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Chilton Visits the 24 Hours of Lemons Race - Buttonwillow, CA

Ford Fairmont, Geo Metro, and Mazda RX7 in 24 Hours of Lemons Race

Many in the media claim that America's love affair with the automobile is over, and most people just want a robot or mobility solution to get them from point A to point B while they fiddle with their phones. But for many, once you remove the constraints of points A and B, or the stress of having to be there at a certain time, driving is still quite an enjoyable pastime. Motorsports were invented by people with this sort of attitude, possibly as soon as the second automobile was built.

There are two problems with most motorsports today though: First, they cost a lot of money. Second, they have very strict rules that take everything very seriously. The 24 Hours of Lemons was created about 15 years ago, and like much recent American innovation a "disruptor" in the Bay Area, did it. Car guy and writer Jay Lamm's whole idea was to limit investment in the cars through a strict but arbitrary and subjective judging, by himself and a few others, then race in heavy traffic until the winner was determined through attrition and smooth driving.

a variety of lemons racers

Knowing that there was a race in September local to our office, we were determined to find a new local team of racers, with a new car build, and tag along on their Lemons adventure. Their cheap and terrible car was a 1991 Geo Metro convertible, with the drivetrain from the related Suzuki Swift GTi installed. When completed they had a car with about 100hp that weighed about 2000lbs, but didn't take up much room on track, so should be able to stay out of trouble, and didn't burn much gas.

There are a few different popular strategies with Lemons teams. Team Radmobile, our team of newbies, was made up mostly of Suzuki Swift enthusiasts, who already owned more than three running, driving examples. They assembled their "race car" from mostly unneeded bits of their parts cars.

Another common strategy is to build something fast (Mustang, Camaro, BMW, etc.), for as little as possible from sketchy cars with electrical, emissions, or paperwork issues and junkyard parts. This method often leads to a car that is fast for 30 minutes at a time, then spends an hour in the pits having over-heated, or burned up its brakes or clutch.

Also popular is to start with a race car that is no longer competitive or nice enough for SCCA racing (Mazda Miata, BMW, Mazda RX-7), but too far gone to be made into a street car again. This can be a quick way to get started, as long as the safety gear is up to snuff. Problem is, Mazda Miatas are slow, and giving them more power starts you in a downward spiral that gets expensive fast. BMWs and RX-7s tend to be faster, but not as reliable and more expensive.

The truth is you can race and have fun in anything. And you can be competitive (though probably not in the top 10) in just about any car after a few races with good drivers, clean driving, and organization in the pits.

If you want to start your own team, just know that building even the cheapest car will likely cost you $5,000 after you add all the safety gear, upgrade all the worn out parts, install track worthy brakes, and buy 2 sets of tires and wheels. You will quickly forget about all the money you've already spent the first time you hit the track though. There is a minimum of four drivers on a team, so remember you are going to divide those costs 4 or more ways, which makes it a lot easier to swallow.

The Radest Geo Metro around

Team Radmobile, as the Suzuki Swift team call themselves, is made up of Christopher Evans, Earnest Pacheco, Eric Evans, John Kline, and David Wright. For a new team in a new car, they easily managed what for many is the hardest part: They passed tech and safety inspection on the first try with no issues. This can partially be credited to the fact that they farmed out the roll cage fabrication and welding to professionals, but the team deserves credit for managing to follow all the rules and build a pretty car to boot.

The name "24 Hours of Lemons" is actually a misnomer, as there is basically 14 hours of racing spread over two days, but believe me that is plenty of time to break. Once a year, at a different track each year, they do an all night race, but the logistics and effort required for that one are somehow 100% greater. Besides, it is much more fun to break around sundown on Saturday for dinner, a party, sleep and breakfast.

Team Radmobile quickly discovered issues with their car that were not apparent in its daily driver days. The handling was okay, the power wasn't much to speak of, but a main seal leak oiled down the front tire whenever the car was thrown into a right hand corner. Luckily, monitoring oil levels for the next hour revealed this to be more of a handling issue than a running issue, as long as they stopped every hour to check and add oil. Continuing on like that, they managed to bring the car in under its own power at the end of the day, having let all team members involved get some time in the driver seat.

This year's 24 Hours of Lemons at Buttonwillow was drama free, because the organizers come down hard on overly aggressive driving. Team Radmobile only got one penalty, for running wide and going slightly off track. Contact, going off course, or passing under a yellow flag will get you a stern talking to from the race judges, and your second or third infraction will get you a time out to think about what you did.

One team in a Ford Focus did have a minor fire from oil leaking onto a hot exhaust, but it was quickly handled. Even the team in a Ford Contour that lost a front wheel at speed Saturday managed to stop without incident, and even repair the car to get back on track just hours later.

After a big pot luck dinner and party Saturday night in the pits, Sunday racing started at 9am. The top three cars were all veterans of many races in two well used BMWs (one dressed up like an RV) and a Mazda Miata. The Radmobile team finished Saturday afternoon in 95th place out of 110 teams, with a best lap of about 2:47, which was about 30 seconds behind the fastest cars. At the end of the day Sunday they had moved up to 92nd place and improved on their best laptime by several seconds!

What follows is a huge gallery of mostly unsorted pictures from the track. The winning team was the pink E30 BMW by just a lap, overtaking the BMW RV when they had to pit after a tire blow-out at speed.

If you want to join in the fun of racing and wrenching against the clock and other teams, we suggest you start with a vehicle that has a Haynes or Chilton manual covering it, for obvious reasons. Driving a car on a race track, under race conditions, against 100 other vehicles, for hours on end, breaks things. Even cars known for their reliability, like Honda Civics and Toyota Camrys, break early and often under Lemons conditions, and ironically cars like 1970s Alfa Romeos and 1980s Cadillacs just keep running without issue. You can never predict what is going to break, and more often than not, it is a failure that no one has ever encountered before, like the entire front hub of the Ford Contour breaking off with the wheel and brake rotor still attached.

Here's a gallery of breakage, and we couldn't even capture all of it.

Perhaps the best illustration of the fun and camaraderie that 24 Hours of Lemons is full of is this image from the end of the day on Sunday.  The formerly leading BMW dressed like a camper (which finished 4th) pushed the 3rd place turbo Miata into the pits after the checkered flag - it seems their fuel economy calculations had not included the cool down lap.

Turbo Miata being pushed into the pits by BMW camper