This week we’re heading out to the 24 Hours of LeMons endurance car race at Thunderhill Raceway just west of Willows, a free-wheeling parody of France’s 24 Hours of LeMans. LeMons is best described as “the Burning Man of car races.” Just plain wrench-monkey fun, folks, with lots of NASA and sundry other engineers here, not to mention creative Silicon Valley computer jockeys. (Thunderhill is owned by San Francisco’s branch of the Sports Car Club of America, so how can you keep the city folks away?) On a good day, expect to see such things as flying pigs, backhoes, upside-down sports cars, and even the Starship Enterprise out there lapping the track.
While admiring all the cleverly themed heaps as they heave-ho onto the track, you’d think 24 Hours of LeMons had no rules, or very few. Not true! There are plenty, down to the judges’ prerogative to assign penalty laps if your team cheated too much on a car’s $500 maximum value. A LeMons car has to be a lemon, after all. As the LeMons folks say: “Your cheaty-ass Spec Miata will still start the race when the green drops—it just may be working Lap -629.” Bribing may or may not help cheaters. Like deciding what winning the race entails, that, too, is up to the judges.
Most rules cover car and driver safety. Race cars don’t have to be registered, smogged, or otherwise suitable for day-to-day driving, though they have to have been street-legal when they were manufactured. Cars need to be “de-scuzzified” too—meaning, cockpits stripped of anything like carpet or plastics that could burn—and airbags removed or disabled. Cars must have fenders, doors, hoods, at least one easily visible brakelight, and an accessible tow strap. (Guess why.)
LeMons cars must also meet basic safety requirements under the hood—firewalls, no leaky carburetors, and so forth—and need a regulation driver’s seat, roll bar and professionally constructed roll cage, and five- or six-point driver’s harness. Drivers all wear a regulation helmet and fireproof suit too. Clearly, the cost of mandatory safety precautions cab get huge, and is not included in the $500 maximum race-prep value of wrecked racers.
It’s good to know that safety still comes first, given how challenging it is just to keep these beaters running. But everyone has such fun trying.
The is contagious. As organizers say: “More people race LeMons than any other wheel-to-wheel series in the world. Which just goes to show the pathetic state motorsport’s come to.”
24 Hours of LeMons is now an international event, with races regularly scheduled throughout California and the nation but also popping up in places like Australia, where just plain folks have long practiced the arts of keeping heaps going with bailing wire and bubble gum. Watch too for associated events such as LeMons Rallies and Concours D’LeMons and the occasional Hooptiecon, “where the elite meet with heaps”—car shows for people with restoration skills (rather than a fat bank account to hire someone else to do it) and a 99-percenter’s sense of style.
Another cool thing about the LeMons movement is its car-related community service. Through LeMons Aid, volunteer racers and team members help keep the aging but absolutely essential vehicles of low-income families safe, reliable, and on the road by providing free car repairs and maintenance work at LeMons racing events and also in their communities. Good job, gearheads.
This year’s Willows 24 Hours of LeMons race runs on Saturday, May 19, and Sunday, May 20. There’s a cost to spectate—get tickets at the track—but it’s a small price to pay for the chance to applaud such a wildly democratic spectacle.
As race organizers say: Racing shouldn’t be just for rich idiots. It should be for all idiots.