"The crowd. The spectacle. The pall of blue smoke and roasted clutch discs. In all motorsport, no event captures the universal human need to whale on old crapcans and hoover down greasy barbecue like the 24 Hours of LeMons." - 24 Hours of LeMons website
There is a very specific car guy fantasy that borrows from the setting presented to viewers of the classic Australian film "Mad Max." Many of you should remember how it goes: highways have been taken over by violent gangs that have turned them into battlegrounds. As they command crazy, beat up Franken-vehicles, the nomadic thugs look for gasoline to loot and innocents to terrorize. It's a lawless mess of a driving environment, and the movie dares automotive types to envision what it would be like if, in a post-apocalyptic world, fashion and performance meant nothing and getting behind the wheel became solely about survival.
I imagine there are just a few places in this reality where a person can only begin to live out such a fantasy (demo derbies and the like spring to mind first). But not too long ago, I got involved in an event that reminded me of the dystopia rolled out in that seminal Mel Gibson flick, only a lot less grim.
Dubbed the "24 Hours of LeMons" (the name a jab at the prestigious French enduro), the unique race was for cars purchased and race-prepped for $500 or less. I've been likening it to folk as part endurance competition, part Red Bull Flugtag (where people launch homemade flying machines off of piers), and part demolition contest. I don't think the organizers of the event wanted the comparison to a demo derby, but in retrospect, that is exactly what the weekend became.
For the record, Honda Tuning magazine was not officially involved in the proceedings. No, this was something I pursued in my spare time, and the way I got mixed up is through my friends over at Sport Compact Car. They learned of the affair with a scant 4 weeks to go before the green flag. In short order, editor Ed Loh lined up a junker-a '90 Toyota Celica ST-and his team, and together we commenced to do what we could to make the beater track worthy. I offered team SCC my services as a wrench and multipurpose gopher-any way I could support the crew, basically-and ended up getting some seat time. It was pretty cool.
I suppose the weirdness began that weekend with the venue. The stage for the inaugural gig was the Altamont Motorsports Park near Tracy, Calif. If the name sounds familiar, it's because the track hosted an infamous Rolling Stones free concert in 1969 that resulted in tragedy, a concertgoer getting stabbed to death by the security detail hired to work the show. That detail was made up entirely of Hell's Angels (and they killed someone? You don't say...). Many historians interpreted the incident as sort of the symbolic end to the innocent, free-lovin' '60s.
Hippie ghosts aside, some called our decision to take part in the race similarly risky, given that we had a heap for a chariot, almost no prep time, and didn't really know what to expect. If it was foolish, then our team was only one of several packs of fools racing that weekend, it turns out. When we pulled up that sunny Saturday morning to get checked in and go through tech, the reality of what we were about to face finally began to sink in. Another 30 or so other teams were in line to get in, too, and most looked a lot more serious than us.
Of course to throw around the term "serious" at an event like this is pretty much laughable. We would learn eventually that the 24 Hours of LeMons was indeed a lighthearted affair, even if it was marginally dangerous. But seeing some of those vehicles as we first rolled in-some clearly faster and more powerful, some just bigger and meaner looking-did a lot to at least momentarily shake our confidence and cause us to question our sanity.
The starter waved his flag at 4 in the afternoon on the first day, and it was a little like watching the most pathetic road race ever. The 1/2-mile course consisted of 5 turns from the infield section and the main straight from the bigger oval track encircling the infield. Speeds rarely got much over 65mph, and the circuit was so narrow, cars running 3 wide would regularly drop wheels onto the shoulder, which was nothing more than dirt. That dirt would get tracked onto the tarmac, which not only made traction an issue, but also created a cloud of dust that hung over the entire facility for the duration of the weekend. Pig-Pen would've been proud.
If the vision of crappy cars bumping into each other on a short, relatively slow-speed course, kicking up all kinds of dust, didn't make you laugh, some of the organizer's ideas for penalties and rewards might. Halfway through the event, the team with the ride recognized as People's Choice got bags of nickels, as did the winners at the conclusion of the race.
Conversely, there was a People's Curse honor, which was handed to the biggest jerks of the field. That went to the Car & Driver peeps for their egregious use of an Oldsmobile Aurora; the organizers had hoped to destroy the vehicle with hand tools as a penalty for such outward dickishness, but in the end, mob mentality gripped the crowd and the granny car was rolled onto its roof. It didn't disable the car, but certainly made a lot of people's day. Less severe offenders got random metal farm animals welded to their rides.
There was no shortage of wacky throughout the entire weekend, to be sure, but the icing on the cake had to be our podium finish. In spite of several contacts, including a fairly brutal run-in SCC staffer Jay Chen had with one of the tire walls, by late Sunday we had hung around long enough to secure fourth place. With bated breath we watched as the third-place #3 Ecurrie Ecrappe car first struggled with engine issues, and then ultimately get punted into submission. With just a couple hours to go, we locked up third place. It couldn't have been scripted any more dramatically.
The euphoria of the bronze wore off pretty quickly after the end of the race. We had to ditch the race car, pack up our campsite, and schlep our asses home some 5 hours away. Plus, we were all filthy, sunburned, and above all, tired. But the 24 Hours of LeMons remains-and will remain-one of my proudest accomplishments ever, both for having done it and for doing it with such a kick-ass group of people. Hopefully next year, Honda Tuning will have its own entry into the freaky affair.