24 Hours of LeMons: All the Action From LeMons Chicago

We’re back from the fringes of Chicagoland and the 24 Hours of LeMons‘ “Doing Time in Joliet” race at Autobahn Country Club. As the event suggests, the race took place in industrial town Joliet, home to Stateville PrisonChicagoland Speedway, and Lionel Richie’s birthplace. Yes, it’s a fine industrial river town and even better place to host the austere company of LeMons as the series counts down to its 10th Anniversary race in October at nearby Gingerman Raceway. But for now, let’s focus on the happenings a Autobahn on this muggy July weekend.

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As has become the tradition with the annual summer date at Autobahn, Midwestern seasonal weather turned temperamental just as LeMons rolled into town. Every day of the race weekend was marked by soaring temperatures with soupy humidity kicking the heat index up to around 110 degrees. The heat in the cars was excessive and at least two drivers required medical attention after time in the car (though were fine after some treatment). Others suffered less-severe maladies, like this racer’s SFI-rated boots losing their soles after the heat weakened the shoe glue.

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Naturally, this kind of heat is as tough on racers as it is on the old hoopties that race LeMons. At one point during Saturday’s racing, more than half the field was in the paddock with stricken race cars. Overnight thunderstorms on Thursday and Saturday also threw a wrench in the works for those camping at the tracks.

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As for the race itself, the LeMons Supreme Court always enjoys contemporary themes and among those were a pair of Pokemon Go cars. While they aren’t the first Pokeman cars in LeMons, they did show up concurrent with the real-world game’s explosion in popularity. HardDriveRacing’s Dodge Neon has worn all kinds of paint in several years of racing, but it became a Pokecar Go Pikachu for this race.

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The Wisconsin Crap Racing also turned their usual cheesemobile into a Pikachu.

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Since “Doing Time in Joliet” took place in between the Republican and Democratic national conventions, teams naturally had a plethora of political material. The United Partnership of Pentastar Racers featured a YUGE Donald Trump parody theme on their Plymouth Duster. They had so much horsepower. The best horsepower.

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In keeping with the locale and political timing, the LeMons Supreme Court’s “Bribed” stencil commemorated the famed Chicago political maxim “Vote Early, Vote Often” that is widely attributed to any of a number of Chicago historical figures alongside the Chicago flag.

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The race iself brought a number of great automotive efforts, none more surprising (and then unsurprising) than Anonymous Subaru XT Turbo. The team have struggled to make this car run at all—the longest consecutive time on track had previously been about 40 minutes—and when it did run, it was terribly slow. However, the opening hours saw this car finally running at full song and, incredibly, blowing past other cars on the straights while running in the Top 10 overall from Class C. Had the LeMons Supreme Court made a grave error in underestimating the weird ’80s sports wedge?

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In a word: No. There’s an old adage in racing that engines run best right before they blow up and, well, that certainly seemed to be the case. After 12 official laps—and another 20 that didn’t count because the team hadn’t wired up their transponder—the car lost power. After initially thinking it was the alternator and finding out the charging system was good, Anonymous soon discovered the turbocharged H4 engine had seized completely. As it turns out, the engine is apparently only good for a bit over an hour at full song.

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Also in Class C, LeMons legends Knoxvegas Lowballers debuted a “new” car this weekend. For the first time ever, they are running a car without a Ford Duratec V6. Instead, they have found an insanely depreciated 1988 Mercedes 560SL. This car probably sold new for at least $60,000 (more than $120,000 in today’s money) and now this decadently appointed Teutonic luxury machine has been reduced to racing in a series for $500 cars.

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Theoretically, this car’s 5.6-liter V8 made around 230 horsepower at some point in its life and it occasionally looked pretty peppy on the racetrack. However, the team had kept the car almost entirely stock, leaving in nearly all of its hefty 3,600-pound curb weight (plus rollcage steel) and the wiring for its overly complicated German luxury coupe. Luckily, one driver happened to be a Mercedes mechanic and he had brought along factory service manuals with complete wiring diagrams—which fit neatly in a 350-page binder—to help troubleshoot the myriad of expected electrical problems.

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In addition, the Lowballers earned one of 10 “pole” positions for bringing an amazingly terrible race car that is its own theme. This was the first time LeMons handed out the “I Love Pole” certificates, which are intended to replace all that drivel about “qualifying” and instead let the LeMons Supreme Court put the best-themed cars at the front of the field to take the green flag. Want a chance to lead a LeMons race, suckers? Bring a more interesting car or theme.

