Organizers then remind participants of flag colors and their meanings. A red-and-yellow flag means that “some cheesy piece of crap has fallen off someone’s car and onto the track,” they say. Lamm adds dryly that they might just need to hoist that one permanently.
Through strategic track configuration, top speeds are limited to about 80 miles per hour -- assuming the cars can even reach that velocity. Serious full-on crashes are rare, but contact isn’t. Neither are spinouts. And there’s plenty of passing on yellow flags, which is a no-no in real racing. Most of the drivers at LeMons either don’t know the rule or simply don’t mind it, which results in plenty of penalties.
Drivers here -- most teams have five or six of them -- are a mishmash of regional racers and ridiculously inexperienced Jeff Gordon wannabes. The real racers who participate in LeMons do so because they can casually race with no worries of pleasing sponsors or mangling expensive equipment, while the newbies appreciate the opportunity to stick their head into the lion’s mouth of auto racing at a forgiving price point. (A frugal team of five or so racers can grab the wheel -- assuming the pitiful tin can they buy comes with one -- for about $700 each, which would cover the vehicle purchase price, entry fees, and the costs of safety equipment and proper race suits.)
“The car you bring here, you don’t even have to worry about driving it home,” says driver Misty Cain, standing alongside her not-lovely purple Dodge Neon. “You don’t even have to worry about hauling it away from the track if you don’t want to.”
For all of the race’s silliness, the LeMons enterprise has grown steadily since its start in 2006, with 10 races scheduled to take place around the United States this year. Lamm has been approached by reality-TV producers and brand-name sponsors, but he’s concerned that adding such influences could lead to slippage of the whimsy and absurdity that make LeMons work.
Interest in the burgeoning LeMons circuit among drivers is moving faster than some of the crummy cars that race. This race, the first of 2009, drew 180 entries. Officials accepted 100.
For most drivers, LeMons isn’t about winning. The Team Beermer guys, for instance, see their rusty old BMW conk out after just three laps. They are hardly bitter, though. The creed of the spunky and ¬intrepid prevails here: Ninety percent of success is just showing up. Instead, the Beermer team members spend much of the weekend straining to get their skunky hunk back on the track. That’s another point of the race. Lamm says organizers wanted to eliminate what he calls the “checkbook wrench” -- that is, crews have more fun really solving problems, not just throwing money at the cars, as is done at more hoity-toity races.
The LeMons winner is rarely the fastest car. Rather, since the winning car is simply the one that’s completed the most laps at the end of the weekend, the victor is usually a car that has stayed out of the penalty area. That’s how a humble Saturn can conquer a bunch of high-minded BMWs; how a 1979 Pinto wagon can finish ahead of 45 other cars, as one does here in Houston. It seems every race has one of these studies in determination logging laps with dogged consistency, even if it’s undeniably a slow beast of the herd.
“There was this old black Malibu out here last year, and I swear we passed that thing twice on every lap,” says Jim Bradley, who is racing a 1975 Camaro. “But he just kept going and going, and finished 22nd.”
Bradley’s crew is just around the corner from the team racing the ’79 Pinto, which found its $250 car where most drivers do: on the Internet (most come from Craigslist). The team happily recalls the story of registering the Pinto with the state. A skeptical clerk who was sure they were attempting to skirt taxes by listing the price as a measly $250 researched the vehicle on the official list of standard values. She returned with the verdict, a tad defeated, saying, “According to the state of Texas, your car actually has zero value.”
That’s the beauty of 24 Hours of LeMons: Here, and probably only here, that zero can become a hero.