LeMons Houston: 280ZX Gets Most Laps, Zombie Austin Americas Get Stitched Together

The sixth annual Gator-O-Rama 24 Hours of LeMons, held at MSR Houston, was the first time the LeMons Traveling Circus has ever run 24 straight hours at that venue, and it turned out to be an exhausting yet exhilarating race weekend in the muggy, buggy air of Gulf Texas. Because your LeMons correspondent was so busy with his duties as Chief Justice of the LeMons Supreme Court, we couldn’t do the usual Friday-night BS Inspection post or the usual Saturday night leader update. Instead, we’re putting the entire race roundup right here!

The LeMons Supreme Court at the ’13 Gator-O-Rama decided to combine the wisdom of Ganesha, the omniscience of Vishnu, and the cunning of Coyote, with puzzling judicial uniforms. From left to right, that’s Judge Sajeev Mehta, Judge Murilee aka Phil, and Judge Dave Carapetyan.

We made a special Ganesha-themed BRIBED stencil for the teams that gave generous baksheesh to the LeMons Supreme Court during the inspections, and we’re sure this will be one of the most prized stencils ever applied at a LeMons race.

Because we’d be racing from 3:00 PM Saturday to 3:00 PM Sunday, the car inspections for all 97 teams had to be compressed into a shorter-than-usual time on Saturday. As we slogged through the rain-forest-grade heat and humidity and huffed refinery byproducts, we noticed quite a few new-to-LeMons teams making their debuts at this race. The Lemoncello BMW E30 looked very racy with its huge splitter (and turned out to be as squishy and tippy as a Barcalounger in quicksand when it hit the track).

Bad Science, another first-time team, decided that the pure Shelbyium of the Dodge Daytona Turbo Shelby Z was just the ticket to LeMons domination. We’ll see how the power of Element 314 worked out for these guys a bit later.

The El Toro Rojo team gave the LeMons Supreme Court this beautiful black-velvet painting of their Toyota MR2 driving through what appears to be a forest of mutated cacti on one of Jupiter’s moons.

The latest fashion craze among LeMonistas appears to be hats made from parts of engines destroyed during previous races.

In addition to the newcomers, plenty of old friends rolled into MSR Houston for this race. Here’s the Art Car Racing Ford Probe, with the team dressed in Baroque styles.

The Straight Six Pack Toyota Supra has been racing in Gulf Region LeMons events for a few years now, and their beer-can-and-bottle-cap decor is looking a bit faded. They managed to talk the Shiner Brewery into sponsoring their car (by giving them enough unused bottle caps to make a huge Texas-flag mural on their hood), and it still looks good in spite of the weathering and the occasional missing bottle cap.

Deep in the Heart of Texas!

Tetanus Racing made their debut in a scary-rusty Dodge Neon at the very first MSR LeMons race in 2008, and they’ve since expanded their fleet of racin’ hoopties to include a Passat and two Porsche 944s. As we have learned, the 944 is one of the least reliable LeMons cars, but the Tetanus overlords decided that replacing the Porsche four-cylinder engine with a Buick 3.8 liter V6 would solve all of the 944′s problems. Yes, this is the Puick! The other 944 kept the original drivetrain. Spoiler: during the race, the Buick engine blew up while the Porsche engine kept limping along.

The “Civic Tape-R” of Team OK-Speed kept its all-duct-tape livery, but showed up looking distinctly French this time.

You’ve heard of “50-footer” cars? The 1972 Dodge Coronet sedan of Team Crool Runnings (winner of the Index of Effluency at the 2012 Gator-O-Rama) is more of a 500-footer.

Why paint your race car when you can varnish a bunch of Harbor Freight ads all over it?

When the inspections were over (actually, they continued for the duration of the race, as not-quite-ready-to-go teams kept flailing with the wrenches), most of the 97 entries clattered and clanked onto the track. By nightfall, the Z-Wrecks Datsun 280ZX (overall winner of the 2012 Gator-O-Rama) had jumped out to a fairly serious lead. Mechanical carnage was heavier than usual, and many black flags were thrown on cars whose teams proved incapable of making headlights and/or taillights function under race conditions.

The 1987 Plymouth Reliant-K wagon that NSF Racing race-prepped (if that’s the right term) late last year and which has since been passed from team to team around the country was in the hands of the ’64 Dodge Dart-racing Escape Velocity Racing, winners of the Class of ’64 trophy at the Southern Discomfort 2013 race. This Reliant-K has proven itself to be the worst car in 24 Hours of LeMons history, but Escape Velocity Racing swore they’d get it into the top half of the standings this time.

