By on June 27, 2012

The inimitable Ross Bentley likes to say that every driver, at every level of wheel-to-wheel competition, is a team leader. It follows, therefore, that auto racing is a team sport. In any team sport, a good system beats a great talent at least nine times out of ten, usually more. Michael Schumacher won because he built great teams, not because he could do something behind the wheel that others couldn’t. The same is true of Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR, or of the Audi efforts at LeMans.

When I’ve been drinking, or when I am trying to bore a woman into a state so comatose that she no longer has the will to resist, I like to tell the story of how I once drove from the Solo Nationals in Topeka, KS to Flat Rock, MI nonstop, jumped in my team’s Toyota Supra, and in the course of a three-hour stint promptly took us from third place to winning the 24 Hours of LeMons by 57 laps — the greatest margin of victory in series history, as far as anybody seems to know.

It’s a fun story, if you’re easily amused, and like any other story of endurance racing it’s chock-full of little dramas — the thugs from Car and Driver putting a previously-retired car back on track just to try to hit me, a failure of radio communication, Tony Swan’s mental failure and subsequent wall-smacking after I stepped on his throat with some horrifyingly aggressive but contact-free racing. It was a great victory and I’m still pleased to remember it five years after the fact.

Our team really didn’t win because of anything I did, however. We won because they were planning and executing a strategy while I was still packing up my brother’s RX-8 in Topeka. That strategy won the race, and I keep trying to share it with people… but nobody really wants to listen.

Our team system was developed by long-time street racer and “Fast and Furious” extra Mark Mitias (who appears, along with his wingless white Supra Turbo, in the “Race Wars” scene) and South African race marshal/corner worker Neil Claasen. Neither one of those guys had ever turned a lap in a sedan race themselves, and they did not drive the car during the event. That freed them to consider the unique requirements of what was then still a new type of race series, rather than the demands of their egos as drivers. Claasen and Mitias were also both intensely ethical men who wouldn’t even listen to my repeated pleas that they figure a way to cheat a little more speed out of the car during the build.

They started by choosing the right car. In this case, the right car was a Toyota Supra, purchased legitimately from a fellow out of the newspaper. Nothing was done to make the Supra faster. Instead, they went through it floorpan to roof, disassembling, checking, and reassembling with no other goal other than making sure every bolt in the car was to proper spec and in good condition.

The goal, and the top priority throughout the prep period and race itself, was reliability and maximum track time. Everybody in Lemons pays lip service to this but few people really do what’s required. The math is irrefutable. If you are on a two-minute track, and you are five seconds a lap faster than your competition, that puts you up about two and a half minutes per hour. In a three-hour stint, extracting that almost impossible five-second gap every single freakin’ lap, without fail, that’s seven and a half minutes.

How many major repairs can you complete in seven and a half minutes? Most LeMons teams can’t even do a wheel and tire change in that time. What about a blown head gasket, or even a bad brake caliper? You get the idea. During the race, Claasen was a stickler for staying on-track at all costs.

This meant long stints for the drivers. It still blows my mind when I see people doing one-hour or ninety-minute stints in LeMons. You’re losing two minutes an hour, at least. Two and a half hours should be considered the minimum unless there’s a health, mechanical, or penalty issue.

During those stints, you need to make every pass you can, without trying any that you can’t. Our team pulled one of our drivers in at a the ninety-minute mark after watching him make two bad moves on slower cars. Touching another car is something to be avoided, even if you don’t think you’re hurting your car when you do it. As time-consuming as it is to swap a driver, it’s more time-consuming to repair a body panel. If your guy can’t keep his head together, he needs to come out — and that’s when having a non-driver team manager really pays dividends. Our loose cannon was angry at being pulled, but since he couldn’t accuse Claasen of making space for his own drive, he eventually had to concede that taking him out had been the right choice.

It’s also critical to have a stopwatch on every driver, every lap, for the entire event. The stopwatch tells you things a driver can’t, or won’t, tell you. The point isn’t to force all your drivers into a competition for laptime bragging rights — it’s to see problems with the car, a traffic situation which might call for an early pit, or a fatiguing driver who is dropping time.

Which brings us to the next topic: physical condition. In order to drive Lemons, you need to be in shape to drive. You can be fat, you can be ugly, you can be shaped like a pear, but you need to be able to run three hours in a hot car. Simple as that.

