Crash for clunkers
Spend the weekend with Sacramento car enthusiasts at 24 Hours of LeMons, a when-life-gives-you-lemons grand-prix race like no other
An agitated voice blares over the PA system.
“Drivers for car 91. Attention, car 91. Comrades, report to the penalty pit. Immediately.”
This sounds bad. Sacramentans Reza Farid and Vadym Sholomytskyy, dressed in bright-red racing suits, hustle to the pits. Teammates Steven Padfield and Jesse Ralph stay behind to fix the car. Hopefully.
It’s the first day of the 24 Hours of LeMons—a two-day, balls-to-the-wall endurance race for cars valued at $500 or less—and already the team car has not only skidded 180 degrees and slammed sideways into a wall, but it’s also leaking oil all over the damn racetrack.
The idea behind the LeMons racing series is simple: Find a clunker, make it (dubiously) track-worthy, strap on racing gear and then complete as many laps as possible while avoiding any of the other 500 amateur drivers and their 150 piece-of-shit cars. This weekend’s carnage takes place at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.
Sounds suicidal? Perhaps. But as Sholomytskyy explained in his thick Ukranian accent the night I met him in a Midtown hookah bar earlier this year, that’s the point:
“You do it because it is crazy.”
Panting from the short jog over to the penalty pit, Farid and Sholomytskyy are greeted by one of the judges—and the judge isn’t in a joking mood.
“You see this mess you leaked all over my pit?” barks the short, pale, skinny judge. “I want all of this cleaned up, and I want it cleaned up now!”
Sholomytskyy sprinkles absorbent powder over the oil pools left behind by car 91, a red 1982 BMW 320i, which the team scavenged off of Craigslist in October. Farid grabs a broom and sweeps up the mess.
The LeMons racing series tries not take itself too seriously. Take the application process, for example. The Web site states:
“Boring applications like ‘We are four guys who love to race, and we have done (blah blah blah) driving before’ don’t give us too much to work with. … Applications like ‘Choose us, because we’ll wear beaver costumes in the paddock and our car is entirely coated in birch bark’ give you much better odds.”
There weren’t any guys in beaver suits at the Infineon race, but there was plenty of creativity riding around in those vehicles.
Some favorites: the green “Godzilla Loves Bacon” car, the purple Big Lebowski-inspired Jesus-mobile and the Ingsoc car (“2 + 2 = 5” painted on the side). Judging by the high number of spotless, dent-free Porches, Audis and BMWs parked in the team lots, LeMons is a sport for guys (and it’s overwhelmingly guys) with plenty of money to burn.
After cleaning the oil pit, Farid and Sholomytskyy join their teammates, who have the hood popped open and are staring at the guts of their “Communists R Us” car. It’s leaking oil. After several minutes, they discover that the bracket holding the alternator has gone missing. Now, whenever they rev the engine, the alternator rattles against the oil filter, knocking it loose and spilling oil everywhere.
The car needed a lot of work before the race. The team spent 150 hours refitting the exhaust system, fixing the drive shaft and redoing the suspension. They gutted the interior and installed a roll cage. At the last minute, Farid slathered on two coats of red Behr paint and a yellow hammer-and-sickle on the hood.
“Bring it on, Capitalists,” painted on the rear bumper in bright yellow, taunts the other racers.
The crew has an idea: Whittle down a small block of wood to hold the alternator in place. It works, for now, so the next driver suits up and heads back out on the track.
The Friday night before, the car passed its safety inspection, which looked at the racing seatbelts, the roll cage and the driver’s fire-retardant suits. A “Good Enough” sticker was slapped on the windshield.
The roll cage and fire suits requirement turn out to be a good idea, since late Saturday afternoon, one car flips over and bursts into the flames. The driver survives, but with a cracked C2 vertebrae.
Perched above the track at race control, four professionally experienced race personnel keep an eye out over the 2.5-mile, 12-turn course. They’re aided by 12 flag stations, who relay infractions. The rules are simple: At all times, keep all four tires on the track, keep the car pointed in the right direction, don’t bump anyone else and don’t drive stupid. When race control gets a report from the lookouts, they send a text message down to the penalty pit—“Yeah, the computers are down,” they explain—and a black flag signals the drivers to report to the pit.
In the penalty box, judge Jonny Lieberman, not the same guy who dealt with the oil mess earlier, deals out justice.
“Well, since your driving and your car stink, let me get you an air freshener,” Lieberman tells one driver.
Penalties vary. Mouthing off just makes the punishment worse. One particularly belligerent driver is told to grab a Sharpie and scribble, “If I would have owned up to my crime, I wouldn’t have to write this shit 100 times” on his car. The Bart Simpson-esque punishment cuts into precious race time.
Crowd turnout is sparse. At race headquarters, organizer Jeff Glenn explains that the next step for the LeMons series is reaching out to the public. While the number of LeMons races jumped from 10 last year to 21 this year, the bleachers remain depressingly bare.
During the rest of the race, Communists R Us struggles to keep its oil leak under control. When the wood block disappears, they’re out the race for several hours. Sunday morning, Padfield comes up with an idea: zip ties to keep the alternator in place.
Wait, are plastic zip-ties really the best way to fix this?
“Half this car’s hooked together with zip-ties. How do you think the seat’s tied in there?” Padfield answers. He must be 80 percent joking. Maybe.
But the idea works; Sunday, they spend most of the race time on the track.
Communists R Us completes the race in 124th place out of 150 cars, completing a total of 128 laps. Not bad for a bunch of first-timers who spent a chunk of the first day fighting with an oil leak; they only completed 28 laps Saturday.
Top honors went to car 611 of Eyesore Racing. Their 305-lap total nabbed them top prize of $1,500. Paid in nickels.