Nope! Two laps total, and Lee Iacocca’s legacy managed to oil down the track on one of them. The “Super-K” will now move on to the upcoming New Hampshire race later this month, and expectations remain low. Photo by DC Doug Kirchberg

Once driver fatigue and night-blindness set in, things got a bit rough on the track. The Cajun Coonasses’ Saturn limped into the penalty box looking quite rough, and several cars suffered career-ending damage during the course of the race.

There was never much suspense about who was going to get the most laps; either the Z-Wrecks ’82 280ZX was going to take the overall win by a huge margin, or it would throw a rod and some other team would get it. 16 teams put down quicker best laps than this car, but sheer speed isn’t what wins this sort of race. In the end, the Z-Wrecks guys raced clean, kept the car alive, and racked up their fourth overall LeMons win with an overwhelming 18-lap cushion (that’s more than a half-hour ahead of their closest competitor, the ’84 Audi 4000S of Team Blue Goose).

The Class B prize went to the loose and bouncy ’91 Honda Accord of Frankenstein Motorworks, a team that managed to grab P6 with a genuinely terrible commuter-grade heap, beating all but one of the many BMWs in the process.

Mitsubishi products have been surpassed in LeMons blow-uppiness only by the likes of Triumphs and Peugeots, and a junkyard-grade, completely worn-out ’93 Eclipse should last about 16 seconds in our race. Happily, things didn’t work out that way for Piston Broke Racing, and they turned 504 laps (that’s just a hair under 1,200 miles, or about the same as driving from San Francisco to Portland and back while full-throttling most of the way, whacking other cars, and swerving manically), finishing in 21st overall and taking home the Class C trophy with a massive 58-lap edge over the nearest competitor.

The electric Datsun Sports of Team Lost In The Dark C won the Organizer’s Choice at the ’12 Gator-O-Rama, but managed only two very slow laps during that race. This time, it did much better, milking an impressive 26 laps out of its lead-acid batteries and forklift motor. Yes, it was the slowest car in the race, but just wait until it gets some lithium-ion battery packs!

It will also need better battery terminal connectors; this cheapo unit melted under the tremendous current flow.

The Most Heroic Fix award was a no-doubter this time, going to the United American Wrenchers Local 1275 (their team shirt is already one of the all-time greatest of the LeMons team-shirt canon) for their dogged effort to build one running BMC ADO16 out of four— yes, four— cars found on Houston Craigslist.

The ADO16 was sold in the United States as the Austin America (hence the United American Wrenchers team name), and team captain Peter aka “Bloody Brit” knew he’d need some expert help making one or more of them race-ready in the two days prior to the race. Yes, two days to prep at least one car from the dormant-for-35-years collection of rusty British Leyland steel you see above.

So, a team was recruited, and Legend of LeMons Spank flew out from San Diego. Spank races an Austin America on the West Coast (in addition to, among other fine machines, a Harley-Davidson-engined Toyota Prius), so he has the hard-earned know-how to make the “stretched Mini” survive on a race track.

Spank had three cage kits cut and bent in California, and shipped them to Houston ahead of his arrival. The number of cars they’d cage and get running would depend on how many cars’ worth of good parts they could scavenge from the four basket-case Austins.

It didn’t take long to realize that the blue car was rusted beyond redemption, so the team hacked as much sheetmetal as possible out of it, for use in patching the slightly-less-rusty other cars.

By Friday night, the inventory of good parts revealed that UAW Local 1275 (1275, get it?) had sufficient (possibly) good engine parts to make just a single 1275, along with only one good front suspension subframe. So, everyone clustered around the yellow-green car and got busy stitching grave-robbed parts into it.

The inspections came and went, and the America wasn’t ready. The green flag waved, and the America wasn’t ready. The sun set, the sun rose, and America was still waiting. Finally, late on Sunday morning, the America rolled up for its tech inspection. Sure, the exhaust system fell off at that point, but the car passed and got onto the track. Success!

The fairy-tale version of this story would involve the yellow-green UAW Local 1275 America whizzing around the track for the rest of the race without a single hiccup… but this is the real world, where Hydrolastic suspensions fail and spew fluid all over. Fortunately, the team was able to scrounge up a usable displacer unit from one of the other America carcasses and get the car back on the track. 33 total laps, 89th place, and a well-deserved Heroic Fix trophy!

Closely related to the Most Heroic Fix award, the I Got Screwed award goes to the team that does all the work of a Heroic Fix-winning team but doesn’t get the triumphant ending to their saga. This time, it appeared that the Beaker-ish scientists of Team Bad Science had the I Got Screwed all sewn up with their weekend of bad-science disaster and misery. The name of Carroll Shelby was being used in conjunction with a lot of unprintable words as the Bad Scientists replaced every single sensor, computer, piece of wire, and any other item that might have had something to do with their Daytona Shelby Turbo Z’s refusal to run correctly. In the end, nothing worked, and the team creaked out just 15 laps… and were beaten by both the Electric Datsun and the Austin America.

