Much of the time, a new team goes into the 24 Hours of LeMons thinking that they’ll have the most fun by clawing their way to the stratospheric upper reaches of the standings with an awesomely quick car, only to find that their best race weekend comes when they go with a completely different formula. I learned that lesson when my team built a very fast V8-swapped Volvo 240 back in 2008, and the ten-race LeMons veterans of The Supranos learned it earlier this month when they switched cars and went from toiling in obscurity to grabbing the top prize of 24 Hours of LeMons racing. Here’s how they did it.
The Supranos came to their first race, the 2011 Sears Pointless, with this 1987 Toyota Supra. Now, before we started putting on these races, we thought the Supra would be an excellent low-budget endurance racer— pretty quick, rear-wheel-drive, Toyota reliability, and all that. Nope! After 144 LeMons races, the numbers show that the Supra is way down on the list of wise choices in LeMons cars.
The thing is, most California LeMons races get between 150 and 200 entries (the record is 242 teams, or 216 according to the inscrutable car-counting methods used by the Guinness World Records people), and that means that a team at Sears Point or Thunderhill needs something exceptional in order to stand out from the crowd.
It’s also very difficult to compete with so many teams, many of which have driver rosters stacked with some of the best racing talent on the West Coast and/or guys with 25 LeMons races under their belts. Once you’ve been around the series for a while, you learn that doing well in these races is about 10% having a fast car and 90% having good team organization and driving skills… but, of course, the Supranos figured they’d simply blow away the competition by dropping a mighty 1JZ-GTE twin-turbo engine out of a Japanese-market Toyota Chaser. 276 shrieking Japanese horsepower for guaranteed LeMons domination!
The only drawback to that plan was that The Supranos didn’t do a very good job of documenting the cost of this engine, and the LeMons Supreme Court wasn’t convinced that the new powerplant fit into the whole $500-car thing. The result: lots of penalty laps. The Supranos’s captain, John Ficarra, kept his sense of humor about the penalty laps, and the team was happy to get a whole weekend of wheel-to-wheel racing action in their newly-zombie-themed Supra.
After that, the team established a pattern for the next several years of racing: re-theme the car, get some penalty laps from the judges when they open the hood during the inspection, have fun racing. Above, we see the Smokey Yunick 1967 Chevelle theme, from the 2012 Sears Pointless race.
The obscure, geeky theme (plus the car’s proven lack of race-track domination) convinced the judges to allow the Supranos’ 1JZ-mobile to run penalty-lap-free for the first time. They finished 34 laps (about an hour and 15 minutes) behind the overall winner.
For the 2014 Good Effort Grand Prix race at Sears Point, The Supranos decided to get a bit more mobbed-up with their car. They installed a Cadillac Escalade grille, painted the car white, and dressed Ficarra in proper Tony Soprano style.
They also got more dramatic with their BS Inspection performances (warning: NSFW language). Still, after all that, The Supranos weren’t making much of an impression on the LeMons community, and the judges persisted in handing out those penalty laps at most races. So, Ficarra asked me what kind of Toyota I wanted them to race.
That was an easy call: a 1967-70 Toyota Corona sedan. My very first motor vehicle was a beige 1969 Toyota Corona Deluxe sedan purchased at age 14 for $50 (my first car was a 1963 Marx Go-Cart kit), and I had been trying to talk a team into racing a Corona from the earliest days of being associated with the 24 Hours of LeMons.
My obsession with the early Corona— the first Toyota to be sold in significant quantities in the United States, but now mostly forgotten— has reached the point where I bought the world’s only chopped, shaved, Carson top-equipped 1969 Kustom Korona Koupe.
Even though teams that take my advice about car selection have been burned by that advice in the past, Ficarra and the Supranos went ahead and found themselves a battered-but-serviceable 1970 Corona sedan for cheap. Their initial idea was to swap in a better engine (say, a member of the 4A family) and make the car a bit faster, but they decided it would be fun to race the car in completely stock condition for at least one race.
I had no idea that The Supranos had actually gone out and followed my car-selection advice, so I was stunned to see this thing roll up for inspection at the 2015 Sears Pointless race earlier this month.
Under the hood, a painfully stock 3R-C pushrod engine, which made something like 90 horses when new.
My Corona sedan had a 4-speed and was very, very slow (even by the lenient standards of the early 1980s). The Supranos’ Corona came equipped with a 2-speed Toyoglide automatic transmission, a Toyota-licensed copy of the venerable Powerglide.
Even with my cold, lump-of-coal-like judge’s heart, I was moved nearly to tears by the sight of this car, especially when I saw this “Judge Phil’s 1st Car” graphic on the doors (if you want to know why some guy named Phil writes under this goofy pen name, read this explanation).
