Racing is serious business. Unless you’re auto-crossing in a rental car, it costs a truckload of money to build and race a car, the level of competition is intense, the danger is ever-present, and the thrill of victory is an oft-distant target that makes you sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. Then there’s the 24 Hours of LeMons.
Whereas “normal racing” has all of the above attributes, LeMons is quite different. As the series describes itself, “Endurance racing for $500 cars. It’s not just an oxymoron; it’s a breeding ground for morons. It’s where Pintos and Maseratis battle to lap a Le Car. It’s where first-timers dice with Nomex-soiling pros.” Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.
A LeMons race is probably the most fun you’ll ever have at a race track. The mood is totally unlike that of the typical SCCA or NASA event; the vast majority of LeMons racers are there to have fun with their friends in oddball, ready-for-the-scrap-heap cars on legit road courses. The cars themselves are more Halloween costumes than real race cars, as a large part of the gag lies in “decorating” an entry in the most hilarious or ironic way possible, and coming up with a team name that is equal parts humorous and profane.
Starting as a gag with just one race, back in 2006 at the infamous Altamont Speedway just east of San Francisco, California, LeMons has grown to 18 races in 2014 (plus two separate Concours d’LeMons car shows) at tracks all across the country. The cars must have a maximum value of $500 not counting the required safety equipment—check out their website at 24HoursOfLemons.com for the complete rules and requirements. At tech inspection, a car’s value is determined by the LeMons black-robed and powdered wig-wearing judges, and they often call BS on a team’s claim of value and penalize the car with laps. But that’s part of the fun.
If you’re a racing fan and have never attended or competed in a LeMons race, you owe it to yourself to at least check it out. At the very least, go to their website, read the hilarious comments and look at the ridiculous machines that have competed over the years, and you’ll understand what we’re talking about. We wanted to get the lowdown on the history and inside dirt on the LeMons series, so we did this interview with “Chief Perp” John “Jay” Lamm, from whose clinically insane brain this whole idea sprouted.
Turnology: First off, give us your history in the automotive world. Who are you, where did you come from, what jobs have you had, etc.?
Jay Lamm: When I was 16, I sold my first piece to Autoweek and like to say I’ve never had a real job since. I was a freelancer through my mid-20s and wrote for everybody, did a few books through Motorbooks International, was editor of Sports Car International for a few years, then Vintage Motorsports’s editor. Later, I started a contract publishing business doing about four or five magazines for various clients, and then I fell into this thing.
TO: Where did the idea for LeMons come from?
JL: “I always say that it came out of a bottle of beer, which is partly true. The old European sports car world was always my field of enthusiasm. I got to know a lot of people, wound up doing a lot of events and doing a lot of expensive vintage rallying at the time. I was sitting around with a bunch of my buddies from the expensive vintage rally world and one of them said, ‘You know, the guys who you just met are true car guys. They know everything about cars because they’re sophisticated enough to spend $6,000 for a rally.’
If you really want to separate the guys who are true car guys from the guys who are solving the problem with their checkbooks, take away the value of the checkbook.
And I said, ‘That’s a bunch of bullshit; half of these guys don’t know anything about cars, they’re solving the problem with their checkbook. If you really want to separate the guys who are true car guys from the guys who are solving the problem with their checkbooks, take away the value of the checkbook.’ That’s the shortened version. The idea was to do one event for my buddies at the table and I, and we were just going to have a lot of fun. We were going to do a 24-hour race and I figured within the first two hours every car would have exploded and we’d spend the next 22 hours in a bar.”
TO: Initially, it was just one race, but has since expanded to 20+ over the years. Did you plan on that kind of growth?
JL: “There was absolutely no intention for this to be anything more than a one-time party, but it’s taken on a life of its own. As the magazine business became a better and better business to get out of, this thing, by pure good fortune, became more like a business. It just grew very organically. By accident, what we’re showing is that for $500 any idiot can have 99% of the experience of a guy that’s spending $500,000 on a race car, and in fact for most idiots it’s actually a better experience because they don’t want to compete at that level and they don’t want to be in the middle of such a testosterone-fueled agrofest. They really just want a place to go have fun with cars.”
TO): Have you had any serious injuries in LeMons history?
JL: “We have had two fatal heart attacks on site, which is obviously tragic in those cases and very difficult for everyone involved, especially the families of the heart attack victim. Not to try to make light of that, but the fact is that golf courses, bowling alleys, ski resorts certainly, any activity you talk about where you have that many people, you’re going to have that, so whether that’s directly related to the racing or not, who knows. Other than the heart attacks, we really haven’t. We’ve been very lucky.
