There are many sides to the world of auto racing: there’s the fast and fabulous worlds of Formula racing or Grand Prix, and then there’s the less shiny side filled with grit, rust, and quirk in 24 Hours of LeMons series racing. This is the alternative world of UW Lecturer of Earth and Space Sciences Mike Harrell, and his team, the Freewheelin’ Pikers.
On the weekend of July 20th, the 24 Hours of LeMons held the Pacific Northworst GP at Shelton’s Ridge Motorsports Park, where Harrell and the Pikers pit a 1967 Saab 96 against some of the rustiest the West Coast had to offer.
He and his trusty team of four battled their way through some hectic events – such as the stud holes on his left front wheel hub shearing off during the race – however they managed to finish the race at the checkered flag, garnering 33rd place out of 51 entries.
The LeMons race isn’t based on speed or finishing first, it’s about endurance (and quirky cars). Endurance racing is about consistency in lap times for long durations of time.
“There’s the prayer of winning class, the no prayer of winning class, and the no prayer of finishing class, from the cars that suck the least to the cars that suck the most,” explains John ‘Jay’ Lamm, chief perpetrator of LeMons.
The idea behind LeMons is that the cars are cheap – $500 is the maximum that someone can spend on the car, getting it running, and decking it out. Mandatory items, such as brakes, roll bars, fire extinguishers, and other driver safety gear, are not included in that total, however, to keep the costs down, the chief perpetrator has the authority to seize cars at the end of the race – so there won’t be any sleepers in the crowds.
“You go find a crappy car, you put safety equipment in it, and you show up. The whole point of LeMons was to make it not-hard to go from not being a racer to being a racer.” said Lamm. “It’s easy, this isn’t rocket science – just do it.”
Harrell hadn’t had any track time prior to being thrown into an MGB during a LeMons race three years before, and now he has his own team.
“Anyone interested in getting started: you don’t have to build your own car right away. Most teams are happy to have teammates,” said Harrell.
Alongside wife Melissa Rogers of the UW Information Technology , his niece and fellow geologist Andrea Berge, and the person who threw him into the MGB and winner of the Royal Order of MOT Failure Rueful Britannia award, Pete Peterson.
“I went to a car show called the Concours d’LeMons which celebrates the oddball, mundane, and the truly awful of the automotive world, and took home a trophy,” said Harrell. “[I] found out there was a racing series affiliated with it and had a car sitting dead in my driveway that I thought might make a good candidate.”
The Saab was “dragged from a farmer’s field” and used as a daily driver until the engine blew. Afterwards, it moved into racecar candidate and has been holding its own for two years. In 2012, the Freewheelin’ Pikers took home the Index of Effluency for “Doing the Most with the Least” and couldn’t have been more pleased since the team finished the day’s race on two of its four cylinders before driving it home afterwards.
The idea of keeping it cheap spawns cars of humor, such as the Toyota SupraMarket, and the Scrubbing V’BubbleU (an original beetle), instead of serious racecars. Having $500 cars doesn’t mean that people haven’t put effort into these cars (only look at the restored, though not original, Hudson Hornet to see the painstaking care) and, as behests labors of love, there are penalties for when drivers’ don’t follow the rules.
“I really like the megaphone [penalties] because you can stand out in the street and point and laugh,” said Berge. “I love seeing the cars that have had penalties with pictures painted on the ‘I will not do such-and-such’ – its good memories.”
While the 24 Hours of LeMon’s won’t be back in Washington until next year, they have plenty of other races across the US, such as the Vodden The Hell Are We Doing held at Thunderhill Raceway Park in September or the Arse-Freeze-Apalooza held at Sonoma Raceway in December (both near San Francisco, CA).
For a journalist starting out in the Auto industry, I’ve learned a lot in the last few races. This time, I was amazed by the sense of community you get when you are with fellow gearheads.
When we got to the races, I had a sudden realization that the person who had used the camera last had replaced the lost card with a type 4, not a type 10 – basically I spent the first hour fiddling with the camera’s settings to allow for more than 8 seconds of video before the buffer was full and everything stopped.
Having driven on gravel very seldom, I was tricked by some unpacked rocks and decided to park my Mazda-ratti on top of them – big mistake, don’t do it.
We left my half buried car to start covering the races, hoping that someone would be kind to help us out at the end. Instead of one truck, we got three trucks, four people, and three shovels all trying to help get me and my Miata out of the rocks. (Apparently I wasn’t the only airhead that weekend as a pricier vehicle had to be rescued the day before…)
While we waited for the trucks to come, a nice friendly woman offered me to drive her Abarth (EEEK!, a car I’ve been looking at since Fiat returned to the US) and it was awesome! It was only after my offered test drive that any of us remembered to introduce ourselves – cars take precedence over trivialitis such as introductions and names!
That’s just the kind of people these races bring out, though. People who would rather pull up a truck to help, or loan a memory card loan for the day. Or at least these are the people that I met through out the day – I’m sure there’s a rotten few in any bunch of LeMons.
My husband (backup cameraman) and I also realized that to really cover events like Lemons, the full two days really might be necessary. One day for inside the track photos and video (which we weren’t able to get this time around), and the second day for video/photo/interviews of people involved or watching the races.
We both think that will help us get better, more complete coverage of the races. You live and you learn (and then you steal your house fund to buy an Abarth…).
The comparatively light duty of summer classes allows Harrell the time to go to races, such as LeMons, and other car events, such as the upcoming Concours in Seaside, CA on August 17, 2013.
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Corrections: This article has been corrected to reflect accurate information.