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Tuesday, March 03 2015 @ 12:19 PM PST

The History Of Thunderhill According To David. Part Four

General News

After the excitement and drama of the grand opening of Thunderhill on that Halloween weekend in October of 1993 the next task was to build the business and to put Thunderhill on a solid foundation for the years ahead. Sears Point and Laguna Seca were popular tracks with long legacies and lots of business. We were the new kid on the block. Could we compete? Could we rent enough days to pay the bills and keep the property open? These were all fair questions and the answers depended, to a large extent, on how we approached the task.

Once we opened, the road racing community embraced the successful idea of a track built by racers for racers to insure the long-term survival of amateur racing. For some this only meant the San Francisco Region of the SCCA. A few went so far as to suggest that we only operate the track for the SFR/SCCA and that it remain closed until such events were to take place. This is like that cabin you have in the mountains that you go to, clean up, stay in for a while and then leave while the cabin becomes uninhabitable again. Fortunately very few people had this vision.

 At the same time our Cal club neighbors were making progress with their club track in Kern County just southwest of the city of Bakersfield.  Buttonwillow was on alkaline influenced flat land just off the I-5 freeway at Lerdo Highway.  Steve Madsen, who had been promoting the tracks development, was on the scene as the general manager and operator. Buttonwillow actually opened in December of 1995 with a huge open test day. Not too long after the opening, Les Phillips took over the Cal Club track and hired Warren Smith of NHRA fame. Together with Carrie they have continued the growth and development of this club-inspired and operated road course.
 With visions of making Thunderhill a key player in the recreational road racing market we plunged into 1994. Step one was to leave the SCCA region office, now located in Livermore, and establish residency in Willows, CA. Dave Daniels was on the scene in Willows at this time, opening the gate, greeting the customers that we managed to recruit and handling the day. He even charged the radios at his home in Willows at night since we had no power at the track.  In January of 1994 we found an office for the track at 510 Wood Street.  For a while I parked my motorhome in the lot and lived there while we continued to develop the business. When not parked at the office, my RV was parked at Thunderhill where the dark of night and the unbelievable silence was only interrupted by the boom guns scaring away coyotes and the hum of I-5.  I joined the local Rotary Club in 1994 and began a long and lasting presence in the community of Willows representing Thunderhill Park. When it came time to look for a home, I visited the local real estate office where a petite red-head was the top seller. She sold me the home she was living in. In addition to Terry Taylor it also included two red-haired boys of high school age. Life is strange when you think about how things happen and how life comes in such an unpredictable manner.  Terry joined the company shortly thereafter and remains one of our best and longest term employees. When not at work she spends her time acting as a member of the City Council, Vice Mayor and Mayor of the City of Willows.

 Once I was a resident of Willows the process of building the business of Thunderhill Park became the key focus. No more Region manager tasks or SCCA race event preparations. Don Wixcel came with me to Willows bringing his passion for the Club and the sport plus a wealth of special knowledge.  Jean Burton, one of my best hires, remained in the SCCA office with Blythe Bonds, and Eric Jones.
 Within a relatively short time in Willows I found Colleen Worthington of local drug store fame and Bob Maybell of Obrien’s Auto Repair. They joined the team as we continued to find track renters and improve the facilities at the track.  Bob took over for Dave Daniels while Colleen came along a bit later.

 Oddly enough, in the early development of the track project there was concern expressed locally about motorcycle events. Since we were focused on SCCA and cars, this blip on the radar did not register until we opened up and the motorcycle community came-calling. The good news is that we were not legislated against having motorcycle events at Thunderhill Park but there had been statements made that we “were not going to have motorcycles at the track.” As it turned out the objection was not about motorcycles riding around our 1.9 mile, 9-turn track but some concern and erroneous assumptions that the motorcycle world would be riding all over the hills west of Willows and beyond.  Realizing that we wanted the American Federation of Motorcyclists [AFM] to be a regular customer, I went to work on getting motorcycles included in the use permit. Once again, Dick Mudd came to our rescue.

Dick knew the people who expressed concerns about the presence of motorcycles as part of Thunderhill. He realized that there concerns were unfounded. When we got the message out that the motorcycles would not be all over the nearby hills, and explained that they were two-wheel versions of the cars we already had, the argument turned to silliness about motorcycle people all being “Hell’s Angels”. Again this was ludicrous so, without saying this was so; Dick Mudd and I went about convincing key people that the motorcycle segment of the amateur road racing market was essential to the survival of Thunderhill Park. It took a while but we got it done thanks to Dick Mudd and his credibility with some folks who changed their minds solely based on trusting Dick and his word that the motorcycle community would be a positive addition to the business of Thunderhill and to the neighborhood.  I am not sure if the two events are connected but Dick was seen on a black Harley Davidson cruising the back roads of Glenn County long after the addition of motorcycles to the schedule was complete.

Like so many others before, [including the kind members who loaned us money, the Northern California Karter’s who gave us a trailer and radios, the Golden Gate Region of the Porsche Club that committed $5,000 per year for a great many years, the Shelby Club that gave us $50,000 and all the donors and surcharged drivers,] the AFM gave us $25,000 as pre-paid rent to help develop Thunderhill Park moving forward. The many people and organizations that have helped Thunderhill by dipping into their personal time and budgets to make Thunderhill Park what it is today remain as the highlight of my tenure these past twenty years [25 if you count the time before the grand opening].

