The day started like any other Saturday in my new Los Angeles routine: wake up as soon as the sun is shining, get dressed, and walk down the street for coffee. The plan on Saturday, October 1st was to travel with my buddy Austin to the 24 Hours of LeMons race at Buttonwillow Raceway Park around 2 hours north of my home in Palms, Los Angeles. He picked me up in his roadtrip-ready diesel Jetta Sportwagon, we made a stop so he could get his own caffeine fix, and in no-time we were on the 405 powering up and out of the Los Angeles Basin in the direction of the lower Central Valley.
I had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago 2 weeks prior to escape the horrendous climate and pursue new job prospects in the palm and smog-filled basin. Here, an enthusiast can rock Summer tires all year ‘round with more spirited driving options than what I grew up with: the monotonous Chicago grid system. Excited to pursue these new motoring prospects, what better introduction to SoCal motorsports than a race comprised of all makes and models, a healthy amount of creativity and eccentricity, and in a dusty, desolate, sun-baked setting?
After plummeting down the mountains into the Central Valley, the landscape became surprisingly familiar: super-straight highway roads surrounded by agriculture and no change in topography in front of us. It was just a tad browner and the highway was a tad smoother. As we got closer to the track its tower appeared, and as we exited off and headed toward the gate, the howl of engines of all displacements became louder and louder. As we rolled along near the Esses and Sunset segments of the track, I instantly started cracking up: the articles I’ve read online and in print-media about LeMons had some comical photos, but nothing beats seeing these mighty feats of engineering in person.
We mainly came out to the track to hang out with Austin’s buddy Rick Hoback who was the crew-chief for the #152 P-51 Ford Thunderbird (massive rear tail fin and all) and #151 P-51 Ford Mustang (also outfitted with a massive, probably-massive-stability-inducing rear tail fin). Rick is an experienced instructor and racer himself, with quite a CV of experience. The team he was crewchiefing for was a group of friends who were mostly airplane mechanics. They had solid mechanical knowledge, though for some it was their absolute first time on track. This day would prove to be one heck of a first time to go wheel-to-wheel, considering the huge variety of other vehicles and driving talent.
When we got to the paddock, we learned that the #151 Mustang had been plagued with alternator issues all day and spent most its day hanging out in the garage, whereas the #152 Thunderbird, which had just come in to diagnose some strange sounds and suspension issues, was back on its way to re-join the parade. We then walked over and climbed up the tower smack dab in the middle between the Sunset and Sunrise sections of the front straightaway, and I could not help but start cracking up again.
With a big, dumb smile on my face I watched all kinds of cars come out of the corner and roar past me: An E30 dressed up like a Waste Management garbage truck, a Mk3 Jetta with a blond wig on its roof and “TRUMP” emblazoned on the side like the orange-man-him-self’s Boeing 727, the infamous #888 NYANCAR Nyan-cat-themed E28 5-series blasting its competitors’ favorite music, and my personal favorite of the day, the #8 Team Tinyvette Opel GT outfitted in OG Compuware Corvette livery. Another favorite of mine was an absolute badass-sounding Ford Falcon with Salton Sea Speed Shop painted on the side like an old dragster. This beast must have had some pretty extensive suspension work done to it as it was getting through corners with a ton of speed.
Many other vehicles roared by, such as a fan-favorite flat black Ford Crown Victoria with a gigantic shopping cart fitted to its roof. Sometimes the eclectic group of hoopties went four-wide into Turn 1, sometimes they took it easy and let everyone go around them in the name of longevity, other times they were hunted down mercilessly by tiny Miatas in their own hilarious livery, piloted by very skilled drivers. Occasionally I’d look toward the West end of the track and see a cloud of dirt pushed up in the air and linger for a while, thinking maybe a driver went off track. It was just a dirt devil; another indication that I was far away from my old Midwestern stomping grounds.
The seat time that the drivers were accumulating was no joke; if their heap soldiered on and didn’t experience any major mechanical setbacks they would be on track for at least an hour each. I’m sure any instructor, racer, or enthusiast who has more track time than me would agree: it doesn’t matter what you’re driving, if you’re negotiating a track wheel-to-wheel, dealing with all kinds of scenarios, doing your best to be as in touch with your vehicle as possible, and always trying to cut a better line and get to the final corner a little faster, it is an immensely useful way to become a better driver and racer.
Hanging out in the tower and listening in on the skinny being exchanged between spotters and drivers was a truly enjoyable part of the experience. This was especially useful; considering the vast differences in chassis tuning and power output, it was good to give the drivers of slower/bigger vehicles ample warning of cars coming in hot behind them. This aspect was also cool to see in action because it added to the overall friendly, low-pressure vibe of the afternoon. Most folks were concerned with making their cars survive and stay out of the paddock as much as possible, and having a teammate or crew chief watching their drivers’ backs and coaching them through their stint certainly contributed to this.
Another big part of the overall positive vibe was the camaraderie and friendliness found in the paddock. Exiting the tower and making our way around the various paddocks we stopped and chatted with all kinds of folks, from officials who had dropped in from far away for just the weekend, to a team of Grateful Dead-worshipping guys from NorCal with a nice ex-Koni Challenge Acura RSX and mean-sounding, race-prepped 12A Mazda RX-7. It was really cool to hear everyone’s story: how they got into it, what their team’s car is, how they’re doing, mechanical issues they’ve been battling, and even learn more about some of the badass tow vehicles hanging out.
My fascination remained constant the entire day; not only had I been hanging out in a completely different setting than what I was used to in green, could-rain-any-minute-Chicagoland, but I was getting the best crash course in what LeMons is all about. I’m a generally friendly person, but Austin is friendly and more engaging; if it weren’t for that I would not have shaken nearly as many hands, shared nearly as many laughs, and heard nearly as many wild stories about how cars were obtained, how they were built on a shoe-string, or what other projects/racing the teams were into. I got to talk a lot about 12A tuning with the owner of Grateful Racing, as well as talk a lot about his other passion: early 70’s Mopar tuning. The people who race in LeMons are there to have fun, be a little competitive (or a lot, depending on the class), and just have a great, memorable time.
Asking a $500 anything to withstand the constant abuse of taching up and down on a racetrack all day is a bold move, but I can’t really think of many other things that would be a better use of one’s weekend. Considering the challenge, the seat time you earn, the friendly and welcoming atmosphere, the experience of working on a team, and most notably the creativity that goes into these bespoke (be-broke?) beasts (on the outside and keeping it together on the inside), it is truly a form of racing that I look forward to experiencing again. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll join a band of hooligans to get some beat-up old lump around a track for 24 brutal hours. I’m thinking a K-Car outfitted to look like a 70’s NASCAR Superbird would be a ton of fun, if it hasn’t been taken already.