LeMons Time Capsule: 1-speed Thunderbird, 1-cylinder Fiero, more Michigan madness

Gingerman Raceway in southwest Michigan has become a fitting staple of the 24 Hours of LeMons calendar. The small, bare-bones facility regularly hosts official testing from Detroit’s Big Three, but its spare paddock and pastoral setting somehow fit with the gritty, country-wisdom style garage engineering that has become so prevalent in the series. It’s no surprise, then, that the Spring 2010 LeMons race at Gingerman, called “American Irony,” put on display a rich demonstration of what sets the series apart.

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The biggest thing that happened at this race was what essentially became LeMons’ legend Speedycop’s origin story. Sure, Jeff Bloch had by 2010 already raced his quick Hot Rod Lincoln and his enormous pink ’61 Cadillac had clobbered the rickety bridge at Nelson Ledges, but the 1962 Ford Thunderbird he pulled from a collapsed barn began his rapid descent into madness.

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The T-Bird looked spectacular trackside, but up close it was abundantly clear that body filler and tractor paint had both been liberally applied. The barn that had fallen on the T-Bird had done some serious damage, meaning the rollcage also provided about 96 percent of the car’s structural rigidity.

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However, the structure wasn’t its ultimate cause of failure. Instead the automatic transmission gave up around mid-day Saturday.

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A locally sourced junkyard transmission didn’t fit, which left Speedycop and his fledgling (at the time, at least) Gang of Outlaws to turn the transmission into a one-speed, direct-drive gear.

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Many hours of labor ensued with the whole crew at various times utterly soaked in aged transmission fluid that likely pre-dated the Carter Administration.

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But after what must have surely been 70 man-hours of work, Bloch drove the ‘62 Thunderbird out on the track after a daramatic late-race push-start. It lasted a handful of laps until the 390 cubic-inch V8 pitched a rod and the car came to a halt in its own flaming oil.

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The fire did no real damage and Speedycop took it home to rework the T-Bird, but that’s a story for another day.

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Oddly enough, Speedycop’s insanity didn’t win the Heroic Fix award. Bloch and Company instead took home the “Failed Fix Award” because the Heroic Fix competition was even more astounding. Double Jeopardy’s Iron Duke-powered Pontiac Fiero spun not one but two rod bearings in a single go.

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Undeterred, the team cut up beer cans to block oil passages, removed the spark plugs, and for good measure affixed the two unused pistons to the Fiero’s hood. They had a two-cylinder Fiero that, while smoking and sounding like a dying hippo wheezing for sweet sweet death, still ran pretty well for a while.

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Until it spun a third rod bearing. Well, the team reasoned, as long as we’ve deactivated two cylinders the hard way, why not a third? And soon they had the Fiero equivalent to the Cadillac 8-6-4 V8 with their own 4-2-1 Fiero.

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When a “healthy” Iron Duke makes about 85 horsepower, a single-cylinder Fiero is indeed a sorry sight, but the limping Kevorkianesque engine lasted longer than anyone could have predicted, taking home the coveted Heroic Fix hardware.

RoadkillMorrows_Ginger10 (2)0020 Dave Morrow has become a LeMons fixture with a series of captivating entries over the last six years. His GMC Van, which featured a chopped top to resemble Snoopy’s doghouse, became a favorite at the muddy, nightmarish Nelson Ledges race in 2009. Morrow spent much of the race with Small-Block Chevy innard scattered all through the mud in a Verdun-style engine rebuild. After the race, he vowed to improve the Snoopy Van.

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And improve it, Dave did. A pair of junkyard turbos force-fed the mid-mounted Small-Block Chevy, giving the two-ton beast true race-car credentials. Twin-turbo, mid-engined V8? That’s exactly the same configuration as a Bentley Speed 8!

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Morrow’s van ran reasonably well for much of the weekend, although there were a few slight mishaps involving turbochargers and fires and such. Standard fare, really.

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This was also the first of many races with multiple Morrow’s Racing entries with the team having lugged along their G-Body Pontiac Grand Prix, which was plagued with a myriad of problems. While the van was soon retired, the Grand Prix continued to race for another year or so without falling apart entirely.

