The cars in the 24 Hours of LeMons may look beat to smithereens, but LeMons racing carries all the speed and risks of several club-racing classes so crapcan safety gear matches that of bigger-dollar racing. Since LeMons races include a rigorous Technical Inspection (independent of BS Inspection, which we’ll cover another day) to make sure cars meet the series’ safety requirements, we’re going to give you a brief overview of the safety basics required to race in LeMons. It’s not meant to be exhaustive so be sure to read the entire rulebook right here, as well.
Like the general concept of LeMons, the rulebook is designed to be understood by any old idiots (more on this shortly). There’s not much to it—maybe 10 pages if you printed it out—and it’s written in plain ol’ English. You can go read it now right here (and we’ll link it several times to make sure you do), but this post is designed to get you through the basics so you don’t end up like the Johnny-Come-Latelys shown above who paid all their entry fees to spend the entire weekend building a rollcage trackside in 95-degree heat.
Maybe that sounds fun to about 2 percent of you, but the vast majority will have no fun with that. Do yourself a huge favor and read this”How Not to Fail the Safety Inspection” guide. Then reread it. Then print it out on paper and reread it a few more times. It will form the basis for most of this post. Also, when you go through tech inspection, make sure you’ve printed out your own Tech Sheet (available here) and signed off on your part of it after you’ve inspected the vehicle yourself.
To quote the rulebook (which you can read here): “Entry limited to mass-produced, four-wheeled vehicles legal for US highway use at the time of their manufacture…The vehicle’s original, manufacturer-stated curb weight may not exceed 4200 pounds.” Basically: No gigantic trucks, no three-wheel cars, no Zambonis. Theoretically, this means no foreign-market cars, although LeMons HQ has in the past granted waivers for cars never built in the United States. Don’t count on that, though. If you’re a first-time team, you’re probably better off sticking to basic rules.
Have a valid U.S. or International driver’s license and over 18 years of age? Great, come drive. Have a valid driver’s license and under 18? Get a notarized letter of permission from your (obviously chock-full-of-bad-judgment) parents or legal guardians, then come drive.
Beyond that, the onus is on you to make sure you’re healthy enough for endurance racing, which is a physically and mentally demanding activity. As the very top of the LeMons Rulebook spells out in all-caps:
“EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU’RE IN EXCELLENT HEALTH, TELL YOUR DOCTOR WHAT YOU’RE PLANNING TO DO; GET A FULL PRE-COMPETITION PHYSICAL EXAM BEFORE YOU START RACING; AND ESTABLISH A REGULAR SCHEDULE FOR RE-TESTS!”
The rollcage is designed not only to keep your noggin from getting crushed when you run out of talent and put your heap on its lid, it’s also designed to keep you safe in case Jimmy Thinks-He’s-An-Andretti T-bones you with his Ultimate Driving Machine. Above are the three basic designs that will pass LeMons tech if they’re built correctly. You should notice the cage designs are basically the same and the only significant difference is how the bars on the main hoop (the top square-ish shape) connect to each other. If you don’t understand how the cages are different above, do not try to build the rollcage. LeMons tech inspectors absolutely will fail you for cages that do not pass muster. Then you will end up like the schmos shown in that second photo above.
Ok, quiz time.
(1) Have you ever touched a welder? If the answer is no, do not try to build the rollcage. Hire a professional to do it. Give him or her a paper copy of the “How Not to Fail LeMons Safety Inspection Handbook” to make sure it’s built the way LeMons want it and not the way “They do it at Teh Track By My House.”
(2) Have you ever done welding beyond that time in high school shop class when you used the crappy stick welder to cut through the vise and set your shoes on fire? If the answer is no, do not try to build the rollcage. Hire a professional to do it and give him or her a paper copy of the “How Not to Fail LeMons Safety Inspection Handbook.”
(3) Do you have a proper tubing bender (i.e. not a cheap Harbor Freight bender or muffler-tubing bender) and the correct dies for the bender? If the answer is no, do not try to build the rollcage. Hire a professional to do it and give him or her a paper copy of the “How Not to Fail LeMons Safety Inspection Handbook.”
Basically: Building a rollcage is very complex and not for the beginning fabricator. If you’re not a fantastic welder and builder, you will find it worth paying professional to build the thing that will save your life when your driving ability runs out. Don’t skimp here; we want everyone to go home safely at the end of a race weekend.
