Clash for Clunkers: The 24 Hours of LeMons

Going fastest or farthest isn’t really the point to the of LeMons (and it doesn’t last for 24 hours, either).

Car racing, like yacht racing and horse racing, is the province of the rich. Or the corporate-sponsored; there’s a reason NASCAR drivers and their cars are covered with all those logos and ads. Things are different, however, for the weekend warriors of the 24 Hours of LeMons. Everything about the national series of endurance races, which visits Shelton this weekend, is something of a joke. The name refers to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the famed French endurance race in which million-dollar Ferraris and Porsches compete. But at LeMons, you’re only going to see lemons—old junkers that, by competition rules, cost their owners no more than $500.

Thus, circling the track this weekend will be various clunkers and castoffs—rusted-out Alfa Romeos, former taxicabs, family station wagons from the ’80s—given new identities and paint schemes. For some vehicles, grouped into three classes, the object is to cover the most distance in 15 hours of racing (divided into two days with driving teams of four). For the majority, however, the event is more like Burning Man for petrol-heads, a gathering of souped-up art cars that have been elaborately decorated according to various themes—the sillier the better.

Hence, you might expect to see an old Mustang painted pink and given a giant nose and wings to, yes, fly; an old Mercedes Benz with a Corona Beer paint scheme and a giant lime wedge on the roof; a Prius (yes, really) covered with liberal bumper stickers; a green ersatz recreation of Homer Simpson’s dream car; a Winnebago; a Star Trek rig with a giant U.S.S. Enterprise mounted on the roof; or a creation that encloses the car in what appears to be a runaway trailer, with a propane tank mounted on its nose (empty, we hope). The Dukes of Hazzard, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers are perennial inspirations. Famous old color schemes (“livery”) are deliberately misapplied: like the blue-and-orange of Steve McQueen’s 917 in Le Mans put on a 1971 VW Beetle. Ridiculously large and ineffective rear wings are a particular favorite, sometimes consisting of park benches or snow shovels.

Elaborate costumes are integral to the show. If, as at past races, a car has an Elvis theme, the crew will have spangled jumpsuits. Drivers have dressed as astronauts for their NASA-themed racer. For an orange tropical Toyota, the men wear grass skirts and coconut bras.

“As the saying goes, ‘It’s where Halloween meets gasoline,’ ” says Issaquah’s Matt Adair, who leads Petty Cash Racing. His theme is loosely Richard Petty—iconic stock-car driver of the ’70s—and a cash-to-drive scheme that the former automotive journalist has actually turned into a business. (“I’m not really a NASCAR fan,” he explains. “The pun was more important.”) His vehicle of choice is a 1987 Jeep Cherokee, no one’s idea of fast, with a Chevy V-8 swapped in; now it can reach speeds up to 130 miles per hour. (Here let’s note that safety equipment is allowed over the $500 threshold: a roll cage, new brakes, fresh tires.)

“It’s very much a grassroots team,” says Adair, who’s partnered with a Bellevue friend in his business. Their paying co-drivers, or clients, are “a lot of engineers and geeks. We’ve got a lot of nerds.” The same applies to 24LM nationwide: It’s a tight-knit, jokey crowd of DIY/tech folk who communicate regularly online. (The racing series, founded in 2006, was first associated with the automotive website Jalopnik; now it’s aligned with Car & Driver.)


Adair's beloved Cherokee Courtesy Matt Adair

Why the humble Cherokee? “They’re inexpensive and very robust,” says Adair. Also, since his background was in off-roading, “I’d never had the opportunity to do track racing, and LeMons came around, and I thought, ‘Great!’ ” The Cherokee was what he had, and the Cherokee was what he knew how to fix. Since 2009, he continues, “I’ve done 24 races total.” Now he also works for 24LM, competing on the West Coast and judging at East Coast events. (Good-natured cheating and arbitrary, whimsical penalties are part of the game.) “It’s enabled me not to have a real job,” he adds. “We have created a formula that works.”

Adair’s Cherokee—he actually races two of them—won its division in one race; then there’s the Heroic Fix trophy, “which we have won several times.” He estimates that at any given point during the race, 20 to 30 percent of the field is broken. At some California events, where the 24LM series is most popular, the field can include nearly 200 cars. At Shelton he expects to see around 70, with a dozen teams from the Puget Sound area. “At most tracks, it’s the biggest event they have all year,” says Adair.

Again, that’s largely because the barrier to entry is so low, and because the nature of the competition isn’t so cutthroat. “It’s an affordable sort of motor sport,” says Adair. “You can be as competitive or as lackadaisical as you want. You can do as much or as little as you want. Some teams take a break for lunch.”

The slowest and most lighthearted (and most themed) teams are in the C division, from which Adair has long since graduated. There you’ll find Chrysler K cars from the ’80s and three-stroke Saabs from the ’60s, everything falling into Adair’s category of “old, slow, but awesome cars.” It’s there that he eventually hopes to expand his fleet (which also includes a BMW): “I long for the day when I can get a 1977 Chrysler Cordoba with a landau roof and rich Corinthian leather and do a Ricardo Montalban Wrath of Khan theme.”

Beyond the $1,100 entry fee, teams at each 24LM event “could easily spend two to three thousand on beer and gas,” says Adair. The gas bill—which also includes repair parts—is an obvious cost. The beer includes the entertainment budget for each Saturday night’s blowout party in the paddock, where all competitors engage in competitive tailgating and the costumes come out. “There’s kind of a food festival. It normally goes to the wee hours of the dawn.”

This may be the most important reason that most 24LM events aren’t actually 24 hours long. Of these full-length contests, says Adair, “They’re just miserable. And more to the point, there’s no time to party.”

The Ridge Motorsports Park 1060 W. Eells Hill Rd., Shelton, 24hoursoflemons.com. $30 (cash only, under 16 free). 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Sat., July 19, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., July 20.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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