So, we had Bad Science Racing in the books for the I Got Screwed award… and then, with 15 minutes to go before the checkered flag, there was a terrible screeching of tires and rending of metal, and another team got screwed even worse. So, we dug up an extra trophy and presented Bad Science with the first-ever I Got Screwed Lite award.

The main protagonist in the cruel drama that played out 23 hours and 45 minutes into the race was the Ford of Property Devaluation Racing. This team has been racing various members of the Fox Ford family in Texas for many years, and this race was the debut of their latest car: a 1983 Ford LTD, which had been purchased new by the mother of a member of Property Devaluation-affiliated Sensory Assault Racing.

At the North Dallas Hooptie race this Spring, the Property Devaluation Fox Thunderbird experienced one of the most violent engine failures we’d ever seen, tearing up everything even remotely associated with the engine and transmission. Property Devaluation was due for a good race, right?

Wrong. Two cars tried to occupy the same space at the same time, and the LTD got stuffed into the wall near Turn 1. We’re happy to report that the driver is fine, but the car didn’t fare so well. Here it is being kicked into a shape that will allow the carcass to be loaded into the trailer. Photo by Sajeev Mehta.

For each race, we designate a region- or race-specific trophy for some unforeseen accomplishment. This time, that trophy was the Five Minutes To Domination Award, and it went to a combination of The Syndicate, a Texas-based LeMons team with a fondness for German steel, and the arrive-and-drive crew from The Truth About Cars who flew long distances to Houston to drive this 1976 Mercedes-Benz 450SLC. The Syndicate had two other cars in the race as well: the Judges’ Choice-winning tiki-bar-ized Volkswagen “Jettarossa” and a monstrous Mercedes-Benz 560SEL. The Jetta showed up in time to catch the green flag, but where were the other two cars, especially the one the long-distance arrive-and-drives were supposed to drive?

Starting during the inspections, we kept hearing that one or another of the Benzes was “five minutes from the track” and that we should get ready to inspect it… and then nothing would show up. Day turned to night, and still no sight of the cars, though Syndicate-affiliated personnel kept dropping by to get tech-inspection forms, always assuring us that only five minutes remained before the 560SEL or 450SLC would arrive in all its glory. The night dragged on, and the ritual continued. The desperate car writers took some stints in the Jetta, which promptly developed engine woes (and was dumped by the penalty box and abandoned by the wrecker crew).

At some point, the long-awaited Mercedes-Benzes showed up and got inspected in the wee hours of the morning. The 560SEL looked incredible on the track and wasn’t slow, but the total number of laps was disappointing: 96. The 450SLC was slow and went around the track a mere two times. For all this, we gave everyone involved the Five Minutes To Domination trophy.

Sometimes a team shows up in the penalty box so many times that a bond forms between the racers and the Justices of the LeMons Supreme Court, and that bond is recognized by the awarding of the Judges’ Choice trophy. In this case, it was the “Barbie’s Corvette” GMC Caballero of RIP Racing, the oil-leakingest, door-handle-scrapingest piece of Detroit iron we’ve seen in some time.

Some of the penalty box visits were for excessive smoke caused by the oil-spewing small-block Chevy under the hood of Barbie’s Corvette, and a couple were for spins and offs caused by its signature GM A-body handling. About a dozen visits, however, were the result of the team’s inability to rig up a functioning taillight for the nighttime portion of the race. Note the oft-taped speaker wire stretching across the truck’s bed. Judges’ Choice!

For Organizer’s Choice, we decided that the upgraded decor of the “Fo Shogun” Ford Festiva of Team We Are Not Really From Iran (the team takes its name from the fact that you can still buy a new Festiva— badged as a Saipa 131— in Iran) earned the prize.

This car features a Mazda B engine swap, effectively doubling its power (and halving its reliability), and competed in several Midwest Region LeMons races looking like something out of The Lord Humungus’ motor pool (see photo above). For the team’s trip to the Gator-O-Rama, they made the car look like more than the ill-advised engine swap victim it is.

That leaves the big one, the Victoria Cross of LeMons racing: the Index of Effluency. This time, the Slant-Six-powered 1964 Dodge Dart of Escape Velocity Racing finished well into the top half of the standings (42nd place overall), beating hordes of sporty Miatas, E30s, Mustangs, and Integras with its archaic leaf springs, pushrod-equipped 225-cubic-inch engine, 2.76:1 rear gears, and pushbutton-shifter automatic transmission.

While Escape Velocity Racing didn’t have much luck with the K-car, they made up for it with the Dart. Congratulations, Escape Velocity!

Photographs by Nick Pon and Murilee Martin

About Murilee Martin