The other teams laughed pretty heartily when they saw Claasen putting on an apron and setting up a stove at the beginning of the race in order to serve specific hot food and cold drinks to the drivers and crew. Some of our own people griped at being told to go to sleep just when things were getting exciting and we were challenging for the lead. At the end of the race, when everybody was fresh-faced, healthy, and ready to help other teams do emergency repair, the other guys had long since stopped laughing.

Winning Lemons turned out to be pretty easy, even against a bunch of over-funded color rags and local Detroit industry race teams. I considered myself to be quite the Lemons racer, I must say, and I made it known that I was willing to travel anywhere to help out the hapless crap-can competitors of the world. For my next race, I flew to Altamont to sit in with Jalopnik’s V8olvo. Compared to our Supra, the V8olvo was a rocketship and it was also virtually impervious to contact. In any race you can imagine, the V8olvo would have handed the Supra its Japanese ass. So how did we stumble around as low as 60th place and only end up finishing 15th?

Simple: we did everything wrong. None of the drivers were race fit and they all had to come out of the car within an hour. Two of our drivers were far too aggressive and one of them bent a tie rod screwing around, which idled the V8olvo for the better part of an hour while the crew addressed the issue. By the time I sat in for a proper-length stint and hauled us twenty or so places up the ladder, it was too late to do anything about our chances, so we finished 15th even though at one point I had the second-fastest lap of the race.

The V8olvo went on to win events without my help: the guys running it were very sharp and they didn’t make the same mistakes again. I stayed away from Lemons for a few years, returning to drive a Neon for Houston events in 2010 and 2011. We had a good system and good people, but the car had fueling issues and as a result we didn’t see the podium.

This Saturday I’m taking my fifth crack at Lemons, driving another Neon with an all-star cast and a former SCCA champion calling the shots from a non-driving position as car wrangler/team leader. I feel good about our chances, but make no mistake: if we win, it will be because of the system, not any individual driver. Not that it will stop me from spinning the occasional airport-lounge tale: “There were just three hours left to go when my manager came to me. He said, ‘Michael, I mean, Jack, I want you to drive flat out. I want Dodge to win LeMons.'”

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36 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: I can tell you how to win a Lemons race, but you won’t listen....”

  • avatar

    Gold jackets win gold medals.

  • avatar

    Extra Point for Le Mans reference at the end…

  • avatar

    Jack – another excellent story.

    As a design engineer, I can tell you that the lessons you describe apply to product design projects as well.
    Some teams have individuals out to make a name for themselves, often at the expense of others.
    Mid-project schedule delays are seldom overcome as delivery pressures build at the end.
    Assumptions that new hardware and suppliers will behave exactly as hoped are always wrong.
    Finally, good project managers understand the interactions of all the project pieces, even if they’re not doing the technical work themselves.

    If I was part of a Lemons team, I’d listen….

  • avatar

    So, even in auto racing, the tortoise still beats the hare.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      It’s true in any real distance race.

      I am a crew member on a yacht racing team. We are always in the middle of the pack in the Wednesday night beer can races. We are always in the middle of the pack in the multi-day regattas which consist of 8 to 10 small races.

      But in the big daddy of them all, the iconic Chicago to Mackinac race, in which a boat our size will typically take 3 to 4 days to finish, we are almost always the winner of our section. If we don’t win, we are somewhere on the podium. The boats we race against will spend $50,000 or more a year on all sorts of fancy high-tech stuff and we will run the race with sails that are a couple years old.

      It’s really simple. You need a good team that can keep their focus the entire time. You avoid dumb mistakes the entire time. And everyone that takes a turn driving the boat has the complete confidence of the owners. On most boats, the owner will drive the boat until they are exhausted, well past when they should have relinquished the helm. And then at night when they are asleep all of the gains disappear as the only driver awake just doesn’t have enough experience or even the authority to drive when they need to drive.

      Everybody thinks they can make up for people and preparation with hardware. It doesn’t work.

      • 0 avatar

        You’ve just described most of the long distance sailboat racing in the USA

      • 0 avatar
        Chicago Dude

        “You’ve just described most of the long distance sailboat racing in the USA”

        Exactly. It’s why Mr. Baruth can write an article exposing the “secret” to winning LeMons without worrying about never winning again. Because there really is no secret.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the article Jack. I’ll be racing a Ford Probe I’m currently prepping at the Autobahn CC race in October. It’ll be my first time racing wheel to wheel, and I’ve been reading every article I can about preparing for the race. You’ve given some sound advice — I hope I can follow most of it.

  • avatar
    Brendan McAleer

    Is that Brian in the background?

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    In 35 years on the planet I’ve yet to meet the woman who will have sex with you just to get you to shut up, but I’ll take your word for it Jack.

