Of course I’d heard of the inaugural running of the 24 Hours of LeMons; the concept reeks of genius. What is LeMons? Teams of 4-6 drivers race a car for 14 hours with a slight catch. Any costs not related to safety have to come in under $500. The classification for “safety” is painted with a wide brush as it includes the obvious items but also allows for items like tires and brakes. Here is the full list of items that are not included in the “under $500” umbrella:
- Roll bars/cages
- Driver’s seat
- Fire extinguisher
- Window net
- Braking system
EVERYTHING else must be acquired and installed for under $500. Labor you do yourself is free, if someone else does it, that goes against the $500 total. There are two checkpoints that are used to try to keep people honest. First, the organizer can buy any car after the race for $500. That set of custom coilovers that you attempted to make look used by covering in dust, dirt and oil then set to bake in the sun for five weeks? Hopefully someone notices your ability to pirouette on apex and calls you out on it. Second, after the car clears the tech inspection, the BSF judges come though. For every estimated $10 you spend over the $500, you are awarded one Bullshit Factor point. Each point will take a lap off your final total. Considering how much we ended up spending on the car and how over-prepared other cars seemed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the average per-car-cost was closer to $1,200 – $1,500. More on that later.
In the light-hearted vein of the race concept, LeMons also featured quirky qualifying events and mid-race punishments. We completely missed the announcement for the extra credit qualifying so I have no idea what the events were. Anyone? The punishments were proposed to keep people from racing like maniacs or making this a demolition derby. If the corner workers noticed you were blocking people from passing, making unsafe passes yourself or intentionally hitting people, you were black flagged. Off to the Wheel of Misfortune! Other punishments are for specific transgressions. Some of the punishments I remember:
- Eggman: A hole is cut in your roof above the driver and crates of eggs are attached all around the hole. You turn, brake or accelerate (you are accelerating, right?) and eggs are dumped on your head. Don’t forget, it’s roughly 110 degrees on track!
- Grill of Damocles: It’s no sword, but imagine a steel plate with eight spikes protruding. Using some additional steel bars, the plate is welded to the front of the car with the spikes pointed inwards. Ram yet another car and feel the sweet taste of release as the spikes penetrate your radiator, expelling life force and your chances at winning this race.
- Al Gore Junior: Belching bluish smoke lap after lap? Time to pay penance! Black flagged, off the course and handed a shovel? See that baby tree over there? You get to plant it pit-side and water it before your car is allowed back on track.
- Legion of Odor (Amulet of Aroma would have been better): Looks like both you and your car need accessories! In addition to the necklace of unwrapped putrid cheese, your car’s exhaust manifold is also coated in the stuff. Guess what? You get to wear that amulet all weekend. Even in the pits. In the heat.
- Chin Music: Boom box with an automatically rewinding cassette player and Norwegian sea chants on full volume, zip-tied into the car where you can’t reach it.
- Train in Vain: Training wheels are welded to the sides of your car. How is this a punishment? Some teams may have benefited from not cornering on their doors.
- Barnyard I and II: The outline of a barnyard animal in steel plate is welded to your roof decreasing your glorious 0.48 cd.
The rest of the race details are less interesting and are covered on the main site.
Our team was formed on Something Awful. Team OMGWTFestiva is comprised of four goons from Seattle that knew each other from autocrossing, one of the more active racing goons from TX and a TX friend. The Seattle goons would take care of the car and getting it to the race while the TX guys were going to fly in for driving duties. I concentrated on pictures of the car and race so I don’t seem to have pictures of everyone individually. Here’s a group shot from after the race:
From L to R: Sanjeev, Dale, Richie, Nat, Mike and Jack (Our only dedicated pit crew member, Shawn, took the picture)
Nat is the Festiva expert and did 95% of the necessary work on the car. He also trailered it to CA and back so REP++ to him. Dale and Jack have track experience, are knowledgeable about repairs and were much faster than the rest of us. As for the rest of us, I guess that makes us just tagalongs!
Nat found the car, a dirt-track-prepped Festiva with a roll cage already installed. The Festiva came stock with a 1.3L engine but this came with the 1.6L long block, very similar to the engine in the ’90-’94 Miata. Here she is as picked up:
The chassis, transmission and cage were just fine. The suspension, brakes and radiator were all well-worn. Here is the list of what we had to do to get the car ready:
- Strip decals
- Install seat mount
- Install seat
- Install harness
- Replace brakes
- Replace radiator
- Install drain plug in radiator
- Replace rear suspension
- Install lexan windshield
- Install window net
- Replace wheels
- Replace tires
- Remount battery
- Replace all fluids
Nat found better brakes, radiator and rear suspension at the junkyard for very cheap. Since the car was purchased for $350, we (Nat) did all the work ourselves and only used junkyard parts, we were definitely within the $500 bounds.
