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.
Another ALMS regular was Thomas Blam, Flying Lizard Motorsports’ chief strategist. He’s been the brains behind Mercer Motorsports’ 25-hour efforts since 2009, and directed 2011’s race with pit stops that averaged 20 seconds for fuel and four seconds for tires (“borderline Formula One wheel changes,” said crew chief Nico Castellaccio). Word has it Blam stayed awake at his laptop for the entire race, but his take was rather modest: “The drivers never put a wheel wrong the whole race, so my job was actually pretty easy.” He also shrugged off a close call with a Scion TC late Saturday afternoon: “Obviously, (the GT3 Cup) took one hit to the right rear wheel, (but it) suffered no damage other than the wheel.”
The team’s performance during the hectic nighttime qualifying session foreshadowed the success that was to come. Van Overbeek, on his fourth lap, achieved pole position with a time of 1:46.102, before the course was closed due to a car that flipped off track, a Shelby Daytona Coupe replica. That lap was nearly three-and-a-half seconds quicker than the next-best time posted by ESR-class Team Factory 48’s Radical SR3. Meanwhile, SNT Motorsports put the Ford GT fourth on the starting grid, behind an ESR-class Norma M20F but just ahead of the only other 911 GT3 Cup entered, a 2008 model run by Team G22 Racing/Truspeed.
The Right Stuff
Mercer Motorsports hasn’t been shy about improving its equipment. For 2009, the team used a 2009 911 GT3 Cup, which was equipped with a 420-hp, 3.6-liter flat six but weighed 88 pounds less than a 2010 GT3 Cup at stock weight. The team used tires by Yokohama back then, and the combination was good enough for the team to go 761 laps on its way to the overall win, the most laps the team has completed at the 25 Hours.
In 2010, the team upgraded to a new 2010 911 GT3 Cup, which weighed 2,640 pounds stock and used a more powerful 450-hp, 3.8-liter flat six. Michelin tires were equipped instead of Yokohamas, and the new, French rubber took about a second off each lap, said team owner Scott Mercer. Anti-lock brakes were also added for 2010 and retained for 2011.
The 2010 GT3 Cup was upgraded further for 2011. The most notable modification (and the most talked about) was a solid-rod-operated sequential gearbox from a 997 GT3 RSR in place of the GT3 Cup’s cable-operated Hollinger sequential gearbox. In addition to faster shifts and lighter weight, said three-time Mercer Motorsports crew chief Nico Castellaccio, the new gearbox improves axle geometry (the RSR gearbox’s main shaft is below the pinion shaft, moving drive flanges above the differential and reducing CV joint angle, added Flying Lizard engineer Craig Watkins), which in turn improves their reliability. For downshifts, drivers still had to blip the throttle and use the clutch.
Heavy duty GT3 RSR components were also used in the suspension, said Castellaccio. This resulted in a “hybrid” suspension setup consisting of regular GT3 Cup, Grand-Am GT3 Cup, and GT3 RSR parts. All four corners used Grand-Am Cup lower control arms, and RSR upper links were used in the rear suspension. Grand-Am Cup adjustable front and rear “tuning forks” (control arms) that reduce dive and squat were used in place of the regular, non-adjustable units, and all four corners used Flying Lizard Motorsports-designed toe links, which are said to be stronger than stock Cup units. More importantly, “their design allows the mechanics to more quickly and accurately set toe [angle],” Watkins remarked.
While the team was quiet about what, exactly, was powering its “450-hp” GT3 Cup, rumors swirled. Numbers closer to 500 were tossed around, with some suspecting a 3.8- or 4.0-liter RSR engine was under the decklid. Others wondered if the car had a Daytona Prototype flat six without inlet restrictors. Whether Mercer’s Cup had its stock 450 hp on tap — as team personnel mentioned — or something closer to 500 hp was never clear.
Or was it? “We could stay with them on the corners, but on the straights, Mercer’s GT3 Cup pulled,” said Bryce Miller (not the ALMS driver) after the race, a driver for G22 Racing/Truspeed’s second-place GT3 Cup. Miller did note, however, that his team’s car had started the race with a tired engine — the older, 420-hp 3.6-liter. So it’s a moot comparison.
While Mercer’s trick GT3 Cup got little sympathy from competitors, it did suffer one problem over the weekend (besides the scrape with the Scion). “The night before the race, a seal for the gearbox was leaking,” Castellaccio said. “It started out small” but had grown by the end of the qualifying session. “We had a full gearbox ready” for replacement, but the crew instead chose just to replace the bad seal.
The fix worked, and, well, the rest is history. Johannes van Overbeek drove the fastest overall lap time, 1:45.036, exactly 100 laps before he finished the race. The highest one-lap average speed of 102.822 mph was also Mercer Motorsports’ to claim. In all respects, the #75 GT3 Cup was the fastest car on track.
Sky’s the Limit
In a field of cars mostly run by amateur racers, Mercer Motorsports brought another level of sophistication to the 25 Hours. As SNT Motorsports’ team manager Ed Nelson put it, “You’d be proud to put that GT3 Cup on the grid at Le Mans.”
Was it a car too far for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill? According to some racers present, perhaps. But the National Auto Sport Association doesn’t see it that way. Printed in its Endurance Racing Regulations book, after meeting certain safety requirements, “ES and ESR cars are unlimited in the range of speed modifications” that can be made to them.
