The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world's oldest and most renowned endurance race. It's one of the most extreme tests of man and machine-a grueling, nonstop race that runs around the infamous Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France.
While I wish I could say I was driving in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the truth is far from that. Instead, I'd be piloting a $500 race car in the 24 Hour of LeMons at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Buttonwillow, California. If you haven't heard about LeMons, it's a race series that's gaining popularity because of its affordability, excitement and sheer wackiness. The premise is an endurance race of vehicles that have been swapped, purchased or built for $500 (this doesn't include safety equipment, such as rollcages and brakes)-true beaters. And while other teams really bend the rules, like bringing vehicles that are clearly worth more than the allotted amount. The team that I was driving with, Team Bigfoot Hunter, had a '88 Ford Escort LX that was an honest-to-goodness $500 car.
Be Safe and Drive in Style
Even though the 24 Hours of LeMons seems lighthearted and isn't taken too seriously, having the proper safety equipment is critical in any form of competitive motorsports racing.
Thankfully, I had the best in the biz, Alpinestars, provide me with everything I needed to be ready and safe for race day. It included:
»'08 GP Pro Suit US
»'09 Tech 1-T Shoe
»'09 Tech 1-Z Gloves
»Nomex underwear, including hood, bottom and top
The entire outfit provides extra layers of fire protection to help me avoid any exciting trips to the burn ward.
Team Bigfoot Hunter's Ford Escort
A closer look at our Ford Escort LX reveals that most of the vehicle has gone unchanged. Other than a hotshot header that was purchased on eBay for $50 and a cheap aftermarket cam, the engine is all stock. Some Merkur XT4i wheels with Hankook Ventus RS-2 tires were added to increase grip while the interior was gutted completely (minus some digital gauges) to lighten the car.
Mike Ullrich, who owns the Escort, and long-time friend and fellow team member Nick Mikulsky actually drove this very car (which belonged to a buddy) around in high school. It was passed on to the buddy's younger brother, who used it and then let it sit for a number of years until it was time to get rid of it. That's when Mike thought it would be a great idea to convert the Escort into a LeMons car, and the rest is history.
Before I get into the details of the actual race, you're probably wondering why all the vehicles in the photos look so silly and are covered in weird decorative items. That's because every team has to have a theme for its car. The better the theme, the more points you score with the judges. Yes, there are judges for this wacky race. If you want to get all the facts, rules and guidelines about LeMons, check out the website at 24hoursoflemons.com.
Having completed one prior 24 Hours of LeMons race, the Escort fared well and finished fifth overall. Hopes were high for the Buttonwillow event, but some minor work needed to be done to get the car race ready-particularly, fixing a charging problem that had developed unexpectedly. With some late nights and serious turning of the wrenches, we had the car in race shape-or so we thought.
Race day came and after a mandatory bribe to the judges, our Ford was OK'd without any penalty laps. If the judges think you've built a car over the budget or are cheating in any way, they will hand out penalty laps.
Our first stroke of bad luck came before the race even started! When we started the car, the Haneline volt meter gauge that we had installed the week prior indicated low voltage, an issue we thought we had fixed (apparently not). No problem, Mike had a spare battery and charger. We could drive two-plus hours before having to switch the battery.
The start of the race was rather uneventful, despite the field of 100 cars on the track. Mike was turning consistent 2:33-second lap times, not the fastest of the bunch, but our strategy was consistency and endurance rather than speed. Most teams had four or five drivers. We had three and if all of us could log two-plus-hour driving stints then we had a legitimate chance at the title.
Opting to drive last, I thought I had a good four hours to enjoy the chaotic racing. While Mike's stint was without incident, Nick wasn't so lucky and had to come in for a black flag. Apparently, he put four wheels off and in doing so he couldn't go back onto the track. That meant it was my turn. I was excited and scared all at the same time. Having done my fair share of track days, I was used to track congestion, but never in a competitive race environment. It took a good five laps for me to get comfortable, and within 15 minutes I was in a good rhythm. Where the Escort lacked in straight-line acceleration, it made up for in the corners. That meant some aggressive maneuvers and late braking were necessary to pass cars with more horsepower. I was doing a good job dicing through some cars that were clearly better equipped than ours, but it was obvious that the Escort and my driving would only take the team so far. There were some BMWs, Hondas and a particular yellow Volvo that no matter how hard I tried would pull away rather easily and quickly.
No matter, though, I would stick to our game plan and hope that the other faster cars would encounter mechanical trouble that would put them out of the race. Unfortunately, it was me who encountered our first on-track hiccup. Coming though a tight left-hander, I instantly felt the left tire give way; it had debeaded from the rim. I limped the car into the pits, where Nick was ready with a spare. Meanwhile, Mike jumped into the driver seat because I was almost at the end of my stint.
Hours came and passed and other than an unexpected (and unnecessary, in our opinion) black flag, the Escort mustered on late into the day. We still had the charging problem, but swapping batteries proved successful.
As the sun set, the first day of racing came to an end. Despite it being called "24 Hours," the race doesn't actually run into the night because of noise regulations and safety concerns. It's more like 16 hours, split between two days. The benefit of the break is that teams can wrench on their cars overnight. We triple-checked all the wiring to see where the charging problem was coming from, but nothing was found.
The next morning, everyone was fresh and ready for another day of driving. Despite our enthusiasm and excitement, Team Bigfoot Hunter would not fare so well on Sunday. The electrical problem would eventually hit a climax and leave the Escort immobilized on the track. After being towed in and more time was spent searching under the engine bay, we eventually re-wired the complete charging system and found that the O2 sensor was grounding itself on the header. After what seemed like an eternity (in reality it was about an hour), we were back on the track in 50th place. At this point, we knew there was no chance at winning, but placing in the top 30 wasn't out of the question.
Our hopes were quickly crushed, however, when I was assessed a black flag for going four wheels off, and this time we had to park the car for 45 minutes as a penalty. The really frustrating part was that I actually hadn't gone off, but the car in front of me did! As I drove through the dust cloud, the corner marshal must have thought it was me. Arguing our cause got us nowhere, even with video footage in hand. This set us back so much that we only stood to move up a couple places in the standings, but we soldiered on and even with more than two hours of non-running time on Sunday, the Ford Escort crossed the line and finished the race in 43rd place out of 99 participants.
It wasn't the result we were hoping for, but then again, the car finished in one piece in the top half of the standings and will live to run another 24-hour race. The winning car was a Mustard Yellow Volvo 240 with a carbureted V-8 swap that ran a fastest lap time of 2:17.60. In comparison, I managed a best of 2:29.05 in the Escort.
Despite the drama with the officials and our electrical gremlins, I had quite an amazing experience racing in the 24 Hours of LeMons. Nowhere else can you get such good door-to-door action for such a cheap entry fee. You'll quickly realize that as fun as lapping days are, the rush of racing against almost 100 cars is an entirely different feeling. It's literally one of the most fun things I have done in life.