Patience… this is going to be a very, very long post.
10 years ago I entered my first car race. It was a 24 Hours of Lemons race at Thunderhill. It was my 4th time on track, and looking back on it, I sucked at racing. But I also knew I sucked at racing, so I had that going for me.
Here’s the amazing thing: we won. No, we didn’t get first place or even any of the individual accolades, but I feel like we still won. Everyone got to drive and nothing horrible happened. For a rookie team, that’s winning. The experience was life-changing and has kept us coming back for 10 years. Let me guide you through 10 years of Lemons races and my favorite 3 cars from each race. Most of the photos come from Judge Phil (Murilee Martin).
Our first Lemons build was a 1988 Toyota MR2 (AW11). We embraced the silliness of Lemons with Noah’s Ark theme. We literally built a boat around the car using a lapstrake construction. The bow was pretty long and slightly raised. While this made it look like a boat, it also made it nerve-wracking every time you went up a hill. You sort of said a silent prayer that you didn’t hit anything while you crested the wave.
We didn’t end up finishing the race. The engine died with a bearing failure. What do you expect from a 25 year old engine with an unknown history? What I remember most about the driving was my first experience with rotation. I had driven into T10 a little too deeply and had to apply some brakes mid corner. The car literally rotated around its middle. I had never experienced that before, and it would be some time before I did it intentionally.
My favorite car of the weekend was an amazing postal Jeep built on a Mustang frame. It’s one of the cleanest themes of all time. It didn’t attend many races. I wonder what happened to it.
My second favorite car was the CorVegge, which was an 80s Corvette with a Buick diesel engine that made 77 hp. It must have been horrible. I would have loved it.
Third on the podium goes to this Scion xB. If you’re going to drive a car that looks like a toaster, you might as well make toast. I’m not sure how they made the smoke. One reason I like this car is that it shares a lot of parts with my Yaris. For example, there’s a Blitz supercharger kit that fits both cars. This xB was outfitted with that in the next race… and they never got on track. This is a reminder to me to keep the engine as stock and reliable as possible.
Given that we had destroyed the engine in the last race, we decided to swap the 4AGE “Red Top” with a JDM “Silver Top”. This provides a decent bump from 115 to 160 crank HP. The swap was mostly easy, although I recall that shimming 20 valves took several hours and getting the wiring harness to work was a total failure (we ended up paying someone to build one for us).
Given that we couldn’t see through the bow of the “boat” we decided to drill some big holes in it. That also inspired changing the theme from an ark to a fishing boat. We thought we had the best theme, but the Judges preferred the Tiki Bar (see next post).
On the Friday practice, Thomas was climbing up T3A when the right axle broke. When we examined the metal, it looked like it had been cracked for years and less than 20% of the metal remained. We then spent the rest of the day fixing it. The Snow Speeder team had some spare parts, so we cobbled it back together in time to start the race on Saturday.
PSA: The geometry of a 1986 MR2 isn’t the same as the 1988 MR2. The parts we got “fit” but were not really compatible. As a result, the right side and left side were very different. This resulted in the worst handling car I’ve ever driven. It would lurch to the side when going down a straight. On right turns, you could unload the left side and drive normally, but left hand turns were downright dangerous. Mario got in the car and brought it in on the out-lap, saying “my life is too precious to drive this”. I actually had a great time wrestling the car around the course.
We were able to find a proper MR2 axle at a Pick-n-Pull nearby and got that installed Sunday morning. While we didn’t get much driving in, we did get the car back to normal.
All of my favorite cars from this race are motor swaps. The Doublesuck MRolla is the pinnacle of Lemons engineering. The team welded the front half of a Corolla to the back half of an MR2. The front engine was manual and the rear was automatic. On their next build, they put 2 engines in an FX16 and called it an FX32. This was a double manual transmission with a single shifter and clutch. Amazing.
The Geo Metrognome is powered by a motorcycle engine. I wish there were more bike-engined cars in Lemons. The sound of this thing revving to 10k was amazing. This was a very fast, but slightly fragile car.
One of the most famous motor swaps is this Prius with a Harley motor. It ran the whole race and performed better than it should.
