With a $500 budget for a race car, what could possibly go wrong?
Racing cars is expensive. That is an ironclad fact and, unless you have a large excess of money, wheel-to-wheel racing becomes a full-time job in seeking sponsorship while keeping a car in shape, tuned, and trying to find that edge. On top of that, becoming a decent race car driver requires training and then hours, and hours, and then some more hours, of seat time; which is expensive.
A retired auto writer named Jay Lamm understood this. The germ of the idea for LeMons started when he got involved in some cheap racing, including being part of the Double 500. The Double 500 was a 500-mile rally and the rule for entry was that the cars that entered could only cost a maximum of $500. Over repeated meals in a Chinese restaurant in Berkley, California, with friends, the idea for an endurance racing series based on the $500 car rule was kicked around until it took shape into the absurd genius of the LeMons racing series. A series where junk level cars are elevated into creatively decorated endurance racing machines. An early flier sums up LeMons with a strapline that reads: "Bad Drivers. Terrible cars. Don’t worry: You’ll fit right in.”
For LeMons events, the tech-inspection judges dress up in wigs and robes. Penalties aren’t necessarily given in time and often also involve some sort of punishment such as having sardines dumped on the car's manifold, being handed a bunch of nuts and bolts of different threads and having to mate them all correctly before carrying on, being tarred and feathered, and sometimes if two teams come into contact on track the drivers are tied together and told to go and get food for the crew.
Prizes are also handed out for things including the People’s Curse for the car driven by the biggest jerks, which entails the car being ceremoniously destroyed. There’s also the Organiser’s Choice award for the team that represents the friendly spirit of the race. However, the grand prize is the Index of Effluency, which is handed to the car ruled as least likely to finish the race, or even score a decent amount of laps. Other awards can include the I Got Screwed Award, Most Heroic Fix, and Most Horrible Yank Tank. LeMons racing is not about winning, it’s about teamwork and having fun.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of creativity that goes into many of the themed cars, and over the years there have been some sublimely wonderful mechanical not-quite-masterpieces. These are just some of our favorites.
SpeedyCop is a LeMons legend. This project started out as a barn find 1963 Thunderbird complete with the original 390 V8 and Cruise-O-Matic transmission. The body was fixed LeMons style using as much filler as the team could lay their hands on before painting it bright red. The transmission exploded in its first race, so it was welded to become a direct drive racer. That caused the engine to spit a rod. So, the team did the sensible thing and replaced the engine with a BMW V12. That didn’t actually work, so now it has a BMW diesel straight-6 engine that works, mostly, perfectly.
When it comes to a theme for a car, Three Pedal Mafia's boat is one of the best examples. It’s a Sea Sprite boat body wrapped around an S10 truck chassis and powered by a 4.3-liter V6. The fiberglass weighs very little and The Boat has a habit of beating people taking the racing seriously.
European cars are a recurring theme at LeMons. This 3/4 scale Corvette C5.R is actually an Opel GT and was built by LeMons legend Mike Meier. Not only does it compete in the LeMons races, but has recorded close to a 120 mph top speed on the Bonneville salt flats.
If you want to bore people at LeMons, be sensible and race a BMW E30 3-Series or a Mazda Miata. If you want to entertain everyone, bolt the bodywork of an E30 onto the chassis of a Miata and paint on some M stripes.
The Upside Down Camaro is another of the more famous Lemons cars, and rightly so. It’s actually a Ford Festiva doing the driving and it’s not fast, but it is truly spectacular and has won the Index of Effluency award.
This is not Rally Baby Racing’s first car, or their last, but it is the stuff of legend. It arrived in period correct malaise era brown-on-brown paint and interior, kept it’s sea sickness inducing stock suspension, and had a home brew turbocharging system attached to the AMC straight-6 engine that incorporated an intake fabricated from an ammo can. It was big, slow, but made turbo noises and that’s what mattered.
Predictably, team Black Flags have a long history of getting black flags during races. They’ve also managed to have an unreliable Toyota, and despite setbacks piled on setbacks have entertained everyone and even pulled off a class win in 2015. They also managed to entertain everyone and themselves one year by fixing up a nitrous system that pumped laughing gas into both the engine and driver.
The pixelated 5-Series monstrosity that is the Nyancar does actually play the the Nyancat song from loudspeakers. All the time. And loudly. For some reason, it is still a beloved LeMons car.
If you’re selecting a car that has already clocked a ton of miles to go endurance racing with, the logical first step is to not choose an Alfa Romeo of any sort, let alone one built in the 1980s. LeMons is not about logic, which is good because the Scuderia Limoni defied logic and scored its way into LeMons lore by completing over 30 races.
It’s a Prius. However, it’s powertrain has been swapped with a V-Twin engine yanked off of a Harley Davidson Sportster. This qualifies as genius to us.
You probably have Lemons logic figured out by now. A Mercedes 300D is a sensible car for an endurance race. It’s never going to be the quickest car on the track, but you would bet money on the relentlessly reliable Mercedes diesel engine making it lap after lap through 24 hours. This one, of course, does not have the diesel engine anymore. Instead, Bad Decsion Racing made the perfectly logical bad decision of installing a big-block Chrysler V8 and fashioning a dry sump system made from a home brewing keg. It never worked properly, but you have to admire the ambition.
More successful is another team called Bad Decisions and their 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe. The team bought it as an unfinished restoration, although it looks like an un-started restoration, and left the stock 217-cubic-inch Chrysler flathead straight-six under the hood and sold off anything they didn't need inside. It beat a host of cars including Miatas, RX-7s, BMWs, and Civics.
Ferkel is up there as one of the most famous LeMons cars. Many have cried foul at Ferkal on the basis that you can’t purchase a 911 for less than $500. In reality, you can if it has been rolled and every single panel on the body has been dented. Ferkel runs on a VW diesel Jetta engine and, despite a horrendous crash in 2015, lives on.
Alfa Romeo specialists Mike and Darren Besic figured how to get very little of the rally stage missile performance of the epic Group B Lancia Stratos into their LeMons car. They took a Fiat X1/9 chassis and lobbed in an Alfa Romeo 3.0-liter V6. You may laugh, but once they got the suspension dialed in the brothers took the win at Road America.
When it comes to a great idea that got its day, putting a Honda CBR900RR motorcycle engine into a Geo Metro is one of the best. It’s fast, reliable, and quite comical. It got sold to another racing team who continued to race it successfully.
This remarkable feat of engineering started as a derelict 1956 Cessna 310 airplane and now sits on the chassis of a Toyota Space Van. It’s shockingly reliable and, just as shockingly, registered for the road in Maryland. The builder, Jeff Block, claims the plane’s aerodynamics help make for great fuel economy and has taken it to many cars and coffee meets, car shows, and autocross events.