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LeMons Dispatch: Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, But Mostly Cheap

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By Ian Chillag
Ian Chillag
Ian Chillag

When I show up at the Chubba Cheddar Enduro 24 Hours of LeMons race in Wisconsin this weekend, I park in what seems like an illegal spot, near the teams working on their cars. At first I’m worried about it, but it soon becomes clear the tow trucks are going to be way too busy to ever get to me.

LeMons, if you’re not familiar, is a race for cars worth $500 or less, and a lot of these babies look like they came in under budget. From where I’m standing I can see three cars in various states of disassembly. If 24 Hours of LeMons was the only auto race you’d ever seen, you’d think all race cars had one wheel at each corner and two human legs sticking out from underneath.

Fact: the udder on this cow car can actually squirt milk. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)“You’re not supposed to be sore from racing cars,” says Ryan, not-really-all-that-proud owner of a Chevy Caprice currently under repair. “But I spend so much time on my back fixing this thing, I’m sore.”

The Caprice has blown five transmissions between Joliet, Illinois, and here. That’s not a long drive. But the whale tail and fin seem to be in good working order. I ask him, “You call it the ‘Shamwoah’?”

“We call it ‘That f**king car.’” 

After blowing through five transmissions en route to the race, it might be time to retire this Caprice to a saltwater tank in Sea World. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)24 Hours of LeMons races are held all over the country. To find one near you, check out this website, or just follow the trail of brake fluid on the road to the nearest race track.

LeMons officials—perpetrators, they prefer to be called--check the cars to make sure they’re worth $500 or less. They dock you one lap for every $10 they think you went over. This is called a “BS Penalty.” Competitors show bills of sale, receipts. There’s a suspiciously Mercedesy Mercedes here today, but Associate Perpetrator Nick Pon tells me they checked, and it’s got an engine from an old Pinto under the hood. He says the most they ever docked anybody was two billion laps.

The LeMons would be the perfect venue for a cost-benefit analysis of the merits of zip ties versus duct tape. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)Safety equipment is required, and exempt from the $500 limit, to keep Darwinian evolution from taking place. Brakes are exempt, too. Nick says if they weren’t, guys would sell their brakes to buy more engine.

Why spend money on safety features that could instead go toward a sweet paint job? (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)I walk up to a car I can’t immediately identify. And here, as often at LeMons, we’re using the word “car” to mean “the parts used to construct a car, spread out at random over a 12 x 12 foot area.” There’s a guy standing by the "car" grilling sausages.

I check the badge. It’s a Simca, a French make. I remember seeing it on the score sheet.

“You guys are in last place, right?”

“Probably,” says the sausage guy.

“It’s a shame. It’s a cool looking car.”

A voice speaks from beneath the Simca. “You buying?!?”

That’s Tsog, captain of Team Le Mopar. “It runs like…a glove.”

“Team Le Mopar,” the driver tells us, is French for “Team The Mopar.” (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)They’ve managed about 11 laps, at a point when the leaders are over 100. I look under the hood. I’m no mechanic, but I’m pretty sure I see what amounts to one half of an internal combustion engine.

“It was mostly reliable, until everything broke. Suspension’s still good though.”

Tsog says he just wants to get the car running by the time the checkered flag waves this afternoon. He points to a white flag on the ground and says they haven’t had to use it yet. “Unlike the French, we don’t give up.”

LeMons is a great spectator race, because the cars break so frequently you get a chance to get up close to all of them. It seems more like a mechanic’s competition than a test of speed, but there is racing too. It sounds just like the Formula 1 races I’ve seen on TV, except you hear a backfire every 5 or 10 minutes and there’s one Pontiac Firebird that sounds like a cat warding off predators every time it goes by.

LeMons may sound like a Formula One race, but it looks a bit more like an automotive Burning Man. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)You get penalized if you, say, pass on a yellow flag, spin out, or get four wheels off the course. Unlike in other races, it’s possible at LeMons to end up with four wheels off the course while the rest of your car is safely in the middle of the track. Do any of these driving misdeeds and you get a black flag, which means report to the Penalty Box.

Doling out penalties for driving all four wheels off the course seems a little harsh, given the challenge it is to just get all four wheels on the car to begin with. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)Repeat offenders get Richard Nixon stenciled on their car. Today, one competitor ignores three black flags, so when they finally get him into the Penalty Box, they make him go create a set of Flash Cards to help him learn his colors.

Not knowing your colors on the race track will get your hood branded with Tricky Dick. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)They used to assess a penalty called “Paint Your Whip with Bob Ross.” They’d hand you a book of paintings by Bob Ross—the happy little trees guy--and some paint, and you’d have to recreate one on your car. The penalty made an impact on this guy:

More than a few LeMons racers have learned to paint happy little whips, courtesy of Bob Ross' show, "The Joy of Cheating...er, Painting". (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)After a day watching the races, I return to my car, which, as predicted, hasn’t been towed. It’s a Mazda hatchback, and it’s not often I look at it and think, “Wow, what a sweet ride,” but at this point anything without holes in it looks like a Bentley.

The Caprice ended up going home early, eager to get a start on blowing out their next transmission. Team Le Mopar ended up winning the Most Heroic Fix Award, for fixing every part of their Simca (except the suspension).

Driving back to Chicago, I pass a couple cars broken down on the side of the highway. They’ve got potential. That’s the lesson of LeMons: every heap is a contender.

Weirdly, they’re putting the gas into the car, rather than all over the car and torching it. (Photo by Jamie Bernstein)Ian Chillag produces “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and hosts “How To Do Everything” ...and should not be trusted with a manual transmission.

All images are courtesy of Chicago based photographer Jamie Bernstein
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