[Copied from my personal blog]
The 24 Hours Of LeMons is a 2 day, 14 hour car race, held at a race track, and restricted to cars that are worth roughly $500 or less. My girlfriend called it "a bunch of dumb men going around and around all weekend". While that is mostly accurate aside from a few dumb women in the ranks, I'll add to that description.
It was the most thrilling experience of my life. It was incredibly intense and outrageously entertaining. It was like being in a Mad Max movie.
A little background: I have never raced ANYTHING before. Though often mistaken for a 'jock', I'm a pretty relaxed guy who has never been that competitive. When I was a kid my parents put me in pee-wee football. I loathed being put in the game and would hide from the coach on the sideline. I'm competent in my selected recreational pursuits, but at a young age decided the best way to ruin a fun activity way to take it too seriously. I had a passion for driving fast when I was younger, but now I find the speed limit is almost meditative in it's relaxation. There has always been a little rivalry among my brothers, but for the last decade they've been too out of shape to challenge me at much.
But the race: This is not a oval course with cars of nearly equal size and performance. This is tight course packed bumper to bumper with all sizes of shit-boxes. Vehichles no one expects to survive, or much less to preserve the paint jobs. The race started with 85 cars pacing under a yellow flag*. I watched the line of cars march around the course completely and still more cars were entering from the pits. The slow rumble was ominous. All the exhaust systems had been butchered for a cheap, loud, and effective horsepower gain. Weld in a roll-cage and remove all the lights and windows from any car and it is transformed to a machine you want to stay away from. The course was stuffed with these.
My jaw clenched when the decibel level abruptly shot up. Suddenly there was far too much sensory input to take in. I never had time to confirm the green flag**. My eyes were darting around the course looking for sources of the sounds of collisions. My attention was drawn to a cloud of smoke and the car it poured from in the middle of the course, then an uncomfortable car that has spun backwards and stalled in the first hairpin with a field of cars bearing down on it, then a car whose hood popped up on the far high speed sweeper, then cars throwing up clouds of dust as they are forced off the course in the narrow front side chicanes. My mind couldn't grasp all the insanity.
Some months previously Joe, my youngest brother, had sent me a link to a video article on the first 24 Hours Of Lemons. It looked like great fun. Yes I wanted to do it. Yes really. Yes enough to help fund a car. I knew better than to think this was one of the half-ass schemes Joe would lose interest in. His history demonstrates the crazier the scheme, the more likely Joe will follow through to the end. Later he finds an '86 Toyota MR-2 on Craigslist in his town, Medford Oregon. Doesn't run. Blown head gasket. No fifth gear. $250. Silver. Sounds perfect. A week before the race the car is running well, roll cage is in, and I scramble to get a helmet ordered in time.
Friday I take a day off and drive from Salt Lake to some burg south of Sacramento and meet Joe and the rest of the team. Randall, Joe's ex's sister's boyfriend, is the rest of the team. Randall is a contractor, has a tool trailer that fits the car, welders, generator, and a bunch of other tools that prove essential. He also is a great mechanic and driver. Our mandatory fourth driver was fictional.
Our race car was an '85 Toyota MR2. I'm 6'4". Despite being among the smallest cars ever sold in the states, I drove an '88 MR2 for years. They are comfortable for someone my size. People would ask if my clown suit was at the cleaners, but there was plenty of leg room and my head just cleared. I found it more comfortable than my grandmother's knee-mashing '84 Cadillac Seville. The MR2 cockpit was a comforting, efficient cocoon, and the ride was more like a go-cart than anything I've driven including go-carts.
Stripping the interior and welding a roll-cage in changed some of that. Graceful entry/exit was impossible no matter your size. It was like playing Tetris with your body parts (not in a sexy way). At some point your ass juts awkwardly out the door as you unfold the rest of yourself into the seat. The roll bar offered negative 2.5" of head clearance, so I had to sit forward with my dome poking out of the sunroof frame.
My first turn behind the wheel began under a yellow flag as they cleared wreckage. I Merged into the field of big bashed-up cars. When the green flagged dropped, (again I only knew by the ensuing mayhem) all the cars got very loud, fast and close. The comfort zone we are used to on public roads is vast. A car lengths ahead and behind and wide lanes separating neighbors, considerate turn and brake indicators... On a race track about nine cars take the space of two cars on a public road. Cars were within inches or contacting on all sides. Entering the first hard corner on my first green lap, a giant 1970ish Ford Ranchero (sporting school bus yellow paint and signals) demonstrated some of Newton's more anti-social laws of physics by transferring a large dose of kinetic energy to the ass-end of my car, through the roll bar, to the back of my helmet, and finally into an uncomfortable knot in between my neck and shoulders. My mood shifted from more than intimidated to less than terrified.
