Does dropping the engine out of the bottom of a crappy Honda Civic in the rain sound like a nice way to spend an afternoon? How about staying up all night twiddling wrenches just to make a junk car drag its sorry ass around a race track?
For the last ten years LeMons has promoted “endurance racing for $500 cars,” where “Pintos and Maseratis battle to lap a Le Car.” It’s said to be the world’s fastest growing racing event, and surely the goofy penalties and nutty-themed cars have had a hand in helping with that.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Typically the on-track racing gets the most coverage, but there’s another race going on in the pits and paddocks at every LeMons event: the race to get broken cars back on the track to do some more laps.
Most teams were more than happy to show off their haphazard repairs. That’s what I found out at a recent visit to the North Dallas Hooptie race at Eagles Canyon Raceway in Decatur, Texas.
The night before the race began, 11th hour wrench turning was going on under many of these machines. Some teams worked through the night to get their rattletraps ready to do battle on the asphalt—all to taste the glory of endurance racing at its least lustrous. A race that tests the will, determination and bladder of the drivers.
Saturday morning broke overcast and windy. The smell of hot brakes, boiling coolant and burned hydrocarbons wafted off the crap cans getting hammered around bends and up the straights.
Lemons racing, crazy cars and costumes typically go together like peas and carrots. However, there was a curious lack of elaborately themed cars at this race. Granted, there was a Chevy Monza that was dressed up like a turkey, and an ancient Dodge painted like a shuttle—the car’s crew were dressed to go to a renaissance festival rather than into orbit.
Nick Pon, Associate Perpetrator for LeMons, said it’s a Texas thing. If that’s the case, the Lone Star state needs to step it up a little.
The formula for LeMons success is buying a terrible $5oo car, then run it till it dies, right? Yes, but there’s a little more to it than that. Going racing with $500 car sounds enchanting, almost anyone can convince a couple buds to help scrape together some dough and scour Craigslist for just the right crapcan. But the reality is the car is just the beginning. After the initial purchase, would-be racers better keep on scraping.
First, the car is going to need a custom-built roll cage. Chances are there isn’t a parts catalog out there selling a six-point cage for whatever random junk, like a 1989 Chevy Beretta, a team picks to race. One racer said their cage cost $1800. That’s big money, and is probably the biggest single investment most a LeMons team will make.
Add to this the $600 race-entry fee per car and $150 per driver and a team starts running into money. It seems that even though the cars are junk, just like normal racing, the sky’s the limit on what a team can spend. Here’s a post from the LeMons forum about the total cost of a team’s first race.
“We did a complete accounting for our first race, which should drop dramatically for any future races... one of our goals was to really try and do this a cheaply as possible with no compromise in safety... We did use the services of a great LeMons cage builder but other than that “subbed - out” work, we did all the rest ourselves or volunteers...
Including the entry, test day, transponder, all the gas, even the Saturday Night team meal, I mean EVERYTHING, came to $4,300.
For a more in-depth look at the money side of this race, take a look a Stef Schrader’s article, How Much Should You Spend On Your Crapcan Race Car?
Two unlucky teams didn’t follow LeMons’ how not to fail guide closely enough. The rules dictate the cage must be a minimum of two inches off the top of the tallest driver’s helmet. These guys were forced to make some last minute mods to get out on the track. The results look more like a zany LeMons punishment than legitimate safety equipment.
The cage is just the beginning. Each of the drivers will need a fire retardant race suit, a helmet, gloves, racing seat, harness, etc. But can’t a team just get one suit and let the guy who is actually driving wear it? No. LeMons pit procedures require everyone fueling up the car to wear one. The cars may be a joke, but safety at LeMons is serious business.
A team also needs to be comfortable with the notion that they may have to overhaul one or more of their car’s major systems, maybe a couple times, within the space of a weekend.
One team pulled the motor out of their Gremlin for repairs, then put it back in, realized it wasn’t fixed, and then pulled it back out. This took all day Saturday but they were able to get it sorted out and hit the track on Sunday.
At least the Gremlin guys had a paved paddock to work in. At a race for underdogs there still managed to be some dogs just a little more under-er than most. Just as HO HO HO Racing was about to pit to gas up their glistening pink Honda Civic and swap drivers, when their car left the track in a cloud of blue smoke and dust.
Turns out the valve cover bolts stripped, which allowed the valve cover to puke enough oil for the engine lose pressure and cause something important in the bottom end to come loose and knock a hole in the crank case. Luckily they brought a backup engine, an untested junkyard take out.