“Sears Pointless” was an unusual race weekend. The typical weekend race had a such a long wait list that the organizers decided to add a second race on Monday, which was called “Sears (even more) Pointless”. We entered both races and finally got a chance to complete an entire race. We ended up in the top 20, which was a pretty good showing for a boat. At some point during the race, we lost the fish. Amazingly, the corner workers returned it to us at the end of the race.
The Judge’s Choice for the main race was won by the Tiki Bar Jetta (we won it on Monday). The attention to detail on the build is astounding. The entire roll cage was wrapped in bamboo. They served drinks out of the back. Lemons themes don’t get much better than this.
The Scrubbing Bubbles Beetle is a surprisingly fast car. While I didn’t know the owner at the time, Mike Kimball is now an important part of my team, being both an excellent driver and mechanic.
The IROC Maiden was a mainstay of Lemons racing for years. They had come close to winning several times and in this race decided to hire a professional racer to do the driving. All of it. They didn’t win.
For this race at Thunderhill, we changed the theme to Lamborrari. The left side was painted yellow and themed as a Countach, while the right side was painted red and themed as an F40. It was one of my favorite themes. We even had stickers and patches with our logo.
We ended up finishing 9th overall, which is pretty good considering we had a 10 gallon fuel tank and 185 other teams to contend with. Getting a top 10 finish felt like winning. This was the highlight of the MR2 platform. From this point onward, it was all disappointment.
We weren’t the only “F40” MR2 in the race. I think they ended the race with an engine fire.
The TinyVette is an Opel GT rescued, built, and maintained by Mike Meier. Mike has been in Lemons a long time, and used to live in Davis (where I live). The TinyVette is one of the iconic non-shitty cars of Lemons. I got to drive this on a practice day at Thunderhill West. The inside is as cute as the outside.
This event was made famous because of the surprise dyno test. They took the top cars and put them on a dyno. Each team had to declare their HP and then the judges gave them 1 penalty lap for each HP they were over their estimate. The Southworst claimed they had a junk yard motor and then the dyno recorded 246 HP. Consequently, they were buried in penalty laps. I heard later (confidentially) that they had a $20k race motor installed. At the time, I thought that it wasn’t really in the spirit of Lemons. But looking back on it, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
We went into this race thinking we had a good chance to actually win it. Our car was performing great and our drivers were improving. Sadly, it died in the first stint with a head gasket failure. A better team would have swapped that out at the track, but we decided to pack up and try another day.
Pure awesome. Words fail.
The two teams that dominate the West coast are Cerveza and Eyesore. Cerveza runs an e28 BMW with a modern engine. They aren’t always the fastest car on track, but they do everything so well that they are always a threat to win.
Eyesore runs an NA6 Miata with a cobbled together turbo. It often sets the fast time of the day. Somehow, it’s also really reliable. In the old days, before they were encumbered by kids, the team had some of the best themes of all time. Really spectacular stuff.
This race was a landmark for 2 reasons. It was the first Lemons race on the Thunderhill 5 mile track. It was also the largest closed course road race in history. I have the Guinness Worlds Record certificate to prove it. Our theme for this race was Royal Mail. We dressed up the are in the Royal Mail livery and had it deliver a giant letter to the Guinness World Records. Despite the theme being mostly stickers and tape, I thought it worked pretty well.
This was the first race for our Miata. The MR2 couldn’t make it because it needed engine work (again). The Miata ran flawlessly. I don’t remember what place we got. It was a great weekend no matter what.
My favorite car of the weekend is Saanda: a Saab powered Honda 600. Look at this thing. It’s straight out of Mad Max.
My next favorite car was this 911 with a diesel motor. The team posed as umbrella boys and hammed it up all weekend. It was brilliant.
For the third favorite, I couldn’t decide between the squeaky clean 871 and the Toy Story Pizza Planet. Both are incredible builds.
We changed our theme nearly every race, and this one was no exception. We decided to try to make the Miata look like a CanAm car with a blocky rear and a wing. I dubbed it “Can’t Am”.
A Miata with a pretty minimal theme can still look fantastic. It’s just a couple of fins and a great paint job but the overall effect is really fun.
The Chotus (Chevy-engined Lotus) has been around Lemons a very long time. It rarely finishes a race. It looks great while it lasts.
OK, so I love pickups as race cars.