 1994 saw the first of two attempts to run a big SCCA event on the 4th of July weekend. This event had NASPORT and the American City Racing League [ACRL] along with a full load of SCCA region classes. The idea was great. The first race was a good but the July heat was a lesson. The second edition of this race was the last as the heat, once again, trumped the idea and the eager racers melted into the tarmac. Soon after this event ended the customary bell-shaped curve that defined the demand for race days and weekends at Laguna and Sears Point became a double breasted curve at Thunderhill with peaks in April and May and again in September and October. To this day, if there is to be an “open day” on our schedule it will occur in July and August and then again in December and January.  Folks who look for excellent track days at Thunderhill should really look at January. For as long as I can remember, January has been like Laguna Seca in May absent the fog. Sixty-degree temperatures with clear-sunny skies are normal for January at Thunderhill Park.   It has been this way for years. The 25 hours of Thunderhill scheduled for the second weekend in December has not been rained on for several years! Think “off-season”!

 With many open days in the early years of Thunderhill I put my Baylands promoters hat on and began to develop events to be put on by the track. Veteran board member and SCCA supporter Clint deWitt, creator of the Club ‘s famous Pacific Coast Road Race of Champions [PCRRC] came up with a plan to put street cars on the track in a manner similar to the upstart NASA group that was building their future on High Performance  Driving Experiences [HPDE]. Clint’s model was a two-day program patterned, in part, after the BMW Club efforts which were very well managed under the title of “school”. Clint and Pat deWitt are defined by the BMW marque.
 The two-day format for this SCCA street car event suffered from revenue generation and two-days of time and expenses. We took that model, made it a one-day event and called it “Street School”. Our street school was an immediate success and became an exceptional revenue generator for the track on days that would not have been rented. We also used it to produce some excellent SCCA racers by giving men and women of all ages their first taste of adrenalin therapy and a strong pitch to attend the SCCA driving school. When it came to our street schools, Clint DeWitt was among our biggest supporters!

 Peggy and Dennis Hale were also among the first to spear-head our street schools.  Next up was Mike Benzon of spec-racer fame. The retired PG&E employee did an exceptional job.  Former SFR Regional Executive and National SCCA President and two-term Area 9 National SCCA board member, Dr. Gary Pitts spent time at the helm of the street school. Toward the end of our run Dev Clough ran our street schools, conducting meetings and officiating over the groups, schedule and daily results. Thunderhill did all the registration, helmet rentals, certificates and recruiting of instructors and participants. We constantly attempted to improve the value of the program and continued to create a good product and great revenue for the track.
The program never slowed in its satisfaction to the participants and in the number of volunteers who came to instruct and lead the way. It was an excellent event. Eventually David Ray recognized the basics of our business model and joined us in the execution of our street schools. With Dev Clough joining forces with David, Hooked on Driving [HOD] was born. HOD continues today as one of the premier street car experiences for men and women of all ages. In keeping with David Ray’s entrepreneurial skills, his vision of this event model took on much greater proportions and is now franchised across the country. Today Hooked on Driving [HOD] is one of the biggest renters of track-days in Northern California.  Thunderhill now only does open test days as track promoted events. We also partner with NASA in the Teen Car Control Clinics. This is another program designed and tested as a Thunderhill promotion.

Thunderhill Park ended 1994 in the black by a significant margin inspiring talk about finishing the track. The original design always called for a 3-mile course and the drawings already existed. The board, inspired again by Tom McCarthy and with additional resources to draw from, began assembling the team for phase two. Not surprisingly it was Richard and Art Siri, Steven Crawford, I and the asphalt paving team of Baldwin Construction out of Chico California.

With the funds set aside and the construction equipment in route to 5250 Hwy 162 in Willows, the board met to go over the plans. At that meeting, very late in the night and in the planning stages, the design of the final mile, also known as the west-side, was changed. In its original design there was a short right turn entering the current turn 9 at the top of the hill. This shifted into a 180 degree sweeper that cut left through where the old turn 9 flagging station was located. It they swept right to travel down what is a visible draw heading back to what is now the 9 to 10 straight. Once back on this straight heading south, the track bent at about 45 degrees to the left and completed a left turn that ended up near the current turn eleven. A sharp left there returned the track to the current design. It was different. The reason for the change was that those present at that meeting felt that the east side was twisty and too slow. There was a desire to “open up the track” for higher speeds, to have fewer slow turns and not to have a passage through the “draw”.  The result is what you see today.

The length of the completed track ended up to be 2.86 miles which we happily call three miles with no apologies. [We use the center line while the 2.86 miles is based on some kind of racing line.]

About this time, the club ran short of funds needed to pay their bills. Seeing this, Directors Kevin Jenkins, Gary Pitts and others came up with the idea that I help. The result was a return to the club as a consultant for yours truly and the Race to Recycle Oil.

In the next edition of the history of Thunderhill Park, as best I can remember, I will share the story of the five-foot excavation under the track surface on the new west side that was done to mitigate the effects of expansive clays that caused some of the bumps on the original track.

Part one can be found HERE

Part two can be found HERE

Part three can be found HERE.