You’ve read about it in all the car magazines and you’ve been to the 24 Hours of LeMons website a hundred times, obsessively pouring over the rules. It’s the endurance road racing series for $500 cars. You’ve commented on numerous forums that “someday, if you can get a team together, you want to do LeMons.” You even went as far as e-mailing the Chief Perpetrator of LeMons, Jay Lamm, and bothered him with some stupid question regarding the current market price of your Mom’s 2001 Camry (he told you to read the rules again, the car isn’t worth $500). Stop blowing bench racing smoke up everybody’s ass. Find a piece of crap car (that runs unlike a piece of crap), make four new friends (one with money, one who can weld, one who can fix motors and one who has a car trailer) and get yourself to the biggest thing happening in the world of motorsports. The 24 Hours of LeMons is absolutely the coolest thing you will ever do in an automobile (excluding, of course, things that happen in the backseats of automobiles).
I am going to be straight with you here. The idea and premise of the 24 Hours of LeMons -racing a car worth $500, is very enticing to most grassroots amateur car folks. If five guys split the costs evenly, that’s only like $100 a piece, right? Wrong. This $500 car race is a very slippery slope for your wallet. What seems like a cheap way to get into wheel to wheel car racing isn’t all that cheap. There is actually nothing $500 about this race. The entry fee alone for a team of five drivers is a cool $1,000. The car can only be worth $500 before the car’s safety equipment (roll cage, seat, seat brace, five point harness, roll bar padding, cut-off switch, fire extinguisher: $1,600-$3000), your personal safety equipment (Snell rated helmet, neck restraint, gloves, shoes, fireproof suit, underwear, socks: $600-$2,800) brakes (rotors, pads, lines, fluid: $100-$600), and wheels and tires (fresh DOT 190 treadwear rating tires: $350-$900). Plus there is travel to the event, towing, hotels, food, and fuel for an endurance race. I’ll save you the trouble of trying to figure out how to use the calculator on your cell phone. The average cost for a team who brought a fresh car to their first LeMons race is about $5,000.
Shnikees! $5,000, you moan? You thought the race was for $500? You thought this race was for the guys who don’t have lots of money. Well, in comparison to the American LeMans Series (with a weekend budget of about $500,000), yes, this race is a hell of a bargain. But in comparison to a weekend autocross or a Wednesday night drag race in your street car, this race ain’t cheap. But to put things into perspective, you do get a lot for your dollar, usually 14 hours worth of racing. You could autocross every weekend for the rest of your life and never see 14 hours worth of track time.
Many people have convinced themselves they could really pinch pennies and do the race on the cheap, but by the time the green flag drops, they too have dropped thousands of dollars. There is a lot of preparation that goes into the safety aspect of these junker cars. An Autopower bolt in roll cage from I/O Port Racing Supplies (www.ioportracingsupplies.com) usually starts around $900. I’ve found, after pricing steel and fabrication costs that $900 is a great price. If you already have all the personal racing gear, then you can save some money there. However, chances are you don’t have a $900 Nomex suit hanging in your closet next to the tux you never wear.
You can thank automotive journalist Jay Lamm for the newest shot to the arm in the world of motorsports. He dreamed up this knucklehead idea (which turned out to be a genius idea) and, like any good crime boss, has done a fine job of keeping everyone in line. Nick Pon is Jay’s consigliore, the one who keeps the website wheels spinning, and the main Judges, Jonny Lieberman (Autoblog) and Phil Greden (Jalopnik) are Jay’s hit men. They keep the competition honest and punish anyone who screws around on the track. Speed Sport Life’s Zerin Dube also did a guest spot as a LeMons Judge. Most of the things you need to know about the rules and entry process (you have to convince Jay to let your team race) can be found at the LeMons website: www.24hoursoflemons.com.
This is full blown, full bore (and full contact) road racing at its finest. In actuality, I think it may be some of the purest road racing happening in the world. I know that is a big statement to make, but hear me out. In a Formula One race, you might make two or three passes a race. Maybe twenty passes all season. In a 24 Hours of LeMons race, you can pass twenty cars in one lap. There is traffic, late braking, passing, drafting, back straight drag racing, bumping (don’t do it!), pit stops, fueling, driver swaps, you name it. It is an all out motorsports orgy. In a single hour on the track during a LeMons race you will see more action than in a season of SCCA or NASA road racing.
Your adrenaline will be off the charts. For most drivers it is their first experience really piloting a fully caged racecar around a closed circuit. And they will be gaining that experience with a hundred, yes I said a hundred, other cars with equally inexperienced drivers surrounding them. On the track its noisy, it’s hectic, it’s everything you ever wanted it to be. Caution: it’s highly addictive.
This is not the place to compete with your daily driver. Mom will definitely find out if you borrow the car for the weekend and go to a LeMons race. Obviously, after gutting the interior and installing a roll cage, this sport is for a dedicated racecar, well, let me rephrase that, it’s for a dedicated piece of crap, which has been turned into a racecar. You’ll recognize a veteran LeMons car by the beat to hell body panels on every side. As the LeMons series has matured, so has the driving style. Even so, each race still has a fair amount of impacts, roll-overs and totaled racecars. The interesting thing about LeMons racecars: if they survive an event and come back, they always look crappier, yet they magically become surprisingly faster than before.