In the end, she weighed about 1600 pounds and could spin the tires in 1st and 2nd easily. There was so much low-end torque and 1st gear was basically on the “Liquefy tires” setting, I used 2nd as the lowest gear for almost the entire race. I only needed 1st during a yellow flag while on a slight incline. Since the suspension was worn-out stock, body roll was hilarious. Any force was met with an equal and humorous opposite force. Accelerate and the nose shoots to the sky, turn side to side and wallow around, brake and you’d occasionally touch the front bumper to pavement. The tires we used were fairly tall, increasing the ride height which didn’t help in the least. The brakes were sufficient… until something I’ll tell you about later.
As one of the taller members of the team, I was quite worried about the seat and pedal positioning. The dirt trackers must have been 5’9″ or lower as the roll cage harness bar allowed for very little leg room. Our first attempt at mounting the seat had my knees bent tighter than 90 degrees. The pedals also had excessive height so I was practically putting my left knee through the window to get to the clutch. We adjusted the seat mounts lower, putting the seat back a little bit at the same time. I didn’t even notice the cramped position during the race. If you’re comfortable, it’s not a race car, eh? Here is how she looked once at the track:
After Shawn, Sanjeev and I made a detour from Oakland to San Francisco specifically for a trip to H&M (shout out to my W&W buddies), we all met up at the hotel in Livermore to discuss strategy. Jack and Dale talked about race basics while the rest of us tried to figure out how long we could last in a hot tin can with no fan, let alone any sort of cooling, in a full race suit on a hot track. We figured we’d start with 20/30 minute shifts and move toward 1 hour shifts as we got comfortable. We worried about hydration and figured we would need a glass of Gatorade every hour for the whole day. 15 gallons of Gatorade mix would at least hold us off for awhile.
On the day of the race, half of us went on a water, snacks and supplies run while the other half prepped the pits. Thank goodness I picked up folding chairs and a 10’x10′ canopy at the last minute. The beating sun, dirt pit and sand storms would have knocked us out alone. After prep, Shawn and I went around to scope out the competition.
The first characteristic I noticed about the other cars? Almost all of them had a goofy paint job. What did we neglect? Paint. Luckily we kept the flames from the previous vinyl job and had huge numbers made up. Most cars had a theme or at least a garish coat of cheap paint. We had a stock color and some random decals but it didn’t look so bad. Here are a few of the interesting designs or important cars:
We passed tech and the BSF test without issue, the car was running fine, everyone’s gear was checked out, we all had our competition licenses (though I had to wait over an hour in a 20 person line to get mine), the pits were set up with the canopy, chairs, drinks and snacks… we were locked and loaded by the 2:30 PM start time. Since he knew the car the best, Nat started us off. He did the recon/warm-up laps and then was out there for the green flag. Instead of deciding on positions and qualifying and griding, they put everyone on track, chose a random car and a random lap. When that car had completed that specific lap, they dropped the green flag and everyone was off! Starting with 90 cars on a 1.1 mile course is insanity. Imaging terrible traffic (think 520 W from 4 PM to 7 PM in Seattle), a dirty and dusty road and add the fact that everyone wants to get home first while no one cares about slamming into your car!
Luckily, we made it through the initial scuffle relatively unharmed. Jack jumped into the car next and less than an hour into the race, we suffered our first bit of major damage. The #60 Fallen Angels car (women drivers!) were the first to play pinball with us:
We used up our first bit of luck for the day. All of that was body damage as we couldn’t see any damage to the tire, wheel or suspension! Richie got a stint, I had my stint and then Sanjeev hopped into the car. The details are fuzzy; no one was watching the track for the following incident and Sanjeev was spun around and couldn’t see the culprit. We aren’t 100% positive, but various clues lead us to believe it was Freak SHO. At the hairpin, Sanjeev was following the correct line when another car came squirting in, tight to the apex. Sanjeev turned the drivers side front corner into their passenger rear. The car was knocked partially off course, the drivers side front wheel was very askew and the car would not fire up!
