The History Of Thunderhill According To David. Part Two
If you have been reading the story of Thunderhill you know we are up to the part where we start construction. We had just gotten permission to build the track and the period of notification to the local area had passed with nary a single complaint. The next step before construction was to announce the successful status of the track effort. We did this through a video and a site visit plus Wheel press. The video was made using a helicopter to fly over a track carved into the landscape that sort of replicated the design created by Steve Crawford. We shot the video by hanging off the runner of the helicopter as it followed the path of the track plowed into the earth by our new neighbor Thor Oden. We still have that video. We showed the video at the SCCA banquet in 1992 and we issued press in the Wheel. I think Club members were pleased with what they saw and heard but there were still those folks who thought that Willows was too far away and that this would be the death knell of the project. The original parameter for location was one hour from the intersection of 580 and 680 in Pleasanton. It had to do with travel time.
We also had a weekend visit at the site. All who attended gathered on top of the hill where the water tank now sits. We had a few ATV’s and a picnic lunch. It was awesome! I think it was Gary Meeker who stuck his ATV in the mud on what would become the paddock. Back then it was not level but a ravine of sorts. A lot of dirt was put in place to make our paddock as it is today. With the word out all over the place and the county saying yes we turned to Art Siri, Richard Siri, Steve Crawford and a few others to do the engineering. Landon Engineering in Willows was the resident engineering firm. Crawford worked for CH2MHill at the time so he was back-up and Art Siri built Sears Point so he had some real good ideas and expertise that would really make a difference. Richard Siri owned Siri Grading and Paving, the firm that built the 101 freeway north of San Francisco. This was Art’s business when he raced GT1 cars with the Club. We were off and running. Art designed the all-important cross section of our track as well as the asphalt mix. Jackson Baker was selected as the paving company and other contractors came on board for various special efforts. As an example our water tank was built by a Club member named Loren Turk. Bill Dwyer helped with communications. There were many who helped.
We started construction just after the first of the year 1993 and we finished the 1.9 mile course in September of that same year. Richard Siri remained on site for the entire project. As you may know the original asphalt surface lasted until 2008, 15 years! It could have lasted even longer but we were ready to repave. The asphalt we used was AR8000, not highway asphalt, and it had special oil percentages as well as specific rock fracture standards and other components that only Art Siri could have known we needed. We changed the oil percentages in the late stages based on the recommendation of Frank Shoemakers crew chief Ron Reese who just happened to work for Cal Trans. This was the best asphalt and the best paving job to date at Thunderhill.
Part of the development of the track involved getting portable buildings for T&S and administration. We did this through Mobile Modular. To create a building for timing and scoring we added a full side of windows to one 10’ by 60’ trailer. Because of the height of the trailer and the design of the front chute wall we put the trailer past the starters stand so scorers could see the cars as they passed. We calculated that it would have taken at least a three-story building to see the race cars if T&S were behind the front chute wall. We considered going to the other side but rightfully abandoned that idea. Today one of the many unique features of Thunderhill is that the finish line does not line up with the starters stand. Different. We also procured various vehicles during this period from Sears Point that the Club had gotten for free and was using on occasion there. We still have Art Perry’s paddock wagon in use. It pulls the broom and has for many years!
During the development of the track we realized that we did not have enough money to build a 1.9 mile track. The first step was to design a 1.3 mile track that we could afford. This also involved an unpaved entry road and no pavement in the paddock. Not good. Not acceptable. So I went shopping for more money. Please keep in mind that when I use the singular pronoun “I”, in most cases this involved other people, many other people. In the case of the $300,000 we borrowed from SCCA-National, Roger Eandi played a critical role. He went to Nick Craw and the deal was struck that we would borrow $300,000 with interest. For this the SCCA National office wanted collateral which was fine. We had a loan document and they had the deed to the land. Win/Win. But that wasn’t enough. Next I went to some members who had the means and, I felt, the passion to help. This group of very friendly club members loaned us another $300,000 with no interest and no collateral, just a simple IOU. Kevin Jenkins topped the list with a $100,000 loan which he said he really did not expect to get back. Others put in $25,000. This very special list of track supporters included: Kevin Jenkins; Ken Epsman; Mark and Linda Mountanos; John B. Fullerton; Vic Rice; Brent Dickens; Bruce H. O’Neil; Richard Frank; Rudy Revak; and Bruce and Sue Thompson. I seem to recall that Marc Fong was among this group and I fear that I may have left someone out. I apologize profusely if I did. As you can imagine, we will never forget the willingness of these friends to help make the mission of Thunderhill a reality and better than it would have been without their help and generosity.
