Endurance Racing a Gremlin: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

Some might say that the AMC Gremlin, being one of the crudest simplest cars ever built, should be as reliable a tool as the stick used by chimps to extract tasty ants from anthills. It wasn’t quite like that for Substandard Racing and their Gremlin, as we saw at the Laissez Les Crapheaps Roulez 24 Hours of LeMons last weekend.

Our first sighting of the Substandard Racing AMC came at the 2010 Gator-O-Rama LeMons, back in February. As the second-ever AMC product (after the Hornet that races in the West Coast events, and if you don’t count the Renault Alliance and/or Eagle Premier as AMC products), the Gremlin’s presence made everyone at LeMons HQ very happy… until its flank ended up serving as the perfect launching ramp for an Escort ZX2:

After that, things went downhill fast for the Gremlin; first, the four-wheel-drum brakes kept catching on fire, thanks to the never-anticipated-by-Kenosha-engineers duty cycle of a high-speed endurance race (yes, you could still buy a car with full drums as late as 1974). Then the allegedly reliable AMC 258 six-banger blew up. Total laps finished, in a race in which the winner got 328? Twelve glorious laps for the AMC!

For the Laissez Les Crapheaps Roulez race, Substandard Racing came prepared! Not only did they hang a couple of Black Ice Little Trees from the rear-view, they’d installed front disc brakes and a beefy 4.2-liter Jeep engine out of a 1990 Wrangler. For good measure, they even threw a rings-and-bearings rebuild at the venerable AMC-Jeep-Chrysler six-cylinder powerplant. Checkered flag, here we come!

As their secret weapon, the Substandards brought along a complete parts car with running engine: this frighteningly hacked-up AMC Eagle! The plan was to let the LeMons Supreme Court use the Eagle as the Judgemobile, which would have ranked it right up there with the Greatest Judgemobiles of All Freakin’ Time, because the new engine would be utterly bulletproof! Right?

Well, not exactly. For some reason, the “bulletproof” engine wasn’t getting any oil to the top end. Actually, the horrible bearing scream sounded like no oil was getting anywhere. Kibitzers from other teams kicked around some theories: The main bearings are in backwards! The lifters are in wrong! The oil pump is bad! The oil pump has an air bubble! The pushrods are clogged! Anyway, the green flag waved at 3:00 PM and at 9:00 PM the team was still thrashing on the engine, trying to figure out the problem.

I’d been recommending that they just give up on the 4.2 and swap in the Eagle’s 258 since about 3:05 PM, because years of LeMons experience has taught me that a simple engine swap is always simpler than a complicated engine repair. However, this wasn’t quite as simple a swap as you might think; much had changed on the AMC Six between 1974 and 1990, including headache-inducing stuff like throttle linkage and exhaust manifolds, plus the Eagle’s primitive AWD drivetrain made for a totally hellish somewhat challenging engine removal. Still, Substandard Racing didn’t give up!

Helping the Substandards for about 36 hours straight was John of Hoonatic Racing (shown here posing with Judge Anna aka Bikini Racer). John won the Heroic Fix and I Got Screwed trophies at the 2010 Yeehaw It’s Texas race in September for the all-weekend, one-total-lap madness he performed on his Integra after his whole team bailed. He figured, what the hell, the Gremlin should be easy after that nightmare!

As it turned out, nothing about the man-versus-Gremlin struggle was easy. When the sun came up on Sunday morning, the Eagle’s engine had finally been dropped into the Gremlin and most of the fasteners had been more or less installed.

The engine ran, sort of, but the Gremlin wasn’t quite ready to hit the track. Their junkyard transmission was a computer-controlled automatic, only they didn’t have the computer. No problem! Just use buttons zip-tied to the roll bar to control the second- and third-gear shifts! Then it turned out that they didn’t have enough transmission fluid. Then Western civilization collapsed and all of Louisiana reverted to savagery, making transmission fluid impossible to obtain. Anyway, the hurdles kept appearing in front of Substandard Racing, and Substandard Racing kept staggering over, under, and around them.

Eventually, with a couple of hours left to go in the straight-through 24-hour event, the Substandards managed to drive the AMC over to HQ for a tech inspection. Aside from the bad alternator wiring, the car was just about ready to race!

Oh, wait… is that a radiator leak? Meanwhile, an asteroid with a diameter of three kilometers smashed into the Gulf of Mexico, engulfing No Problem Raceway in boiling seawater and destroying all life in the Northern Hemisphere.

Still, Substandard Racing soldiered on, this time setting up shop in the LeMons Supreme Court’s Penalty Box.

Good thing they had the shop manual! In this case, they had the Chilton’s for every motor vehicle made from 1972 through 1979.

Finally, the car was ready! We all rushed over to the grandstands to watch its glorious Laissez Les Crapheaps debut.

It wasn’t exactly fast, but it went around the track. 37 times it circled the No Problem Raceway aka The Circuit At Grand Bayou course, more than tripling nearly matching its previous lap record!

The car pitted a couple times for driver changes and repairs, and each visit was a cause for celebration.

The Substandard Racing entry overheated repeatedly, but the team held it together long enough to take the checkered flag. The crowd gave the Gremlin a standing ovation when it clattered off the track at 3:01 PM. At the postrace awards ceremony, there was no doubt about which team most deserved the Heroic Fix trophy. Add Substandard Racing to the Heroic Fix Honor Roll!

Thanks to Nick Pon and Scott Carr for photographic help!

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Komododave Komododave on Nov 29, 2010

    ha HA! We win! In hindsight, all that work was a blast, but at 2 AM sunday morning it suuuuucked. Couple small details: It's a '73 Gremlin with a '76 grill and a 74 bumper. Also, the engine we showed up with wasn't a Wrangler engine, it was the ORIGINAL 1973 engine with some Jeepy mods. Also also, we did show up at Yee Haw 2009 too, but did nothing as interesting as following races and only 20 laps. We just threw a roll cage in a sorta running Gremlin and showed up to get some experience. The Gremlin will return! Look for us at the next Dallas race!

    • Bfreehill Bfreehill on Dec 18, 2010

      Nice work Komododave! way to hang in there... GO AMC!!! are those ford ranger wheels? 16"?

  • Parkwood60 Parkwood60 on Sep 25, 2012

    Reading post like this makes me proud of our record in the Billy Beer car with an equally crappy six. 4 races entered, 2 races finished, 2 races in which we at least ran for a few hours before the motor broke.

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