Whether you're entering a series that encourages creative team themes or not, you've still got some basic accoutrements to add to the outside of the car before it's ready to race. Here's how to add things that hopefully won't fall off your car.
Crapcan series usually have a pretty good sense of humor. If you've always wanted to dress a Trabant up like Peter Cottontail or run around in an E30 dressed up as a DTM car, this is the place to do it. Even though the 24 Hours of LeMons is the series best known for themes, a well-dressed car will get positive attention regardless of where it runs.
That being said, keep in mind that it's a family show. People bring their kids to watch. If you're out to create something that kind of skirts the line of good taste, make it either something really nerdy (e.g. an Impreza dressed up as an Evo) or phrase/display it in a way that would fly over the younger audience's heads. Be punny. Go for double entendres. Cleverness = win.
Some of what you do will be dictated by car choice. Norfolk & Chance, for example, is a car that perennially gets tossed into LeMons' Class A, where the owners felt like it didn't have a shot at winning. Some will also be dictated by series choice. ChumpCar and some of the other series that take things a little more "seriously" have stricter rules on securing decorative items to the car, plus every series has certain rules on number size and format.
So, here are some basic tips for decorating your crapcan.
Vinyl Is Your Friend
Trust the ricers on this: if there's one way to add character to a car, it's with a bunch of good ol' fashioned stickers. Vinyl gives you the option to add intricate shapes, legible numbers, period- or theme-correct decals (or parodies of such) and other items that my ham fists can't draw onto a car in a way that looks slick and professional.
If you somehow talk entities into sponsoring your car, this is the easiest way to add their logos, too: in sticker form.
ChumpCar has a mandated numberplate that you have to order through one of several suppliers as well as additional sponsor decals to apply, so if you're running that series, you'll need to get comfortable applying a giganto-sticker, anyway.
Stickers of any type demand patience. First, position your decal where you want it. For smaller decals, you can take all of the backing off at once, but on larger or longer ones, you may want to stick down one end and peel back the backing as you secure the decal in place. Sometimes this is a multiple-person job, with one person holding the decal at one end and the other peeling off the backing at the other.
To avoid bubbles, you want to smooth down your decal somehow with a straight edge like a credit card or similar plastic wedge. Work out any air bubbles as you apply the decal, and go back afterwards to try and smooth them over again. It's a tedious, tedious process to move air bubbles to the edge of a large sticker.
For bubbles that are hopelessly trapped, you can usually poke the center of the bubble with a needle to let the air out, smooth out the bubble spot, and no one will be any wiser as to what was there.
One word of caution: vinyl likes to stick to as smooth a surface as possible. If it's not smooth, it won't stick. I painted my number backgrounds with a glitter finish paint only to discover later that it doesn't dry smooth enough for vinyl to stick to it. Consequently, most of our numbers are made of tape that was installed after our numbers flew off during the race. Oh well. Most automotive and house paint is fine when it comes to vinyl sticking to it, but be careful when working with specialty finishes that dry a little rougher.
Vinyl is relatively easy to find now. Many track facilities and racecar shops have vinyl cutters on-site that can do one-color graphics. For multiple-color graphics, look into more specialized print shops such as TrackDecals or a local sign shop.
Some teams (Porschelump included) have a member who has a vinyl cutter on the team. While it is relatively easy to print cool graphics based on Photoshop creations or other illustrations using a big plotter, weeding out the extra vinyl on more complicated graphics can be a tedious job. Again, patience is key to working with vinyl no matter what part of the process you're working with.
Paint It (Or Not)
If you're not looking into a that-looks-way-too-shiny-and-thus-can't-possibly-be-$500 full-car vinyl wrap, you may want to paint your car. Obviously, you could go all-out and use nice automotive paint, but again: looking too nice and shiny may mask the $500 beast underneath and raise an eyebrow or two in inspections.
I'm a huge fan of house paint for that perfect 20/20 racecar paint job: it looks surprisingly decent at twenty miles an hour from twenty feet away. Plus, its el cheapo nature makes it a perfect fix in the spirit of crapcan racing.
In my experience, flat paint is easier to work with than the glossier stuff, as it covers in fewer coats and shows fewer brush strokes up close. Also, it looks just as soft as a Fisher-Price Puffalump's pastel parachute material bum, which is perfect for a car you're dressing up as a giant lilac Easter Bunny.
It's best to rough up your surface beforehand with some sandpaper and apply a base coat of primer if you want it to stick. Look for paint that will stick to metal if you want it to last a bit longer, but honestly, house paint is cheap and effective.
Even though I only did stripes over the original paint job on the latest version of Der Porschelump, I bought a can of touch-up paint from Lowe's anyway just in case I ever wanted to sand off the unremovable goo that was under my side trim. Apparently Guards Red becomes "Fabulous Red" when it fades a little, haha.
Sometimes, not painting a crapcan is a better choice than painting it. In Porschelump's case, it's because I liked the color the car came with. Team Sensory Assault's burn-victim FD RX-7, on the other hand, had most of its color singed right off. That's such a LeMons-perfect patina that I hope they keep it.
If your car is crappy enough, sometimes patina is all you need.
The first LeMons car I ever ran was a Type 3 dressed up as Fluffy Bunny (Eater of Souls). It was the cutest lilac Volkswagen there ever was, and we had the perfect idea to wrap up big fluffy pieces of foam in duct tape for the ears, and then strap them down with bungee cords during the race. This way, we could have floppy bunny ears standing up for BS inspections and put them down later.
Needless to say, these hinge-mounted Puffalump ears didn't last long. One flopped up within the first hour of the race, making a huge racket as it banged against the roof. We preemptively removed the other one just in case since it would be annoying to get a black flag for flinging a bunny ear onto the track.
Moral of the story: attach any add-ons to your car very, very securely. While smaller items can be held on by bungee cords or glue, larger or floppier ones may need heavier-duty fastening.
Welding, bolting and riveting on large theme pieces are some ways of making sure things don't fall off. Test your fully decorated car before you get to the race to make sure things won't fly off, too.
Add-ons are an excellent way of driving your "theme" home, be it a stuffed chicken wire and muslin dinosaur tail on the back of your car or a large sculpted hat on top of your car. Ensure all materials used will be fine under both race conditions as well as outside in the elements. Nothing's sadder than a wilted papier-mache blob on a car.
Glitter Is Awesome
This is clearly my personal bias, but glitter is awesome. There's so many ways to put glitter on a racecar now: special paints with glitter in them, spray-cans of sparkles and even glitter tape like on this Civic's bumper.
Furthermore, it's a cost-effective way to get your car to stand out a little. Unique colors are another way to make spotting your car simple. We never mistook the lilac VW for any other car on the track. Just sayin'.
Bass boat sparkles are highly underused on racecars. We should fix this.
Picking A Theme
Although themes are a lower priority than making the car functional, it's still fun to have one. Pick a subject you find interesting and run with it, even you're not running a theme-necessary series and it's as simple as "I'd like to match my favorite racecar."
If you're too stumped, the LeMons forums have a "themes we'd like to see" list. Try to do something unique that hasn't been done before, or if you're really drawn to a common theme like a famous racecar livery, go completely overboard with it. (Build-a-Bear makes bunny-sized lederhosen. Just sayin'.)
Go all out if you're doing LeMons anyway: get matching outfits, theme your bribes, walk around in costume throughout the weekend and maybe even get themed food or favors to hand out. Have fun with it—that's why themes exist.
Photo credit: Monica Harrison (painting the Bunnywagen)