Those LeMons Drivers Are CRAZY!
Last March, I had the opportunity to drive for Team Road Kill Grill at the Southern Discomfort Lemons race held at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, SC. I had planned to run with Mike Smith’s team several years ago but the chance to take a trip to the F1 race in Germany bumped me out of the ride. While Hockenheim was a wonderful experience, I have often regretted missing my chance to run a LeMons race. I had a lot of pre-conceived notions from what I had heard about LeMons. Some were very positive – great racing on low budget, very little WTW contact, well classed cars and smooth running events. Some were very negative – it’s fixed, competition licenses sold for $35, people on track that should not be driving on the street, rules bent based on donations and goodies to BS judging, etc. Some of those notions were completely false while others were dead-on accurate. Two things were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt… LeMons drivers are a bit crazy and they know how to have fun.
Mike Smith is the Owner of Team Road Kill Grill. While Mike has a history of putting round pegs in square holes (Rotary 12As in Spitfires and Jensen Healeys), he did a great job building up the Honda Hatch for LeMons. Our team was comprised of 4 drivers : Mike, Keith Coyle, Allen Murray and me. We all had met through autocrossing and hillclimbing as members of the South Carolina Region of SCCA. I was a complete noobie but the rest of the team had run several LeMons races and two in this particular car. The stripped out Honda was a good choice for the event but it needed a theme and image. I believe it was Mike who said “What we need is a big ole’ rat sammich to go on top of the car.” And that’s where the theme went from a crazy idea to reality spiked with insanity. Note : we are not talking red wine with fish here.
I contacted some friends in the medical foam business and they were kind enough to donate 2 giant slabs of foam, roughly the size of the top of the car. I was expecting a thick, dense non-porous foam but when I went to pick it up, it was the soft mushy kind you see in sofas. I was disappointed but free is free and I couldn’t turn it down. After experimenting with some paints, I found out that the right beige paint on porous foam and the right brown on the edges looked alarmingly realistic. I actually got hungry working on it. We had two perfect giant slices of Bunny bread roughly the size of the top of the car. Next, I purchased some faux fur, a plastic ball from the Walmart toy section, 14” Styrofoam ball and a Styrofoam cone. It was time to give the rat a head. I glued the cone to the Styrofoam ball and began shaping the head with a sander and carving knife. I cut the ball in half and made two “Wiley Coyote” eyes and a ball gearshift knob made a great big red nose. After some shaping and wires holding everything together, I wrapped the head in faux fur and glued it down. The result looked pretty much like a cartoon rat. I then took black nitrile gloves, stuffed them with foam and glued in a finger… and gave each one a nice fur cuff that looked liked arms and legs. I took two coconuts, drilled them and drained the juices. A 10” PVC pipe became the middle section of the rat body. I attached the head to the PVC pipe and pulled the fur back and ring clamped it. I attached a thin PVC pipe for a tail and suspended the free swinging coconuts below the tail. Those appeared almost as realistic as the foam bread.
I drove down from Greenville, SC to Charleston to meet up with Allen, Keith and Mike to make “the sammich”. Allen had painted the car with a green and white checkerboard. We used adhesive to stick the first layer of bread on the top of the Honda and then used giant tie wraps to cinch the center body to the top of the car. We sprayed that layer with adhesive and then Mike and Allan mounted the top layer of bread on the car… and then Mike mounted the rat to make sure it was stuck down properly. ; ) After adding some decals, the Road Kill Grill Special was ready to serve.
LeMons racing is the brainchild of Jay Lamm. Some years ago, he decided that SCCA rules and lawyers had taken all the fun out of grassroots racing and came up with a way he felt it should be. Cheap enough for anyone to afford, great track time and fun… and make it a show where spectators will come, watch and buy t-shirts, hats and posters! Jay makes no bones about it… he is the boss and what he says goes. He reserves the right to not penalize a car with additional laps in return for wine, liquor, donations to a worthy cause…even if it is sporting a full race prepared engine! If he feels a car is getting too far ahead of the field, he has no qualms about pulling them in for a chat or coming up with some reason they should be penalized. Jay encourages themes, showmanship and unique cars that make these events memorable, photo-worthy and worth the price of admission for spectators. While the race may be “fixed” in some sense of the word, most of the drivers seem not to care as they are getting track time and having a blast. While the winners can take home ugly trophies and $500 in nickels… winning is actually shared by all who participate in being a part of the show. This concept has proven successful for Jay and while many thought LeMons would die off, the program has grown and races are held all over the US on many great tracks. While it started off on partial courses, it is now running the events on full courses. Jay is directly involved in classing cars and tech’ing them… while it’s supposed to be fun for all, an incident involving safety features of a car could dramatically affect the future of LeMons. I was impressed with his efforts in tech to insure cars and gear met safety standards.
