The notion of a 25-hour endurance race came after “a couple of cocktails.”
So says Jerry Kunzman, one of the founders of the National Auto Sport Ass’n. The inspiration struck after the 2002 Timex 12 Hours of Thunderhill at California’s Thunderhill Raceway Park.
The 12-hour event was successful, but it wasn’t enough. Neither was a 24-hour race; 25 was the ticket and Kunzman blurted out that a 25-hour race would run in 2003. He didn’t bother to brief Thunderhill Raceway Park management before he stood at the podium, figuring it was better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission.
Or maybe it was the spirit of O. Bruton Smith, who initiated the World 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway in an effort to upstage the Indy 500.
“Ali (Arsham) and I founded NASA in 1989,” Kunzman recalled. “By ’93 we decided we’d do our first enduro. Fast-forward through everything, the six-hour, then we picked up Timex to sponsor the 12 hours. After about the fifth 12-hour I got to thinking I’m not really tired, we shouldn’t be done with this.
“So at the 2002 awards banquet, I thought we’ve got to do something different,” Kunzman continued. “I didn’t even check with the track. I had a few cocktails and I thought: ‘Aw screw it, I’m just to tell them we’re going to do it.’ On the way up to the podium I thought 24 then thought 25 without even thinking of it. I looked over at the guys from the race track and their jaws were hanging, ‘What? When were you going to ask me about it?’ I just said, ‘We’ll make it work.’ We did.”
As author Kurt Vonnegut once said, “… and so it goes.” The 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the longest road race in the United States.
The event has taken on a life of its own since that auspicious beginning.
“It’s unique. It’s like Burning Man or one of the events in society where people find it and then it becomes a cult event,” explained Thunderhill CEO David Vodden. “People tell others about it, instead of seeing ads on television or promotions hither and yon. The 25 Hours of Thunderhill has attracted drivers from all over the world over its time and all kinds of significant things in motorsports, yet it’s still an event for those that know about it. And because of that it has an aura, this energy field that is not like what you see on television.
“People love to say they’ve ran it,” Vodden added. “People love it because it pays nothing. It’s fun and they get out of their cars and say, ‘I finished.’ And it’s a growing energy field at this event at Thunderhill in California that nobody knows about. The Busch brothers have run it. The Unsers have run it (Al Jr. and his son) and you go down the list of people who have run it and promoters say, ‘My God, how could I not know about that?’”
Other star racers who have participated in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill include Patrick Dempsey, Bryan Herta, J.R. Hildebrand, Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen.
Veteran endurance driver Charles Espenlaub was literally a burning man at one of the 25-hour events.
“He (Espenlaub) had a fuel leak in the cockpit and pulled off at turn nine in a ball of tire,” Kunzman said. “He got out on fire and rolled around on the ground and our safety crews put the fire out and I remember going to him and he said, ‘Remember that stop, drop and roll thing? It works.’ He just got out of car, calm as a cucumber.”
That said, Kunzman notes the race is open to anyone with a proper race car, not the bizarre contraptions run in the Lemons series. You also need a competition license from a recognized sanctioning body.
“One of the coolest things about it (the 25 hours) is that you can get a Miata and about 10 guys, between drivers and crew, go out and be on the same race track with some of the pros and be part of the whole program,” he said.
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