It’s 7:30 PM on Wednesday Night in an undisclosed city. A local career center classroom is the meeting place. The rows of ancient wooden desks have been cast to the outskirts of the room, and a circle of dusty chairs has been arranged in the center.
One by one, a seemingly random assortment of characters enters through the creaky door and silently chooses a seat, until only one seat remains. The last seat is finally taken, by a man in his mid-thirties, adorned by a mop of curly hair and a Lacoste polo shirt. The room, once abuzz with conversation, goes suddenly silent as he begins to speak.
“Welcome,” he says, “to our Fear of Racing support group.” A murmur of acknowledgement comes from the seated assembly around him.
“I see we have some new members tonight. If you’re new, please introduce yourself to us.”
A lanky, pale man, no more than twenty-five in age, and wearing uncomfortably short khaki shorts, stands up.
“Uh, hi. My name is—”
“No names here, young man,” interrupts the group moderator, kindly.
“Oh, right. Well, um, anyway, I like fast cars. I like them a lot, actually. I’ve bought a couple of them, and I love taking pictures of them and talking about them on the internet. But I would never, ever, EVER go racing. It’s too scary.” As he finishes speaking, a little tremor enters his voice.
“Thank you. How about you, young man?”
Another youngish man, dressed in flashy clothing and sporting a Sonic the Hedgehog haircut stands up. “Hi, there.” He stares at the floor and slightly shuffles his feet.
“Go on. Tell us your story.”
“I like Street Racing. I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” Audible groans come from the rest of the room. “What? Seriously, I do…for those ten seconds or less, I’m—”
“All right, all right. We understand. Why are you afraid to race?”
“Well…I just don’t know about the turning part. That seems like it would be hard. Also, my paint job is expensive. I wouldn’t want to scratch it up.”
“Thank you for sharing. How about you, sir?”
A somewhat hefty man raises from his chair, clearly uncomfortable with the whole setting.
“I don’t really know why I’m here. I mean, I’m not afraid to race. I race every weekend.”
The rest of the group looks somewhat knowingly at each other and says, almost in unison, “Autocrosser.”
“Yeah, so? I see more corners per second than an F1 driver! I’m a national champion! I have more car control than all of you!” He starts to shake his fist at an unseen aggressor. The room starts shouting back at him in protest.
“Okay, okay, everyone. That’s enough!” The moderator waits for the room to calm down, and then speaks very quietly—so quietly that the others in the room strain to hear.
“The truth is, I was once afraid to race, too.” The room collectively gasps. “It’s true. Let me tell you my story about how I overcame my fears…”
Let’s be honest. The prospect of racing wheel-to-wheel on a race track can be imposing, ominous, or just plain downright terrifying for many, many reasons. There’s the risk of damaging your car, the cost of participation, the licensing process, and, of course, the risk to one’s physical well-being.
Luckily, there’s a popular form of racing now that addresses nearly all of those fears. If you’ve been following along on TTAC for any length of time, you’ll know that we’ve made several attempts, both individually and collectively, to compete and win at a 24 Hours of LeMons and/or Chump Car race.
As such, I’ve learned a couple of things about LeMons from a newbie’s perspective. There’s definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. I’m here to let you, the readership, in on a few things I’ve learned so that you don’t have to repeat my mistakes. Also, we’ll address those fears that you may have that are keeping you from participating.
First thing you need to know is that you don’t have to have your own car. There are several reputable teams that have seats available for rent at very reasonable rates—expect to pay anywhere from $400-$1000, depending on the amount of time that you want to drive the car. They will often post their available seats on the 24 Hours of LeMons forums. The problem is that there are also several disreputable teams that have seats, too. The difference between the two can be difficult to determine on your own if you’re new to the sport.
Fortunately, all the results from previous LeMons races are available on their website, www.24hoursoflemons.com. Look for teams that have completed high numbers of laps on a consistent basis. $500 cars will occasionally break (shocker) and on-track accidents will occur, so you want to look for a pattern of good performance over several races, if possible.
Of course, it never hurts to get a personal recommendation from somebody who has rented a seat from a team before—and I have one for you! If you’re in the Midwest, East, or South, I highly recommend working with Daniel Sycks and his group of talented drivers and mechanics. When I rented a seat from his group, they not only brought a great car, they also brought a team a skilled mechanics and two backup cars as parts cars. When a mechanical failure happened, as they inevitably do in LeMons, the entire team was focused on diagnosing the problem and remedying it as quickly as possible. I was free to focus entirely on driving.