The dead Honda was dragged back to the team’s headquarters for the weekend just in time for the rain to start. These heroes of ingenuity and dedication went at it shortly after 1 p.m. They dropped engine out of the bottom of their Civic in the grass with no cherry picker and no power tools. They just had a set of Craftsmans, some floor jacks, one of which was borrowed, and a will to go racing.
Turns out their back-up motor also had stripped out valve cover bolt holes. No matter though, in true-to-LeMons fashion they JB Welded the threads and had the junkyard engine in place and running by 6:20 Saturday evening. They got to race (almost) trouble free all day Sunday.
These guys drove all the way down from Iowa, and while some teams slept in motor homes and RVs, they had a dome tent. Seriously, all four of them in one tent. They used no power tools, and occupied the farthest spot in the paddock from the track. Their resolve to race even when victory was out of the question deserves respect.
A blow-out brought the Number 26 Cutlass (not a Monte Carlo) into the paddock. This thing had front-end damage that made it look like it had a post-apocalyptic stroke.
Janky repairs include a fan shroud made of what looks like Plexiglas and a handful of pop rivets. The headers on their small block were hacked apart and booger welded back together in a more agreeable shape.
This article wouldn’t be complete without some mention of the Maserati Biturbo that absolutely spanked in Class C. This car wasn’t especially shoddy, just ridiculously interesting. When was the last a Maserati Biturbo was seen moving under its own power? When was the last time anybody saw a Biturbo with an all aluminium Buick V8 from the 60's stuffed under the hood? Exactly.
The motor swap along with the rest of the build was mostly free of crummy craftsmanship. There were however those questionable gauges, which turned out to be drink coasters, and there was an oil catch can made from a spent propane cylinder.
This ‘79 Datsun with a mustache hauled ass until they obliterated their brakes. Oh yea, and this car featured satellite dish down force and a vague Anchorman theme.
For the most part the engine bay was nicely squared away. There were some LeMons appropriate fixes though, including their scabbed on “cold air intake” that featured some chewed-gum welds. They adopted the Sex Panther slogan, “60 percent of the time, it works every time.” Here they are during the other 40 percent of the time.
At the end of the race on Saturday, people gather to welcome the cars coming off the track. Suddenly every hand was holding a beer and the smell of barbecue fills the paddock. Sunday provided wind and sunny skies to race under.
Team Race Rambler was still trying to get it together an hour before the end of the race on Sunday. These guys worked all weekend, Friday afternoon through Sunday, to install new independent front and rear suspension and do an engine swap. They did manage to get on the track in the last hour of the race. Then promptly came back into the paddock.
The 555 car was the overall race winner. It also happened to be a treasure chest of LeMon flavored ingenuity. With Z car parts getting more and more scarce, this team cobbled together a drivetrain consisting of parts available at practically any junkyard. The engine from a Maxima and a gearbox out of a Pathfinder pushed this unlikely heap to victory. It slows its roll with cobra front brakes mounted with custom-made aluminum adapter brackets.
How does this engine/trans combo fit? Not as bad as one might suspect, but not that great either. The Pathfinder tranny’s shifter comes through the floor much closer to the firewall than the original Z car gearbox. They worked around the problem with one of the best slipshod fixes ever.
It’s a 1/2-inch ratchet drive swivel tack welded to the floor and connected to a 1/2-inch extension, welded to a bit of angle iron and an improvised tensioner. All this topped off by a big ol’ socket for a shifter knob. Amazing.
The insanity continued under the hood. There was an abundant use of zip ties. They even upcycled a Gatorade bottle that would have gone to the landfill, or choked out an Orka, into a coolant overflow bottle. Suck on that, EPA! The most glorious garbage work-around under the hood has to go to the quarter dollar piece epoxied over an unused hole in the intake.
These repairs beg the question: if it works, is a fix wrong? When a solution, no matter how slapdash the execution, stands up to punishment in the crucible of racing, is it really all that bad?
Even with all the safety stuff and gas and transportation, this still has to be one of the least expensive ways to get into head to head road racing. LeMons promotes an atmosphere of goodwill among racers by putting an emphasis on fun and levity. The people participating in this race were having fun. It’s less about the equipment and more about the experience.
Doing it on the cheap is just a way to get more people into the driver’s seat, no matter what state of dilapidation the jalopy is in.
Aaron Vick Starnes quit his well paying bank job to pursue inevitable poverty as an automotive writer. He has experience in automotive restoration, and works at a shop restoring and customizing cars. Follow him on Twitter @AaronVStarnes and check out his blog.