Any racing event in which having your car catch on fire is not grounds for automatic disqualification is bound to be an interesting scene, the sort of thing worth watching just to see how far otherwise responsible people are willing to push the boundaries of automotive reason. That’s exactly the sort of thing the 24 Hours of LeMons race is: a flat out spectacle from start to finish. The race was barely under way before the tow trucks were sent out to carry some unfortunate bastard’s car off the track, and by noon–less than two hours into the race–a Triumph TR7 was already on fire. Luckily the driver seemed to be prepared for this sort of eventuality, as he was quickly out of the car extinguishing the blaze. Anyone who’s going to let a little car fire stop them from potentially finishing a race is not made for LeMons, and anyone who isn’t prepared for a car fire while driving a British car is simply not familiar with British automotive build quality.
The concept of LeMons is relatively straightforward: run a $500 car for an enduro race that lasts about 16-24 hours, depending on the race. The 500-dollar limit is somewhat flexible, in that it doesn’t count safety components (e.g., tires, brakes, roll cage, etc), but any car that looks like it’s stretching the budget too far is going to be penalized with extra laps. Starting a race–even an enduro event–with a few dozen penalty laps is never a good way to begin, regardless of what you’ve shoe-horned under the hood.
Prior to this weekend I’d worked as part of the crew for one other LeMons event, out in Ohio. That was a legitimate 24-hour race, which meant catching brief bursts of sleep in shifts on an air mattress in a trailer while the car was driven straight through the night. Making $500 worth of car last for 24 hours straight is no easy task, and by hour 14 or so the field thins considerably. This past weekend’s event at New Jersey Motor Park–dubbed “The Real Hoopties of New Jersey”–was a two-day affair, with racing from 10:30 to 6 on Saturday and 9 to 4 on Sunday. The lighter schedule allows for some wrench turning in between days, which is always useful when dealing with cars that wouldn’t pass inspection in Kyrgyzstan, let alone NJ.
I arrived at the track on Friday afternoon, during which time our team (‘Duct Tape Motorsports’) was supposed to be testing out the car, a gutted and prepped 1991 BMW 318is with a Red Baron theme (another element of LeMons–an appropriate theme for your automobile). Unfortunately it’s tough to do any serious driving on a ruined clutch, which was the case with our little Bimmer. Any friction material that might have once existed had long since evaporated, which lead to an afternoon and early evening’s worth of work, almost entirely performed by our Crew Chief Josh, while the rest of us stood around talking about how shitty it was to do all that work.
Fortunately the slightly-used-but-still-functioning clutch provided by one of our drivers went in fine, and the next day–Saturday–was off to a dry start, despite concerns over rain. After the 9:30am Drivers Meeting the cars were off at 10:30. Or at least those cars that were running were off; at an event where the maximum cost of a car is (or should be) $500 you get a lot of vehicles that aren’t quite ready when the green flag starts waving. At the last LeMons race I was at there was a team rebuilding their engine for the better part of twelve hours.
Why anyone would spend half a day rebuilding the engine of a car that would feel outclassed in a junkyard captures the very essence of LeMons: an appreciation of automotive tomfoolery, bundled up with some real serious racing. The point here is that simply arriving on the track is often in itself a commendable feat of mechanical and automotive wizardry. Actually crossing the finish line–at any cost–is something that, for these cars, can border on the miraculous.
There were the usual breakdowns Saturday–cars on fire, cars off course, engines self-detonating and shitting oil all over the track–as well as the usual shitty driving, accompanied by penalties meted out by Judge Phil, one of the event’s organizers. Act like an asshole on the track and you’re going to be black-flagged, which is very likely to be followed by having to act like an asshole in the pit area as a form of atonement (and entertainment for fellow teams). In the course of the race I saw: a driver get taped to the roof of his car and have to wave to people as his co-driver drove him around; a team dress up like the Village People and dance to “Macho Man” as they walked through the pit area; cars get various items–computers, metal chickens–welded to their roofs; and one particularly relevant punishment (developed by our Team Captain, Scott B.), in which drivers were sprayed with fake tan, forced to gel their hair and don tank tops, and then act out a fight in their car (the “Jersey Shore” treatment).
Of course, savvy teams know that a well-executed bribe, usually involving booze or a charitable donation, can get you out of trouble. This is a fundamental tenet of LeMons, which is the idea that cheating or trickery–of the right kind–is both appreciated and encouraged. The point, after all, is to finish the damn race and enjoy yourself while doing it, even if it means greasing a few palms along the way.
