Long distance veteran Caceres brings new generation to Thunderhill

  • Novatos Lisa Caceres secured the first Team TMC outing, finishing fourth in class at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill 2019. (Photo by Todd Telford)

  • The last rays of sunshine hit the 2019 entry for the Team Teen Mazda Challenge at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. (Photo by Todd Telford)

  • Long distance veteran Lisa Caceres from Novato. (Sherry LaVars / Marin Independent Journal)

At the height of her racing career in the late 1980s, Lisa Caceres was selected by Novato to be part of an all-women start for the Saleen Motorsport team in the SCCA / Escort Endurance Racing Championship. Her co-driver was the South African Desiré Wilson, one of only five women who competed in Formula 1. Wilson won a non-championship Formula 1 race in the British Aurora Formula 1 Series.

During her tenure driving a Mustang for Steve Seleen, Caceres learned the challenges and focus required to compete effectively in endurance.

Now Caceres must teach and train that endurance racing sensitivity among a quintet of teenagers who competed in the No. 18 Checkr / TJ Aircraft Sales Spec MX-5 for the Thunderhill 25 Hours this weekend.

Caceres is series leader for the Nor Cal region of the NASA Teen Mazda Challenge and has organized a second time entry for TMC drivers into this excruciating classic on a five kilometer road course between the rolling hills west of Willows.

All five drivers, Clayton Ketcher, Tomas Mejia, Brendan Ruzbarsky, Jared Korth and Bryson Lew, are either 18 or 19 years old. They’ll be a candidate for the podium, with a strong start from George Clos. He will have his entire The Village Blacksmith Race Development crew from Englewood, Colorado with him. And four of the five racing drivers have already won NASA sprint events in Spec Miata.

The Teen Mazda Challenge was designed to give young karting stars a way to step up to cars, something Caceres has been doing for decades through their kart racer coaching business, Race Karts, Inc.! Mejia started working with Caceres at the age of five and Ketcher joined her at 14.

Cacares gained a lot of valuable experience during her time at Saleen. Endurance racing wasn’t just about being quick and consistent; New skills had to be learned quickly to get the most out of a wounded car.

Take the time to shake Caceres awake and rest after her previous stay. Wilson had crashed and Saleen wanted to bring Lisa back in. Caceres ran out of the RV and jumped into a car with crooked steering and suspension.

“After buckling my seat belt, I patted the dashboard and said, ‘Okay, baby, let’s go. Wait. Just go on.’ I drove out of the pits and was hoping that it would hold together, ”said Caceres. “To stay straight, I had to turn a little to the right.”

Sensing what the car could and couldn’t give her, she adjusted accordingly and ended her 90-minute stint. Premature pitting for repairs was out of the question.

“Steve used to tell us, ‘You can’t come in unless your life is threatened.’ So basically you can hear 4th gear shattering beneath you, but you couldn’t get in, ”said Caceres. “You can have worn brake pads, you can’t drive in. You have to learn to brake the car without braking. If you had suspension damage, you had to keep going. ‘

The pairing proved fruitful for Saleen. Caceres and Wilson collected many podiums along the way and won 87 in the class at what was then Sears Point.

This weekend is about a lot more than just coaching. Caceres already found the car for the race, rented motorhomes, helped organize trips for all parents and put together a list of volunteers who took care of everything: securing food, generators and tents, getting propane tanks and even cots for the crew members.

On site, Caceres will act as the liaison between the parents and the team, some of whom work as a crew in the pit lane. Most of them have worked with Lisa before, so they know and trust her judgment. There won’t be soccer mom tantrums to negotiate.

Caceres will also sit on her bike or quad, report to the spotters on the route and watch briefly. It is your responsibility to ensure that every aspect of the effort goes smoothly.

But their most important role is to hold in-depth debriefings after every driver outing. When a driver gets out, the team extracts and downloads their SD cards, which contain all of the telemetry data as well as footage from the driver’s camera. Caceres then gets this information to digest and exercise.

“In-car videos will help us determine how they are steering the car during the 25 hours, ie: not taking unnecessary risks when overtaking and overtaking, keeping the car in the lane (not dropping the wheels in the dirt or at all Going off the track), listening to the engine, watching them shift (smooth downshifts, short shifts), whether they handle the tires well based on their braking, steering and throttle inputs, ”said Caceres.

There can be no excuses for abuse. Video and data don’t lie. A driver in the pro mentality has to accept his mistakes and learn from them.

“Data entry / feedback is great for comparing how each driver is using the car, as well as lap times, how deep they are braking in corners, how well they are going in and out of corners,” said Caceres. “I will also monitor their physical and mental health to make sure they stay hydrated, eat healthy, and don’t lose focus or get too tired. The stints can last up to three hours, then two hours at a time per driver. “

It’s a multi-class racing event with sports prototypes and other more powerful cars. Some cars are faster on the straights but slower in corners, so not wasting time while overtaking is also an important skill.

Coming from a karting background where the races are short and the passes have to be aggressive, the mindset for endurance racing needs to change. But not like it used to be.

“You already drive in Spec Miata and you all know Thunderhill. They push really hard, ”said Caceres. “Years ago, the situation in endurance racing was such that you pulled back a bit and saved the car. But now you push harder and take care of the car at the same time. “

However, Caceres won’t be spending much time in the pit lane.

“We have a crew chief for the car and he’ll be making all these calls, but I’ll be there to intervene if necessary. I’ll pass the message on to the crew chief, ”said Caceres. If she sees a driver going out of lane on the track, she won’t hit them. “I can get tough with these kids.”

Ketcher, who took the Team TMC entry into fourth place in the class in 2019, is pleased to have Caceres on site this time. This year Caceres couldn’t be there because he had previously opted for a stunt drive for a TV commercial. Caceres, a SAG member since the last century, will finally train on site for the TH 25.

“Having Lisa race this year will be such an important part of this year’s program, especially given her leadership role in this year’s planning,” said Ketcher, a native of Sacramento.

“Not to mention, their endurance racing experience will no doubt help with unforeseen adversity or general advice on how to get through the 25 hours,” he added. “I’m excited and excited to see what we can achieve with your guidance in the race.”

And Caceres can hardly hold back the excitement itself. Driving a racing car is a critical but relatively narrow responsibility for overall performance. But making sure all parties hold their weight, in addition to the thrill of competition, conjures old juices that never die.

“Now I’m reliving it through the teenagers,” she said.

About Veronica Richards

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