Making LeMonade At The 24 Hours Of LeMons

Model T GT

Model T GT

Do you have $500, mechanical skills, and a desire to go road racing? If so, the 24 Hours of LeMons may be your ticket to endurance road racing. For those who are not familiar, LeMons hosts races for cars purchased and prepared for $500 or less, which then get driven around racetracks for hours on end by pretty much any yahoo with a drivers’ license. If this sounds like a bad idea, you are probably right. However, if you still want to try your hand at endurance road racing, read on.

A year ago, my friends Cameron Kurth and Mitch Baghdoian suckered me into racing with them at The Ridge Motorsports Park in one of the most iconic LeMons racecars, the Model T GT entered by Turrible T’s and Pinto Bean Bandits. “Pretty” is not a word you would use to describe the Model T. However, it is one of the quicker LeMons racecars and the promise of boatloads of track time was too much to pass up. Our $500 chariot held together and brought us home second place with the fastest race lap. Since second is the “first loser,” August we returned to the Pacific Northworst GP hoping to improve our finish one position.

There are two paths to LeMons glory — build your own racecar or rent a seat with an existing team. If you build your own car, be prepared to show up a day early, your vehicle will have to pass a safety inspection. At a minimum, LeMons will check the roll cage, belts, seat, fire extinguisher and kill switch. Safety inspection is there to protect you from your lack of mechanical skill or inability to read and understand the preparation rules.

You can race pretty much anything in LeMons!

If your vehicle passes safety inspection, you will proceed to BS inspection. In BS inspection, you must justify how you managed to build your racecar for the princely sum of $500.  Depending on your documentation and ability to fabricate (stories, not car parts), the BS inspectors will, at their discretion, place your car into one of three classes based on its speed and likelihood of blowing up and reward you with penalty laps based on how much you spent over $500. 

BS inspection is your introduction to the sort of arbitrary judgments so enjoyed by the LeMons organizers. Are you unhappy with your classification? Do you think your black flag was unwarranted? A bribe can improve your situation, but arguing will not help. After receiving seven penalty laps in 2015, the Model T cruised through BS inspection this year with zero penalty laps and a spot in the fastest group.

Pre-grid

Welcome to LeMons racing. Nowhere else in the world will you find a Ford Model T, Pontiac Sunbird, VW Rabbit, Hudson Hornet, AMC Rambler and Peugeot 505 on the grid for a single race.

LeMons weekends are not complicated by practice or qualifying. Drivers show up, get their driving gear inspected, attend the drivers’ meeting, get in their cars, go out on track and drive around under full course caution. At some point, the organizers throw the green flag to start the race.

Mitch and Cameron like to send me out first to identify any mechanical issues. I am beginning to suspect Mitch and Cameron are smarter than I am, because I have experienced stuck throttles and self-ejecting car parts on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, armed with my mostly dormant self-preservation instinct and an up-to-date tetanus booster, I took the green flag. 

We knew our competitors for overall honors at The Ridge would be the defending race winners, the IWannaROC Camaro, and the always competitive Cerveza Racing BMW. Therefore, my goal in my first stint was to put as much time on these teams as possible. On lap four, I took the overall lead. Nothing fell off of the Model T and my pace was faster than our fastest lap from 2015.

My march towards victory was briefly delayed when I passed under a yellow flag. In my defense, the corner worker did his best to hide the waving yellow flag from view until it was too late to do anything about it, but there is no doubt I was guilty. I proceeded to the penalty box, felt shame, apologized profusely, and returned to the track, all without losing the lead.

The black flag is used extensively in LeMons racing. Passing under yellow, car-to-car contact, car-to-something immovable contact, leaving the pavement, mechanical issues, and generally being a hazard to others can elicit the black flag. Punishment for the first infraction is usually light, often no more than a “stern chat.” Penalties increase after the first infraction depending on the severity and frequency of the offense, and can include parading through the paddock announcing your shortcomings as a driver for all to hear. 

By the time Cameron took over at our first pit stop, we had a three-lap lead over second place. Cameron turned in a solid stint, but reported the engine had developed a miss above 5000 RPM. Mitch jumped in the car for the third stint following our second fuel stop. The Turrible T’s and Pinto Bean Bandits had their fuel stops down to a science, so our time in the pit lane was brief. Mitch drove brilliantly to extend our lead before I got back in for my second run. 

