It's 2:00 AM on race day in a nondescript warehouse farm just outside of Detroit. Bryan and I are bending the roll cage hoop while Bill cuts the mounting plates and Ben notches tubing. Our Celica-turned-race car sits dejectedly on jack stands, gutted and ready for welding. Preparation work that normally takes weeks is being compressed into two days and crucial safety equipment is being fabricated on a college-term-paper timeline. A final pull on our tubing bender and a vital component of the tool breaks. This is racing.
It had been 24 hours of non-stop work, final checks and double checks, desperate scavenging for tools and parts which under normal circumstances would take weeks to acquire, but favors are called in, neighbors lend a helping hand, and the impossible becomes possible. We manage the installation with no time to spare, and the skies have opened up and poured down flooding rains upon Detroit, slowing our rush to the track We arrived at Toledo Speedway about an hour after the green flag dropped with our car on a U-Haul tow dolly and a Ford Flex full of tools. We quickly pushed the car into the tech shed and the tech inspector stuck his head inside the passenger compartment, emerging with bad news: apparently they insist on complete rollcage welds. Who knew? With a short list of follies and a well-defined mission, we rolled the car to our pit and our pro wrench Paul Brown went to work. To say that Paul was a machine wouldn't be saying enough about the accuracy and speed with which he torched holes in our roof and finished the cage welds to race spec. As he jumped on top of the car to get just the right angle, the rest of us swapped the coolant out for water, spraypainted "99" on the shell, adjusted the seat belts, and taped the lights. Thanks to Team Cougar Bait, we also had a Louis Vuitton-flavored hood to use as sheetmetal for our roof patches. After we received our "Mostly OK" inspection clearance sticker and our car hit the track, the build team promptly passed out due to two straight days of frenzied wrenching. The sound of our car pulling past on its way to the tech shed got our heads up in a hurry, though. In the first hours of the race we had earned two black flags and just tucked away a third on our last run. The car was detained for 30 minutes as a part of the penalty while we stewed over team strategy. If we upped our penalty count to four, the car would be booted from the race. Howard had earned himself the "Eliot Spitzer" punishment by hitting a barrel, which meant he had to publicly apologize to our team in a short statement. With a full tank of gas and a fresh driver, we resumed making laps. After about an hour's worth of rest, I took a spot in the grandstands to watch the racing. Our driver was feverishly passing cars like it was the last half-hour of the race. Each of the passes became increasingly risky until we made contact with a mostly immovable object - a GMC Sonoma in olive drab livery. The wheel studs on our front left hub broke shortly after the accident and we all watched with a mix of horror and amusement as our wheel outpaced our car. A yellow flag was waved as our three-wheeled hulk slid into the runoff area. With the front end slung from a tow truck's boom, our car was dragged into the pit. With the car back on jack stands and the damage illuminated, the immediate diagnosis was not good. The brake caliper, rotor, hub and lower control arm were all destroyed after making contact with the track surface. After scouring the internet for possible sources of used parts, the nearest yard that had what we needed was back in Detroit, 45 miles away. The idea was to get to the yard when they opened, order our replacements and cannonball back to Toledo for some lightning-quick wrench work. A glance at the yellow pages online put that plan to bed quickly - The junkyard wasn't open on Sunday. With the car relegated to its concrete pad and team morale in the proverbial Port-O-John, most of the team went to bed. The rest of us stayed up to load the car onto the dolly and pack up the tools. With the car hanging again from a tow truck, we were sliding the trailer underneath when two members from Team Dai Mondai wandered over and surveyed the damage. After a brief glance, one of them asked, "That's all?" Stunned, I replied, "We don't have replacement parts." Their retort was a simple but beautiful, "We do." After a knock-down-drag-out fight with the old, twisted suspension, we had equally rusty but much straighter components in place. The GT-S package on our car came with five-lug wheels, whereas the replacement GT hub had only four. We received a four-bolt 13" steel wheel and tire from Team Squeeze My Lemon Part Deux and we were