And of course, there is the ultimate factor in car wear, the dreaded People’s Curse. During a LeMons event, each team gets to vote for one car to be demolished/taken apart/bashed by hammers/chef’s surprise. This is intended to keep people from bringing a ten thousand dollar “$500” racecar. Oh, they’ll let you enter the car, and then they will pull the car apart with a skip loader in front of a cheering crowd throwing lemons at your car. Lesson here: Don’t bring a car to LeMons you are not totally prepared to be parted with.
Your day at LeMons is actually three full days at a road course racetrack (or oval track utilizing the infield as a road course). The first day is all about technical inspection and then B.S. inspection. Technical inspection is there to make sure the car is safe and that all of your safety gear is current (your BMX helmet from 1986 isn’t going to fly here). They want to make sure you remembered to tighten the nuts on the bolt in roll cage, and that your 5 point harness is not attached to the floor pan with sheet metal screws drilled through the webbing material (yes, this has been found).
The B.S. portion of the inspection is where the Judges, adorned in black robes and white wigs, shake you down and sweat you on the actual value of the vehicle. This is where you want to have all of your papers in order. You say you bought a 1999 Mazda Protégé for $200 (because it had a dented right fender) and then you added a locking differential for $100 (an amazing eBay score), got a set of anodized coil-overs on sale at the flee market for $50, and paid cash for a used (but looks new) cold air intake and header from your neighbor for $100. By all accounts you only spent four hundred and fifty bucks. Guess what? The Judges aren’t buying that load of crapola and you just earned yourself some penalty laps – one lap for every ten bucks over budget. Your ’99 Protégé project will probably land you around 100 penalty laps, meaning you need to beat your competition by 101 laps in order to win. Ain’t gonna happen.
The Judges know their stuff and have been lied to, snookered, and have seen more hidden cheats than most NASCAR tech guys. The smart thing to do is bring a legit $500 clunker, hand the judges some brewskis to bribe them a bit so they don’t look too closely at the front sway bar diameter (they like microbrews, no rocky mountain piss water). Another great way to stay in the Judges’ good graces is to have a fantastic and creative theme for your team. A great theme goes a long way with the LeMons staff. If you show up with an ex-spec Miata racecar and your theme is “Awesome Spec Miata Race Team” you’re in big trouble. However, if you show up with a Miata with a turbocharger on it and adorn yourself as a cross-dressing French Maid (including the skirt and fishnet stockings over hairy legs) you might actually be okay. Depends on which Judge you get and what he’s into.
Once inspection is done, it’s time to cruise the pits and start the bench racing. Here you will get the chance to see people attempting to pull off all night motor swaps with nothing but a half dead flashlight and a crescent wrench (LeMons teams love to lunch motors in practice before the race). This is a great time to meet the competition and witness the creative ways people built racecars with the spending cap of $500.
The next day you and your team will attend a driver’s meeting where they will explain what the flags mean (green “go,” yellow “slow,” black “no”). Then the race will begin, sort of. You are not going to find the big Indy 500 double file start here. The cars are guided out onto the track where they drive around lap after lap to see if each car’s transponder is working (you can rent these and zip tie them to the frame, it scores your laps electronically). Historically, a few of the cars break down before the race actually begins. Randomly, they will drop the green flag and the race is on!
Without fail a large number of the racers on the track will begin to drive the race as if it was the last lap of the Daytona 500, as opposed to the first lap of a 24 hour endurance race. Paint is traded, black flags are handed out and teams are sent to the penalty box before five laps can be scored. Besides the B.S. inspections, the Judges also hand out creative and wicked penalties to the drivers and teams that do foolish things on the track (Newsflash: rubbin’ ain’t racin’ at LeMons, go straight to the penalty box and do not collect $200 if you pass GO). Oftentimes, teams are made to sit in the penalty box for 30 minutes while the rest of the field continues to make laps. Or worse, the Judges will weld a large metal pig to your roof so everyone on the track knows you drive like swine.
As the race wears on, cars come in for fuel, driver swaps and occasionally for repairs. Long races are hard on cars, and they are really hard on $500 cars. Teams that can make quick on-the-fly repairs get back on the track and back in the mix. Teams that are searching in the index of their Chilton manual to find out why the car isn’t running are doomed to spend most of the race sitting in the pits as opposed to going fast.
Most LeMons races are split into two days, with a nighttime intermission. When day one of racing ends, the party begins. Everyone mills around talking about the race or sometimes handing out apologies for contact or close calls. Some teams are campaigning not to get the People’s Curse vote by handing out beers and generally lame explanations of why their car is three times faster than anyone else on the track. Most teams are trying to get their cars back together to run the next day. There are a lot of tools, beers and stories traded around the pits at LeMons which is what makes the race so much fun to be a part of.
