Revenge of the Turds

By Nick Pon
May 27, 2010 | Posted in Shop Work | From the Dec. 2009 issue | Never miss an article

Despite what you’d think, the idea to race $500 cars against one another for hours on end wasn’t the product of drink and insanity. Well, it wasn’t only the product of drink and insanity. In fact, the 24 Hours of LeMons owes much to the prestigious California Mille vintage rally.
Back in the mid-1990s, LeMons creator Jay Lamm and California Mille founder Martin Swig stood on the side of the road by their glycol-expelling Alfa Romeo. Inspired by the situation, Jay challenged Martin with a theory: Most $500 cars could run more reliably than the Mille’s exclusive collector machines. Swig called his bluff, and the Double 500—a 500-mile rally for $500 cars—was born.
It turned out Jay was right. Not only were the $500 beaters generally more reliable than the Mille’s big-ticket Ferraris, but the Double 500 was, for most entrants, downright easy. Anyone with a sense of humor and an Internet connection could track down a $500 machine whose flaws were distinctly nonfatal, and most finished the rally without spinning a wrench.
Even Jay—who is obviously more optimistic than the average bear—didn’t expect the Double 500 to be so easily conquered. “Clearly, if we wanted to see more entertaining explosions and stuff, we needed to come up with a tougher venue,” he recalls.

Solution to Everything: Chinese Food

The grid at a LeMons race is part junkyard and part fashion show, and a great deal of inside and practical jokes are thrown in for good measure.

The scene: Martin and some other Mille veterans talking over beer and Chinese food. The pieces began to fall into place when Jay came up with the 24 Hours of LeMons moniker, a pun that both accurately described the vehicles and inspired an extra-long format. The $500 cap was retained because “cars are too nice at $1000, and at $250 they blow up as soon as you get out of the driveway.”
The first race, held in October 2006 outside San Francisco, Calif., was intended to be the only one. “But basically,” Jay explains, “nothing I predicted came true. I thought it was just going to be me and 10 buddies, but 33 teams showed up. Then I figured it would turn out to be more like the Three Hours of LeMons—that every car would blow up before lunch. Instead, something like three-quarters took the checker a day later.”
A successful formula had been uncovered. “And I certainly never thought anyone would want to go crapcan endurance racing twice, but after that first race got some news coverage, other people began bugging me to put on another one, and then another one,” he continues. “[The event] just sort of metastasized into a national series from there.” LeMons’s 2009 schedule included 10 races spread out across California, Nevada, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, South Carolina and Connecticut, plus a static show—the appropriately named Concours d’LeMons—held during Monterey weekend. The average starting field now boasts 90-plus cars, with some races pushing past 110.
Media coverage has taken off in kind, with multiple features appearing in all the big car mags plus such non-auto venues as The Week, ESPN Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, various in-flight mags, “Good Morning America,” and other print, Web, radio and television outlets.
And then, of course, there’s Grassroots Motorsports, the series’ official print partner. “The GRM thing was just obvious: If you’ve found GRM you’re by definition our kind of guy, and if you’ve run LeMons, you’re by definition their kind of guy. These days, Grassroots gives out a plaque to the best finishers in the crappiest car—the GRM Most From the Least Award—and we hand out free copies of the mag in the paddock.”


Contact isn’t uncommon in a LeMons race, but the ever-watchful judges are sure to dole out penalties to those who bully their competitors.

