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24 Hours of LeMons: A record, wretched heat, utter madness at Thunderhill

Eric Rood September 29, 2014 24 Hours of Lemons, Motorsports 7 Comments

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[Disclaimer: The 24 Hours of LeMons secured flight and hotel accommodations for the author and paid him a princely sum for his service as a member of the LeMons Supreme Court.]

It’s taken more than two weeks for the sweat and stink of two days in northern California’s scorching oven (also known as the Sacramento River Valley) to eventually dissipate, but this 24 Hours of LeMons writer is finally able to recant most of his whirlwind weekend as a guest judge for  Vodden the Hell Are We Doing? at in Willows. As a first-time visitor to a West Coast LeMons race, I got the immersion lesson in California LeMons’ing: oppressive heat, massive car counts, and unparalleled insanity. In fact, the car count was the officially highest in any road race ever (pending Guinness’ endorsement), owing to the new and massive five-mile “Thunderschleife” layout at the track. Follow the jump for a brief summary of the LeMons judicial experience.

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Due to travel constraints, I was unable to arrive Friday for the traditional BS Inspection. Instead, I flew into San Francisco on Friday evening, picked up a press car (more on this very soon), and booked it to the small I-5 oasis of Willows. I pulled into the hotel after midnight and bothered my roomie/co-guest judge for the weekend, Redusernab’s own Mad Scientist, Tim Odell. I gathered a few short hours of sleep and soon found my bleary-eyed self at Thunderhill, a rolling race circuit right at the point where California’s Central Valley flat plain starts to roll up and down. Shortly after arriving and after exchanging a few pleasantries with some guy named Sparky Pete, I found myself at the front of what was surely the largest drivers’ meeting of all time.

Chief Perp Jay Lamm kep the meeting as brief as possible because, as pointed out in the weekend preview, more than 240 cars had registered for the race, so lining them all up would surely take most of an hour. That turned out to be the case with the cars gridded seven-wide on the front straight and on pit lane and at least 25 cars deep in every row.

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I was left with the task of eventually picking up the stragglers who were black flagged on the pace laps because their transponders weren’t working, which meant hanging out in the (thankfully shaded) Penalty Box and mostly watching the cars slowly cruise through the paddock on the way to being staged. Some Hoonitarian Hooniversalists will recognize this flat-black Elf-mobile as Spank’s former Dacia/Renault R10. He sold it to new owners, who promptly blew it up within 10 minutes of the race’s start.

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I love some character-filled LeMons cars and dozens of this race’s entries had raced 10 or more times in LeMons. Most of those, like the #141 Cosmorita Cowboys Porsche 944, are never washed and the dingy look simply adds to each car’s charisma.

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The Rotary Rooter FC-generation Mazda RX-7 wore the dust of a veteran, though it was “only” the car’s seventh race. Like most RX-7s, it played , which was particularly unenjoyable when the team were sorting some issue or another and drove by the Penalty Box a half-dozen times in short order late Saturday afternoon.

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runs a large stable of cars at just about every California LeMons race with everything from the former Pikachubaru Subaru Outback to a super-clean BMW E36 to a Lexus-powered Rover SD1 (see below) entered at this race. This Subaru has been around for darn-near forever, its covered over with a large stack of 24 Hours of LeMons stickers. This car would eventually break its shifter linkage in the Penalty Box, leaving it immobile and stuck in gear for several minutes.

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Of all the cars in the field, none of them piqued my interest more than the Bad Decisions Racing 1984 Mercedes-Benz 300D. This is no mere W123, however. Instead of a -slow diesel powerplant, the team had instead cut away the passenger-side firewall and shoved a Chrysler 440 where a passenger’s feet would normally go. They then rebuilt the firewall inside the cabin. It’s kind of like The Wombat if it were dreamed up by me instead of Jeff Glucker and executed by, well, LeMons shadetree engineers instead of a professional shop.

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Somehow, it (occasionally) works, giving Bad Decisions have a mid-engined torque monster that probably has about a 65/35 weight split (right to left, of course). Nevertheless, the team put absolutely massive wheels and tires on the beast that are easily worth more than the rest of the car combined and the growling V8 sounds menacing.

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The LOL Racing Volvo P1800 won Index of Effluency at Thunderhill in 2013 in what was then the largest LeMons race in history. It was one of the last cars to line up for the weekend and this is one of the last pictures of it with a straight body. Lining up cars for the race had begun at 9:15 a.m. with a 10:00 start scheduled and the race started very close to on time with the official record attempt submitted to Guinness under the record attempt of Largest Auto Race (as measured by number of cars at the start) with 216 cars taking the green flag.

How long does it take just to release the gridded cars? The very last of those starters exited the hot pit for a recon lap just as the first car off the grid rounded the last corner. Of course, at least four cars broke down on the grid and several more failed to make it around the first green flag lap, but attrition is to be expected when temperatures were forecast to push triple digits.