I had driven my old MR2 fast on the road at times. Fast in my mind, but never close to the capability I had no clue the car had. For the first laps I was still just driving fast in my mind, stomping the accelerator, shifting quickly, keeping the rpms near red-line, and getting a little squeal from the tires as I rounded the corners. All the other cars were swarming past. I was sure we had the wimpiest car on the track. As aggression gradually displaced intimidation, the flow of traffic past me slowed. I started keeping pace with cars that had been passing me easily. Then after several laps of focused concentration and patience, I saw and took the opportunity to pass one. In my elation I over-cooked the next corner, spun out, and was passed by the car and several others.
The essence of racing: You must submit to your deepest aggressive insticts, yet exercise the restraint necessary to remain focussed and aware of your limits and consequences. Conditions, equipment, and competition are all secondary to this internal psychological conflict. (Pro dual-slalom mountain bike racing is an incredible display of this conflict.)
Since Joe had forgotten his gloves at the start of the race and was flagged into the pits immediately, we started in about 79th position, just ahead of a few cars that died in the first lap. During the first day we were pitting on most yellow flags to pry our bashed fenders away from our wheels and switch drivers.
Each of our team learned the capabilities and limitations of the car and themselves. Joe was the fastest and rudest on our team. He really had no regard for yielding the inside line*** to the car ahead of him. He was playing bumper cars. Randall was fast and consistent, rarely making mistakes. I was the worst driver. Many times I would spin-out after finally struggling past a car into an unhindered section of track. One thing I was proud of was my instinctive spin-out recovery. From my first spin-out I had the car in reverse and moving back into position before the spin-out was complete. All of us were moving up in the standings.
Once we had each driven a shift, our attitude moved away from 'let's be sure we all get a turn before the car dies' to 'let's be sure to finish the race before our car dies'. By that evening when our standing had moved into the top half, we again changed our thinking to 'let's compete'. I started checking the standings frequently and picked a few cars that I wanted to beat.
When the day's racing was over the pits were alive. Everyone had repairs and maintenance to perform. We changed oil and checked tires. I went to work cutting our fenders away with a grinder and saw, then curling the resulting sharp lip up with pliers. Our car had been bashed, scarred, and even punctured. We were exhausted and aching. No one suggested getting drunk and goofing around. We were happy to collapse at the hotel after wolfing down a couple In-And-Out Burgers.
The next day I was in line to drive first. I was too nervous and let Joe start. When I got behind the wheel later in the morning I started applying some of the more advanced driving techniques I learned from 'Gran Tourismo' on Playstation. One of the great features of that game is the realistic physics of a car's handling. The game tutors you on 'weight transfer'**** techniques whereby you take advantage of increased traction under breaking and acceleration. Combined with the size and braking ability of the MR2, weight transfer allowed me to squeak past many cars that had to decelerate sooner before a corner. I continued to refine my technique until I was drifting corners nicely and having a riot.
Again I was over-excited after a difficult pass and found an long open stretch between me and my next opponent. I came out of the far high-speed sweeper too hot and nailed a stack of tires. Once passenger side of the car came back to earth it was not steering properly. In the pits we saw that the front wheels were pointed a wide angle away from each other. I had the sinking realization that I had blown it for the team. I had bent a steering arm, but using his know-how and some blunt instruments, Randall had me back on the track in about 15 minutes with perfect alignment. I mentally kick myself when I add 15 laps to our final result, but what a relief I didn't kill the car.
The laps ticked by but never became monotonous to drive or spectate. I was at the edge of my seat for hours. Our position had been hovering in the high twenties most of the day. One by one we put arbitrary rivals behind us, and I picked new rivals. As the finish approached the struggle became noticeably more aggressive. Finally the checkered flag flew. After nearly 700 laps, the first and second place cars finished seven seconds apart. I hovered around the bulletin board anticipating the printout of the final results. We were 18th.
Here is some one's in-car footage, Joe's photos, my photos, what happens when you bring a $30000 car to a $500 car race, a good video...
*Yellow flag means there is a hazard on the course, go slow, and no passing allowed.
**Green flag means "GAME ON!" Start/resume racing.
Red flag means stop on the course while wreckage is cleared.
Black flag is for a driver to enter the pits for a penalty.
***Yielding the inside line: The fastest way around a corner is to move from the outside of the track into the apex of a corner and back to the outside as you exit the corner in one sweeping motion. The reduces the need for braking and increases you exit speed. You're supposed to yield this line to a car that is ahead of you.
****The weight of the car shifts forward under hard braking, increasing the traction of the front tires, allowing you to turn a corner at a higher speed. Weight and traction to the rear of the car is decreased during this heavy breaking, so as you round the corner the rear end of starts to slip to the outside. Accelerating shifts the weight and traction to the rear end.