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As one might guess, leading a LeMons race is a bit like leading the line at the California DMV when you need a new title issued: It’s not really an achievement, usually just the beginning of something tedious and probably futile. So what does that make someone who wins a LeMons race? We’re not sure, but LemonAid Racing managed to come out on top of a see-saw race at Autobahn. Earlier this year at Barber Motorsports Park, they literally drove their BMW-powered Geo Metro to its demise on its way to completing the Quadrangle of LeMons Emaculance (which this author just made up) with wins in all three classes and an Index of Effluency. Interestingly, the only other team to do this, the aforementioned Knoxvegas Lowballers, also did so with a Geo Metro. Anyway, LemonAid’s BMW E30 wore a paint tribute to the team’s late Metro and, in doing so, won its second race overall.

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Team Sheen’s four-eyed Acura Integra made LemonAid work for the victory, however. The Sheen Acura won the 24-hour race at Autobahn in 2015 during an also-sweltering July weekend. In this year’s closing hour, the gap was as close as 17 seconds, but LemonAid’s good run through traffic late in the day earned them a one-lap win while Team Sheen had to settle for second place.

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In Class B, which is for the not-quite-as-capable cars, Apocalyptic Racing took the class win at long last after years of trying with their horrible second-generation Toyota Celica Liftback. In the past, the car has ripped itself apart repeatedly with everything from exploding mufflers to completely detaching rear subframes, but the 2.2-liter Ecotec engine from a Chevy Cavalier gave it new life in 2015. Apocalyptic started Sunday with a cushy 11-lap lead in the class. They nearly threw that massive lead away with some careless driving, in the end, they held on to win by just two laps for a long-overdue class victory and an almost-certain promotion to Class A.

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The Class C win was a complete blowout for The Mulsanne Straightjackets and their “Alpine A210,” which is actually a very beautifully dressed-up Alfa Romeo Spider. It’s certainly a head-turner on and off the racetrack, though it’s not exactly fast with the 51st-quickest lap in the field. Nevertheless, the team drove it cautiously to a 56-lap win and 18th place overall without earning a single black flag or suffering any mechanical troubles.

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Bad Decisions Racing, perhaps more than anyone else, strive to live up to their team name. Racing a GM “Dustbuster” U-Body van is a bad-enough plan, but the team also recently swapped the problematic General Motors automatic transmission to a five-speed manual. This required all kinds of half-shaft modifications and a bevy of other problems in building, but they eventually had a Real Racevan™ and, for this race, a Get Shorty theme.

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As both the Pontiac Trans Sport and its transmission subframe donor had lived their entire lives in the Midwest, it’s no surprise that the rusty subframe gave way. No bother, Bad Decisions said, and they welded a small rectangular piece of plate steel that straddled the subframe failure. They then sent their driver on on track only have the Real Racevan™ transmission unable to stay in gear. They quickly figured out that the input shaft had reached surface-of-the-sun temperatures and failed entirely.

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Curiously, the complexity of the parts mish-mash required for the manual transmission swap meant that the only spare they had for it was an automatic transmission with about 220,000 miles on it. However, uncharacteristic of their team name, Bad Decisions Racing were actually prepared with the spare transmission mated to a spare engine on an entire spare subframe that was ready to bolt on. They dropped the subframe with the blowed-up manual gearbox out and slid the automatic-transmission subframe up into place.

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As with any swap, there were more than a few issues to sort—including the discovery that General Motors had used different-sized exhaust piping on an engine from a Trans Sport of the same model year—but by Sunday morning, Bad Decisions were back racing with their automatic Less Real Racevan™, now with a non-functioning third pedal and limp floor shifter. As far as anyone at the track knew, this was the only LeMons car ever to swap from manual to automatic transmission in the middle of a race weekend, which was good enough for a Heroic Fix trophy for Bad Decisions Racing.

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The opposite of the Heroic Fix is the I Got Screwed trophy, which went to the Tudor Coupe Revival Nissan 300ZX Turbo. The team had ordered a pre-bent rollcage from a manufacturer and then struggled for weeks to find someone to weld it into their car. This is completely understandable, as there are certainly no race shops in Indianapolis, from where the team hail. When they at last found an experienced LeMons fabricator to take a look at it a scant week before Doing Time in Joliet, they soon found that the cage did not even remotely fit their car. That left them with an undesirable Plan B, which necessitated buying a whole bunch of unbent steel tubing and begging, borrowing, and stealing help where they could in assembling a rollcage at the track in the scorching summer heat.

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On-the-job training probably doesn’t get much more intense than learning to build a rollcage trackside, but they enlisted help from teams and fabricators as they were available and also poured gallons of their own sweat into putting its assembly After getting the main parts of the cage installed by Saturday morning, the Tudor Coupe Revival crew seemed perpetually 30 minutes from finishing the car up.

