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24 Hours of LeMons - Scrimpin' Ain't Easy

The Hardscrabble History Of A Low-Buck Legend

By John N. Frink, Photography by Brian Booth

Seventy-seven. In all of motorsport, there are few car numbers so thoroughly double-stuffed with significance, so deserving of legacy and yet so easily cast off by their owners. Although Eyesore Racing's car number was originally intended only as an intimidating declaration of performance (it perfectly matched the car's peak horsepower), it transpired that the number also served as a deadly accurate predictor of the car's finishing position.

Not once, not twice, but... well, ok, twice... car number 77 endured the 14 or so hours of the 24 Hours of LeMons, suffering the indignity of being spun by a Miata, the shame of being out-cornered by a Cavalier wagon, the crushingly unfair disadvantage of incompetent preparation, and the seemingly unrecoverable setbacks of being rolled once and crashed repeatedly, withstanding a bent control arm, having its strut tower torn open, and its engine falling out, only to finish a fateful 7th place both times.

Facing this numerological correlation, the team had little choice but to retire the number in favor of something fated for even greater results. The number eleven. For racing is not about reverent historical musings, it's always about the next race, and it's always about what number you're going to finish in the next two events.

Magazines, it turns out, are largely about reverent historical musings, and so we take a look back at the long and storied history of one of the few cars with the fortitude, durability, and low standards of functionality to enter the storied 24 Hours of LeMons a remarkable four times.

We intercepted Eyesore Racing's 1984 Lincoln MK-CR-XXX just days before its fourth and final outing, as the glue was still drying behind the new number 11 graphics. While photographer Brian Booth tried to avoid lacerations positioning the car in the studio, we picked the sleep-deprived and likely malformed brain of team captain Dave Coleman in order to learn some of the dos and don'ts of LeMons competition. Coleman's ability to wring slightly better than expected performance from utterly shit cars is legendary among his dozens of fans. The lessons learned from his long history of near-success at LeMons, therefore, should prove valuable enough to any would-be competitor to at least make it worth the five minutes it will take you to finish this story.

His advice, in no particular order:

Lesson #1: Pick A Good Team.
Only the Flat Rock Michigan race is actually 24 hours long. The remainder of the LeMons calendar avoids late-night competition in deference to the poor, defenseless residents of neighboring communities who had no way of knowing, when they built their homes next to racetracks, that racing makes noise.

"Still," Coleman points out, "even if you only have to tolerate the rest of your team for 14 hours of racing, there are months of preparation involved in any race effort, no matter how half-assed." Beyond good oral hygiene and tolerable personalities, he recommends populating your team with poor, or at least stingy people who know how to drive a stick.

Coleman credits his team's diversity both for their string of respectable finishes and for the fact that they never actually win. "We're kinda like BRE..." he asserts, referring to the Brock Racing Enterprises, the famously successful factory Datsun Trans Am team of the early '70s, "...but we're also a lot like the Village People. We'll have brilliant preparation, a flawless pit strategy, fast, clean driving, and then, suddenly, the gay cowboy will get in the car and start crashing into people."

Eyesore Racing's six-man team boasts three turbo engineers, two automotive journalists, two professional test drivers, two marketing professionals, a biomedical engineer, a rocket scientist, and insiders from both Nissan and Mazda. He never did say which of those was the gay cowboy.

Lesson #2: Pick The Right Car.
The CR-XXX's saga, according to Coleman, who quickly slipped into a long-winded diatribe that meandered from freshman physics to advanced rally technique, began innocently enough with a damned fool. Reconstructing the spittle-soaked notes we scribbled during this rant, it seems that someone, nobody knows who, thought a first-generation CRX would make a good rally car. That notion, by itself, is only moderately foolish, but the preparation of the car showed the depth of our anonymous would-be rallyist's naivet. "The cage," he stammered, "was a jungle gym of heavy-wall tubing substantial enough to support a Trophy Truck, but the door bars were so poorly designed they could be crushed by a well-placed insult."

The beam axle rear suspension, inexplicably, carried four shocks - two stock CRX shocks, and two mysterious Bilsteins so long they passed through massive holes in the rear floor, and anchored to the monster truck roll cage. "Nobody who has even ridden a bicycle in the dirt," raged Coleman, "would put dirt-Hoovering holes in the back of a rally car!"

Fast forward a few years and Eyesore Racing is looking for a suitable car for the inaugural 24 Hours of LeMons. Dismissing wild theories about Detroit reliability or turbocharged speed, the engineer-heavy team focused on light weight, avoiding the substantial stress caused by heavy and/or powerful cars. After nearly buying an FC RX-7 (too bent) and a B13 Sentra SE-R (no compression), the team stumbled, quite by accident, on Aidan Spraic, who, years earlier, had purchased the would-be rally CRX from its hopelessly optimistic creator and spent the intervening time flogging it on the street until the transmission exploded.