Prior to this time the Shelby Club donated $50,000 out of the goodness of their hearts and because they believed in Tom McCarthy and they believed in the project. We have never let them forget how much we appreciate their donation and statement of trust.
With the added funding we were able to build turns 6, 7, 8, 8A and 9 making Thunderhill 1.9 miles long with nine turns. Even more importantly we got a paved entry road as well as a 50’ wide strip of asphalt we called the paddock. Today the entire paddock is paved but those who were here before that time can tell stories about the north wind and the dust that came their way when the paddock was dirt. Oddly enough, when we opened up in 1993 there were still segments of the paddock at Sears Point that were not paved. We were not that far behind Sears Point before Bruton Smith came along.
Another challenge of Thunderhill Park in those early days was that we did not have electricity. Zero. For timing and scoring I got a used Isuzu-powered generator taken out of a winery. We mounted it next to T&S and turned on the power. On at least two occasions this motor stopped due to overheating and a complete loss of water. Each time when the engine stopped glowing it restarted. It continued to served us until we paid for all those new poles you see in place starting at the canal on highway 162. Take a look next time you cross the canal about a mile east of our entry gate. We had PG&E! the Isuzu motor still runs!
Speaking of the entry road, the rocks that make up what is an exceptional landscape appearance all came from under the track. Richard Siri needed a place to dispose of the big rocks and so he lined our entry road on the east side resulting in what we have today. Another funny story concerns the trees along the entry road. The County wanted a quality landscape plan as part of the development of Thunderhill. Since we had no idea what the inside of the paddock might ultimately look like and wanted to keep our options open, we made the entire landscape plan along the entry road. The somewhat dwarfed Fruitless Mulberry trees that are there now were all planted on a Club work day by a host of great members and there they remain. We have had some challenges, water being one of them, which is why they are much smaller than they should be. Our entry road, with the rocks, the trees and the fabulous gate that Bruce Silver built and delivered to the track, makes up the first impression for new comers to Thunderhill. Lucky or brilliant planning, the first impression of Thunderhill has proven to be very good for folks who see us for the first time as the drive past VooDoo Hill and contemplate their right turn onto the property. VooDoo Hill is the name that was given to the elevated area that abuts highway 162 and rises to where our water tank is now located. It apparently has some local history.
At this same Club work day a large group of volunteers built about five all-wood, 8’ x 8’ flagging stations. They looked great and had complete roofs and were far superior to what the Club workers were experiencing at other tracks. They no longer exist, replaced by 2x2 square tubing steel structures that are pinned to the ground. Why? Every single one of the wooden stations were destroyed by wind starting with the tops and including just about every other part. Lesson learned. You can see them in grand opening photos if you like.
Another work project that day was the installation of over a thousand feet of snow fence. It went from turn 9 all the way to the access road over-looking turn one. That was a lot of plastic fence. The team sunk the stakes and attached the fence using plastic tie straps. The ties eventually became victims of the sun but this fence got us through our grand opening as well as the first year. This work day was one of the highlights of the development of Thunderhill Park.
During 1993 I was operating the SCCA region office in Livermore along with Don Wixcel. This meant many trips up the I-5 freeway to Willows to see what was going on and to interface with a multitude of contacts both governmental as well as Richard Siri and Company. Looking back it seems almost impossible but we did it and the track took shape. The race surface was done in September and more than one friendly soul drove out onto the track to get their bearings. Nothing fast however. With everything falling into place plans for the grand opening began. As you can imagine there was quite a buzz about the Club’s new track and all the fanfare that would go along with the first race. This was true in the SCCA world as well as in all of Glenn County. Everyone wanted to see this track that the SFR/SCCA had built.
It should be noted that the Shelby Club was actually the first group to appear at the track in mass. The event was more of a come and see and drive but no high-speed stuff. The SFR/SCCA “Grand Opening” was set for Halloween weekend, about a month later.
Among the many little inconveniences that cropped up as the grand opening approached was the absence of curbs, anything to sweep the track and the absence of any form of food service. We also had perimeter gravel on the edges of the track which would prove to be a bit of a challenge especially if your name was Chuck Billington. Some of the solutions we came up with were better than others but we were ready for that historic weekend. The next edition of this story will be about the grand opening, the appearance of SCCA National President Nicholas Craw and acting celebrity Craig T. Nelson and the well disseminated rumor that Paul Newman and Tom Cruise would be present. Perhaps this was why, to this day, the crowd at the grand opening of Thunderhill Park was the biggest ever.
Part one of this story can be read here.