People get a little banged up or, you know, they’ll fall down in the pits. That happens much more than anything on the track. On the track the only thing we’ve had that’s really been a close call was one guy who flipped his car a few years ago and cracked one of the sides of his vertebrae in his neck. Turned out not to be a problem and the guy’s fine but that could have been a huge issue for the guy. Other than that we haven’t had any real problems.”
TO: Fundamentally it’s still a dangerous sport and you can’t really do anything about that.
JL: “It turns out there’s actually quite a lot you can do about it. The degree to which you do those things, your intelligence about them, and your making those things a priority, that gives you significantly better chances that you’re not going to have somebody get hurt. But it doesn’t give you zero chances. And that’s really the most difficult thing for me, frankly, about being in this business.
You know you’re never going to get to zero chance and that’s hard to deal with and it’s hard to keep pushing forward to reduce the risk here to people. That’s 80 percent of what I do in the office, dealing with the risk management team to keep us going on this path of a balance between being accessible and affordable, but it also has to be something we can all sleep at night when we think about what we’re doing.”
TO: In the beginning, you had the Peoples’ Curse, which was the car or team voted on by other racers as the most annoying in the race, and the car was crushed with a backhoe. Do you ever do that anymore, and if not, why?
The People’s Curse started out as a way to send the signal really clearly that we did not want agro, door-smashing, waving a tire wrench around in the paddock
JL: “We haven’t done that for a number of years. The People’s Curse started out as a way to send the signal really clearly that we did not want agro, door-smashing, waving a tire wrench around in the paddock—we didn’t want those guys. If those guys wanted to race there were plenty of other places in the world for them to race and we really wanted to send that message super clear.
And I think that the People’s Curse was a great tool to very quickly make people understand that we weren’t about that kind of behavior and for scaring those guys away. And within a couple of years, those guys realized ‘this isn’t for me. Those guys don’t like me, I don’t like them, best for us not to play together.’ Once those guys were gone, once you no longer had those teams in the paddock who were real trophy-addict a$%holes, then you’re left trying to crush somebody’s car who really doesn’t deserve it. So we stopped doing that.”
TO: I raced LeMons twice and had a great time, but the penalties, while hilarious to watch being served, seemed to be handed out for very minor infractions. Do you do this for entertainment purposes and to jack with people, or for what you see as a real violation on the track?
JL: “It’s always related to the track. The thing about the penalties that most people don’t understand—when we talked about the safety and doing everything you can to break the chain of events before you wind up with a bad outcome, that’s what the penalties are for. That’s the only reason they exist, and they’re dressed up in comedy and embarrassing stuff and in harsh language, all of those things are just window dressing to deal with the fact that these seemingly minor infractions need to be dealt with to lower the chances of a major incident.”
TO: What is the worst incident of cheating you’ve ever seen?
There will be $2,000 worth of coil-overs that some guy thought satin black spray paint would make look like 50 year-old stock parts
JL: “[Laughs] It’s hard to pick just one or two! It would be good if people understood that satin black spray paint does not render components invisible. Three to four times a race you’ll stick your head under a car and there will be $2,000 worth of coil-overs that some guy thought satin black spray paint would make look like 50 year-old stock parts.
That shit doesn’t work. The cheat that irritates me the most because it’s so unambitious, and so embarrassingly lazy, are the guys who tech with legal tires. Our rules require 190 treadwear or higher tires, which knocks most super performance and race tires out, that’s why we chose that number.
They’ll go through tech with a legal tire and before or during the race they’ll switch to R compounds. That cheating just really pisses me off—I’ve got no patience for that. It happens every couple, three races. Now, what we generally do is make them take their tires and put them in the grandstand and watch the race for awhile so that the race tires can see what legal tires look like for about an hour, and they tend not to do that cheat again.”
TO: How often does LeMons attract big-name drivers?
JL: “It’s actually really interesting. We’ve had Buddy Rice, who won the Indy 500, Emanuele Pirro who raced Formula 1 and has won LeMans five times; Randy Pobst drives with us all the time; Tommy Kendall drives with us all the time.
We get a number of pros and extremely serious amateurs who come and run with us. That said, it’s a little bit for those guys like a major league baseball player going to a beer league softball game—they really have to understand what they’re doing. Some of them do and they dial it back and just have a good time. Some of them don’t and I don’t blame them. Some of them look around and say, ‘What the hell are all these people doing?