    (Although I’m a Gemini and generally we never shut up even when in the sack.)

  • avatar

    Having been on a LeMons team than almost won the New Orleans race driving one of the slowest cars in the field (we ended up second after running out of gas with 15 minutes to go), I can personally attest to the effectiveness of staying in the car & staying out of trouble.

    HOWEVER, the fact that teams are actually bringing “non-driving” team managers tells me that LeMons may have officially jumped the shark. Winning is a nice feeling, but it’s hardly the point of the series…

    • 0 avatar

      Yea I was just gonna say, there are plenty of race series’ that are all about winning.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s just how these things evolve. In the next 5 years the Discovery Channel or TLC will create a reality show following a Lemons Team for a season. From there it will be downhill until Lemons is NASCAR- lite, and someone will have to invent a new series that’s supposedly just for fun.

  • avatar

    Who goes to LeMons trying to win the race?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Over half the field, particularly once you get away from the art-car wackiness in California.

      Lemons is a faster race class than SCCA ITA.

      • 0 avatar

        I think you’ve got something a little sideways here. A lot of LeMons racers, regardless of what sort of vehicle they’re in, get in a serious mode behind the wheel and try to get everything out of themselves and their car that they can.

        We’re not out there for a parade – we’re definitely racing, and we go fast (equipment permitting) – but it’s still about challenging yourself, enjoying yourself, and above all *having a ton of fun driving crappy old cars*! Notice the “driving” part. That’s why bringing extra non-driving team members in an effort to win the race strikes me as completely ridiculous.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        Without a non-driving team captain, you cannot effectively discipline problem drivers.

        This wouldn’t be an issue if your team has no problem drivers, but I’ve never been on, or SEEN, a Lemons team without at least one.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, we’ve all driven like idiots from time to time (myself included), but I have yet to be on a team where drivers who did something stupid or silly didn’t discipline themselves, perhaps with a little gentle coercion. Perhaps I’ve been lucky with my choice of teammates, but when you’re in it to have fun rather than win nickels, you tend to surround yourself with people who know how to drive within themselves (and that it’s an * endurance* race, not a sprint).

  • avatar

    That still means a decent part of the field isn’t going for the win.

    What’s the true atmosphere like at a LeMons race?

    Murilee and the official website make it sound like a recreational softball league. This post talking about stopwatches, and throat stepping, and team managers makes it sound like LeMons is more akin to a AA league where you’ll get a pitch to the head if you crowd the plate too much.

    I’d expect potential problems between the teams like yours that are taking the racing aspect rather seriously and the teams dressed in bear suits driving a Dodge Dynasty with a 50 Shades of Gray theme who are there mostly for the atmosphere.

    Do the goofball/no chance at winning teams just know to stay out of your way?

    • 0 avatar

      The true atmosphere is fun and camaraderie. I did my first race a couple weeks ago at Summit Point, and before that have hung out and done some crew stuff at earlier races in both LeMons and ChumpCar.

      I will attest that there are teams out there trying to win overall, but it was about 10 to 12 in a field of 123 for Capitol Offence ’12. Some of them were shoe-ins (looking at you rusty cougar) and you just let them pass cause by Sunday they are literally 50+ laps up and have raced clean and been fun all weekend.

      The other in it to win it guys are typically less enjoyable to be around. And really is it that important to haul home $500 in Nickels?

      Everyone tries to stay out of other cars way, TRIES, not always succeeds, and sometimes you have your own thing going and to hell with the leader, I’m passing this guy for 45th! Because in the end the race leader is only the race leader right up to the point they hit the oil slick from the Saturn that just grenaded it’s engine. Or until their wheel hub takes a walk on them less than an hour to the checkered flag.

      Be courteous but don’t bend over backward for em. There’s no Blue Flag in LeMons, so lap traffic is just another challenge for the leaders to deal with. Especially because the Leaders heap of crap looks like most of the other heaps of crap through a wink mirror or a taped up side mirror.

      The key point is to have a good time, if winning is what lets you have a good time, go for it! But if you go to bed early on Saturday night instead of participating in the greatest paddock parties known to motor sports, you’ve missed something important about LeMons.

  • avatar

    Entertaining. Reminds me of why I read TTAC. One of my favorite all-time reads here was the old 911 versus the lady in the V6 Camry. I want to forward it to a friend but can’t find it. Anybody know where it is?

  • avatar

    I’m a truck driver. I always say the best way to “make time” isn’t to speed excessively but to keep that left side door closed!

