“Guys, can get your attention for just one more minute?” Jay Lamm, the genial founder and “chief perpetrator” of the 24 Hours of LeMons series has just wrapped up a colorful pre-race briefing from the roof of a Fiat 600, which itself is welded to the running gear of an equally ancient and abused Mini Moke. “Guys,” he shouts through a megaphone to the packed trackside garage, “the president of Infineon Raceway wants to say a few words.”
The crowd’s volume drops expectantly as the man whose racetrack hosts everything from NASCAR to ALMS rises and takes the bullhorn. “I just wanted to say,” he intones, “that this has got to be, without question, the crappiest bunch of cars I think I have ever seen in one place.” The crowd of costumed racers and crew members explodes in thundering approval, nearly drowning out the speaker’s final words: “you should all be extremely proud.”
“I had no idea what to expect, other than that I was working a racetrack event,” enthuses the young lady manning Moondoggies, a corn dog vendor at Infineon Raceway. “When I was pulling into the parking lot, I found myself behind a car with a giant bra across its hood. That’s when I knew it was going to be a good day.”
I knew what she meant. A few miles outside Infineon, as I traversed the north shore of the San Pablo Bay towards the track formerly known as Sears Point, I had encountered a trailer bearing “the most interesting car in the world.” Covered in graphics referencing the Dos Equis “most interesting man in the world” campaign, the battered BMW’s flank bore the motto “if it ran you off the road, you would thank it.” From the very first impression, LeMons makes a simple yet compelling case for itself: when you free racing from overspending and overseriousness, it’s just plain fun.
Pulling into Infineon on Friday morning, I find the paddock parking lot full of clapped-out cars of every possible pedigree and in every possible condition. And, providing the perfect contrast to the festival atmosphere in the parking lot, one trackside garage is full of serious men and track-only Ferrari F430 and 458 Challenges, which pull out and start screaming around the track shortly after I arrive.
Now, I don’t begrudge the pleasure of having Ferrari shuttle your track-tuned special edition to private track days around the world to anyone who can afford it. Nor would I suggest that the lucky gentlemen I witnessed at Infineon weren’t having fun making their Italias whoop with animal glee. But mere money can only buy so much fun. Money alone won’t keep your Honda CBR1000-powered, mid-rear Geo Metro shrieking around a track for 12 hours without falling to pieces, and the LeMons guys know it. When Team “Kicking Ass” (complete with Ferrari-alike outfits and emblems ) drove their 240Z “250 GTO” right into a garage, and cracked Ferrari jokes while everyone got a picture, it was a moment to behold.
The true genius of LeMons is that it is a hard-core car-guy world that manages to be incredibly accessible at the same time. If the Ferrari Challenges are Playboy models, all glossy and out of reach, LeMons cars are like the crazy girl that you should probably stay away from but is down for some naughty fun right now. Anyone who has driven a beat-up old Civic or Kia Rio can appreciate the skill and passion it would take to keep one together after ten hot laps, let alone 250. A LeMons ride might be one of the cheaper racing opportunities, but teams earn their places with epic piston-vaporizing engine failures, late-night transmission rebuilds and Macguyver-style on-the-fly innovations. And they do it all with a laugh. After all, every setback is merely proof that your car is, in fact, the worst car in LeMons.
This kind of environment doesn’t just happen. It’s been crafted and nurtured by Lamm and his head judge Phil “Murilee Martin” Greden. Along with TTAC alum and current Motor Trend scribe Jonny Liebermann, Greden runs the spiritual center of the series, the officiating crew, with a demented glee that obviously inspires the LeMons faithful. Cars like the bright yellow “Jaywatch” truck and the ninja-piloted “Kill Phil” BMW E30 are (barely) rolling tributes to the guys who make LeMons the coolest race series on the planet.
But then part of what makes LeMons so much fun is the healthy culture of corruption that Greden, Liebermann and Lamm promote. After each car gets through a safety tech inspection (and not all do), Greden’s officiating crew gets a shot at leveling the playing field. “If we didn’t do anything” Greden explains to one hapless competitor, “this would be the Miata and E30 race series.” He judges these, and any other cars deemed to naturally talented at the racing arts, with vindictive joy. “Now this,” another judge explains, indicating a Jamaican flag-liveried Jaguar XJ complete with its stock V12, “is what we’re looking for.” Every team hopes to hear the magic words “now this is a truly crappy car.”
The LeMons officiating crew gives “cheaty” cars penalty laps, which in a 12-hour race that was decided by a single lap, can be a huge disadvantage. And initiates into the LeMons cult know to provide its judges with copious bribes of food, alcohol (for consumption only after racing has stopped for the day) and diverse car-related ephemera.
Good bribes can reduce penalty laps, and earn cars a stenciled tribute to their efforts. E30s and Miatas get derogatory stencils in the German and Japanese languages respectively, regardless of the condition of the car or quality of its team’s bribes. Entrants who don’t give sufficient thought to their car’s theme get a “crap theme” stencil, or, if they’re lucky, a chance to update their theme.
After the chaos of Friday’s offbeat “BS Inspection,” the start of the race is almost anticlimactic. But that’s a tribute to the unhinged officiating crew, as the sight of of over 150 beat-up cars stretching across the length Infineon’s long track is truly one to behold. And as the race heats up and lap times shorten, cars start spinning on the wet track.
After watching the race for an hour or so, I start to notice the cars that are going too fast going into a corner, and soon I can predict spins, run-offs and contact well before they happen. Soon the engines start exploding, re-introducing the element of surprise. And when racers spin, leave the track or make contact, they’re sent to the penalty box to face whatever imaginative penalties the officiating crew have cooked up for them (or pay a fine to a local charity).
At some point on the second day of racing, as I’m watching a first-generation Golf GTI overtake an Alfetta GTV on the way out of a chicane on the back straight, I realize that LeMons is probably as close as I will ever get to watching a classic European endurance rally. A “legitimate” vintage racing series might offer more true-to-their-vintage entrants, but it will never capture the raw engine noises, overtaxed suspensions and sheer uncertainty that surely defined the lost romantic era of endurance road racing. And with vehicles as diverse as their pop-culture themes, the howl of bike engines mingling with the thudding of big V8s, and smell of overheating engines and vaporizing brakes, the race has equally-strong echoes of LeMans, Group B, a Wal-Mart parking lot and Burning Man.
After a day of inspections and practice and two days of racing, “noch ein scheiss E30” wins the race. Greden and his officiating crew will have to be tougher next time. But, as Lamm puts it when announcing the overall winner, “this is the least important prize we give out” (it is, however, the only prize to come with a gigantic bottle of tequila and $1,500 in Russian Rubles). Far more coveted are the “Judges Choice,” Organizer’s Choice,” “Heroic Fix,” “Most With The Least” and “Index of Effluence” prizes, which celebrate the less-tangible values that make the LeMons series what it is.
As I drive away from my first LeMons weekend, I realize that I’m looking at traffic differently. Instead of fixating on the rare cars that you only find in wealthy areas like the bay area (Leaf, Volt, Lamborghini), I’m noticing the beaters. The busted-up 3rd-gen Celica that a week ago might have completely escaped my notice suddenly looks like a race car waiting to happen. Someone should call it the “Celica Sprue Disease Awareness Car.” And what was that guy saying about being able to bolt a Mazda engine into a Festiva? I realize that I need to stay away from Craigslist for a long, long time. Or I need to sell my fancy German sportswear and buy a crappy car, a crappy truck and a crappy trailer and go racing. As they say at the LeMons race, “what’s the worst that could happen?”