I'd been at the track for only a few minutes -- this was my first 24 Hours of Lemons -- and I was already preparing to be disappointed. The cars on the track seemed so... ordinary. Grassroots Motorsports and AutoWeek, my favorite car magazines, had told me to expect to see strange and wonderful beasts racing down the track. But I found myself asking, "Where's all the weirdness?"
Team Funky Kong's 1980 Fiat X1/9. The team swapped the engine and God knows what else, during the race, earning it the Most Heroic Fix award. [All photos copyright John Edwin Mason, 2011. Click on any image to see a larger version.]
The cars were cool, that's for sure, and so was the course, all 23 turns of it. But that was only to be expected. Summit Point Motor Sports Park, which was hosting the race, is one of the finest race tracks on the east coast. On the whole, however, it was beginning to look -- disappointingly -- like just another day at the races.
Goldbrick Racing's 1968 MGB GT passes the Day Go Fast Racing 1985 Mercedes 190E.
There's nothing wrong with that, especially. The action on the track was entertaining enough. The drivers clearly knew what they were doing -- most of them anyway. So, I settled in to enjoy the race in the same way that I'd appreciate a sports car club track day.
The Nascar-style 1967 Ford Galaxie 500 of team Speedycop and the Gang of Outlaws.
Or maybe a race for vintage machines...
In any case, I was definitely be impressed by the way that some of the cars were turned out. That lovely Ford in the photo above, for instance, looks like something that Parnelli Jones might have raced at California's late, lamented Riverside International Raceway, back in the '60s.
As wonderful as all this might have been, I was still looking for weirdness. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait long.
The Morrow's Auto entries play tag, with the Toylet Supra leading Snoopy's Revenge, a 1995 Mitsubishi Mirage.
What came around the corner next was so wrong, in so many ways that it made be blissfully happy. Here was the weirdness I'd been looking for. Race cars zipping by with Snoopy and Woodstock perched on their trunks... A orange blur that looks like the misbegotten spawn of a tragic encounter between a Pontiac GTO and a Toyota Supra...
This was the 24 Hours of Lemons that I'd been reading about -- where the absurd meets the ridiculous, and everybody has a good time. I knew that I'd better hang on tight, it was probably going to get even worse, which would be a very good thing.
Here's a better look at the Snoopy's Revenge.
What is the 24 Hours of Lemons? One way to answer the question would be to say that it's the fastest growing racing series in the nation. But that's not what you want to know.
Lemons is a nationwide series of endurance races for cars that cost $500 (or less!) to buy and prepare for the track. I know that doesn't make any sense. It's obviously impossible to buy and build a race car for only 500 bucks.
Impossible, but 102 teams managed to do it for the Summit Point race. It helps, of course, that safety equipment (like roll cages), brakes, and tires are exempted from the $500 limit. But it still takes a truckload of mechanical ingenuity to make a cheap car safe, fast, and reasonably reliable.
Woodstock and the Toylet Supra.
Here's how the Lemons folks describe the concept:
The 24 Hours of LeMons is restricted to cars that were purchased, fixed up, and track-prepped for a total of $500 or less. At most venues, the racing consists of tech inspection and track testing on Friday; long-ass endurance-race sessions on Saturday and Sunday; and breaks for sleeping, eating, and Band-Aid application every night. At least once a year, we also hold a straight 24-hour endurance race. Count on plenty of noise, prizes, water fights, and questionably civilized fun before, during, and after the track sessions. Finally, assuming you're still standing, there's the gala awards ceremony, wherein we present trophies, plaques, and winner's purses paid out in nickels.
Team Rust in the Wind's Saab-powered 1987 Nissan 300ZX. Yes, that wing works, and it's adjustable on the fly. Those unsightly bulges on the hood cover the hand-built plumbing for the engine's turbocharger.
What that description doesn't say is that a Lemons race is a great place to be a spectator. The cars are fast (sorta) and funny (mostly). The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and you can get close to the action, on track and in the pits.
For all of those reasons, it's also a fine place to be a photographer.
Rusty Bolt Racing's 1984 Porsche 944, masquerading as the Porsche 962 that Mario Andretti drove in the late 1980s. It wasn't particularly quick, but you can't beat that wing.
You're probably wondering how the folks who run the series know that the racers stayed within the $500 limit. They never know for sure, but they do their best to root out cheaters.
The cars get inspected twice, once for safety and a second time for BS. The second inspection is designed to catch cheats. The guys scrutinizing the cars are all experienced racers and builders. They expect the teams to document their expenses, and, more importantly, they know when something just don't look, smell, or taste right.
Booby Prize Racing's "Save the Yellow Ducks" 1996 Nissan 200SX. Oddly enough, the duck finished just in front of the Rusty Bolt Porsche. That proves something, but I'm not sure what.