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This was only my second trip to California (the only other trip coming earlier this year) so I was still taken aback by one of the first Penalty Box visitors, whose “sponsors” (term used very loosely here) included the usual speed and safety equipment organize yerba mate. This was a far different world from the .

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The huge starting field soon developed into a weird ebb and flow of traffic with huge packs of 20 or so cars bunched up followed by nothing for a quarter-mile. As someone used to the more spacious Midwestern races, the amount of was a bit surprising. The MeLons Racing Volvo 240 driver was unaware his front bumper was dragging after , but Jay Lamm was able to indicate this accurately to the driver.

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The first couple of hours were a bit wild with ripped bumpers and a dinged body panels here and there. The Black Flags were running their beat-up old Toyota Celica Supra for the 22nd time in five years and came in with a holed front tire and a wheel that looked a bit worse for the wear. The Penalty Box kept insanely busy for the day’s first half.

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The racetrack soon seemed eerily quiet and the Supreme Court noticed the visible flag stands holding double-yellow flags to indicate a full-course caution. Word soon drifted down from Race Control that the LOL Volvo had absolutely clobbered the concrete K wall on the front straight at high speed  after dropping two wheels and then spinning, driver’s door first, into the barrier. In a testament to the construction both of the Volvo and of the Volvo’s rollcage, the driver was OK if extremely sore and the K wall had moved as much or more than the body panels (and engine and several other features) had.

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The Penalty Box slowed a bit after that, although the Useless Old People’s soon found themselves entangled in the middle of another unfortunate incident. Their rare and weird Isuzu Impulse had run into some electrical gremlins, which manifested themselves just after the car had passed the pit entrance, shutting the car off. The driver managed to bump start it on the main straight, then get the car to about 40 miles per hour to limp around the track, staying as far right as possible. Unfortunately, the Mr. Donuts BMW E36 M3 popped out of a pack of cars to pass three-wide at the exact wrong moment, seeing the Impulse too late and popping it hard.

The impact knocked the Impulse’s rear bodywork all the way up to the rear axle, breaking all kinds of  rare Isuzu bits that are impossible to replace in northern California on short notice. The team struggled to load it on the trailer with the busted rear corner, but they vowed to return after scrounging up another parts car.

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Nearby, the Lexus-swapped Rover sat stationary with unstained stickers still on its fresh tires. The team were chasing their own electrical issues that were, shockingly, all Toyota parts and not any of the car’s remaining Lucas Electrics bits. The firewall was mostly non-existent and the car looked like it had at least 50 hours of work left to do before it could move under its own power.

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I returned to the Penalty Box after the short jaunt to find the Class C-leading Hella Sh***y Racing Volkswagen TDI-powered Porsche 911, its driver facing a Murilee Martin-brand rant about Porsche 911 owners or East German BDSM clubs or some other such common Murilee Martin topic. Most first- or second-time offenders get a quick stop and go in the Penalty Box, but Murilee was in no hurry to let such a finely honed racing machine resume beating up on the Ford Fairmont Futuras of the world in Class C.

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After a few minutes, the TDI chugged to life and plodded out of the Penalty Box, sounding like some kind of automated tractor built by the .

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The Mad Taxi Mazda RX-7 came in for a quick penalty, which allowed me to get a quick snap of a penalty from a previous race, where they were forced to use all of the .

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Eyesore Racing, who had run in the Top 5 for most of the day, dropped into the Penalty Box in the race’s last hour for a spin. I took the opportunity to snap a photo of the car’s . As Eyesore includes several engineers, they actually did airflow simulations and modified the car’s cabin so that it flowed in through the “door” and out through a channel behind the driver.

It’s all black magic to a prole like me, but they have won five LeMons races with their tired . This time, the black flag would cost them a few positions, but their flying Miata act the next morning broke several suspension components and dropped them out of contention, though they had it all patched together in 45 minutes.

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Late in the day, I managed to sneak out and shoot a few photos. Here’s some wrinkled yellow thing. I wish I knew what it was; I think it was a Triumph.

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It’s not every race that you capture the Index of Effluency winner and the Overall winner in the same photo, but here it is (crappy backlighting and all). The PeugeotDaddy Peugeot 404 (back left) was, far and away, the slowest LeMons car I’ve ever seen (possibly the slowest gas-powered LeMons car ever), but it somehow managed to churn out laps most of the weekend. It had the slowest fastest lap in the field by nearly 30 seconds and that lap, it turns out, was set during a full-course caution because the Pug could use the whole track for the first time all weekend.

