race in America — or anywhere, for that matter. It’s also a surprisingly brutal location given its low altitude and proximity to the Pacific. But as is always the case, the first weekend in December blew cold, chapping lips and freezing toes. Had crews not been spared rain, conditions would have been at their worst.
A field of 86 cars of all makes and Mazdas started the race at 11:00 AM that Saturday morning. Until the finish at noon the next day, the frigid air was filled with the ripping flatulence of Miatas being driven way too fast, the thunderous racket of Supertruck V8s, and the layered trumpeting of mid-Eighties BMW 325s. Mixed in was the turbine-like howl of a particularly high-strung 911.
That flat six belonged to Team Mercer Motorsports’ #75 911 GT3 Cup, the Porsche that won last December’s 25-hour enduro after having no mechanical problems. It stopped in the pits nearly 20 times for fuel, wheel-and-tire changes, driver changes, and brake-pad changes but nothing more. After those 25 hours of non-stop racing, it had covered 2,119 miles after completing 741 laps of the 2.86-mile-long track. That was 48 more laps than the second-place finisher, another GT3 Cup. It was the team’s third overall win in a row, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was their tenth after seeing the apparent ease with which they dominated the race.
Mercer’s Thunderhill hat trick was initiated in 2009, when the team won the T25 on its debut effort. It followed up that win with another after a rainy night in 2010 despite three broken axles. But throughout all three races, the team maintains that reliability was never an issue — with one exception: those troublesome axles in 2010.
I would watch Mercer from an unlikely perspective as an Excellence staffer this year, having been invited to work as a driver changer for the #15 Ford GT run by Team SNT Motorsports Development, a competitor in the ES category, the same class in which Mercer competed. Unfortunately, the mid-engined Ford dropped out at around 2:45 AM after completing 282 laps due to reliability problems and limited resources to fix them.
Being lapped by the #75 GT3 Cup on the Ford’s 22nd circuit had nothing to do with reliability, but witnessing a second-year race effort crumble in the wee morning hours made one thing clear: Mercer’s proven car, extraordinarily experienced team, and vast resources were unbeatable. Some might call its efforts overkill, even…
Jon Fogarty. Johannes van Overbeek. Rich Walton. Tommy Sadler. Wolf Henzler. Ring any bells? Though some teams’ drivers were known quantities, Mercer’s lineup had to be the most accomplished, well-rounded, and skillful of the weekend, and all were carryovers from the last two wins except one. New to Mercer Motorsports for 2011 was Porsche factory driver Wolf Henzler, fresh from helping take Team Falken Tire’s ALMS 911 GT3 RSR to two race victories in 2011.
Fogarty’s specialty is the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype class, having won two drivers’ championships in 2007 and 2009. Van Overbeek won the 2007 Porsche Cup and currently competes in the American Le Mans Series with Extreme Speed Motorsports. Walton works at Jerry Woods Enterprises, which has run Mercer Motorsports’ 25 Hours operations; before the GT3 Cup, he’d already won the 25 Hours overall in 2005 with Team Lost N Spaced Racing’s race-converted 1974 911. Sadler, who has plenty of ALMS experience as the crew chief for Flying Lizard Motorsports, prepped the Mercer Motorsports GT3 Cup with his crew at Motorsports Solutions. In a change from his role with the Lizards, Sadler would also drive the car.