My team members had run a LeMons race at CMP on the short course in the past and I had spent a fair amount of time on CMP on short and full course. BUT not with a 100+ crazy LeMons drivers! I heard they would use offset gates to slow cars down and I believed it and that gave me renewed confidence in the sanity of organizers and participants. Full course with $500 junk cars …with many new novice drivers that have never been on a track mixed in with some pro-drivers like Randy Pobst? That would be a recipe for disaster. Well, they ran full course at CMP with no offset gates.
I will not go into detail about the BS judging (that is THE LeMons term, not mine) but I will say, all of the festivities are a blast to watch. Seeing the creativity in themes and crap-can cars patched together is truly amazing. It truly is “Where Gasoline meets Halloween”. Where else would you see a Fiat 124 with a VW Diesel engine? Or a Lancia Scorpion body slapped on an MR2 chassis? Charlie Brown sitting on the back of the car with his kite stuck in a tree …which is rising up out of the roof? Or for that matter, where else would you see a GIANT rat sammich? The racing was amazingly clean. There was some bumping and grinding but cars that touched were called in for counseling, penalties and embarrassing harassment by Jay and his henchmen… and women. There are basically three classes in LeMons:
Class 1 – “We believe you are going to finish.”
Class 2 –“We doubt you will finish.”
Class 3 – “We know you will not finish.”
Our Honda was in Class 3 and there were Class 3 cars stranded on the side of the track after the first lap. I would estimate about 60% of the field was running at the end of day 2. Driver changes were made quickly and refueling was done with driver out of the car with one fueling and one with a fire bottle in hand. Driving a 2-3 hour stint in that traffic is fun once you are in a rhythm. Finding the rhythm can be difficult when you see an oil derrick rising up out of the car behind you, an ice cream truck to your left, a giant bumblebee looking car to your right and the car in front of you has a machine gun turret with the barrel pointing at you.
I saw quality driving from Pros that knew their way around the track and had a race car in “sheeps clothing”. I saw nomex soiled drivers apexing turns where there were no turns. I saw a driver actually using his turn signal going into a turn. I saw adjustable Koni race shocks painted with undercoating to hide the “race prepared” illegal suspension. I saw brakes that failed in the first hour, cars that ran out of gas on track and people who spent over 50% of the race time working on the car in the paddock (a bit reminiscent of the Jaguar team in Gumball Rally that never left the garage.) I saw a car catch fire at the kink. The driver pulled over to the left and visible flames were coming from under the hood. Then there were flames at the dash and smoke in the cockpit but the driver did not get out. The course workers put the fire out and the wrecker towed him in. The driver was asked why he stayed in the car when it was on fire and I heard him reply “In the driver’s meeting, they said in case of an accident STAY IN THE CAR. It’s the safest place for you.” So he did, I kid you not. I saw drivers helping each other out with repairs and parts and creative problem solving on steroids. Clemson students driving an 240SX were borrowing tools at midnight and getting parts driven to the track from Charleston at 4 AM so they could run day 2. The teamwork and “never say die” attitudes were impressive and inspiring… but the majority of the drivers were still certifiably crazy.
The end of the race on day 2, we were proud to have the Honda still running like a top. The brakes were amazing and we could out brake most cars on the track. FWD allowed us to cut inside and pass cars making wide apexs and trying to carry momentum. Mike, Allen and Keith did a great job preparing the car and in driving it. Their lap times were amazingly consistent and they flowed through traffic, picking off cars as opportunities presented themselves. Cars that walked off and left us on the straights were easily passed in turns and the car handled beautifully. The only hitch we encountered was minor… it was a loud noise Allen heard when something struck the underside of the car and a rattling noise became apparent from the rear of the car. He radioed in that it did not affect power or handling so he continued at full speed. We later discovered that one of the coconuts had fallen off and into the back of the hatch and was rolling around. We finished third in class and 12th overall and, if we had not been black flagged twice for things we didn’t do (according to videotape) we might have won our class.
At the awards ceremony, Jay gave out the trophies and a crowd of 200 cheered for each winner. He asked if the drivers would like to run CMP on full course again this fall and the response was deafening. Team Road Kill Grill had hopes of winning best theme but we were not given the nod. Our team felt certain based on pictures and comments from drivers and spectators, if it was up for popular vote, we had it with no doubt.
So, how would I sum up my LeMons experience? It was fun but it was a bit scary in traffic with erratic novice driving and cars losing parts on track. I would say if you enter to win, you will be frustrated as there are too many variables and games being played. Chump car is where you belong and you will be much happier there. If you enter to be a part of the show, get seat time and have fun… you will enjoy it. It was a P.T. Barnum like circus mixed with Halloween and an endurance race… and most of the drivers were a bit crazy.
To paraphrase an old internet demotivational poster, “Racing LeMons is like arguing on the internet…even if you win, you’re crazy.” Only a complete fool would do this twice… and I think next week, I’ll be begging Mike for another chance drive to drive the “Rat Sammich” for the next LeMons race at CMP.
2012 No reprints without permission by The Southern Driver and author – Ted Theodore
For more info on Lemons Racing, got to : http://www.24hoursoflemons.com/