They’re not driving anywhere on the line, they’re not predictable, these cars are terrible, what the F am I doing here?’ We do get those guys and a lot of them have a really good time because it’s their only opportunity to not worry about series points, sponsors, or the car—they can drive the living shit out of this car and if they ball it up, who cares?”
TO: What has been your favorite car in the whole series?
JL: “I really liked the upside-down Camaro, so much so that I bought it myself. I thought it was that cool. Spanks Spangler brought a Citroen DS19 that was mind-blowingly fabulous. It’s hard to pick one because there have been so many fantastic cars. Ninety percent of them are just normal guys with Hondas or Mustangs or whatever and that’s great, but I’d say a full 10 percent have been something spectacular. There was a LeCar with a fabulous skunk costume and a big tail. I like anything that has no business being on a race track and yet people are trying to race it. That stuff always just thrills me.”
TO: What’s the team name that made you laugh the hardest?
JL: “Rob, His Idiot Brother, And Two Stupid Friends” was the best team name I’ve ever seen. Although there have been a whole lot of them. There’s a Volvo painted margarine color called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better.”
TO: If a guy is thinking of building a car and running a LeMons race, what advice would you give him?
JL: “First, if you want to just see what it’s like, the easiest thing to do is just go to the classifieds on our forum and on RacingJunk.com, and both of them have a lot of turnover in teams looking for drivers and drivers looking for teams. A lot of guys get hooked up that way. Second thing is, if you do want to build a car, which for a lot of people is a lot of the fun of it, it turns out to be a social activity.
It’s something to do with their friends and it’s an excuse to get together a few times a week or whatever. If you want to build a car, reliability and durability is so much more important than any perception you might have of speed, handling, and performance. All of those notions of FWD, RWD, V8, 4-cylinder—all that stuff means absolutely nothing compared to, ‘is this car going to live for the full duration of the race.’ So what I always tell people is the best car to LeMons race is a car that someone was driving to work the day before you bought it.
You’re going to do a lot better in an endurance race with a car that’s 15 seconds slower a lap, but does not blow up, than you’re going to do with the fastest, cheatiest, super car, that even once there’s a mechanical problem, you’re off the track for 20 minutes.”
TO: It’s a common practice to bribe the judges when you take a car through tech, in the hopes of lessening the penalties they levy on it. What’s the best bribe you’ve ever gotten?
JL: “We’ve never gotten an exorbitant bribe in terms of value, but some of them are pretty impressive to the point of being heart-warming. There was a team at Carolina that brought me a gold spangly ‘70s open-face motorcycle helmet that had been hand-painted with lemons on either side and a big cursive J on the front. That was spectacular.
We’ve gotten some really good bottles of booze and food There’s a guy that still runs in Texas that figured out how to make the exhaust pipe of his RX7 act as a smoker. He drove around all day long on the Friday test day until the ribs were properly smoked, then he came in and his bribe was opening up his exhaust system and feeding us these delicious ribs.
What Phil [Greden, one of the judges] always tells people is that if your car is at the point where you need to offer a bribe, the bribe isn’t going to help. And yet people get into that, and for them it’s a way for them sort of feel like they’re getting a relationship with a judge who they know is going to yell at them shortly thereafter. That’s another aspect that’s grown up without any thought on our part.”
TO: So what’s next? More races, less, different venues?
There’s a guy that still runs in Texas that figured out how to make the exhaust pipe of his RX7 act as a smoker. He drove around all day long on the Friday test day until the ribs were properly smoked, then he came in and his bribe was opening up his exhaust system and feeding us these delicious ribs.
JL: “I have no f@$%ing idea! I really don’t. I started a number of businesses in my life and I’ve been successful in three different careers now, but this is the first one that had absolutely no planning and no forethought at all, and it’s turned out that’s the smart way to do it, don’t try to plan anything. But as a result I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow, let alone five years from now.
I’m making this shit up as I go. I’m trying to figure out how to just let LeMons not turn into the SCCA, and the longer we go the more difficult it is to keep it from becoming just another group of petty fiefdoms with little Indian chiefs and dictators everywhere, like other 20 to 30 year-old racing series. I’d love to have an answer about how we’re going to dominate the world in the next 10 years but I don’t have a goddamn clue what we’re going to do. We’re just making this crap up.