ready. The car and I entered the track just as the sun was rising Sunday morning and my first stint began. The field of cars was much thinner than it had been when the green flag dropped on Saturday afternoon, mostly due to mechanical difficulties similar to or worse than our own. As I dove down into the bowl from the high-sided pit lane, I quickly learned the chief drawback from having cheap, worn tires was having very little grip available. The first few laps were a learning experience as I played within the limits of the car. It had tons of power and revved happily, but it was very light in the rear and prone to oversteer. After a successful three-hour stint, I pulled in for fuel, tires and a driver change. We swapped rubber, filled the tank and sent the car back out. I shotgunned a few bottles of water and had resumed watching from the stands when it was announced that the People's Curse would begin in a half hour. For those not familiar with the People's Curse, here's a quick rundown: Each team gets one ballot to vote for the car that they dislike the most; the team with the most votes gets their car destroyed. This usually keeps people honest while flinging their crapcans around the track. Not Team First Blood. This team was more difficult to pass than a semi truck hauling a double-wide trailer meth lab on a two-lane road through Appalachia. After doling out the harshness to more than one driver on track for the first day and most of the night, they were a shoe-in for the Curse. The truck was rolled in front of the tech shed (having blown the engine just minutes before) to receive its just due. This is where Jay Lamm, LeMons Chief Perpetrator and organizer of the event, announced that Team First Blood had not only secured the People's Curse but also the People's Choice, a crowd favorite decided by a secret algorithm used to determine the most dapper vehicle on track. The winner of the People's Choice wins $500 in nickels. First Blood is the only team in 24 Hours of LeMons history to ever win both People's Choice and People's Curse. After being sledgehammered, axed and rolled on its side, the truck had its cage cut out by the Jaws of Life. Well done, First Blood, well done. With 90 minutes remaining in the race, I hopped back into the car to finish out the day. The checkered flag finally dropped and the remaining 15 cars wheeled around for a victory lap. As I rolled into pit row, two of our crew members, Bill and Mike, jumped into the back of the car as we idled to our space. We were burned out, greasy and tired, but undeniably successful. Everyone proceeded to the tech shed for the closing awards ceremony where Jay Lamm stood above the crowd to announce the standings. We had earned 31st place out of 52 running cars after 11 hours of total downtime. The 98'ers earned the coveted "Index of Effluency" award and $1000 in nickels for their stunningly horrendous Oldsmobile 98. The "Most Heroic Fix" award went to Team Cougar Bait for performing precision framework by pulling it out with a truck. Our pit neighbors, the Charleston Kennel Club Team, rightfully earned the "We Got Screwed" award for running three laps in their Daytona Turbo before blowing an engine. A marathon wrenching session and a new head yielded a running car and waves of cheering just before the award was given at the end of the race. Team Junk Player Special won the "Best Use of Banned F1 Tech" award for having sliding Catholic Schoolgirl ground-effects skirts. The overall winner with the most laps was Team Sofa King from Pratt & Miller, Team Sofa King, in their black Toyota Supra. At the finish, the Supra had neither dent nor ding. They put on a solid demonstration of what meticulous prep work and a clean racing line can do for a team. Due to our excellent fabrication skills and proper utilization of preparation time, Jalopnik brought home the highly desired "Most Likely to Leave in an Ambulance" award. A very fitting prize for such a top-shelf race car. After everything was packed and the teams headed home, we retired to the Bob Evans across the street. I'd like to personally apologize to our waitress for our slaphappy table manners and profuse usage of the honey. The table next to us didn't mind; we asked nicely. Really. All of us learned plenty about metal fabrication, what it takes to run an endurance racing team, and the joys of pitside dining. Watch for us at the Arse-Freeze-Apalooza race this December; we'll be back with better tires and brighter foglights. We might even let another team win the "Ambulance" award next time. Heck, we can tell you all about it, but we've put together a video of race for you LeMons nuts to enjoy:
Photo and Video Credit: Kyle Conner at Clutch Creatography