But what do you expect from a Judge who putters around the race on a motorized bar stool? If you’re not willing to enjoy the inevitable spectacle and debasement of a $500-car race then you’re in the wrong event.
The Red Wreck–as our little Red-Baron-themed 318is is known–did well on Saturday in the very capable hands of our drivers, bouncing around the top three spots for most of the day. When the racing ended at 6pm we were in third place, despite some brake issues.
After a quick rotor swap we headed over to Texas Roadhouse Steakhouse, which Team Captain Scott B. was very enthusiastic about. I thought perhaps it was because of a particular fondness for steak, but after about five minutes at the table it was clear that Scott’s real interest was in the dinner rolls. He had shoved three or four of these things–each one liberally coated in cinnamon butter–into his mouth before I was even aware of their presence, and when we left the restaurant after harassing the waitresses for an hour and pretending it was everyone’s birthday he walked out with a dozen of the little calorie bombs to go.
The next morning the racers were off at 9, with the top ten staged according to their placement the previous day. Oddly enough, the car in the lead was an Alfa Romeo, which is potentially the last Alfa still in working order in North America.
Consistent with LeMons, by 9:05 the wreckers were already on their way out to carry some unfortunate POS off the track, and by 9:45 there was yet another car fire. Clearly, day two–twelve or so hours in–is what separates the men from the boys in this kind of race.
Unfortunately shortly after 11 we had some issues of our own, as our driver was unable to get the car into any gear. Eventually he was able to drill the thing into second and hobble back to the pit area, where our Crew Chief could once again get to work.
The immediate problem was the clutch slave cylinder, an easy enough fix provided you have a spare slave cylinder laying around. But we didn’t happen to have a spare, and none of the other teams in our area did either. This is the point, in any “normal” race, where you throw in the towel. The absence of a part needed to make your car operate is a pretty valid reason to call it quits.
But this is no normal race; this is LeMons, dammit! You need true grit and determination, and it doesn’t hurt if you also have a spare BMW sitting around. Luckily our Crew Chief’s car happened to be a similar model e30, and so we cannibalized his slave cylinder to get things back on track.
Things would have gone fine had that been the end of it, but what followed was a series of unrelated failures that rendered our car completely and totally useless for anything other than target practice with a hammer. The battery, the starter, the timing chain–all shit the bed. But not before we did all we could to finish the race, in any form possible. We tried push-starting the car; starting it hooked up to another car’s battery and a battery charger; starting it by having it towed around the pit area by a Jeep Grand Cherokee. At some point–when we still naively thought the only problem was a blown clutch–someone suggested welding the clutch together and driving the remainder of the race in fourth gear.
But when the engine wouldn’t turn, even with serious wrenching on the crankshaft, we knew there was nothing more to do short of an engine swap (which was considered).
At that point all that was left to do was enjoy the race as spectators, and subject ourselves to some penalties just in the sake of good clean fun.
But no. Remember, this is LeMons! You finish the race in any shape, and it would be out of tune with the great spirit of LeMons if we were going to let something like a seized engine stop us from crossing the finish line. Right next to us a team was cutting out a part of their door that wouldn’t allow it to shut so they could weld the remaining bits of door to the body, thus allowing them to finish the race. That’s the sort of savage determination you need at LeMons.
And so–at the suggestion of our Crew Chief–we tossed our lap transponder into an unsuspecting BMW e36 that had been tricked out to look like the Deathmobile from Animal House. It was in that heap that we crossed the finish line, improving our standing from 35th to 31st despite our car sitting in the pit area the whole time, as its laps were turned by a car running in fourth gear the whole time (their own tranny had long shit the bed).
It was a fitting end to the weekend, a proper tribute to the spirit of LeMons. We came, we raced, we drove damn well, and when the car decided it had had enough, we cheated our way to the finish line. There are few things I can think of that are more American than that sort of combination of automobiles and trickery. And really that’s what LeMons seems to be about: a genuine appreciation for automotive madness and brilliance, combined with a tongue-in-cheek approach to some very serious and potentially dangerous stuff. If things get broken, destroyed, and wrecked beyond all salvation during the course of events, so much the better.
And the winner? Yet another shitty e30, tricked out in pink with rainbows and a unicorn horn.