Buying it for $400 cash, the team accountants creatively decided it was a $200 car with a bargain-priced $200 roll cage (safety gear is immune from the $500 spending limit placed on all LeMons entries). When the car could be convinced to run, raw fuel ran down the sides of the carburetor, horrifying chain-mail-in-the-dryer sounds came from the transmission, and the clutch refused to work. The next $300 would have to be spent carefully.

Lesson #3: Find someone smarter and more experienced to work on your car for free.
Grabbing the transmission's input shaft in hopes of determining why the gearbox sounded like nails in a coffee can, there was perhaps more wobbliness than seemed appropriate. None of the team, even the rocket scientist, knew what actually was appropriate for a Honda transmission, but they knew someone who did. Mark DiBella, owner of MD Automotive, has not only been servicing these things since they were new, he was Oscar Jackson's crew chief back when Jackson was racing them with factory Honda backing.

Minutes after the box was dropped at his Westminster, CA shop, Mark had torn it into 300 pieces and found a bad input shaft bearing and a cracked case. $17 for a new bearing and $8 for two new seals and a few seconds with a TIG welder and the transmission was good as new.

Well, it worked, at least...

Lesson #4: Redefine "rebuilt."
Rebuilding an engine to like-new condition is expensive, but taking it apart, looking for trouble, and fixing only what's absolutely necessary can be dirt cheap. Before their first race, the team (well, mostly it was DiBella...) tore down the engine, found the head was basically sound, but filthy, the bores were badly worn, the block deck was not exactly flat, and the bearings were basically fine.

Carbon deposits in the combustion chamber were removed with CLR household cleaner and a wire brush. The bores were honed with a drill and WD-40 and new rings purchased for $50. The bores were far from round, as evidenced by the many low spots the hone never touched, but at least honed, lumpy bores with new rings seal better than un-honed lumpy bores with old rings. The warped deck surface was flattened by wrapping sandpaper around a very flat piece of steel and taking turns sanding until everyone was bored enough to call it flat.

Finally, after smoothing out a few scuffed spots on the bearings with very fine emery cloth, the engine went together with a new $24 head gasket, a $12 oil pan gasket and a $1.60 water pump O-ring. "Rebuilt" engine, $87.60.

The rebuild was effective enough that compression actually improved between the first and second races, and the team didn't even bother changing the oil between the second and third.

Lesson #5: Don't bother cheating.
Keith Gillespie of Hasport has been racing first-gen CRXs for years, and among his heaps of spares was a very thoroughly built cylinder head, huge cam and dual Webers that he generously loaned out for the team's first race. Being techno-snobs completely ignorant of anything carbureted, the entire Eyesore team naively thought that just because they didn't know a DCOE from a BBQ, the Webers would also slip by LeMons judges who police the $500 limit.

They wouldn't have, but luckily for the team, the intricacies of jetting carburetors were well beyond their abilities and they reverted, at the last minute, to the stock parts. "We don't talk about the Weber incident much..." Coleman mumbled quietly.

Lesson #6: Focus on suspension.
Studies have shown that low-speed crashes generate fewer lawsuits than high-speed crashes, so all LeMons tracks are slow and tight. A car that handles well, then, is more important than one that's powerful. Accomplishing this on the cheap means following a few basic principles:

Don't lower your car. Despite what all the high-school kids say, the benefits of a lower center of gravity do not outweigh the loss of suspension travel, the screwed up geometry, or the risks of inflicting undercarriage damage when you run over one of the dislodged body parts that litter the track during the first hour of every LeMons race. Since you can't afford good shocks, letting the suspension move freely at the ride height it was designed for is your best bet for keeping body motions controlled and at least three wheels in contact with the ground.

If you're unhappy with the handling, tune it with anti-roll bars. They're simple, demand little from crappy old shocks, and, with a little creativity, can be very cheap.

Tires don't count toward the $500, but money is still money. The Falken Azenis RT615 is one of the best tires available above the 200 treadwear limit, and it also happens to be cheap. Especially in tiny 185/60-14. Tire wear with such a light car was quite low, with the team running the same four tires through the entire 14 hours of Thunderhill (frigid, December weather extends tire life), but wheel-to-wheel racing does have its perils. In their second Altamont event, the team lost three right rear tires due to contact with spiky appendages on other cars. Don't even think of bringing fewer than eight tires to a LeMons race.

Lesson #7: Avoid frivolous decorations.
Many a team has arrived with their car looking like a Rose Parade float and the team dressed like a roving band of Cats understudies only to have their objet d'art barf its transmission all over the track the first time they ask it to turn left and accelerate at the same time. Test the car before you race it.