By 2008, a Google search would reveal twice as many results for “24 Hours of LeMons” as for that French event with a similar name. If that kind of notoriety wasn’t Jay’s plan, how does he think it happened? “Let me put it this way. The fact that Automobile magazine called LeMons ‘America’s fastest-growing road race series’ kind of indicates that American road racing has some serious issues,” he replies. “I think a whole lot of car nuts had some confusion or ambivalence toward the stuff that was already out there, and we kind of fell backward into this niche where they suddenly ‘got it.’
“I wish I could say that I’d planned it that way, but I didn’t—I just thought it was a funny idea for a one-time race, and that crapcan racing was maybe the only kind of racing my own crappy skills might be good for. What LeMons played off of was racing as people perceived it: too expensive, too remote, too hard to break into, too easy to screw up, too serious, too self-satisfied, too much potential for pain and embarrassment. Even though that perception wasn’t always correct, it still kept the vast majority of everyday enthusiasts from finding their way into wheel-to-wheel racing. By de-fanging the thing, LeMons made a lot of people see what had always been true: Racing is for anyone who wants to go racing. Or, to put it another way, every racer started out as a non-racer.”

Theme cars are common at LeMons; This Barbie Miata ended the day beached on a tire wall at the New Orleans event. The pig is a common penalty; welded sheet-metal animals serve as air brakes.

The result is a series with literally thousands of drivers, maybe half of whom had never engaged in wheel-to-wheel combat before their first LeMons event. “Two kinds of people run LeMons,” Jay explains, “with the numbers about evenly split. The first bunch always wanted to get on the race track but could never quite figure out how. From the outside, to these people, even amateur racing seemed costly, complicated, dangerous and exclusive. It seemed very, very serious—which is ironic, since racing is one of the least serious things you can do. Nobody needs to haul himself out to some godforsaken weed patch and drive around in circles all day. The joy of the thing, basically, is its pointlessness—the fact that it’s something you do strictly because it’s so fun.
“The second bunch are experienced veterans, and even professionals. These guys show up because they want to get back to that pointlessness. Unlike what they’re doing in other series, with us it doesn’t matter if they finish dead last, or never quite find the best line, or blow up their engine, or worry more about picking the right bratwurst than the right final-drive ratio. There’s nothing riding on it except for the fun of the racing itself.”

Like BattleBots, but Different

Whether novice or pro, choosing the right machine can make the difference between a weekend of driving and a weekend of eating grease. What makes the best LeMons vehicle is open to interpretation: Teams have shown up with everything from tiny Fiats to hulking Cadillacs, but Jay’s advice is to keep it simple: “Rear-drive, front-drive, V8, four-banger—none of that really matters. What matters is finding a reliable, durable little crapcan that up until yesterday was somebody’s mom’s daily commuter. That, and not buying a Tempo. Tempos really suck.”
So there’s no particular style or marque that does well? “Not really,” he explains. “We’ve had front-drive Mazdas win, we’ve had rear-drive BMWs win, we’ve had Neons win, we’ve had Miatas win, we finally had a Fox Mustang win—it’s all over the board.”
There is one brand, however, that seems to enjoy an edge: Mazda. “A lot of their stuff combines reliability, handling and cheap prices in a way that suits LeMons quite well,” he explains.
Jay offers another bit of advice. “If I had to warn people away from one thing, I’d say American V8s, which just about never finish. But guys call me up all the time thinking they’ve stumbled on some magic formula, and it just isn’t that easy. F-bodies seem like a good idea, but they eat themselves alive unless you’ve done illegally expensive Showroom Stock levels of prep. All-wheel drive sounds like a great idea, but Subies and Audis have got way too much stuff to go wrong. I just tell people, ‘Look at it this way: Any series that’s seen a 2-3-4 finish for Alfa Milanos is a series you’ll never predict.’”
Circumscribing all those decisions is LeMons’s main rule: Each car must be purchased, decorated and race prepped for a total of $500 or less. A panel of expert judges, easily spotted by the powdered wigs and formal robes, aggressively (and often capriciously) enforces that cap during “BS Inspection,” the pre-race process by which cheaters are snagged, creative themes are rewarded, and participants are reminded to not take the race or their efforts too seriously.
“This is where some teams need to be reminded that we’re all here for fun,” Jay cautions. “There are no F1 scouts in the paddock at LeMons; if you’re already all jacked up thinking you’ll win it at this point, you’ve come to the wrong place.” Though safety-related equipment doesn’t count toward the $500 limit, any upgraded suspension parts, engine tweaks or other performance bits had better be accompanied by a believable explanation and plenty of black-and-white evidence, as the BS judges greatly enjoy exercising their power.
Even if a team convinces the judges of their car’s modest worth, and even if the car itself isn’t total rubbish, there are other hurdles to overcome. To moderate driver behavior, black flags are given out for leaving the racing surface, contact and other driving offenses. The recipients are pulled into the Penalty Box for time out and/or embarrassing penalties, such as tarring and feathering or being forced to perform a Nomex striptease for the pit marshals. Additionally, one especially offensive car is voted off the track by the other competitors and given the People’s Curse—a summary crushing.

