I'm a huge fan of the 24 Hours of Lemons racing series, so I was delighted to be asked to judge (along with Jalop alum Murilee Martin) at this past weekend's race, the Sears Pointless. Judging a LeMons race is always a good time — you get lots of bribes (usually booze and Hot Wheels) and a nice heady intoxication of undeserved power, as judges can easily make or break a racer's weekend. And sure, I was there for booze, toy cars, and sad power trips, but more than that, I was there for the cars.
Personally, I like to think of the entire LeMons racing series as the closest thing to an afterlife for cars. Like any good eschatology, that afterlife includes both a heaven and hell. See, a car is built, lives its normal life of toil, hauling us sweaty meat-satchels around on our uncountable errands, to and from work, to the grocery store, that one time to the gym, the dog track, porn theater, community garden, all that. After some amount of time or miles, that car either dies an oily, mechanical death, or enters an interminable death-like state of inactivity and abandonment.
And that's where LeMons comes in. Thanks to LeMons racers, cars are taken from their original, ended lives and reborn as something new: race cars. I'd like to think that for most cars, this is their conception of heaven: racetracks, fresh delicious race gas, attention, driving for the sheer joy of it. Though sure for some cars (I'm thinking of this one Saturn I saw there), these races are essentially hell, and they're waiting for the sweet release of a thrown rod or a nice, irrecoverable engine seize.
Before I show you some of the cars of the race, I do want to address a common complaint I've heard about the races: that the cars don't really cost only $500. While every team can show some convoluted stack of documentation that "proves" their car is only $500, I'm inclined to agree that, honestly, many or most of these aren't $500 cars. But that doesn't really matter.
It doesn't matter because while they may not really be $500, they're not much more. There's cheating going on, sure. I mean, it's racing, of course there's cheating. But these cars are still all genuine, unadulterated pieces of crap. I mean that in the best way. And now that there's a class system in place to keep the more aggressive cars in separate classes so things are still kept as fair as possible. So, I know it's fun to be a hard-ass stickler on the Internet, but the truth is the race is still keeping to the original spirit, and it's still by far the cheapest way to get involved in something approaching real racing.
Murilee/Phil has plenty of coverage of the details and results of the race, so I just want to give you a little glimpse into some of the incredible freakshow of cars that's a LeMons race. So let's do that.
First of all, this is a freaking Lloyd Alexander. Remember the last time you saw a Lloyd, at your adopted stepcousin's neverteenth birthday on Neverember 86 back in 19youneversawthiscar? That was a good time. Anyway, this one races shockingly well. You know, for a Lloyd.
This was one of my favorites. It's a real US Mail Jeep, just with a longer front end from a (I believe) donor Mustang. This thing looked really terrific on the track.
There was a surprising number of interesting foreign plates. This Dubai plate really lends some class to this clapped-out B210, doesn't it? How do people get these out? Order over the internet? Hide in their luggage? In their pants?
I know they were crap that would rust to dust if you just talked about something salty and wet to them, like a nice dill pickle, but these Vegas really were quite pretty.
There were, as always, a number of really great engine-swapped monsters here. This was a Honda 600, with a mid/rear mounted turbo Saab engine. This thing got black flagged a few times because, as you can imagine, it handles like a confused gazelle with an accidentally-inserted vibrator.
Let's continue with bonkers engine swaps. This Prius is powered by a loud, chain-driven Harley-Davidson V-twin. It's delightfully awful. And loud. Even better, that motorcycle next to it is hybrid powered, just to firmly put you in that world where chairs sit on people and we live in fear of roaming, hungry hamburgers.
A more successful engine swap is this Beetle with a flat-four as usual, but this time from a Subaru, and cooled with a wetter sort of air called "wa-ter." The little Keroppi-themed '71 Super Beetle was Class C leader for most of the race, duking it out with a 12-cylinder Jaguar. This close battle between an old Beetle and a once $100 grand Jag is why LeMons is so great.
Did I mention the Beetle has driving controls on both sides, by the way? It does. Because the team actually found that solution easier than an adjustable seat.
I'm including this picture of the Beetle at tech inspection because everything about it is just so very wrong.
This is sort of an engine swap: one team ran a pair of two-engine cars. This one started life as a Corolla and then had an MR2 drivetrain shoved up its ass. I'm including this picture of the controls of the car so the full bonkersosity can be fully appreciated. Rear engine auto, front manual to keep things, you know, easy, and two side-by-side instrument clusters for more efficient cluster-fucking your brains. These confusemobiles did surprisingly well.
Another multi-car mashup, but with a very different result, is this BMW E30 xipe-totec'ing Ranchero bits to make a very appealing mini-Ranchero.
Speaking of BMWs, which tend to do pretty well in LeMons, this BMW straight 6 (M20) engine gave out in one of the most drama-queen ways I could imagine: the crank itself broke, launching a piston rod through the case, with the chunk of crank still-rotatable in the rod. Amazing and gruesome— that chunk of crank looks like a meteorite.
This may have been my favorite car at the race: a Sunbeam (Hillman outside the US) Imp. This rare rear-engined little Brit was all original mechanically, and while quite slow did manage to stay on the track throughout the race. This little nut took home the coveted Index of Effluency and it's well-deserved. And for those scoring at home due to severe emotional issues, that means the Rootes group is at 100% for IOE winners (other was a Humber Super Snipe).
I loved looking at the engine of the Imp as well. What is that thing over there on the right? An oil cooler? It looks like a turn-of the century laundry-torturer or something you scrape your shoes on outside of a house.
There was some nice, creative bodywork as well. Like this MR2 boat...
... and this Jetta given the Gilligan's Island wicker/rattan treatment. There was coconut-shell detailing, the interior cage was all bamboo-sheathed...
...and it opened up to reveal a Tiki bar. Very nice.
Ug, is there any race you can go to to get away from Angela Lansbury? I mean, I know there's certain racing traditions we're always going to have but come on, already.
Unlike the Murder She Wrote star, one of the things you really don't expect to see on a racetrack is a Vanagon. This team wowed everyone with the improbable-looking speed of their VR6-powered big empty box. Plus they made a bong out of car parts in an incriminatingly short span of time.
Yep, that's a Lotus. With a Chevy small-block. And they refused to give me their taillight lenses for my Scimitar, which fit, by the way.
Even the parking lots at a LeMons race are pretty incredible. Here we have a pristine NSX, a beautifully-patina'd Sunbeam Alpine, and an actual, was-owned-by-Disney Herbie.
I firmly and sweatily believe the 24 Hours of Lemons races are one of the best things any car enthusiast can do. They combine racing, wrenching, creativity, insanity, and wrap it all up with genuine fun and camaraderie. I hope to run in it again someday, with a really, really unlikely car. Maybe I can convince that Indian politician to sell me his Ambassador.