Daniel also provided lap times and coaching over the radio as I drove, and when I was off pace early in my shift, due to having never driven the track or that car before, Daniel continued to be positive with his feedback. Highly recommended.
Next, you have to determine your comfort level on track. Autocross can be a great way to learn the driving dynamics of cars at relatively low speeds, and the chance of harming either yourself or your car is somewhat low. However, LeMons racing is FAST—much faster than I anticipated that it would be. It’s quite common to achieve speeds of well over 100 MPH on track, and you’ll be doing it in the close proximity of others. In order to get comfortable driving at the sorts of speeds you will experience in LeMons, you will want to do some open lapping days at the very least, and some HPDE days with a coach is recommended. The type of car won’t matter a whole lot—your daily driver should be fine, provided that it is in trackable condition. Before my first LeMons race, I had two coaching sessions on track (one at Nelson Ledges and one at Miller Motorsports Park). Even after that, the feeling you have when you go into a corner three wide at nearly a hundred miles per hour cannot be easy simulated—you just kinda have to do it.
You’re also going to have to get the necessary safety equipment. The LeMons website has links to sites where one can purchase the equipment required to pass minimal safety tech. However, you’ve got to ask yourself…is this really the sort of situation where you just want to do the bare minimum? Go ahead and get your 37 pieces of flair—buy a good helmet and a HANS device, a five-second fire suit (at minimium), gloves, socks, and shoes, and make sure it all fits properly. You’re likely going to catch the racing bug (or be scared to death and never do it again, but we’ll talk about that later), so buy stuff that you won’t mind using again and again.
Now, when you get to the track, be prepared to be overly helpful to your team. If you have mechanical skills, be prepared to offer them. If you don’t (like me), be prepared to offer to make food runs, parts runs, man a radio…whatever you can do to be helpful. Here’s why: you’re likely going to be slow on track your first time. Don’t compound the frustration for your teammates by being a douchenozzle. Be humble. Be kind. Offer all the assistance you can. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it.
Finally, at some point, you’re going to get strapped behind the wheel of a very loud, noisy, old, uncomfortable car. Let me be the first to reassure you: you will be terrified. Or, at least, you should be. You’re about to enter a race track that you have likely never driven in a car that you have likely never drive, and you’re going to have to maintain competition-type speeds or you’re going to be a danger to yourself and everyone around you.
Relax. It’s okay. Everybody on that track has had the same feeling that you will be experiencing. Take a deep breath, remember what all the flags mean, don’t go over the blend line when you go on track (like I did), and go have fun. However, there are some things to keep in mind.
Many of the 24 Hours of LeMons races are, in fact, 24 hours long. That means that there are portions that must be driven in the dark. DO NOT DO THIS FOR YOUR FIRST STINT. I speak from experience here—my first ever LeMons driving stint was in the pitch black dark. I was terrified. I had to talk myself down every single lap. I was basically following the reflectors around the track, which did not equate to a fast lap time.
So, assuming that you’ll driving during the daylight for your first session, you’ll want to make sure that you are driving on the racing line at about 8/10 of what you feel your fastest possible pace could be. Let people go off line to pass you, if they must. Don’t contest corners. The most important things you can do as a member of a LeMons team are:
- continue to turn laps at a decent pace
- don’t break the car
Anything else is secondary. Once you begin to get comfortable in the car and with the track, you can increase your speed and your pace. I started in my session at Carolina Motorsports Park turning laps around 2:15. By the end, I was turning them at 2:03, which was right in line with the other experienced drivers on my team. Most importantly, I didn’t do anything to endanger the car or my fellow competitors.
If (okay, when) your car breaks, relax. It probably wasn’t your fault, but even it if was, you need to get the car off track to a place where you’re unlikely to be hit by one of the other 85 cars. Sit and wait patiently. A tow truck will come and get you.
Finally, remember to HAVE FUN!! Teams that are willing to rent seats to a newbie probably aren’t in contention for the overall win anyway. Every lap you turn is a chapter in your book as a new racer. You’re going to learn quite a bit about yourself and your car out there. Experience is the best teacher, after all. Enjoy every minute of it and be a good sport.
And when you decide that you’re totally hooked, you can either thank or blame me later. Welcome to the next step of the Pyramid of Speed, brother. Glad to have you.