Realistic Challenges, Too

Prize money is given out in nickels. The hernia that comes from hoisting them is included at no extra charge.

Prize money is given out in nickels. The hernia that comes from hoisting them is included at no extra charge.

As LeMons’s popularity has increased, so has the competition for a spot on the starting grid. “Every race is oversubscribed, sometimes by 100 percent,” Jay explains. “All applications are submitted online, and there’s a spot on the app labeled ‘team concept.’ We tell the entrants to use that line to explain why their car will be cooler than everyone else’s. Most guys get it—they say they’re going to cover their Fiat X1/9 in fiberglass spaghetti and meatballs—but some never do. There’s always some straight-thinking plodder who just writes down, ‘We are five guys who are dying to race.’ Our take is, ‘Hey, so is everyone else, except these other five guys are dying to race and they’re covering their Fiat in spaghetti and meatballs.’ I mean, which one would you pick?”
The team selection process, which Jay says involves “a big table, a bunch of guys, lots of discussion, and plenty of gin,” is just one of the tasks behind running the now sprawling series. “If I’d had any idea at the time what I was getting myself into, I would’ve just ordered another beer and shut up,” he continues. “One of the biggest hurdles is just finding enough safe, workable tracks to run races on. With the cars we’re running and the huge variation in skill sets, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, there’s a track over there. Let’s use it.’”
As Jay explains, everything from the length of the straights to the exit speeds, pit blends, wall placement, runoff areas, emergency staging sites, driver sightlines over hills, and chicane placement must be considered. “All of that has to be looked at quite differently when you’re talking about ’01 Mustangs racing against ’71 Pintos, and about 30-year Daytona vets dicing with guys who’ve never done a track day,” he explains.
“You’ve got to do site visits, book research, pore over facility maps—all of that jazz—and, at the end of the day, you’ve just got to accept that at the majority of American race tracks, you really can’t craft a safe crapcan enduro,” he continues. “There are a lot of fabulous, famous courses out there that are great for HPDEs and that may be perfectly safe for experienced drivers in serious race cars, but where doing a LeMons-type race would be incredibly, irresponsibly unsafe.”
Then there’s the staff. Each race requires about 30 to 40 local staffers in addition to the half-dozen in-house folks who travel from California to every race. “There’s about 14 separate process sheets needed to cover all the various pickup jobs—in other words, if you hire some dude to eyeball credentials at the gate, he’s actually got to know what’s he’s expected to do—and about 35 different custom-written forms and documents and handbooks and other bits of printed junk,” Jay explains, “plus all the transponders, plane tickets, rental cars, decoders, crates full of props and equipment and T-shirts, freight tracking, ambulances, staff time sheets, paramedics, tow trucks, Curse stuff, insurance documentation, tech inspectors, site plans, ground medevac plans, air medevac plans, local permits—it just goes on and on. It’s a whole goddamn traveling circus—all to put on a race that, if we’re successful, will look like it’s being run by three clowns goofing off on their lawn chairs.”
If you’d rather watch the spectacle from a lawn chair yourself, all LeMons events offer full pit access to the public. One such spectator, apparently overwhelmed by the swarming horde of $500 clunkers, uttered a phrase that has since become the unofficial series motto: “What could possibly go wrong?”

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