When I returned to the track, I knew immediately the Model T was not the same. In my first stint, I routinely saw 5,800 RPM at my braking point for the first corner. Now, the engine struggled to reach 5,000 RPM and the exhaust backfired loudly on corner entry. To make up for the lack of straight-line speed, I drove harder in the corners until I received my second black flag, this time for a reported fuel leak. I am not sure if the Model T was really leaking fuel, or if the LeMons organizers were simply unhappy with us lapping the field. In any case, inspection revealed no leaks. I returned to the track to put more laps on our competitors before turning the car over to Cameron for the final run of the day. 

LeMons races are two-day events with an overnight break. Running in the dark would be fun, but keeping the electrons flowing correctly in a $500 car is enough of a challenge without throwing headlights into the mix. Besides, the evening break is the perfect time to address mechanical issues, hydrate after a long day on track, and trade war stories with your teammates and competitors. 

Exhaust Header

No wonder I am deaf in my left ear!

We discovered and repaired a gaping hole in an exhaust header and hoped a new set of plug wires and some re-jetting of the carburetor would remedy our engine miss. Additionally, we fabricated overflow bottles to catch excess fuel or gear lube leaking from the back of the car. 

Top Three

The top three starters on Sunday: Model T GT 1st, Cerveza BMW 2nd and IWannaROC Camaro 3rd

On Sunday morning, Mitch took the green flag. He extended our lead and used the relatively clear track to set a new fast lap for the Model T. The IWannaROC Camaro surged past the fading Cerveza BMW to take second place. Cameron took over from Mitch and turned in another stint of consistently quick laps. 

LeMons has all the elements of real endurance road racing. You drive in all weather conditions with cars of vastly different speeds. You have the team element with co-drivers and pit stops. And, it is a real race. Certainly, some teams just hope to make it to the finish, but drivers are a competitive bunch and LeMons is no exception. Within the teams, winning is important, but as every endurance driver knows, being faster than your co-drivers is your ego’s first priority.

Mitch keeps me on my toes when we run together, so when he set the fast lap in the Model T, I had my work cut out for me. Early into my last stint, I ran a relatively quick lap and Mitch radioed to let me know I had the fast lap of the day. I was not sure if Mitch was telling the truth or just messing with me to get me to slow down, so I kept pushing. Later, I found a big gap in traffic and ran even quicker to lock down the fast lap in the Model T. 

I turned the car over to Cameron and Mitch for the final two stints and we took the checkered flag after 383 laps with our lead intact over the IWannaROC Camaro. Cerveza BMW soldiered home third after struggling for pace in the second half of the race. 

LeMons Awards Ceremony

LeMons overall winners acknowledging the crowd

The post-race LeMons awards ceremony is a mostly lighthearted affair. The LeMons organizers openly acknowledge that they do not care about winners, so our victory was heralded with a dismissive announcement. The crowd, to their credit, was much more appreciative of our efforts. Additional awards, including the other class winners and the coveted Index of Effluency award (best thought of as a nomination for “Least Likely to Succeed”) were also announced to cheers and toasts of Rainier Beer. 

Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, LeMons is professional racing. The winners in each class take home cold hard cash. The prize money is not enough to allow you to quit your job and race full-time in LeMons unless you like living in a cardboard box under the freeway; However, the awards do help to offset (slightly) the costs and all racers can use that! 

Winners

Celebrating the Win

Overall, LeMons is a great way to have fun at the track with friends. The driving talent is abominable and the car preparation is worse, but I guarantee that you will have some stories to tell.  Who knows? Maybe LeMons will be the launching pad that puts you in the open seat at Williams Grand Prix next season … Yeah, good luck with that.

About the author

David Thilenius

Growing up in Alaska, David Thilenius was not on a path towards the automotive industry, but that changed in 1983 when he saw video from a Porsche 956 at LeMans. Within two years, David attended racing school, enrolled in college, and began working for GM. A BSME led to a career in vehicle dynamics with GM, Toyota, Hyundai, and his own consulting firm. Engineering pays the bills, but driving is David’s passion. From formula cars, David moved into endurance racing, winning an IMSA drivers’ championship in 2010. He currently races the Nurburgring and writes about his adventures.
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