Cerveza Racing (white #2 BMW, top right) cruised to the team’s seventh LeMons victory, the most for any team. While the Sour Aviation Racing Ford Mustang gained ground on Cerveza on Sunday, it was never going to be enough unless Cerveza fumbled Sunday’s driver change. They didn’t and it was their high level of execution and clean racing that ultimately proved the difference.

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Somehow, I feel like a turbocharged Saab 9000 racing a turbocharged Volvo 740 is the missing element from a Swedish Touring Car Championship, which it turns out Weird. The Too Stupid to Know Better Volvo won the race at Miller Motorsports Park earlier this year, becoming the first Redblock-powered Volvo to win a LeMons race.

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In addition to the Porsche 911 TDI and a pair of BMW E30s, Hella Sh***y Racing run a Subaru EJ22-powered Volkswagen Beetle. There are a few curiosities of note with this car: First, so the team can easily accommodate drivers of different heights easily. In addition, the builder(s) opted to stick with the Volkswagen four-speed transmission, which had held up nicely until this race, although they lost fourth gear at this race. They still were able to run most of the course, especially the twisty new western half of the course, in third gear without running out of space on the tach. Ironically, this is probably the most reliable Subaru-powered car in LeMons history and it nearly cracked the Top 10 at Thunderhill, finishing 12th overall.

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Panting Polar Bear Racing’s AMC Rambler Classic  remained a steady fixture of the race, its 78.5 horsepower plodding it along steadily as it ran like a top. A very slow top and a very efficient one: This car sips fuel, allowing drivers to run stints up to 3-1/2 hours. It somehow finished well into the top half of the field despite never breaking a 5:00 lap (Most cars were well under 4:30 on their fastest circuit).

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I’ve occasionally remarked that the Roadrace Jones Nissan Sentra SE-R (formerly known as Lipstick on a Pig) had run 20-something races, but it turns out the team had completely worn out the SE-R chassis and it was virtually coming apart after so much hard track time. They pulled all the running gear and bits from their old Sentra and dropped it into a fresh chassis, which looks cleaner than the dented old white SE-R.

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Nothing looked quite as spectacular on the track as Spank’s entry, his illustrious and . The Moke was decked out as a remarkably convincing Caterpillar backhoe. Still images don’t really do it justice; watching it dive down the hill at the track crossover completely messed with one’s mind, as it really looked like a racing backhoe.

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Here are a couple of token “fast car” pictures that actually turned out OK. I’m still working on my photography skills.

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The checkered flag soon fell for the day and teams embarked on their evening journeys, which included food, beer, wrenching, and socializing (though not necessarily in that order). The Hella Sh***y diesel Porsche 911 really looks like a sadist jigsaw puzzle with the engine cover off. The turbo was overboosting due to the shortened exhaust, so the team welded a restrictor on the pipe’s end to approximate the TDI’s stock exhaust. It worked well enough for the diesel heap to hang onto the Class C victory.

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Photo: Doug Crowder / Pistola Alto

Nearby, the Pistola Alto crew were setting off on a different kind of journey. Their Z32-chassis Nissan 300ZX had lunched its tired early in the day, but they’d also noticed that Thunderhill owner Mike David Vodden (for whom the race is named) had his old SCCA racer-turned-track pace car in some castoff corner. It happened to be a slightly newer Z32, but the team bought it anyway for $500. As it was sold sans wheels, Vodden had it delivered directly to Pistola Alto’s paddock on a forklift.

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The swap turned out to be slightly less straightforward than it would normally seem; in order to make it run, the team needed to use some of the ancillaries from the old engine. They were still working on it come Sunday morning, but they turned enough laps Sunday to earn the Heroic Fix trophy, though they would end their day in the pits chasing electrical issues.

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The Neon Popemobile team also had their engine out overnight, though they were attending to the clutch and transmission mainly. After a quick dinner and a bit of socializing, I headed back to the hotel and slept like I hadn’t slept in weeks.

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Sunday morning came bright and early with another massive grid on the front straight and in the hot pit. Somehow, the cars all managed to circulate with the Top 10 at the front and those cars that hadn’t blown up irreparably stuck around to soon find themselves in trouble and visiting the Penalty Box. The Flakes’ Small-Block Chevy-swapped Volvo 240 has been around LeMons since the series very early days, when it was . They’ve since turned it into probably the best of a couple dozen Days of Thunder themed cars in LeMons history.

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Similarly, the Pooraltor Buick Skyhawk carried a nicely scuffed patina and proud displays of the Buick 3800 V6’s cubic-inch conversion.

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Crapcan interiors are all a little different, but a good numbef of teams use the  app on hard-mounted smartphones. Occupy Pit Lane’s “Cowmaro” uses an iPad, one that was reminding this particular racer that it was time to pay the taxman the following day.