The next morning, bright and early (regardless if you got any sleep or if your car is running again) the race is back on. About half way through the day of racing one of the cars is given a black flag and with that, the bad news. They have a date with a bulldozer. The race continues while the large crowd of people wait in anticipation of seeing a car destroyed (think Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). Once you see a car have its motor ripped out by a skip loader, you’ll think twice about spending three thousand on a balanced and blueprinted engine for LeMons.
Eventually the time expires and the checkered flag is dropped. The team that has completed the most laps wins the overall crown. The team with the best themed car wins the People’s Choice and the team that brought the absolutely most heinous piece of crap to drive and manages some semblance of laps wins the Index of Effluency award. Generally there are no losers at LeMons and a good time is had by all.
LeMons is all about the eclectic mix of people who compete in this race. Everybody brings a little something to add to the flavor. The cool thing is most of the people at LeMons seem to have a great sense of humor, which is shown in a lot of the team and car themes. Most teams don’t take themselves too seriously, and even the teams that are serious about the racing are still having fun in the pits, partying, sharing barbeque and helping each other scavenge parts to fix ill-fated cars. You’ll find the full gamut of motorsports fanatics at LeMons, from people who have never been on a racetrack ever (but frighteningly are now) to pro race drivers, slumming it for a weekend of fun.
If you can win it, there is glory here. The sheer amount of competitors and crew makes the amount of spectators enormous compared to most amateur motorsports. Winners will be treated to trophies, cash, speeches, flashbulbs and a large cheering crowd (nope, still no trophy girl). Try to find those kinds of accolades at a rallycross. The 24 Hours of LeMons has had enormous media support (print, TV and internet), so chances are you or your car will be featured in some sort of article or blog. You won’t get any of that winning an E.T. Bracket Drag Race on a Wednesday night.
OH, YOU WANT TO WIN, DO YA?
LeMons is an endurance race. All you have to do to win is endure. And the best way to endure is to avoid. Avoid pre-race penalty laps (by bringing a legitimate $500 car), avoid mechanical problems (by getting lucky enough to bring a $500 car that doesn’t break down), avoid black flags (don’t sit in the penalty box for hours while your competition makes laps on you) and last but not least, avoid crashing (if you can). If you avoid those four things you’ll have a chance to win LeMons. I guarantee that you won’t win by driving like a madman during hour two of a fourteen hour race. All I can guarantee if you do drive like that is either a black flag for spinning off the track or a broken racecar. Either way, you won’t win the grand prize of $1,500 paid out in nickels.
Speed, gutsy passes and a fast engine will not bring you a LeMons victory. With that being said, I know that half of you will still drive as fast as possible, make risky passes and try to get the strongest engine in your car that you can sneak under the Judges’ noses. Good luck with that. I know, I know, you’re a real wheel man. You’ll go out, race your ass off, probably finish around 47th, but get on the LeMons’ forum and brag about how for twenty minutes in the middle of the race nobody passed you (you would have won the race if your car hadn’t fallen apart or your co-drivers had just been as fast as you were). Hey, type your heart out, that’s what forums are for.
For those who want to listen, just remember: slow down, survive, and at the end of the race you’ll have a chance to be victorious.
RACER BOY GAUGE
Let’s review the Racer Boy gauge cluster here:
FUEL (Cost): The fuel gauge is below a quarter tank because this race cost you some money, and then it went over budget and cost you even more money than you expected.
RPMs (Adrenaline): The tachometer is at 6,500 RPMs because you are finally doing it, real road racing. Door to door competition, split second decisions for last second passes, on dedicated race tracks filled with traffic.
MPH (Danger): The Speedometer is around 100 mph because they didn’t make you install all of that safety equipment for nothing. The fact of the matter is road racing is dangerous compared to other forms of motorsports like autocross. With lots of cars on track, fairly high speeds, varying expertise levels on course, anything can happen (and usually does).
VOLTS (Time): The volts gauge is below a quarter because building a racecar, even a $500 one, takes an enormous amount of effort and time. Your girlfriend, wife, or hetero-life partner, will definitely be pissed about how many hours you spent tearing out the interior and installing a roll cage.
MILEAGE (Car Wear): The mileage is at around 500,000 miles because chances are, the car had 250,000 miles already which is what made it worth only $500. This race will beat the snot out of any car. Cars come here to die. And for sure, one out of the hundred cars will surely die at the hands of the People’s Curse.
The 24 Hours of LeMons is the real article. It will be everything you were hoping for and more if you can get the money, buddies, car and time (in that order) to put forth the effort to enter and compete. The series is still young, pure and hasn’t been affected by any large changes to the rules or corporate sponsorship. Even though I’ve outlined the actual cost to enter as somewhat steep, the race still is an absolute bargain in reference to the costly world of automobile racing. So it’s still affordable and as of this moment, not completely sold out. Get it while the getting is good. Currently, Red Bull has not entered a car… yet.
Editors Note: Speed Sport Life contributors Rob Krider (Racer Boy) and Jack Baruth (Avoidable Contact) have each separately earned overall wins in the 24 Hours of LeMons, which is something no other automotive website has been able to achieve.