In this race we entered 2 cars, the Miata, which we had also been driving in Lucky Dog and ChumpCar, as well as the MR2. This was a great opportunity to drive both cars back to back and see which platform was superior. We raced this time under the name “Iron Flutterby”. We put graffiti on the cars. It wasn’t a very engaging theme.
Here’s a shot of the MR2 #314. It had a roof scoop feeding an oil cooler. Sadly, the engine died again. This time the culprit was a clogged oil pump from using too much sealer.
The Miata ran all weekend. It was faster and more reliable. This was the nail in the coffin for the MR2. We ended up giving to a team with the expertise to keep it running. That said, it hasn’t entered a race since.
The video below is queued up to the Miata passing the MR2. I haven’t watched that video in years. It shows me passing a lot of the fastest Lemons cars despite having a very simple and inexpensive Miata build.
Let’s look at some of the cool cars from the race. The Coyote is at the top of the list. This is a Miata with a Honda V6 swap and a couple hundred pounds of extra body work.
No, this isn’t an El Camino, but rather a Del Sol dressed up like one. This car has become a Lemons regular and puts down some really fast laps.
Keeping with the Ute theme, the Bavarian Ranchero is based on an E30.
This was the first race where I was an arrive-n-drive, and also my first time at NHMS. The car was an E36 318is. Team orders were to keep it below 5500 RPMs. Here’s some video of me driving. I get faster as I get more acclimated to the car and track.
The best theme for this race was the tribute to Mad Max.
The best build of the race is this MR2. Yes, you read that correctly. This van is actually an MR2.
Bert One is a Volvo 262 Bertone with a Sesame Street theme. Great car, great drivers, great people. I was chatting on the side of the track with a East Coast Lemons regular and he was pointing out all the dangerous drivers. When he pointed to Bert One, he had nothing but admiration for them.
This was the first race where I registered as crew rather than driver. We brought 6 women drivers and 3 guys for “eye-candy”. The team was called “XX Racing” and sported a pink helmet with a “ponytail”.
The Model T GT is one of the most famous Lemons builds, both for its successes and its concept. I think I would love it if it wasn’t so damn fast.
Mike Mercado’s fastback Miata is routinely in the top 5 but has yet to win. They really deserve to win a race one of these days.
Just the usual German brands fighting it out: Porsche, VW, BMW. This van is way faster than it ought to be. The team shows up with about 6 of these. I think I would love to be one of those guys.
Another arrive-n-drive, this time in a 240SX with the Bert One team (but not in their 262).
The car sprung a leak while I was driving, so I drove less than an hour. Here’s the entire stint.
The Faster Farms Plymouth Belvedere has been driving to the track, racing, and driving home for years. How? It doesn’t even look like should be able to move under its own power.
This diesel Mercedes coupe dressed up like a Dalek is pretty neat. I would drive that in a heartbeat.
This crazy build is all Yuzu. The driver sits behind the B-pillar. Spectacular even if I have no idea what it’s supposed to be.
This was my first time at CMP but the car was very familiar to me. It was my E30 track car that I gave to Ben Dawson to start a team on the East Coast.
It felt really great to be back in my old car again.
There are a lot of great cars in the East, but not as many great themes. Here’s an exceptional exception.
This is a great looking car.
You don’t see too many Datsun B210s in Lemons. At least I think that’s what this is.
In this race, we decided to race on Douglas tires and call ourselves “D-Spec FTW”. Honestly, I think Lemons should have a 400 treadwear rule and make us all drive on all season tires. Alternatively, they should have a D class for those brave enough to race that way (they actually did do that for this race, but just this once). The Douglas tires we got were 185/60/14, and were under $40 each. I mounted them myself with a Harbor Freight tire mounter. That’s some real Lemony shit right there.
So how does a Miata on Douglas Xtra Trac II tires drive on track? Like a fucking boss. This may have been my favorite theme because the driving was so much fun.
Lemons doesn’t love E36s. That is, unless you dress them up like a garbage truck.
The first time I saw a Bricklin at a museum in Ottawa, I was enchanted by the safety concept. But it’s a terrible car in every respect.
This is just a plain Nissan Sentra SE-R with no theme. It’s here because I’ve always loved racing against this car. The team has good drivers and the car is plenty quick.
Our Miata’s engine died early in this race. I don’t have good pictures or video of the car in action. So let’s look at the others instead.