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The well-trained eye can probably figure out what this car is, especially from the wheels, but it otherwise looks like a perfectly decent Ford Ranchero. The team looked well on their way to a podium finish (such as it is; there really is no podium in LeMons aside from the class winners), but they made a mistake—prompting a Penalty Box visit—and then blew up shortly thereafter.

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By the way, Tim Odell is a hell of a LeMons judge.

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For example, Tim made a group of serious Mustang enthusiasts scrawl this 100 times on their SN-95 ‘stang after they repeatedly failed to drive like normal human beings.

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One of the Too Fast for Luv pickups collected another car, ripping away the entire driver’s side door to reveal one of the most stout-looking rollcages I’ve ever seen. The team used sheet metal and some brawn to fashion a new door for their old Isuzu.

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Somewhere along the way, one Acura Integra team rolled into the Penalty Box for repeat offenses. It was soon noted that the car was shod with , which was a violation of the series 190-treadwear rule. Rather than take their penalty for this infraction, which was a parade through the paddock rolling their illegal tires and declaring their intentions to cheat, these Integra racers put their cheatermobile on the trailer and left.

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I don’t have much to add to this photo, other than enjoys bad drivers’ agonies over their sundry of failures.

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Sunday’s session eclipsed its halfway point and the race had settled down to a reasonable level of black flag visitors to the Penalty Box when this man jogged by the Penalty Box toting two halfshafts like some kind of gearhead Rocky montage scene. Anywhere else, this probably would be odd, but most of the LeMons staff hanging around the Penalty Box glanced up briefly, shrugged, then resumed discussing Jensen Healey suspension geometry or Eastern Bloc rationing techniques or renaming rules after one particularly egregious breaker of a single rule.

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The race headed into its homestretch and, after something like 72 straight hours of wrenching, the RoLex amazingly drove into the Penalty Box under its own power for tech inspection.

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When I’d seen it previously, the firewall featured gaping holes, which had been hastily-but-effectively patched with sheet metal. The car ran, mostly in limp mode, and the transmission shifter was a metal rod sticking out of the center console (not the actual shifter hanging on by zipties), but it passed tech. It was the most hooptie-looking interior I’ve ever seen in LeMons, which is really saying something. But, hey, that Rover steering wheel looks great, doesn’t it?

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And the 1UZ-FE V8 plucked from a Lexus LS400 will eventually be a great engine. Officially, the RoLex turned one lap, but it will be back, hopefully, with its surprisingly muscular exhaust note and 250 thirsty horsepower.

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One of the Penalty Box’s final visitors was a car I’d heard briefly about, but then forgotten until they popped up. The Wet and Wreckless Mazda RX-7 features neither a Wankel nor a V8; it instead gets its power from the high-output . It sounded terrific and the upside-down rear spoiler as a front splitter is a nice touch.

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The race ended on time and many teams drove straight onto trailers in their paddock spaces, anticipating the 200-trailer traffic jam on the way out of the racetrack.

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Jay requested the Peugeot 404 as his platform for the awards ceremony, so it pulled into the Penalty Box with French cafe music playing through the Eiffel Tower-mounted speaker and the team broke out the baguettes and wine while teams trickled into the shaded Penalty Box to celebrate the award winners with massive cheers going up from more than a thousand drivers, fans, and hangers-on at each announcement, especially for the one that the Guinness record was likely to be made and that the Pug won Index of Effluency.

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After the ceremony, I changed out of my stinky clothes and washed up a bit in the one shower at Thunderhill (Maybe there are more somewhere, but I only saw one), because I had a redeye flight to catch from SFO. Along the way, I came across several RVs and tow rigs wearing a slight coat of Thunderhill dust, but the Bad Decisions Racing Mercedes haunted me for a short stretch of I-5.

[All photos copyright 2014 Redusernab/Eric Rood]

  • jeepjeff

    Dr. Harrell, I believe this is a challenge: It had the slowest fastest lap in the field by nearly 30 seconds and that lap, it turns out, was set during a full-course caution because the Pug could use the whole track for the first time all weekend.

    • Okay, here's what I've got:

      Last year at Thunderhill, on what was then a much shorter track, our fastest lap was 3:36. Out of 183 cars, only one other was over three minutes at 3:10; this was a Saturn that turned just two laps. Most cars were around 2:30-ish.

      Admittedly we only managed twelve laps, what with our two engine failures, so we didn't luck into any full-course cautions at that race. We have at others. It does help.

      Clearly the preferred solution is to get the 96 back on the track for more data.

      • Eric Rood

        Peugeot-Saab drag races. There would be good betting action on that, I'll wager.

        • jeepjeff

          That's up there with hand-crank Le Mans start competitions in the paddock!

  • Jamie Palmer

    It's an MGB, not a Triumph….

    • [heknowsthatsthejoke.jpeg]

    • In fairness to the author, it is an exceptionally triumphant MGB.

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