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The Index of Effluency at this race went to current Autoblog editor-in-chief Mike Austin, who brought a completely stock Volkswagen Quantum Syncro Wagon to the race. The 10-valve, five-cylinder engine certainly wasn’t setting any speed records, but the car ran long stints, plodding along and leaning hard in the turns.

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It remains one of the most impressive performances in LeMons by any auto journalist, a group of crapcan racers who have earned a reputation for general cluelessness.

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Among those especially clueless journalists are the collective current and former Car and Driver scribes. This was one of their first LeMons racers and it found them dressed in Japanese garb with their maroon third-generation Honda Prelude. They were abjectly terrible at this particular race and at most future ones, though they’ve started to come around— finally— after 15 or so races.

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Marc Labranche is best known in LeMons for his crazy radial-engined Toyota MR2, but before he dug into that project, he raced a first-generation MR2 with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine out of a completely wrecked 2009 Toyota Camry. Yes, this race was in 2010 so this was basically a brand-new engine and Labranche was rewarded with 500 laps because he freely admitted to paying well over $500 for the motor.

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If you’ve met Marc, you know he doesn’t so much care about winning with his own cars as he cares about seeing if he can pull off something crazy, in this shoving a modern late-model engine into the first-generation MR2’s tiny engine bay. While he crammed it in there just fine, the engine ironically had so few miles on it that it still hadn’t reached its factory “break-in” point and wouldn’t rev all the way to redline.

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The Corsa Nostra Alfa Romeo GTV6, however, revved like its life depended on it. At later races, the Alfa wore extra mufflers, but at this race in particular, the engine ran essentially uncorked. The sound was otherworldly and, owing to the gorgeous Italian exhaust note, utterly out of place in LeMons. While the Alfa didn’t win this race, it did take home the overall win at Gingerman just six months later.

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The Rally Rolla has been around, off and on, for many years with the Colin McCrae-inspired paint job on a Toyota Camry All-Trac, to date the only Toyota All-Trac to run in LeMons (editor’s note: other than this Celica).

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Similarly, the VolvOwned Volvo 245 has raced for a long time with a credible Ghostbusters Ecto-1 replicaThe team even dressed as laidback Ghostbusters and the car was later transformed into a school bus for the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers.

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Speaking of The Big Lebowski, the Dude and Walter raced a Dodge Neon with Donny’s ashes resting ever so calmly on the rear spoiler.

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Calmer than you are, Dude.

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The S-Audi team constructed an elaborate BS Inspection performance to commemorate their gold-painted Audi’s imminent domination.

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BS Inspection: This is how you do it.

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It clearly helped deflect scrutiny from their advanced and cheaty suspension.

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You don’t see any other German marquees with this kind of mid-corner poise. Auto journalists like to call driving a car this way “dramatic.” [That’s some inside-baseball for ya.]

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The Track Pillagerz! were one of the favorite teams among other racers for a few years in LeMons, always in costume and grunting along to the driver’s meeting like a mead hall gathering in medieval Stavanger.

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The Buick LeSabre they raced was impossibly quick and if it rained, they were almost unbeatable with all of the car’s substantial weight over the front axle.

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Of course, once the track dried out, they inevitably cooked the Buick’s brakes, but until that time, everyone smiled when they drove around the Track Pillagerz!

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The overall race winner was Clueless Racing, a collective of seasoned club racers who knew every cheat in the book and how to hide those cheats like pros. Nevertheless, even if you cheat, you still need to drive. The Clueless Honda CRX was quick and well-driven while their massive fuel cell allowed them to run extra-long stints. They would go on to win another race or two and blow up a junkyard’s worth of Honda motors along the way.

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One of the great teams from LeMons’ early days remains the Latch-Key Kids, a Michigan-based team that towed to California at least once for an early LeMons race in California. In the series’ first three years, the indefatigable old Chia Neon somehow finished second place three times at a time when most teams were still figuring out to get to the races. .

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They managed to finished second again at Gingerman in 2010, two laps behind Clueless. It was a tough pill to swallow for them, finally getting to race on their home track and still coming up short. They came away with the I Got Screwed trophy for their heartbreak and would contend for the win a couple more times before retiring the Neon.

LeMons is back in action April 9 and 10 at Eagles Canyon Raceway near Dallas before making the annual spring trek to Gingerman on April 23 and 24. Check back here on Roadkill for more LeMons coverage in the meantime!

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