    • 0 avatar

      Definetly. I love long distance driving. In a 600 mile one way trip I am normally an hour quicker than friends, family, acquantances. That is without actually driving any faster than the drivers. Minimizing stops, selecting appropriate start times to minimize traffic, and maximizing use of cruise control all help.

  • avatar

    Endurance racing is about keeping out of trouble and keeping the car working. If you do all that well, you’ll do pretty well. Doesn’t mean you will win, but you should be towards the top on a consistent basis.

    If you can get consistent in reliability and keeping out of incidents from enthusiastic drivers, then you start working on speed.

    Know any successful teams in lemons or other series where the team leader/car wrangler is a driver also?

    I’m guessing those are more rare.

  • avatar

    I used to assemble and race R/C cars, scale 1/10, gas powered.
    My motto was: “A slow car around the track is still faster than a car being repaired in the pit lane.” Reliability and strategy always help, even in speed Racing.

  • avatar

    This theory might have held true for that race your team won in 2007. Nowadays, the series is full of spec-series vets, super-cheaty brake upgrades, and many teams who have 20+ races under their belts.

    So on top of not being black-flagged for stupid stuff and everything else you said, you need all awesome drivers, a car that can pass 3 cars at a time in a braking zone, and have 3 hours of fuel.

    I can tell you how to “win” Lemons.
    Build a Pontiac TransSport into a racing VAN. Get into Class C. Keep it on the track.

  • avatar

    Winning on laps may have jumped the shark but real champions go for the real win, IOE. Going for the C class win is just as heroic as well.

    Long live Spank and Speedycop!

  • avatar

    Watching NASCAR it’s easy to see that it’s a team not a driver that makes it happen. All it takes is one to forget a lug nut or something as dumb as too many men over the pit wall and the driver has to make a pass through penality. I’m hoping Junior has found his mojo team and will finally win a Sprint Cup Championship!

    • 0 avatar

      Indeed — I’ve watched just enough NASCAR to see that the driver’s job is to not screw up, and the team’s job is to win the race in the pits.

      Alas, as much fun as NASCAR can be, it reminds me way too much of driving on the Interstate on the East Coast.

  • avatar

    There’s no “Thumbs Up” button for articles like this. It was interesting and informative. I can’t add anything to the discussion, but I’d like to thank Baruth for writing it and making my day more interesting.

    I don’t race, and so I hadn’t thought about race strategy the way that the team did. I like to learn something every day!

  • avatar
    Sir Tonk

    I’ll echo the appreciation for the story, I went to my first LeMons race last year and it was even more fun than I thought it would be. I’d love to be able to participate, need to find some teams that need volunteers for next year.

    And Jack, are you going to be at Houston’s race again this year?

  • avatar

    We finished 4th at the race Jack & Co. won, and it was the same thinking- keep rolling, long stints and avoiding low-percentage passes.

    I’ll second Crabspirits: The level of talent has gone WAY up since those heady days of 2007. Jack, you’ve got a good shot, but that’s all it is this time- not even even money. I’m about as fast as you are (from back-to-back experience in the Neon @ Houston).
    It’s always gratifying to the ego to be in the ballpark with someone you respect as a driver. (and I’ll be looking for you this weekend I’ll be (one of many) in an E30).

    There are a minority of guys trying to win overall, and they are pretty easy to ID- I’d say 8-10 cars have a shot at it this weekend.

    I just don’t take it that seriously at this point 25-odd races later. I agree that you need a non-driving manager that can deal with racer egos to win at this point, but as has already been raised- there are lots of ‘real’ series that can give you that experience, why try to turn LeMons into what it explicitly is not?

    Class C or the IOE is the way to go. Trying to drive something that has no business on a racetrack fast for hours is awesome.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    And now it’s time to hand the keys to the Team Humbucker-Jorts LeMons Toyota Celica to our tame racing driver. Some say…his Nomex race suit is fully lined with lace from the left cup of his girlfriend’s brassiere. And that his humidor contains the remains of a half-smoked cigar previously owned by Bob Lutz. All we know is, he’s called the Jack!

  • avatar

    Kind of late to this post but..

    Jack, you give me entirely too much credit. Mark did as much as me to keep everyone in check. I really only made the beef brisket. I also ran the team the next two years without success, but I would dearly love to try again. As soon as I am done with college.

    Oh, our early morning pitstop was about about 4 minutes, in bad light and we had to mount one wheel twice as the driver (through no fault of his own) did not park the car where we wanted it. You also forgot our crew chief Kevin, who probably worked on every car in the pits except ours!

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