A car that seems too good to be true -- egregiously so -- will be awarded penalty laps to even the playing field.
Team Cardorks looks over its Integra Type Arrrgh!, which started life as a 1990 Acura Integra. When the ship car was on the track, it looked as though it could fly. [Remember, you can click on any photo to see a much larger version.]
Like I said, flying.
A member of the Speedycop and the Gang of Outlaws team checks for mysterious fluids emanating from its Galaxie 500.
Guys under cars -- a common sight at any endurance race (and especially at Lemons races!). In this case, the boys from Ziegel Scheisshaus Racing are tending to the needs of their 1986 Mercedes 190E 2.3.
I mentioned that the Funky Kong team won the Most Heroic Fix award. Here they are earning it.
I think that this is the team of Dumb 'n Dumber 'n Dumberers Racing, working on its 1991 Chevy Corsica. But I could be wrong. If I am, let me know and I'll fix it.
24 Hours of Lemons teams use the most modern techniques to convey information from the crew to the driver. This is part of the crew from Misfit Toys Racing.
And here's Misfit Toys Racing's 1991 Honda Civic Wagovan (4WD). It finished 29th (out of 102), which isn't shabby at all.
And the overall winner is... the 1998 Mercedes S500 of team Opulence We Has It. Believe it or not, the drivetrain is bone stock. So is the chassis, except for cut springs and wheel adaptors. The car has been substantially lightened, however. The team took about 1,000 pounds of this, that, and the other out of the car. Now the Merc weighs a mere five or six tons. Or maybe a couple pounds less. It wasn't the fastest car on the track, but it turned lap after lap after lap, with hardly a hiccup. That's a giraffe on the roof, by the way. It's got something to do with something, but I couldn't follow the team's explanation.
Team Pro-Crash-Duh-Nation and its 1987 Alfa Romeo Milano finished second overall and won the Judges Choice award.
Team Vermont Volvocheros and this gastly creation (it entered the world as a 1992 Volvo 240 station wagon) won the much lamented Index of Effluency award, which goes to the team that goes the furthest in the most absurd machine. (In truth, the I of E is highly coveted. Doing the most with the least is a very big deal.) By the way, the Vermonters finished a stout eighth overall.
The 1986 Nissan Stanza station wagon of team Sputnik had a top 25 finish and won Class C, "The Ugly." That seems about right.
Anti-EPA Racing and its 1985 Mercury Cougar won the much avoided Least Horrible Yank Tank award. The car doesn't look like much, but it finished in the top 10. Pretty slow, but surprisingly reliable. [Update: Oops. Turns out that I got that entirely wrong. The car wasn't slow and it wasn't reliable. See comments.]
Don't know much about this team -- Rally Baby Racing -- and its 1987 Audi 4000 CS, but I was horrified to see that tiny child strapped to the roof and forced to use a cheap cigar as a pacifier. The poor kid was there the entire race.
A portrait of an abused child (who, I will admit, looks oddly content -- must be the nicotine).
Team Howrey Doody's 1994 3 Series Bimmer didn't have a great finish, but it looked cool, so I took its picture.
The Keystone Kops 1984 Volvo 244 chases the Duck. The car is a regular on the Lemons circuit. This was its 10th race.
Judge Phil. Respect him, for he is The Man. Approach him with trembling and awe, for the penalties that he imposes for bad driving, unsafe driving, and other forms of malfeasance beggar the imagination.
An aggreived team Cardorks driver and his Integra Type Arrrgh! enters the penalty box to await Judge Phil's decision.
Yea, Judge Phil hath turned laps in Speedy Cop and the Gang of Outlaw's Big Yellow Donk and now must atone for his sins.
Speedycop and the Gang of Outlaws ran this 2001 Mercury Cougar to raise awareness (and money) for the Wounded Warrior Project, which offers support to military men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, as they recover and adjust to civilian life. Good job, folks.
The Dukes of Hazard raced "The Buckeye Bandit," a 1985 Honda Accord. This was the team's first Lemons race, and they had their problems. But, as team member Jeg Coughlin, Jr., told me, they "learned a lot." Most importantly, they discovered that there's nothing easy about building a $500 endurance racer. (Yes, it's that Jeg Coughlin, Jr., the four-time NHRA Pro Stock World Champion. I wrote a separate article about Jeg, which you can read here or on Drag Racing Online.)
I'll close with a photo of the Toyota Lemons' "Dai Mondai I" ["Big Trouble"], a 1987 Corolla FX16. It was one of my favorite cars, for the simple reason that it was representing my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati. The team grows out of a collaboration between Toyota (its North American headquarters are located in Erlanger, KY, a Cincinnati suburb) and UC's engineering school. Toyota offers advice; students turn the wrenches and do the driving. The team finished 6th overall. Go Bearcats!
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For a list of all the winners and the full results of the race, visit the 24 Hours of Lemons website, here.