Sometimes you have an idea that’s so bad, you just have to do it.
The plan was simple: drive three hours up to Massachusetts early Saturday morning and race in the New England Region SCCA’s rallycross at the excellent Cummington Fairground. After that rallycross, drive an hour and forty-five minutes to Red Hook, NY north of Poughkeepsie, sleep there overnight, and then on Sunday morning race at the Poughkeepsie Sports Car Club’s absolutely immense rallycross at Greig Farm.
I was going to do a rallycross double header, and I was taking the Lexus.
The Lexus is not what you would call a rallycross regular. It’s a ‘93 ES300 with a factory five-speed. I got it for $600 and spent the last few months picking up parking tickets and changing the timing belt, water pump, and a few other assorted fixes.
It was always destined for competition, and this would be its first race weekend. And it was to be its last.
The weekend started out perfectly. By perfectly, I mean basked in the multifaceted and true luxury that is driving this beater Lexus. For one, it has something approaching usable horsepower, unlike my Baja Bug. This means I can drive up grades without pinging the engine on the rev limiter in third just to keep the car at safe speeds. For another, the Lexus has a heater! After many adventures in the Baja bundled up in long underoos, three jackets, two pairs of gloves and sometimes a balaclava, the ES300 feels like a Rolls Royce.
It was in this Roller that I took to two days of rallycross. Rallycross, for those of you not familiar with the best fun per dollar motorsport in the country, is where you set up a bunch of cones in a grassy field on the edge of town, then slide around in the mud for a while dodging those cones. It’s like autocross, but on dirt.
Now, the first day’s running up in Massachusetts went without any kind of problem.
[Photo Credit: DaggerSLADE Media]
It was an easy morning cruise to the event, a faultless rip through the seven timed runs, and a beautiful sunset drive to the NY farm. I slept in a field, curled up on the back seat. The stars shone through the sunroof.
The second day’s running wasn’t as simple. I had been told that the course on the second day was going to be rough. The last time any New England rallycrossers ventured onto the NY course, taking up two adjacent farm fields, they left halfway through the day for fear of breaking their cars.
One of those four, a fast-talking Russian with a [VEHICLE NAME REDACTED FOR WARRANTY PURPOSES] pointed to a WRX wagon with the middle of its front bumper missing. “That was from New York.”
On the left is the Lexus’ lower grill filled with soft, New York dirt.
And below is what that NY course looked like for a hard-charing Subaru, to give you some context.
Note that the Subaru’s wheels are not touching the ground.
I had said many times that I didn’t need class wins or fast times. Mechanical survival would be my victory. All I had to do was get the car home.
The problem was that the Lexus was too much fun.
There was a long, wide, constant-radius turn out on the second day’s course. You’re on the gas and the brakes at the same time, and the long trunk of the car just starts to slide. The course straightens out and your foot goes to the floor. The V6 roars and the scenery starts to blur. The suspension clunks up and down through little ruts, and you’re looking three cones ahead. You lift into a wide right hander, full opposite lock as the tail swings wide.
You start to laugh.
This was, of course, the bad news. The ES300 kept asking me to push it. It kept rewarding me every time I pressed harder, every time I let it slide and come back to me.
And this meant my original plan to baby the car, uh, experienced some trouble.
[Photo Credit: Alex Mans, PSCC]
It all went south when I found out that a Jalopnik reader had showed up in a Fiesta ST to do the rallycross double-header also.
[Photo Credit: Alex Mans, PSCC]
And then after the morning’s runs, I found out that we were within half a second of each other on the timing sheets.
[Photo Credit: Alex Mans, PSCC]
And then I started pushing, and then I started hitting the ruts a bit harder, and then the clunks on the landings sounded louder.
[Photo Credit: Alex Mans, PSCC]
Coming home from the Poughkeepsie rallycross, I noticed that the car’s exhaust had a torn flex pipe. How did I know? It was loud. How loud? It was like I was sitting inside the engine.
It was so loud I could not drive within a quarter mile of a house without them hearing me. It was so loud, I shifted through the gears 1-2-5 so that I couldn’t have to tear out the eardrums of everyone in the Hudson Valley. And it was all induction noise, too. It was like someone stuck two vaccuum cleaners on the sides of my head.
But I finally cleared town, and I finally got to the on ramp to the Taconic Parkway, and I finally felt like, hey, if I’ve got an open exhaust on a three-liter V6, why not enjoy it a little.
So I ran it through first gear. And I ran it through second. And I dropped it into fifth and the car immediately died.
I cranked the key. Nothing. I stuck it in gear and lifted off the clutch. I wanted to get the engine going like a rolling start.