This Porsche 914 dressed up like a CanAm car is pretty great. They have been around Lemons a long time. This used to race in the A class, but it’s probably C class now.
This Jeep thing is pure awesome.
Highway Robbery is an FD RX7 with an LS motor. In the hands good drivers, this car would win every race. But they race for fun and look good doing it.
This race I did an arrive-n-drive with NSR in their Ford 5.0 swapped Celica. This was a terrible car in just about every respect. OEM suspension, OEM brake pads, but 230 V8 HP. The brakes faded every corner. Apparently the owner’s strategy was to use the automatic transmission to slow the car. I hated it on Saturday but found the fun on Sunday.
An actual Lancia.
Anton’s Volvo is well-engineered and plenty quick. Perfect for Lemons.
Lemons needs more wagons.
I stopped racing Lemons for a good 18 months. For some reason, I decided I wanted to do things a bit more seriously, and did more Lucky Dog, ChampCar, and SCCA stuff. I did eventually come back to my senses. Here I’m in an arrive-n-drive MX-3 with an MX-6 motor. I had never experienced torque steer before. I found it to be a lot of fun.
ReStart Racing is made up of actual corner workers. It’s appropriate that their racecar is carrying a car in the bed.
It’s not very often that you see an MR2 SW20 non-turbo on a race track. It looks fast but isn’t.
This Accent had an engine suspended in front of it at the start of the race. But it was wet and the engine ended up drooping into the driver’s vision. That driver would be Jay Leno.
This was the first Lemons race for the Yaris. An unexpected rain storm turned this into my favorite drive. During the storm, I might have been the fastest car on track, while driving a smog-legal Toyota Yaris.
In the video above, it took a long time to pass the Supra below. It’s a fast car with a good driver. It’s sporting a 2JZ engine, of course.
Ranger Road Motors is a team made up of war veterans with limb injuries. They have various driving assists so they can drive with 1 leg or with hand controls.
I love this Plymouth Scamp.
I had back problems this Summer and couldn’t race. I did a couple practice laps and that was it. The car I drove (briefly) was an Odyssey with a Mr. Rogers theme.
I’m a sucker for a good pun. This works.
This Mustang looks fantastic.
This car has a very tidy paint job, but it’s really not very Lemony. At one point I would have not approved of this car, but I’m all for it today.
We were in contention for a win this race, in C class under the team name Toyota Virus. It was a pretty good theme with a giant syringe sticking out of the car. The needle bent on the main straight and it flew off the car, causing some panic for the cars behind. I should have used a more durable pipe. Here we are at tech inspection with our hazmat suits on.
We were swapping the lead all day Sunday with a Saab 9-3. The Yaris kept overheating. Later, we realized this was because the head was cracked. We probably could have added more water and it would have survived the race, but I drove it until it died, about 1 hour from the finish.
I joined Lemons staff as a Judge this race. It was a lot of fun. The Lemons moment that I will always remember is when team Dickass tried to go on track using the track exit rather than entrance. Kristen picked up the bullhorn and yelled “Hey Dickass, you’re going in the out hole”.
I bought a JDM 1nz-fe engine and with the help of Tiernan and Mike we resurrected the Yaris. The engine worked perfectly. Unfortunately, we fucked up a bunch of other things. The car handled like shit and didn’t stop. Tiernan bounced the car off a wall and I earned my first black flag (I had no brakes and should not have been on track with a car behaving so poorly). I don’t even have any pictures or video of this race.
We switched the name of the team to Toyota Kazoo Racing because we like the pun (the official Toyota racing team is Gazoo). There is a giant kazoo on the top of the car and also in the front (although people thought this was a hash pipe). The co-driver is so realistic that the safety marshals tried to wave us off track for having a passenger in the car.
Unfortunately, we were still fighting some problems associated with suspension and hubs. We did get some racing in though. Here’s Danny having a bit of fun.
Given my recent back problems, I decided I was going to slide into a team manager role, and didn’t even sign up as a driver for this race. Here’s MIke finishing out the race.
Lemons has been 10 years of great memories. I’m not sure how much racing I’m going to do in the next 10 years, but Lemons has always and will always be my racing home. From the bottom of my oil pan, thank you Lemons. And by Lemons, I don’t just mean the organization, but the whole ecosystem.