This concept isn’t so distant from “run whatcha brung” racing of the 1960s and 1970s, when cars like the ballistic 917, especially in Can-Am guise, were made possible. So if you want to run a UOP Shadow at the 25, you can. Mercer Motorsports didn’t bring the biggest gun to the 25 Hours seen thus far — that honor goes to Team Cytosport, which raced a Daytona Prototype in 2008 that dropped out early — but it brought an ideal weapon: an optimized 997 GT3 Cup run by ALMS pros and driven by top talent.
To qualify for the 25 Hours, NASA require competitors’ cars conform to its rules or rules set by at least one of many recognized sanctioning bodies, such as SCCA, FIA, ALMS, Grand-Am, etc. NASA National Event Manager Will Faules explained, “There are basic safety requirements, but as far as ES and ESR, they’re completely open [for performance modifications]… NASA has always been open to those who want to develop new things.”
That stance allows cars like Mercer’s GT3 Cup. NASA cared only that it met Grand-Am’s safety standards to qualify for the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, and it encouraged development to increase performance. Of course, NASA performs its own tech inspections, as well, to ensure teams meet safety requirements.
As for driver talent at the 25, that’s “unlimited,” as well. The only rule NASA stipulates is that drivers in the 25-hour race may not be “rookies,” which meant each driver must have completed eight races and obtained a NASA competition license before he or she could compete. (Drivers in the six-hour event, which is run concurrently with the 25-hour race, need only a rookie permit.) And as evidenced by Mercer’s diverse pit crew, which had experience ranging from ALMS to drag racing, there was no limit on who could work in the pits. On the other end of the scale, my role as a driver changer showed that practically anyone was allowed to help.
While the level of experience gathered by Mercer was akin to that of a professional race team, enthusiast volunteers were plentiful at the 25. Hiking up the hill to his post between Turn 8 and Turn 14 just after dawn on Sunday, Victor Penner was one such volunteer. He lives in Lancaster, California, is an equine behavior trainer, and unwinds by working on his car and volunteering at races. He’s who you’d expect to see at the 25.
Penner drove up from Southern California early Friday morning before the race to help Team Thunder Valley Racing as a spotter. “The Daytona Coupe (makes it) hard to see out of the back,” which made it difficult for its drivers to see the quick Porsches closing in. But short of filling in blind spots, he would alert the team if its Factory Five Racing Daytona Coupe replica ran into trouble.
Why did Penner make the long trek from SoCal to volunteer for the race? He’s a Factory Five Racing enthusiast, is building his own FFR Challenge car, and simply enjoys being a part of the action.
State of Mind
Mercer’s team members relish the action, too, and many of them compete at the 25 Hours during their off-season (read: free time). Not one team member seemed reluctant to be there. Said chief strategist Blam: “It’s such a fun event — to win it three years in a row is pretty special.” Driver Rich Walton, explaining how Mercer Motorsports became involved in the 25 Hours: “We told Scott Mercer over dinner the stories about the 25-hour race and how much fun it is — and the teamwork — and you could see (from) a little sparkle in his eye that he wanted to give it a try.” He continued, “Teamwork. That’s really the best part, I think.” The team’s determination to win in the “off-season” was as fierce as anybody’s. Many Mercer team members said, however, that they didn’t feel pressured to win the race despite a potential three-peat looming.
“You just do your best and whatever happens, happens,” said Johannes van Overbeek after the race. “Luckily, it worked out for us. It’s also the third year that there basically hasn’t been a mark on the car at the end of the race, which I think is really the essence of what you need to do to be successful at this event.”
Tommy Sadler, who prepared the GT3 Cup, shared the same mindset. “For me, if the car doesn’t run every lap of every minute of every hour, then I take that as a failure,” he stated. “My expectations are that it runs problem-free.”
Nico Castellaccio was eager for three wins in a row. He came close to a hat trick at Le Mans and Petit Le Mans crewing for the Peterson/White Lightning Porsche team years ago, but, “I could never get the three-peat” — until winning the 2011 25 Hours, he said.
In another impressive showing, G22 Racing/Truspeed placed its ES-class 911 GT3 Cup second overall with 693 laps in its debut at the 25-hour race. The team was very proud of its solid podium finish.
“We all have a sprint-racing background,” said driver Bryce Miller. “It really took a lot of self-discipline to be able to pull (the pace) back and hold it and keep the car and the equipment good for the whole 25 hours,” he explained, adding later, “It was to our advantage to have Mercer Motorsports on track.”
“It doesn’t hurt when you have a pit crew that can actually do a full brake pad change and everything in about four minutes,” driver Gregg Hodges quipped. In all, their 2008 GT3 Cup spent just 19 minutes in the pits over 25 hours. Driver Sloan Urry summed up the effort best: “It was our maiden voyage, so our main goal was to finish the race and go for a better finish later, but we got it all.”
SNT Motorsports’ Ed Nelson contended that, while the Ford GT was sidelined mid-race, his team “has something to shoot for” for 2012. He continued: “If you beat Mercer Motorsports, you’ve really accomplished something. That is why you do it.”
Will Scott Mercer bring another GT3 Cup for 2012? After his team’s third win, the answer was “no” — though his GT3 Cup will be used by Flying Lizard Motorsports for this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona. Of course, there’s nothing to keep a Porsche RS Spyder from mixing it up at the next 25 Hours… Anybody?