25 Hours Of Thunderhill Blog: The Car

By Tom Martin

December 02, 2013

If you missed the first installment in this series, be sure to check out The Why and The What

Choosing a car for a major race, in reality, is a complex affair. No offense to those of our beloved readers who will be aghast at our selection process, but if you’re doing it from your armchair it is a whole lot easier. Because, in reality, you have to actually take practical matters into consideration. For example, you have to consider time – how much you have personally to work on the car and how much calendar time there is before the race.  And, of course, there is the issue of money. In your armchair, you can spend OPM (Other People’s Money) rather freely. In the real world, not so much.
So, herewith, we detail how we ended up, in the real world, driving a Ford Racing Boss 302S in the 25 Hours. You might enjoy critiquing our decision-making process. And you might learn from it as well.
Let us start by saying that a rational approach to the question “what car should we run in this epic event we want to do?” is to edit the question to “what car that we currently own and is mostly race-ready should we run in this epic event that we want to do?” This, of course, presupposes that you have an appropriate car. We, for example, could have gone down this path by modifying a Spec Miata that WR owns.
There were two reasons that we didn’t do this. The first was that this would launch us on a custom-preparation job to create a car to run against many teams that have perfected something we might call the “Miata Endurance Racer”. Actually, as we will show, every first-time team faces a version of this problem. That is, you will be racing against teams that have done this many times with the same car and have quasi-perfected its setup.  You, OTOH, will be guessing. But we’re getting ahead of our story.
The second reason we didn’t modify our Miata is that we had it in our heads that it didn’t seem, well, epic enough. We love the Miata and will happily defend it as the greatest single racecar of our time. Whether in SM form, or racing in some other class, the Miata just delivers, and it delivers in an accessible way. We know that, we feel that and we believe that, but for us the 25 Hours was something different than weekend club racing where the Miata is such a beast. So we wanted a different kind of car.
On the evening of the first day that we had the idea of running the 25 Hours, some of the Winding Road staff and our racer friends (a.k.a. prospective crew) met to discuss this problem. Basically, we had a simple but rather demanding list:
- A different driving experience, which indicated a car with power (great as Miatas are, big beefy power is not part of the package)
- A car likely to be reliable (it is a 25 Hour race after all, and time behind the wall is a killer)
- A car that seemed easy to repair if something broke (which is likely)
- A car we could afford
- A car that has good race shop support in the US (because the team have day jobs)
- Ideally a car that  is series-produced by the factory (to shave several months off the front end of building the car, thereby allow some time for testing and development)
We should also say that we got the NASA rulebook out and observed that the top two categories (ESR for pure race cars and ES for production-based race cars) are “unlimited” in the modifications and preparation allowed. This makes them open to pro teams with big budgets and big experience and that seemed like a serious handicap. So, we wanted to target E0, the top class that has clear, constrained rules. This knocked out the use of our Radical SR3, which we had also eliminated due to reliability concerns.
So, we brainstormed suitable cars against this brief over sushi in Los Angeles. With 111 classes being mapped to NASA’s six endurance classes for the 25 Hours, we almost certainly overlooked several reasonable options, but here is the short list we came up with:
Lotus Exige V6 Cup. Lightweight and probably pretty fast. Made by the factory, so we likely could get one sort of quickly. Affordable, in terms of factory cars. But seems fragile. Everyone we talked to thought that reliability and repairs would be problematic. Frankly, in hindsight, we’re not sure they were right, but part of the real-world decision-making process for something like this involves acting on limited information in limited time. There was also a concern that a collision with another car or an off-road excursion could tear up significant parts of the Lotus suspension. And finally, an Exige might require significant ballast to be classed in E0. This one was off the list.
Aston-Martin Vantage GT4. Has good power and some pedigree in endurance racing. Support comes from The Racer’s Group and is presumably excellent. At the same time, TRG’s full service approach -- and our lack of potential team members with Aston experience -- made us feel the Vantage would be more of an arrive-and-drive experience than a complete team challenge. That, and the Aston seemed expensive. All of these cars are expensive, of course, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and we wanted to stay under $100k. The Aston is about double that. Sadly, we just couldn’t make it work.
Mustang Boss 302S. Ford Racing builds two racing versions of the Boss 302. The less expensive one, the Boss 302S, is built for Pirelli World Challenge GTS, with the work (cage, data, suspension, safety) being done by Watson Racing in a run of 50 cars per year. Frankly, it seemed pretty close to what we wanted. It has pretty big power (for comparison, dyno numbers are 397 rear wheel hp for the Boss vs. 121 rear wheel hp for our Miata). It seemed like a fairly simple, reliable, repairable car. There are multiple shops around the country that prep race Mustangs. We could afford it (it costs $85k at your Ford dealer). We also knew that Pirelli World Challenge GTS maps to NASA E0, so doubts about creeping into the ES class seemed to be addressed.
The Boss 302S isn’t the most exotic car, but it seemed to fit our needs the best. We should say that with more time, the rational economic decision -- as every racer knows -- would have been to buy a used racecar, with some prep work out of the way and plenty of spares at 30 cents on the dollar. We doubted, with limited testing schedules, whether we had time for this. And, past experience has taught that used cars usually reveal serious “needs” over time.
So, we focused on finding a new Boss 302S. The only question was whether we could still get one? Watson Racing builds the car in a batch during December of each year. We were working on this in late January.
Fortunately, this is America, and a little internet research revealed two cars that seemed to be available. We put calls in, and bought our car from a dealer (you buy the Boss 302S from a Ford dealer at the parts counter – it has no VIN) in Tennesee. The car was shipped the following week. So, from Sunday sushi-supported brainstorming in LA to taking delivery in Austin took two weeks.
We rolled our Boss 302S off the truck at Harris Hill Raceway in central Texas. All of our buddies there were impressed with the superb build of the car. Let us just say, when Ford Racing is involved and the builder gets to do 50 cars per year, quality looks high.
But the car wasn’t exactly race-ready. Most of what was missing was the result of naivete on our part. Whatever the reason, we had significant work to do, which is our next story.