"When we started our first race, we didn't even know if our car would go into third gear," remembers Coleman. With no license plate, no trailer and no truck, testing had consisted of one clandestine lap around the block at 25 mph. "We got lucky and only had to spend 3 hours in the pits changing our clutch during that race."

Too many teams to count have chunked something in the first half hour and spent the next day fruitlessly greasing themselves in a feeble attempt to fix what they should have broken months ago.

Lesson #8: Use a multi-race development strategy.
At most LeMons races, there is an option, at the end of the race, to walk away from your steaming pile and let the junkyard come pick it up. While there is a certain macabre glory in bitch-slapping your heap for 14 hours before leaving it in a ditch, think twice before you walk away. The car may have cost $500, but it's unlikely the cage was less than $1,000. If the car is a simple "rebuild" away from working again, keep it.

Show your car to LeMons czar Jay Lamm at the end of the race and tell him how ruined it is, and he'll assign an arbitrary, sub-$500 value to it. This generally gives you a few hundred clams to get ready for the next go-round.

You should also keep the multi-race plan in mind when you're $496 into your budget and you suddenly realize a $50 Saab Sonnet control arm will give your Fiero eight degrees of negative camber. Resist the temptation to go over budget and just save the Sonnet bits for the next race.

"Our car looked so trashed after the first race that Jay said it was only worth $100," said Coleman. "Funny thing was, it didn't look any worse than when we started..." With $400 to spend, the team replaced a ball joint, added an air filter, found a rusty header in the junkyard, and finally installed the anti-roll bars they had failed to notice their car was missing.

Lesson #9: Removing things is free.
What do fenders do for your racecar? What about the hood, trunk lid, rear doors, hatch, bumper covers? Answer: make it heavy and limit access to your broken engine. Take them off, sell them as scrap metal, and use your earnings to expand your $500 budget.

A week after our photo shoot, the Eyesore Racing CR-XXX started its fourth race in 89th place. Within an hour, first driver Sara Ehrlich had bullied her way to second place. Losing one position in the pits, Dan Ehrlich started third and worked his way far enough into first that Kyle Snyder and Sarah Fairfield were both able to start and finish their two and a half hour stints with car number 11 in the lead. For a long, long time, it seemed supernatural numerology might be the key to LeMons glory.

But things had not been going as smoothly as it seemed. Every driver had made at least one gay cowboy move, each of which rearranged the front structure of the car. Halfway through his stint, still in the lead, Jay Kavanagh came into the pits with a hot engine. As he stopped, a thin stream of superheated water pissed from the center of the radiator, darkening the pavement a few feet away.

The radiator was hanging by its hoses, all the mounts having long-since been bashed into scrap. This, it turns out, made swapping the radiator easier, as it fell out with the loosening of two hose clamps and the unplugging of the fan. A new radiator was zip-tied in, the cooling system filled, and Kavanagh went back out in fifth. There was no number five on the side of the car. Nobody knew what to do.

Damage, it turns out, had been done by the overheating. When Coleman went out as anchor, he immediately complained that a few dozen of the 77 horses seemed to have wandered off. Then the red flag flew. A Volvo had burst, briefly, into flames. Sitting still while the extinguisher powder was mopped up, the team was suddenly faced with a mechanical catch 22.

At each driver change the car had been harder and harder to start, until, at the start of Coleman's stint, the team had to push it for a full lap of the pits before it finally caught. Turning off the car was out of the question, but so was letting it run. The new radiator, it turned out, had a broken fan. As the team watched, the temperature gauge slowly waggled past 230, 240, 250 degrees. Steam started coming out of the air cleaner, the dipstick tube and the exhaust.

Under yellow at long last, circulating the track blew enough air across the radiator to bring the temperature down to 220, but no less. Back in the pits, Eyesore Racing's patented pressurized cooling system refilling tank was connected to the still-running engine, but as the life-saving water shot into the block, an eruption of steam shot out the carburetor and the engine sputtered to a stop. It would never run again.

An hour later, the checkered flag flew, and an hour after that, the Eyesore Racing CR-XXX finally, after a combined 52 hours of racing, was left in a ditch.

Confused?
Has none of this story made any sense to you? Congratulations, you're the last person on earth to hear about the 24 Hours of LeMons. The race's only real rule is that the car must be purchased and race prep accomplished for a combined total of no more than $500. Obviously, since the organizer hasn't been sued yet, safety gear is not included in that total.

There are usually something like six races a year, spread around various tracks unpopular enough to be willing to try anything to book a date. Up to 90 cars enter each race, but twice that many usually try to enter. Only those who race organizer Jay Lamm thinks he'll enjoy spending 24 hours with are allowed in. If you've managed to get this far without hearing about the race, you're probably too dull to make the cut, but feel free to go and try anyway.

SOURCEBOX
The 24 Hours of LeMons
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By John N. Frink
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