The TTAC love fest at the last 24 Hours of LeMons makes me the first judge to get a taste of their own “punish the criminal miscreants” medicine. But there’s more to my story: I came full circle as a LeMons race car builder, judgy-authority figure and “successful” race driver.
I was pretty fast on an autocross before anyone knew about LeMons: and reasonably quick in weekend racing school events. With the advent of $500 crap-car racing, I learned that door-to-door racing is a different ball game. Long time readers remember TTAC’s first foray into LeMons, with a Datsun that’s still running strong. And that race in 2008 was rather terrible for me. After 5 laps and two black flags, I quit: apologizing to my teammates for letting them down. My heart rate was spiking and I felt pure anxiety. Prelude to personal failure: a full-blown panic attack hit me two weeks later thanks to my spectacularly awful job.
Fast forward to last week: I was back in the driver’s seat. After a third black flag, Team Property Devaluation Racing was finished for the day. With nothing to lose, I drove their car with the blessings of LeMons central. As a card-carrying Fox Body nut, I had an affinity to the highly modified, disturbingly fast Fairmont wagon. Strapping down into the Fox’s familiar surroundings, I knew things would be different this time ‘round.
I easily kept my heart rate down: a full on racecar requires a level of concentration and relaxation not needed in a new car review. I drove conservatively, but the sinister 5.0 V8 and T-5 shifter in my hand was tempting: once I broke triple digit speeds on the front straight, I spent more time in 3rd gear so I could enjoy kissing redline in 4th on those long stretches. It was intoxicating: this small block Ford coulda been the soundtrack for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang. This wagon is positively heroic.
It felt absolutely brilliant, even if one ball joint later liberated itself from the control arm. I was progressively getting faster, until the rear almost immediately let loose upon exiting a tight corner. I let off the 5.0’s loud pedal, countersteered and the pendulum effect snapped the back end to the other direction. More countersteering ensued. Too late, I went in the weeds. Perhaps there was an oily patch after a hard day of junk car racing, but shame on me for snapping off the throttle when I needed to “ease” off. I shoulda known better.
Black Flag! I drove into the Pits, to the waiting stares of Murilee Martin, Jack Baruth and a buncha local jerks (kidding) who I thought were my friends. I professed guilt like any LeMons racer should, “I’m an automotive journalist, you know we can’t drive worth a shit!” But that Murilee guy wanted blood!
I’m pulled out and Baruth takes out a roll of saran wrap, pinning me to the roof. The wicked (yet boyish) smile on his face meant he enjoyed it a little too much, but it’s all good. My trademark Indian Chief judging headdress goes on my dome and the team jumps in the Fairmont to parade me around the paddock, Walk of Shame Style. I stop laughing long enough to do my best impersonation of Richard Nixon’s “Victory” gesture, cameras rolling. While embarrassing, it was also stupid fun: Nixon never left his mark strapped to a brown Ford wagon.
Day Two: another team, Assmasters Racing, offered me a drive. I doubt they knew I needed personal vindication, but throwing a judge in their ride proves to the LeMons community they aren’t a buncha cheaters. Necessary, considering they own a fleet of race cars in an MTV Cribs worthy shop. And Assmasters’ donkey certainly looked like a runner: a Ford Mustang II Ghia, with a 5.0 V8 and a leftover transmission from a Panoz race car. And Wilwood brakes: LeMons Bling at its finest.
Aside from a clutch pedal soaked in half dry epoxy and a carburetor that ran empty during aggressive cornering, this car was a peach. A really soft, rotten peach. Body roll was disrespectful and the overboosted, weathered stock steering had more “play” than Jack Baruth when the track goes cold. The brakes were jumpy with little chance for pedal modulation while the 1980’s vintage 5.0 was dead stock. My best time was a rather pathetic 2:22, handicapped by my desire to cruise in 4th gear.
And just as I felt the confidence to push harder, my time ended with a black flag on the Mustang II’s faulty taillights. I was saddened but thrilled to celebrate my first successful run in a LeMons race. I was finally door-to-door racing!
I finally won over my inhibitions, over the personal failures of my past.
After fixing the Mustang II’s lights, the Assmasters executed their next plan: destroy the fastest lap time in THE car Judge Sajeev denounced as a “F–#$@%! Tuna Boat.” The result was a ridiculous 1:54 lap time, proving that race cars are only slow with an automotive journalist behind the wheel.
So it took three years, but now I know the truth: LeMons is the easiest, cheapest way for any schmuck to go door-to-door racing. Rich or poor, Jack Baruth or Sajeev Mehta. And thanks to the shenanigans from guys like Murilee Martin, it’s fun for everyone. Make a car and a team, or piggyback on another one for the price of a modestly-sized check. Take it from the guy who’s seen it from every angle, you won’t regret it.
(Thanks to Jay Lamm for letting me judge his little ‘ol Texas race, to Troy Hogan for making our first LeMons team, Brian Pollock for the blast in his Fairmont and Michael Mills for my ultimate victory in his Mustang II.)