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Fast and Spurious

Part Doo Dah Parade, part Daytona 500, California's '24 Hours of LeMons' debuts as the last, desperate gasp of the sub-$500 car

January 21, 2007|Preston Lerner | Preston Lerner has written about racing and other subjects for Sports Illustrated, Men's Journal, Wired, Popular Science and Automobile Magazine.

Ever wonder what happens to your car after you deem it too unreliable, uncomfortable and unremarkable for your upwardly mobile lifestyle? You sell it to a kid who's light on cash but heavy on tattoos that he'll regret later. He happily rolls over the odometer--twice--before deciding that it's too unreliable, uncomfortable and unremarkable now that he's got a real job and an actual girlfriend. Plus, it won't pass smog. So he unloads it on an ex-con who learned how to work on cars while serving three to five. But he never gets around to fixing the ignition, or maybe it's the damn electronics, so the poor slug sits up on blocks on the dead lawn outside his mobile home-cum-meth lab accumulating rust, empty beer cans and rodents.

Ever wonder what happens to the car after that?

If it's lucky, it's donated to a high school shop class or mercifully euthanized in a crusher. If it's got bad karma, it's here at a small racetrack in Northern California in the company of 32 other equally miserable derelicts sentenced to life or, more likely, death in a test of driving skill, mechanical savvy and general lunacy known as the 24 Hours of LeMons. That's no typo. This is a twice-around-the-clock race for cars that cost less than $500. The fun factor is supposed to be high, and the irreverence quotient should be even higher. Think of it as the Doo Dah Parade meets the Daytona 500, with elements of a demolition derby and "The Gong Show" thrown in for good measure.

It's a cloudless Saturday morning in October a few hours before the extravaganza is scheduled to begin, and several hundred entrants have queued up outside the registration booth at Altamont Motorsports Park. The parking lot of the modest facility, nestled in the hills between Tracy and Livermore, resembles a junkyard sprung to zombified half-life, "Night of the Living Dead" for beaters. I spot a white 1979 Camaro sporting more wrinkles than Mother Teresa after four hours in a hot tub and a '70 Bimmer whose flamed hood turns out, upon examination, to consist entirely of rust. But saddest of all is a '79 Caprice painted a post-apocalyptic shade of gray-green. Swear to God, I've seen sepia-toned photographs of antique electric chairs that looked less scary than this bomb's interior.

The provocateur behind this madness is automotive journalist and publisher Jay Lamm. A devotee of old cars, the quirkier the better, Lamm is a regular participant in the Double 500--a 500-kilometer road rally for cars that cost $500 or less. Originally envisioned as a high-concept, lowbrow alternative to the posh and sophisticated California Mille, the Double 500 has developed its own robust following of fun-loving eccentrics and other practitioners of automotive farce. Lamm's only gripe about that event was it didn't set the bar high enough to scare off fair-weather types. "Anybody can whip out a checkbook to buy a car that can run a road rally," he explains. A 24-hour race, on the other hand, would require moxie, dedication and a level of mental instability that comes close to clinical dementia.

My excuse for participating in the inaugural LeMons enduro is that I expect it to shed some light on the dark underbelly of California's car culture. Well, that and because Lamm is letting me co-drive the crash-damaged, performance-challenged '89 Toyota Corolla he has procured for the event, and I've never seen a car I didn't want to race. As motor-sports rookie Virgil Watson puts it as he stands next to the '83 Golf--bought for $200--that he'll be driving: "Every little boy fantasizes about racing even if it's just in a piece of crap."

Although the cars are junkers, there are a handful of ringers among the drivers. Bruce Trenery has raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona, and his son Spencer is a veteran of numerous international enduros. Meanwhile, writers from car magazines have descended on Altamont in such droves that you'd think Lamm was giving away a free dinner. (He is, actually, along with breakfast and $3,000 in prize money to be awarded in canvas sacks filled with nickels.)

As for the rest of the entrants, 179 total, the one common thread is a love of cars. Make that an obsession with cars. For the vast majority of the racers, winning isn't the goal. They're just here to compete, in most cases for the first time ever, and despite the FAQ Lamm has posted on the LeMons website--which answers questions such as "Will I die?" and "Where do I hose myself off?"--they have no clue what to expect. Exhibit A is an upbeat group of enthusiasts-slash-racing newbies who met online in a forum devoted to Ford Focus owners. Their street-worthy '86 Toyota Tercel has been so lovingly prepared, down to the striking Ninja-pirates-with-lasers vinyl graphics (don't ask), that it's a shame to let it loose on the track, sort of like using Michelangelo's David as a pinata.

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