It was like a flash. Not even a moment. A half a moment. I heard the revs spike. I realized. I’d put the car in second gear. I flicked my hand and it was back running in fifth, but I could already hear it.
It wasn’t loud at first, barely distinct over the din of the torn exhaust. But as the miles wore on, it bleated with more urgency. It was like Woody the Woodpecker took up residence in one of the cylinders. Afraid of the damage, I called my coworker and much more experienced amateur mechanic Freddy.
We talked, and we agreed that it sounded like a spun bearing.
What is a spun bearing? Well, there are bearings in your crankshaft that keep everything turning smoothly. The bearings are supposed to stay put while the everything else spins around them. If one of the rod bearings in your engine doesn’t get enough oil, the bearing itself spins around. Unless you’re looking to tear deep into the heart of your engine, this is the likely end of your motor.
The V6 in this Lexus has a bit of a reputation for oil starvation in hard cornering, and I had just spent two days flogging it sideways. It is little surprise that one last sudden spike in the revs would be a stake in its heart.
I thought I could limp the car home. I tried. But the Taconic is an old parkway, winding up and down hills, not cutting through them. The Lexus started to hiccup on some grades, then sputter on others, then wheeze through the last. All the power faded. No matter how far down the gears I went, the engine could not pull the car over that last hill.
I pulled over to the soft shoulder, watched as steam billowed out from under the hood, and knew that this was it.
Now, I tried to save it. The car deserved any kind of treatment I could give. I poured in whatever coolant I had left. I let it cool. I hooked up a battery tender and tried to get it to start. After two hours I managed to extract a single chugging, belching cough into a sickening idle. I shut the car down out of pity.
Not long after, the tow truck I’d called came. A parkway police car followed not far behind to close the lane of traffic for us.
The tow truck driver was a tall set of worn out jeans, age in his cheeks, a white mustache of a man. I asked if I could get a tow back to Manhattan. He looked me in the eye, headlights now blaring past in the night.
He explained it was $900 to get to NYC. I explained that was more than I paid for the car. We decided the car should go to his garage a few miles up the road in Hopewell Junction. He was gruff, but he seemed like a good guy. His coworkers helped me get a cab to the nearest train back to Manhattan. I watched the Hudson riding home, feeling oddly happy.
I’ve taken that very train home before. The last time was after I rolled my Baja Bug, and it was sitting crumpled in an impound lot. That tore at my heart, not knowing if my dream car would survive the night.
Thinking about the Lexus was different. There’s a kind of strange serenity in a $600 car. It might live, it might die. I might find an affordable new engine to swap in, I might not. Either way was alright with me.
What I paid for the Lexus had transformed it from a car to an experience. It wasn’t an object so much as an experiment.
The idea was to race the least-racey vehicle ever made. I mean, it’s a Lexus. Well, it’s actually a Toyota Camry pretending to be fancy. It has a transverse V6 and front-wheel drive. It is the opposite of a race car.
If you are looking to be fast in rallycross, you get a Subaru. You learn to keep your eyes up, to left-foot brake, to not look at cones. You don’t worry about blowing your struts because the guy next to you has a Subaru just like yours and spares in his trailer. You don’t mind blowing your engine because the guy next to you has swapped three already. You don’t focus on the car; you focus on going fast.
The ES300 was not meant for this kind of environment. As far as I know, there has never been a front-drive Lexus in a rallycross. There are good reasons for this. The car is big and loafy with mismatched off-brand tires and heavy leather seats. That and no front-drive Lexus owner is the kind of person who wants to push past the limits of grip handling, or scrape splattered mud off of their chintzy chrome ‘L’ badges.
But there is a kind of joy you get in the Lexus that you’ll never have in a Subaru. In a Subaru, you’re a future rally driver. In the Lexus, you’re a future hoon of the day. When everyone else is worrying about how many cones they hit or how they sit in the overall standings, you’re just cracking up waiting to go sideways in this old barge again.
That’s the really terrifying part, actually. Now whenever I see a big, front-drive V6 family sedan slowly drive past me, I can’t help but remember how good a car like that is when you rallycross it.
And maybe that extends to all cars. That they all have some potential, no matter how big or beige or ordinary. That there’s no excuse for a dull drive. That the only thing keeping you from enjoying your car is how you’re driving it.
I mean if you can have fun in an old Lexus ES300, what car can’t you thrash?
Photo Credits: Many thanks to DaggerSLADE Media for the picture of me in the grass. Find more of his pictures right here on Facebook. And a great thank you to Alex Man for the photos of the car at Greig Farm, and to Jennifer Emerson for setting that up. All other photos were taken by me, Raphael Orlove.