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Up against the clock on Sunday, the team finally chased down the final bits to pass tech and with just an hour left of the race, they turned in their tech sheet, ready to race. They strapped in their first driver, who soon discovered that the seat was mounted too low for him to see over the steering wheel and dashboard. The team quickly jammed a bunch of heretofore-unused SFI drivers’ suits under his rump and sent him out at last with about 40 minutes of racing left.

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The 300ZX turned a single lap before the driver smelled gas strongly and hit the killswitch while pulling off track. He got a tow in and the team then set to work diagnosing what they eventually figured out was a fuel venting problem, something they hadn’t had time to even investigate previously with their work focused on the absent rollcage. They figured out a solution quickly enough to get a second official lap just before the checkered flag, but their struggles with their “pre-bent to fit” rollcage and the emergency measures needed to get through tech inspection earned them a hard-fought I Got Screwed trophy.

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At each race, LeMons hands out a regional trophy and this time around, White Trash Racing took home the “Chicago Cubs of Motorsports” award. The White Trash folks had campaigned an increasingly quick and reliable Dodge Neon that steadily looked in danger of possibly winning a race. Ultimately, that car crashed before they actualized that horrible fate and in the true spirit of Chicago Cubs baseball, they replaced their potential winner with one of the biggest losers in LeMons history: an Eagle Vision.

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This was no mere Eagle Vision, however. This was an Eagle Vision TSI, which got the big-block 3.5-liter V6. In LeMons terms, this is what a Mopar Big Block looks like. On paper, this is a 214-horsepower engine, which may as well be 2,000,000 in a LeMons race, right? Of course, the Vision is built on Chrysler’s venereral venerable LH platform, itself derived from the Eagle Premier that was in turn derived from the Renault 25. Like the Eagle brand itself, this Vision bears regal pedigree from the late 1980’s Chrysler-Renault-AMC ménage à trois.

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LeMons has, of course, had exactly one prior Chrysler LH-platform car, which also competed on a similarly scorching weekend at Autobahn in June 2012. That car, the Bangers & Smash Dodge Intrepid, ran exactly two laps before its Big Block Mopar blew up. Ironically, Bangers & Smash gave up on the LH platform immediately and got themselves a Dodge Neon for their next race. Surely, this was an omen—nay, a Vision—that a sequel was in the works.

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At the very least, White Trash Racing made sure to bring the most-perfect example of the LH that they could find: teal with peeling clearcoat and an unshakable odor. At this author’s insistence, the team ran it with its appearance exactly as they’d gotten it, except painting the roof red to be the team’s Redheaded Bastard Stepchild and adding these unidentified vintage chrome trim pieces to the hood. The team captain had recently found them in a box in his late father’s garage and it was a nice touch to the otherwise stock-as-you’d-find-at-the-Gathering-of-the-Juggalos Vision.

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With all of those ominous signs, the team elected to bring empty fuel cans in the likely event that the car never ran long enough that they’d need it. However, the Vision chugged along despite constant protestations from the slushy automatic transmission and exhausted suspension, running most of the first day aside from battery and alternator failures. On the way to the grid on Sunday, the entire serpentine belt assembly spontaneously failed in even more vigorous protest, but some quick repairs put the Vision back on track for the day, where it completed more than 200 laps. Like a traditional Chicago Cubs baseball team, White Trash Racing were entirely content with this brand of mediocrity so long as there was cold beer at the day’s end.

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Midwest racers have a fondness for American pony cars and most of them have raced their Mustangs and Camaros enough to have, over time, slowly cheated their LeMons rides to, in some cases, Lance Armstrong levels. In addition to a completely set-up Fox Body Mustang or three, this third-gen Camaro team cooked the “backup engine” they were running at this race, which gave the LeMons Supreme Court a glimpse under the valve cover at the aftermarket rockers in their Small-Block Chevy. This was par for the course and penalty laps were handed out accordingly to some of these cheaters. This engine, however, was fairly mild by comparison.

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The Wiley’s Coyotes team had previously raced an M50-swapped BMW E30, but this time around, the team showed up with a fourth-generation Camaro that had a mean cam lope and looked ready for Real Racing™. As it turns out, these hapless fools had paid a professional race shop to build them a LeMons car for some incalculable reason.

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The build was a bit beyond LeMons’ budget, to put it mildly. The team swore up and down that it was a stock LT1 engine that merely had been cleaned up with a carburetor slapped on it, but they were mysteriously missing any build documentation whatsoever except a bill of sale that indicated it had been bought by the well-known owner of the Detroit-area professional racing shop that had built the car. A total of 1,000 penalty laps was initially proposed, but having a good idea what would happen when the car got on the track, the total was reduced to 200 laps. That was, theoretically, a small-enough total that they could get back into the positive and so would dangle a carrot in front of the drivers.

