By on March 30, 2011

“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?”

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28 Comments on “A Conspiracy Of Lemons: How Racing Got Its Cool Back...”

  • avatar
    thats one fast cat

    That was a great article; makes me want to quit the job, leave the wife, drop the kids and go racin’!
    Or I could just drive my 30 year old Jag with the busted tailight and pre-cancerous skin lesions (but with a sweet 502) to work and scare the hell out of the local commuters.

  • avatar

    Maybe it’s just me, but for the life of me, I just can’t get my arms around this “LeMons” thing. Probably it’s because my friends and I all drove wrecks back in the 60’s as we were all sort of poor, and have no desire to ever emulate that, even for fun. OR…maybe I’m just not into racing…OR…So what? it’s still pretty funny and part of me REALLY would like to do this!

  • avatar

    what a great article!

  • avatar

    Initially this seemed like a very good idea – take a $500 car, throw in some safety gear and try to make it last for 24 hours.
    What I don’t understand is how that idea morphed into some giant Dr. Suess type story of 24 hours of an excessive orgy of unbridled wackiness perpetrated by a large group of people that have the greatest collection of Halloween costumes I’ve ever seen.
    To each it’s own but it’s not my bag baby.

  • avatar

    Here’s a gallery of shots that Murilee shot at the Sears Pointless LeMons race. You can view them in your choice of 3D formats or 2D too.

  • avatar

    Nice Article.  We have something similar on a much smaller and less wacky scale at teh local track, the Hornet class.  The car must be painted yellow (preferrably flat yellow put on with a roller brush) and there is a restriction on wheel base (can’t remember what).  The judges also have the right to purchase the car for I believe $800 in order to ensure cheap fun for all participants.  They race backwards around the track, and tire barriers are used to put a wrinkle in the straghtaways.  Not exactly a road course but no longer an oval.  I thought it would be fun to buy a beat-up MR2 with a decent engine and a small trailer to tow it to the track.  Put on some decent brakes, break out the glass, and weld in the required safety supports (the minimum requirement is less than a full roll cage).

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    If that article doesn’t get someone on the fence to go see a race, I don’t know what will.

  • avatar

    Nice Porsche bribe lamp, Murilee!  If the wifey won’t let you use it to decorate the living room/den/boudoir you can always use it in the garage/man cave.  Better yet, fix up a permanent mount for it in the PCH A100 van!  Don’t forget the shag carpet!

  • avatar

    Suddenly feeling the need to attend one of these myself. Any near Detroit?
    I assume the rules somehow prohibit cars like my old man’s post-wreck RX-8. Still worth far too much even heavily damaged?

    • 0 avatar

      Your timing and location are impeccable.  April 16-17 at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, MI.  Here’s the event schedule:

      There will be an additional race there in July as well.

    • 0 avatar

      South Haven is closer to Chicago than to Detroit. It’s on Lake Michigan way over on the other side of the state. About a 3 hour drive from Detroit.

    • 0 avatar

      Ronnie, I suppose you’ll have to take that up with Murilee and Jonny.  The LeMons calendar lists it as being in the Detroit area.  Maybe because Detroit is the largest and closest city within the same state as South Haven?

  • avatar

    This article has just made me even more upset. When I lived in the UK I had the choice of umpteen different half decent race tracks all within a couple of hours drive of where I lived – now I live in Canada, the closest track to me is ‘Mission Raceway’ which is used a flippin’ drag strip 99% of the time. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest in motorsports up here in Canuck land – It’s Hockey or nuthin!

  • avatar

    My LeMons cherry got broken at last year’s Colorado event.
    Some of those guys come prepared with car carriers full of pneumatic tools and spare engines. I think the ones I noticed were driving 944’s. To me that makes them look like the automotive equivalent of Billy Madison.
    I think the costumes and other foolishness are essential in that they keep the competitors from taking themselves too seriously.
    Even at an event with “$500” cars and largely unskilled drivers there is a real streak of the sort of ruthless, overwhelming competitive spirit inherent wherever douchebags gather. When you have your game face on and are gripping the wheel of your cheater BMW and are having trouble passing a Buick covered in fur with a driver with puppy ears on his helmet, even the most self-serious need to sit back and think a bit about their egos.

  • avatar

    Shoot. My ol’ ’77 Corolla would have made a great Lemons car. Cetainly by the time I sold it, in ’93, for $225 in ’93 $, it was worht less than $500 in today’s dollars. And that thing was irrepressible. True, I had to floor the little blippitydo to get any semblance of power, as it had the 1.2 liter I4, and I downshifted and floored it all the time, and the engine, which had 161k when I sold it, was running just as well as when I’d bought the thing from one of the then-future iraq weapons inspectors 8 years and 70k earlier. I would have WON Lemons in that thing, because it would have just kept on going.

  • avatar

    Hey, Murilee, you tell Lamm that I demand my cut of that prize money–10%. It was, after all, my father, who figured out how to convert rubles into dollars and vice versa–for which he won a prize from the Russian govt, and so, without him, you guys wouldn’t be able to give out the prize money in rubles. And since he’s gone to the great Lemons in the sky, probably with the ol’ ’50 Studebaker that he drove from Denver to the Wash State border, about 1000 miles in one day in 1953, I will take his share.

  • avatar

    Excellent write-up, Ed. I’m glad you got to experience it. Next you have to try gluing a car together and praying it holds all weekend. Good luck keeping off CraigsList

  • avatar
    John Horner

    The daughter of one of my friends in on one of the LeMons teams and I hear great stories from him about their adventures. I’ve got to get on the stick and go see one of these races!
    The Nascar, F1, Indy, etc. races all bore me to tears. Massive amounts of money mixed with too much ego and a dollop of cheerleaders just isn’t my cup of tea.

    • 0 avatar

      Try American Le Mans series racing, or an SCCA race, like at Laguna Seca.

      NASCAR is no longer Stock Cars… how can stock car racing be all one design, of which not a single one is ever put on the road? Oh well, real cars turn left and right during races and on the way to the supermarket.

  • avatar

    Not cool if you can actually buy your way through tech as this suggests:

    • 0 avatar

      Reading comprehension – it’s more than just a river in Egypt.
      For starters, nowhere in that editorial rant does he mention anything about tech. BS bribes are part of the spirit of Lemons, and always have been. Don’t like it? Don’t bring a cheaty piece of shit Acura or E30, put an actual theme on the car, and don’t act like self-righteous dicks and you won’t get the first bit of sweat. This works for my team, going on 13 races now.
      The Lemons on-staff tech inspectors are some of the most professional in any series and are above reproach. They impart that professionalism to the tech inspectors who work with them at every track. I suspect that if you actually tried to bribe one of them, that you’d be asked to leave the track. Jay and the rest of the gang take safety VERY importantly and for you to suggest otherwise shows nothing more than your own ignorance.

      • 0 avatar

        13 races, Ronman….and not one bribe.

        It’s the team who welds 150 pounds of steel and sail to the top of the car they wish to win the overall. As Chief Perpetrator Lamm says time and again, “You guys get it”.

  • avatar

    It’s easy for me to see the appeal of this series.

    First, ingenious, mechanically minded types can come up with numerous intriguing combos (which are very interesting to me) and, even more importantly, the cars are distinctly different. Most motor racing bores me because the cars look almost identical save for the sponsors paint job.

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