If you’re capable of building rollcages, carefully read the complete Rollcage Regulations in Section 3.E of the rulebook and the next couple items. If you’re not building the cage, feel free to scroll down the to the Helmet Clearance section because that will be important even if you haven’t built the cage.
LeMons always recommends doing more than the minimum with regard to safety equipment (We could give less of a crap about how well your junk runs). Gusseting adds strength where rollcage bars meet. A dash bar between the front down bars not only gives more strength to the whole design, but it also gives you something to which you can affix the oil pressure gauge that gives at least a half-second notice that your engine is blowing up. Also, you can extend the harness bar similarly across the cage’s width to make the shown “Anti-Bow Bar.” A one-piece diagonal bar is highly recommended by LeMons.
Crap bends will fail tech inspection and send you scrambling to fix it in the racetrack paddock. As this page of the Handbook explains, any bend introduces a potential failure point so use the fewest bends possible. On the front hoop, this means usually one bend with the front mount (and all mounts) sitting on a 24-square-inch spreader plate as far forward as possible. See the Handbook for more on spreader-plate design and use.
Here’s an example of a typical front hoop bar in the twin-engine Cadillac. Notice how the bar follows the contour of the A-pillar and reaches the floor almost at the firewall. This cage builder has also added a dash bar, which is serving double duty to hold the gauge clusters.
Both sides of the rollcage must have at least two bars that are 7.5 inches apart. To ease entry and exit from the car, many teams gut the doors and bow the bars outward, which is typical of stock car design.
This Toyota Camry team leaned their top door bar out into the gutted door skin. Two vertical bars add strength from deformation in a T-bone accident. You can also see one style of seat (more on this later) that includes containment elements; the “horns” at the top of the seat to restrict side-to-side movement by the driver’s head in an accident.
The rear pair of bars on the rollcage are called the backstays. The diagrams paint a pretty clear picture here, but we know the rear halves of cars can differ greatly. As with most elements here, if you’re a capable fabricator who is building your rollcage, take pictures of your idea and send them to LeMons HQ asking for feedback. Again: If you don’t understand anything from the preceding three or four points, do not try to build the rollcage.
Whether or not you’re building your car’s rollcage, pay attention to this. Every driver on your team must have the top of his or her helmet two inches or more from the top of the area enclosed by the rollcage. This is important to note: You are not getting away with anything by leaving your Fiero’s tallest driver in the pits during tech inspection to get around this. The pit marshall and/or judges in the Penalty Box will notice this and you will be pissing away your race time trying to find someone with a welder and know-how to fix this. Failing tech is a waste of time and money. Just do it right the first time.
Building a rollcage as close to the roofline is key to helmet clearance. However, some cars are just tiny. This MGB-GT team addressed their space issues with additional bars that arch over the rollcage’s main hoop. They had to cut holes in the roof to add these curved bars, but they later covered the bars with sheet metal to keep out the rain.
Belts and seat mounting
Belt mounting is one of the most common tech failures, often noticed in the middle of the race as drivers of different heights and girths strap into the car. Again, these are pretty straightforward from the diagram, but read the rules and the “How Not to Fail LeMons Safety Inspection Handbook” (which has a handy harness-webbing diagram, as well) before you start making the mounts. Use Grade-8 hardware on everything involving the seat and belts.
One note on belts: SFI labels in the past have reflected a certification date, but SFI rating is changing to “expiration date.” However, belts with certification dates will expire two years after that certification date. That’s a heads-up if you are considering buying second-hand belts. You can buy new seats, belts, and mounting hardware from the LeMons store as linked.
Bad Decisions Racing’s ’48 Plymouth, of all cars, provides a good look at the basics. The door bars are the crossed variety; notice the gussets on all the door-bar joints. The backstays sit at about a 45-degree angle. The harness mounts put the belts around a 15-degree angle.
You must have an intact windsheild, either OEM-quality glass, Lexan (generally a pain in the butt if it rains), or very-narrow “dirt-track mesh,” though this is typically only used when someone needs a last-minute replacement after a teammate hucks a tire through the original glass “by accident.”
Extremely important: The safest way of dealing with a fire is to exit the car quickly and efficiently. This sounds intuitive, but things can get tough with smoke and panic. Have every driver on your team practice calm and quick emergency exits (plural) before they ever get in the car to go racing.