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If you’ve followed LeMons for any length of time, you already know what happened next. With more car than talent, the team racked up four black flags in the race’s opening two hours. It turned out that the car had an unattached tie rod that made steering rather difficult so the LeMons Supreme Court generously reduced that number to two black flags after the tie rod repair. They then allowed the Camaro back on track only to have the now-fixed F-Body return to the Penalty Box almost immediately for another black flag. The team struggled with black flags for the rest of the weekend and at last, they came in on the hook with some kind of unfixable failure on Sunday. They ultimately finished 169 laps on the track—or -31 officially—which was fewer laps turned than the Pontiac Trans Sport that performed a manual-to-automatic conversion during the race. Additionally, the finished dead last in the standings, even behind the car that spent 60 consecutive hours building a rollcage at the track. DOMINATION.

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Contrast that story with that of the Junk-Fail-A Pontiac Firebird. Most LeMons’ third-generation F-Bodies struggle not to rust away during the race and this was, far and away, the least-cheaty V8 pony car in the entire field, possibly in LeMons history. That alone was enough to earn the Judges Choice, but the story went beyond that, even.

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The team bought the worn-out, engineless chassis for pennies and then sourced an early 1970’s Small-Block Chevy engine from a Nova owner who was instead putting an LS engine in his vintage ride. That tired 350 was certainly not a looker and behind the ugly V8 was a Saginaw three-speed manual transmission. Yes, this team had downgraded to fewer gears and, to boot, one of the team members was learning to drive stickshift in it during the race.

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Unlike the race-shop-built Camaro, Junk-Fail-A showed up with handfuls of documentation, including a receipt book tracking every single part, down to crank-window handles, they’d sold from their race car to offset the few parts they’d actually put in the car. This is how a new team should show up to a first LeMons race: terribly stock car, lots of documentation, and willingness to learn. Unfortunately, one of their drivers suffered heat stroke during Saturday’s wilting temperatures, but after a hospital visit and an IV, he was back in the car on Sunday good as new with a newfound appreciation for hydration. Even with etbacks that included a spin-y Saturday (and a vastly improved Sunday), the Junk-Fail-A Firebird completed 179 laps, which by our math is more than the super-cheated-up Camaro completed. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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Team Orca have run their awesome Chevy Caprice in nine races, always with a the highly entertaining killer whale theme that includes a functioning blowhole and so many clever little details that are hard to get across without shooting 300 pictures of the car. They had heretofore never taken home a trophy despite changing the Caprice’s automatic transmission regularly at the track—They’ve literally been through 11 transmissions in nine races—but this time around, the transmission finally held together for the entire race and Team Orca’s boat nearly won Class B, coming up just two laps short in a perfectly clean race without black flags.

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Aside from their regular transmission change before the race—which they can accomplish start-to-finish in 45 minutes—the only change they made was a shiny new billet bracket mounting for their bobbing whale tail. The tail mounts to the trunk with the bracket and then sits atop a coil spring that makes the whole Caprice “swim” around the track with alarming grace. Their sweet whip and their overall awesome attitude earned them a much-deserved Organizer’s Choice.

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At last, we reach LeMons’ top prize, the Index of Effluency, which is given out to the car that does the best with the absolute worst car possible. This was really a slam-dunk IOE for the Northern Shiners, a formerly hopeless team with one of the sketchiest GM G-Bodies in all of the world. Head-sized rust holes pockmark the slate-gray bodywork like massive craters on a sad moon and it looks ready to spontaneously deconstruct at any moment, but the Northern Shiners put their Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham into 29th place overall and second in Class C.

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This is remarkable in no small part because the original Olds 307 V8 sits in the engine bay, cranking out maybe dozens of utterly exhausted horsepower, helped of course with rain-gutter intake plumbing. One driver reported that driving the car for any length of time required extensive gauge-checking procedures that were designed not so much to prevent overheating, but instead to check how overheated the 307 was at any given time. Ultimately, the vigilant drivers kept the poor Olds engine from exploding.

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The team was comprised of a close group of friends and family who, despite the oppressive heat, were always smiling and enjoying the weekend. They plied the LeMons staff with amazing baked goods and kept their Cutlass largely out of the Penalty Box on the way to yet another indomitable Index of Effluency win for General Motors.

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Well done, Northern Shiners!

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The 24 Hours of LeMons is back in action this weekend for another insanely hot race at Thunderhill Raceway in California. Check back here for LeMons’ coverage from that race and more.

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover