Far Out, Man: 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon Wins Class C In LeMons

The 24 Hours of LeMons organizers carry an unnatural derision for Volkswagen vans, perhaps because a crappy VW Bus was the official series vehicle for California races in LeMons’ early years (until 2009). That said, LeMons’ collective disgust for the VW van is tempered somewhat by later examples like Team Westafari’s 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia, which won Class C and finished a remarkable 44th overall at the 2016 season-ending Arse-Freeze-Apalooza at Sonoma Raceway on December 3 and 4. It didn’t come without trying conditions, however.

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It’s worth noting that no ordinary racers campaign this Vanagon; the racers are all part of Go Westy, a company that specializes in Volkswagen van parts and restoration. And their theme plays perfectly to the stereotypes of Volkswagen Van owners with smoke pouring from a smoke machine in the van every time they roll through inspections.

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The Go Westy folks were running an experimental 2.7-liter version of the Volkswagen water-cooled flat-four engine (aka the “Wasserboxer”) that originally came in the Vanagon. It’s one of the few instances of people testing real-world technology in LeMons. Was the engine worth more than $500? Maybe, but it’s still a Wasserboxer, which hasn’t shown itself to be relialbe in LeMons.

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Nevertheless, the engine didn’t turn out to be the problem. Just a couple hours into the race, Go Westy president S. Lucas Valdes started hearing grinding when he was shifiting. He thought it was a clutch issue until the shifter developed some extra travel and he soon figured out that the transaxle was going out. After a bit of experimenting, he soon found that third gear would engage, but only if he held it in third gear with his right hand while driving with his left.

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He drove like that for the remaining couple hours of his stint, but with the Westfalia leading Class C at the time, the team didn’t want to spend hours swapping in the spare transaxle. When the Vangaon came in, Valdes and the team talked it over. “We decided I should just go out and finish off what was left of the transaxle since I had the ‘touch,’ Valdes said. “I took a quick bathroom break, downed a little water, ate a carrot, and got all strapped in by the time the fueling was done. We all figured the thing would only last a few more laps, so we might as well get a few more laps in before it gave up the ghost entirely.”

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As it turns out, the transaxle lasted the rest of the day with just third gear. Figuring they were out of contention, Valdes started tossing it into second gear to accelerate out of turns and then smashing it into third near the end of the Saturday race. It lasted the last 30 minutes taking that abuse, too.

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After swapping in a spare Saturday night, the Vanagon drove like a dream—two black flags aside—and held together to win the class by 20 laps. Next up for Team Westafari, according to Valdes: “Reconfigure this exact Vanagon so it is 4WD (Syncro) and race it in the 1000KM NORRA Baja Rally in April, then put it back to LeMons form and try for class for a class B win! Wish us luck!”

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We’ll be following that effort closely. In the meantime, you can get more LeMons coverage from Sonoma and other events right here on Roadkill.