Considering how light our car is and how fragile the completely untouched front suspension was, damage was expected. I don’t think anyone has pictures of how it looked while being towed in because we were all rushing around trying to think of how to fix it. Basically, the leading edge of the front wheel was pointing outward. We jacked up the car, took off the wheel and Nat was able to quickly diagnose the problem. The hit had bent the lower mount of the strut and we were without a spare. Jack and Sanjeev immediately set out in the Chrysler 300 rental to find some glorious store that would carry a front strut for a 1991 Ford Festiva. We also had an issue of the engine not turning over to fix! The hit was actually so hard that the bent strut was pushing through the wheel well and pushed the engine flush against the passenger side wheel well. Once the bent strut was removed, the engine was freed and the little bugger fired right up. Here is the damage the pulley caused:
About an hour and at least four stores later, they found a new strut at Autozone. Just in case, they bought two. A little spring compression here, a few busted knuckles there and the car was back to whole in no time. …or so we thought. Not too much later, the car is towed back to the pits and what is this? The driver front tire is off and sitting in the hatch! Our immediate thought was that we were in such a hurry to get the car back on track that we forgot to tighten the lug bolts. This is when I started to get frustrated. Getting knocked out because we sustained damage is one thing. Knocking ourselves out with stupidity is simply unacceptable. Luckily, the rotor was intact and very little damage occurred. Tighten the bolts, double-check all the bolts and back on track! …ah crap, here comes the tow truck again…
Courtesy of Autoblog:
We lost the same wheel again!? We figured it wasn’t an issue with the lug bolts. The hit we sustained that took out the suspension must have caused a hell of a lot of force to the bolts and damaged the threads in the hub. A little investigation and we could tell that the third set of replacement bolts just wouldn’t catch. It was almost 9 PM by this point so we knew we couldn’t find parts at this time. We’d either need to replace the entire hub (with a very slim chance that any store would have those in stock) or tap out the hub to accommodate bigger bolts. We adjourned for the evening, battered, bruised and deflated. Our plan was to get up early, hit all the stores we could and try to get a new tap set. We were also given a little bit of hope as one of the teams might have a big enough tap set early in the morning.
We had to attend a mandatory drivers meeting at 8:45 AM so we figured that since none of the stores would be open before 9AM, we would just go check in, let the race start without us and we’d start the part search. Turns out the team with the tap was looking for us around 8 AM and then the guy with the tap set left. Periodic phone calls to the guys looking for parts showed they were coming up empty handed. No hubs were to be found and most tap sets only went up to 12 MM x 1.75 (the size of the current-yet-damaged threads). At the track, we found someone with a tap set but it also wasn’t big enough. Using the other car, Sanjeev and I set out to find some more ice and pick up lunch for everyone. That only left Richie, Jack and Shawn back at the track with the car. My Spidey-sense kicked in and so I texted Shawn. Turns out, they decided to try tapping with the 12 MM x 1.75 anyway! Nat said it probably wouldn’t work but the guys also scrounged up some longer lug bolts from another team. The original threads only went so deep. They tapped the whole hub and the longer bolts were as firm as a green cantaloupe (as firm as tightly torqued coarse-threaded metal-on-metal could be).
We rushed back to the track to see the lil’ bugger out there, driving around just fine! We missed probably four of the seven hours from the first day and the initial two hours of the second day. Traffic was lighter and they were supposedly giving out more black flags. Being the smallest and possibly lightest car out there, this was definitely to our advantage. We traded off drivers without incident until about 40 minutes before the end of the race. I was finishing up my third stint and coming up the back sweeper when suddenly the car started to shake violently with a thudding sound from the passenger side front suspension. Luckily the back sweeper is where the pit entrance is so I just pulled off immediately. As I was unbuckling back at the pit, everyone was asking me what I hit! Nothing, but it turns out that both of the front tires were canted in with some extreme positive camber.
We pulled the wheel and the ball joint had popped out in addition to the top bolt hole of the strut being completely ovaled out. Putting the ball joint back together was easy, but we weren’t so sure about the strut. We had lent a spare tire to a BMW team and they repaid us by having the exact bolt necessary. We torqued it to Grayskull and back and tossed her back on track. No idea how it was possible but we finished the race, saw the checkered flag.
We placed 54th out of 83 cars, 316 laps completed. We missed maybe 2 hours the second day so we were on track (or doing a normal pit) for 8 hours (57% of the time). We figured that if we were on track the whole time, we would have placed closer to 25th. Not bad for a legally prepped car!
What would we do differently? If we could start over completely, a tougher car would be excellent. With the smallest car, we were easily pushed around. With the Festiva, maybe we could have some sort of cage around the wheels, protecting the fragile suspension. We would also remember our spare parts! Of course we wouldn’t have had everything to recover from the various maladies of the day, but it would have helped. Spare tools would be nice as would some sort of cooling for the driver.
Are we going to do it again? Definitely. We have a sunk cost of the various driver suits, pit materials, the car itself (which could be easily campaigned again) and we have the knowledge. Prior entrants seem to be favored for application acceptance as well. Enough people have shown interest that I can easily see having two teams. A handful of teams ran multiple cars side by side, even the exact same type of car. That could be fortuitous.
Do you want to do this in October? Let us know! Wrenching and track experience are highly desirable.