When your 330,000-mile Chevy 350 finally pitches a rod through its block 11 minutes into the race, you will want a fire extinguisher handy in case of a worst-case scenario entrapment and fire. Mount the extinguisher where you can reach it from the seat, if possible. Again, Grade 8 hardware is probably the best plan to keep your extinguisher from becoming a missile if you roll your heap.
LeMons HQ strongly recommends getting a single-pull fire-suppression system. With these bottles, you pull a single handle and the extinguishant releases in the car to give you a few extra seconds to exit a severely burning car. We tend not to joke about fire, because fire is a scary thing in race cars. Like a rollcage, this could be something that saves your life so don’t skimp here.
Electrical: Kill switch and battery
All cars must have a kill switch within reach of the driver and safety workers that immediately turns the engine off. Many teams place it as shown above, to the left of the steering wheel where the dash bar and front-hoop support meet. The LeMons store sells a kill switch and mounting plate right here.
Additionally, a very common tech failure is poor battery mounting. All battery hold-downs must be bolted in. No ratchet straps or other similar super-hooptie mountings.
Stripping your hooptie’s interior tends to leave open holes in the firewall. To limit the chances of your burning Chebby 350 also setting you alight, you must block all of these holes in a way that will slow the fire spreading inside the car. This might seem tedious, but watch this video if you need a direct understanding of why LeMons requires the firewall be blocked off.
This third-generation Pontiac Firebird team has done a good job plugging the firewall. The heater core hole has been filled with plate steel that is welded to the firewall and smaller holes were similarly plugged. If this Small-Block goes up in flames, the driver should have a few extra seconds to exit the car without flames bursting out of the firewall.
Fuel Tanks and Cells
The first sentence in this diagram is important: “Stock tanks in the stock locations are fine.” For the most part, new teams struggle with fuel cells and LeMons has a very narrow tolerance for fuel leaks: Teams get one warning for the weekend if they leak fuel. Any subsequent leaks get the car trailered. If you decide to install a fuel cell and it is a FIA-certified, you may still consider installing a bulkhead as described above. You can get lots more information fuel-cell installation from the Rulebook and from the “How Not to Fail LeMons Safety Inspection Handbook.” LeMons sells cells here.
Poorly designed or difficult-to-read numbers will also fail tech inspection. Numbers really aren’t that hard, but if you somehow fail at it, you will have to fix it and likely will also be mocked relentlessly.
This is how you should make numbers: white circle with black numbers at least 12-inches tall on each door and on the hood or roof (or both). Use paint if at all possible because tape usually falls off in the rain.
The car is not the only thing requiring safety gear; the driver must provide his or her own safety equipment. These include SFI 3.2 [rating] driver suits along with SFI-approved gloves, socks, and shoes. A balaclava is not required under the rules, but it’s always a good idea. If you have long hair or a long beard that might hang out of the helmet, race organizers may ask you to get a Balaclava. A Snell SA2010 or newer helmet and a head-and-neck restraint are also required for drivers. LeMons sells all of this stuff in its store.
Here’s Car & Driver writer Tony Swan showing off his head-and-neck restraint before he takes his turn in his team’s awful Honda Prelude Si (while wearing some kind of auto journalist-freebie Honda racing suit). Companies have marketed a number of these head-restraint devices in the past and anything will work that is SFI 38.1-rated or FIA 8858-rated. LeMons offers some options in the series’ store.
Similarly, helmets come in a variety of designs, but the key points for LeMons is that they must be a full-face Snell SA2010 or SA2015 helmet. LeMons sells a couple of options in its store.
Suits, head-restraints, and helmets can be pricey to own, although we always caution teams that going home safely after racing—or more accurately in many cases, wrenching—all weekend has no real price. That said, some places offer rental deals on full driver’s gear. LeMons is unaffiliated with them and your results may vary, but some beginner teams have opted for this in the past.
That pretty well covers the basics. Of course, be sure to read the rulebook here. Then read the “How Not to Fail LeMons Safety Inspection Handbook” a few times. Share both with your teammates and have them read through this article, as well, since it covers ways to be even safer than the minimum equipment. When you’re getting ready to race, check out the LeMons Store, which many of the required and recommended safety items in it.