The team even dredged up artwork from the album covers made by my 1980s industro-nihilo noise band and put it on the car.
All those years of harsh treatment at the hands of Judge Phil and the rest of the gavel-wielding LeMons Supreme Court, and The Supranos did this! I tell you what, it makes me reconsider my judicial role models (Wild West frontier justices and Moscow Show Trials judges).
If we’re still following the typical script for an ancient, completely stock LeMons car at its debut race, this Corona should have spluttered to a halt about a half-dozen laps after the green flag, then spent the weekend alternating two-lap stints with lengthy wrenching sessions to fix broken 45-year-old components. Not so with The Supranos’ Corona!
It wasn’t quick by any stretch of the imagination, not with double-digit horsepower, a Toyoglide, leaf-spring rear suspension, four-wheel drum brakes, and all the other primitive hardware Toyota used in the old days, but this Corona ran and ran and ran.
The Supranos can drive, but even those skilled wheelmen couldn’t muster a quickest lap time better than 2:44, which was 46 seconds slower than the quickest car and 40 seconds slower than the best times of the top contenders. Even so, the Corona never broke down, its drivers stayed out of trouble, and it spent the weekend climbing the standings and passing dozens of theoretically-faster cars. By the time the checkered flag waved on Sunday, The Supranos and their 1970 Corona were in 115th place out of 178 entries.
They finished ahead of 11 BMWs, 4 Mazda RX-7s, a pair of C4 Corvettes, a Northstar-powered Cadillac SLS, two Jaguars (one with a Chevy 350, one with a Jaguar V12), the Top Gear USA Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor (driven by Tanner Foust and The Stig), the Hooniverse 1962 Ford Ranchero (which was slightly less slow on the track) and 3 Toyota Supras. An amazing achievement.
For all this, The Supranos took home the top prize of LeMons racing on their 11th race: the Index of Effluency trophy. In the future, the LeMons Supreme Court will allow a great deal of flexibility on the budget for performance enhancements on this fine racing machine, though we have encouraged The Supranos to start by limiting themselves to a few basic suspension and brake upgrades and the pursuit of a Class C win. Let’s hear what Supranos captain John Ficarra has to say about his team’s experience with the Corona:
“There is no finer place to watch a race than from within,” said no racer never.
Driving a 45 year old, dead stock Toyota Corona on public roads after three years of sitting, and many years of neglect would not be advisable in best of circumstances. Racing it with 170+ other questionable cars, and even more questionable drivers on a confined track with speed disparities nearly double the top speed of the Corona borders on lunacy.
How did we prepare this archaic machine for its debut on a world-class road course? Poorly. The only changes we made to the one-owner, Toyoglide 2-speed automatic car rescued from decay in Stockton, CA, aside from a roll cage, race seat and seat belts was to change the fluids, and to fit some new tires, spark plugs and rear brake shoes. So this critter was as stock as it came off the assembly line in 1969.
How did it drive? Imagine, if you will, driving a car with six inches of delay in the steering input, brakes that whisper to you the possibility of deceleration only when the pedal reaches a half an inch from the floor, shocks that gassed out sometime during the Clinton administration (we believe we had one good shock at the beginning of the race, but were unable to tell which one), body roll that comes closer to sailing than driving, acceleration akin to a soap box derby car (slow, linear, and downhill), and then to top it off all that “power” cuts out temporarily every time you turn right – then you will have a small notion of the full Corona driving experience.
Now add to that the strict team rule of running on the inside of the track at all times, as a tactic to stay out of the way of the faster cars (all the cars). As a former A-class team with the cheaty Supra we knew there was nothing more irritating than a C-class car trying to race you for no goddamn reason. Nope, there were to be no racing lines for the Corona. Our goals were to protect the passenger side, don’t get rear ended or t-boned by overly aggressive, faster drivers, and stay on the track as long as possible.
All this sounds like a terrifying experience to most sane people… and it was, but for some unknown reason it was some of the most fun we had ever had running a LeMons car. Driving in two-hour stints we just kept thinking “Keep the car alive.” “Don’t hit me”, “OMG they almost hit me” “Damn, the Cannonball Bandits are fast.” “What happened to the Cannonball Bandits?” “Oh, it’s raining! More fun!” And finally during the final lap of the race “Holy shit, I just passed a Mazda RX-7!!!”
It was also our cheapest weekend of LeMons racing ever. We used less than 27 gallons of cheap 91 octane gas, total. Total! We would burn that in less than 4 hours in the Supra, and it would be $9 a gallon 100 octane. The Supra could gobble $900 in gas in one weekend. What the hell were we thinking? Mmmm, slow/cheap racing is nice.
The Corona. It was the worst of cars, it was the best of cars, it was race of wisdom, it was a race of foolishness, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.