It’s just after 4 am and we’re is just entering the 16th hour of a 24 hour endurance race. I’m behind the wheel of an ’86 Toyota MR2 that we found in a barn (laden with mice nests and five years of dust) going 105 MPH on an impossibly bumpy and dangerous back stretch. To the right of me are the smoldering fires and 24 hour party of the infield. To the left of me is a ravine, the remnants of what once was a legitimate tire wall and an approaching bank of fog. This is the 24 Hours of LeMons.
All it takes to get to this moment is a $500 car (about triple that invested in safety equipment), a group of friends and just a touch of insanity. Our car came to us how you’d expect; Craigslist. Five years ago the owner brought in the (then only 18 y/o) MR2 to get its windshield replaced. However once the job was done he was nowhere to be found. Its history gets a little hazy after that but suffice to say we found the mouse infested crap can (with a shiny new windshield) where it had been sitting in a barn for the last five years.
As you might expect, the combination of Toyota reliability and a mid-engine chassis (rumored to be honed by Dan Gurney in the early 80’s) make the MR2 relatively popular among LeMons teams. Yet it somehow doesn’t have any associated backlash like the countless E30 3 Series often do. Truth be told the E30 was originally what we bought. However after closer inspection the four door 325e we got was deemed “too nice” for LeMons and the searched continued on ending with the Toyota.
Both a classic Mini and a new MINI have entered LeMons races this year. However being able to find either would have taken more luck (and time digging through junkyards) than imaginable. In fact the new MINI recently in a LeMons race was given a 1066 lap penalty just because none of the judged believed it was bought for under $500 – even if it did roll in a previous accident.
The MR2 was terrible in all the right ways. The suspension was gone and the interior smelled of mouse urine. Oh and it couldn’t start without gas being poured into it. But nevertheless we set about creating a road/track worthy car and over the course of countless nights I’ll be damned if it didn’t actually turn into one. It started, stopped and steered seemingly well enough to drive on the street. So by that rational we figured a 24 hour endurance race should be maybe doable?
There are two tech inspections. One that is taken seriously and one that is not. The latter features someone in a judge’s robe and white wig poking around the car. It also generally includes bribes in the form of craft brewed beer or liquor. However be warned future LeMons drivers… domestic macro-brews such as Coors or Miller are looked down upon and might result in said beer being poured into the engine bay.
The event was held at the infamous Nelson Ledges in north east Ohio. It’s a track that may have seen better days, but I’m pretty sure even those days weren’t great. It’s bumpy, incredibly dangerous and lacked anything but the most basic facilities. Yet I can’t think of another track I’ve had more fun at save for the Nurburgring. It’s a fast sweeping course that features plenty of passing opportunities and tons of character while the muddy infield mixed with back to basics racing gave off a Woodstock vibe.
There is nothing that can quite match the feel of real racing. Two, three and sometimes many more fighting for position around a winding road-course is an exhilarating feeling that I hope more than a few of you experience in your lifetime. As ridiculous as the car and the circumstances around the event were, it was the most magical moment I’ve ever had on a track. The combination of pushing a car (a surprisingly well sorted one I might add) to its limit while picking off cars one by one is the kind of thing that I only imagined in video games.
The thrill of racing into (and through) the night was also a big draw of this particular race. Most LeMons races follow the 12 and 12 format due to local noise restrictions often imposed on even rural tracks. However Nelson Ledges surrounding area makes you rethink the term rural. Suffice to say there are no noise restrictions.
Naturally it was the night stints that really stick in my memory. The fog rolled in on all corners of the track throughout the night and you were never sure what the next lap had in store because of it. Then there was the issue of putting extra lights on $500 cars. It’s an imperfect art-form to say the least and there was some creative lighting solutions on many entries.
The 24 Hours of LeMons features penalties that include things like bolting orange cones to your car and having to parade a pig around the paddock for an hour. Then there were the more sinister fines like filling entire tool boxes with plastic foam and then making the team clean it out before they could go back on the track. And of course there’s the “People’s Curse” which allows for all the teams to vote for the one car they would like to see destroyed. The idea is that it allows for drivers to self police as it’s the worst drivers or the nicest cars that often get this ultimate penalty.
In our case we were only give one penalty for a spin where we came in contact with no one else on the track. Yes it was me. I also had a “moment” while exiting the carousal entering the backstretch. While pushing the always gutsy MR2 first through the inside to pass a car and then to the outside to finish off another, my left rear briefly left the track and entered the frictionless world of damp grass. In my head at that moment I felt like I was actually sliding down the track sideways. I imagine it wasn’t quite that dramatic but I did manage to gather it up (without losing a position) in front of six cars that would have made a full on error pretty costly (think NASCAR at Daytona). However two things allow me to sleep at night. I was the fastest of the team and I was the only one from our team to not actually hit anything.
But that’s not to say we didn’t have drama. Around 2 am our alternator overheated and we limped back into the pits staring defeat in the face. For those who don’t know (and believe me, you’re better off not knowing) replacing an alternator on a mid-engine car is not typically something do be done in a field at 2 am. Yet somehow we not only located a spare alternator from another MR2 team but with superstar mechanic (and driver) Chad Miller from the MINI shop Detroit Tuned we broke out the blow torch and got everything put back together and operational in about 90 minutes.
Save for two incidents (one with a tire wall and another with a faux wood-grained E30 3 Series, the rest of the race was relatively trouble free. While we never climbed as high as we were pre-alternator melt-down (37th) we did manage to steadily pass cars both on the track and on the pits. At 8 am we were 64th and running strong. Our goal at that point was to pass four more cars and finish in the top 60. We managed that plus one at 59th place. Perhaps more impressively I managed the fastest lap of the event on my last stint with the MR2.
The 24 Hours of LeMons is the kind of event that simply cannot be compared. And this particular race at Nelson Ledges (running 24 hours straight) exemplifies the spirit of grassroots racing better than anything I’ve ever seen. The danger, the camaraderie, the unbridled excitement of wheel to wheel racing; it’s something that must be experienced.