By Kurt Gensheimer
Photos: Matthew Talbott, Alex Fruehsamer, Patrick Pieper
I’m racing a $500 VW Rabbit GTI into turn one at Thunderhill and the only thing going through my mind is the video of a friend’s GTI snapping a front wheel spindle and doing a 90 mile-an-hour barrel roll into the grass. I know it’s taboo to think those things when racing, but when you’re at the helm of a 25 year-old malmaintenanced schlockbox, sometimes your subconscious gets the best of you.
To make matters worse, it’s dark, wet, there’s no lighting on the track whatsoever and every five minutes someone goes four off; resulting in a muddy, slick, snotty mess once they return to asphalt. I try and take things easy, telling myself this is a race of consistency, not speed. My teammate Timmy C is on the race radio telling me the same thing. “Easy Bro. Easy. Stay out of trouble.” But upon exiting turn one, a white RX-7 spits fireballs into the night trying to pass before turn two. I momentarily paid no heed to Timmy C’s words of warning.
I crest the hill over turn one with the little Rabbit full throttle and the mangled nose of the Wankel in my periphery. I smell the unburnt fuel and hear the deviant backfires. We’re wheel to wheel, but not for long. A fenderless black CRX caked in mud appears from left field and decides to perform a graceful four-wheel pirouette – directly in my line. The entire race rotates uncontrolled before me. This is it. It’s over. I’m gonna ram into the CRX, and we’ll be finished. Three tries, three failed attempts at completing the 24 Hours of LeMons. Curse this damn race.
My foot strangles the brake pedal and the RX-7 shrieks past. I keep the wheel straight to avoid involving any other cars and careen headlong into the CRX. We make contact just as his headlights are locked with mine. I jolt forward in my seat like a bumper car ride and we both come to a stop. The car is dead. We sit for a moment in the dark and stare at one another. I’m okay. He’s okay. I turn the ignition and the scrappy 1.8 liter barks to life. I tromp the throttle and act as if nothing ever happened. He does the same.
In only one year since it’s inception, the 24 Hours of LeMons has become one of the most talked about car races in the United States. With entrants like a decrepit Cadillac hearse, an antlered Jeep, a shag carpet Mitsubishi and one universally hated car which faces its imminent demise in the iron jaws of an excavator, it’s no wonder the brainchild of automotive journalist Jay Lamm has been so popular. Where else can you see an Alfa Romeo Spider with a radiator for a spoiler, a Mercedes 190 that hasn’t run in 30 years, a mullettastic Camaro and a Toyota pickup operating on one cylinder – all on the same track?
For our team, ZZ Über Das Driver, the previous two outings in our 1983 VW Rabbit GTI were frustrating and short-lived. The Altamont course was pure insanity; packing 90 cars onto a track less than a mile long. In the July event, our fearless pilot, Trav – notorious for being banned for life from Enterprise Rent-a-Car after too many Bill Hickman impressions – got a little over exuberant and rolled the black Rabbit wheels up. But Rabbits die hard, especially ours. We were able to get back in the race, but fuel system woes forced our abandon at the end of day one. In the October demolition derby debacle, coined “an absolute low point in car racing” by Jay Lamm himself, the Rabbit was taken out early by a direct hit into the rear wheel, destroying the rear suspension arm – an easily solved problem had we brought a spare car.
But this time around, we were adequately prepared. We had a spare car, a safety wire-happy mechanic in our buddy Matthew and an improved track which made the event a far more successful endeavor. With 20 fewer cars on the track than Altamont, Thunderhill was comparatively wide open. But the longer 1.3 mile course allowed for higher speeds, making it potentially more dangerous than Altamont. Therefore, the officials had absolutely no leniency in bang-em-up driving. Tag someone, you get a black flag. Get tagged, you’re getting a flag as well. Although black flags at Altamont were purely fun, jovial and sometimes even overlooked, Thunderhill was polar opposite. Repercussions like 4-hour impounds, a bottle of metal shavings being poured into your engine, shock collars and being banned from the track if you roll your car were just a few of the penalties. The harsh consequences served their purpose. Besides a few yahoos repeatedly causing trouble early on – resulting in a one-way ticket out the front gate – the driving was quite civil.
The Saturday start was wet, cold and slicker than the Brille Creme man. Slipping off track meant the probability of getting stuck in the mud for up to an hour before officials called a yellow flag to rescue you; further motivation to not drive like a knucklehead. After almost losing it in 5a and getting up on two wheels after clipping the curb in turn 5, AKA The Cyclone, I settled into a groove and the track dried out. The one car that immediately caught my attention was the Mazdasaurus – a mangled 626 adorned like a Stegosaurus. Not only did it howl like a full-blown race car, but it lapped everyone on the track like it was a full-blown race car. In a $500 crapcan race, it’s okay if a car is impressively fast, but the Mazdasaurus was insanely fast. Too fast to survive. It had to die a violent death.
After nearly two hours, we were sitting in ninth place and did our first pit stop. Besides the ridiculously fast Mazdasaurus, other quick cars included a Rabbit GTI identical to ours, a bitchin’ Camaro, a colorfully adorned Protege (the eventual winner), a crumpled Cavalier wagon – you read that correctly – an Integra, three RX-7s, a couple MR2s, a gaggle of CRXs and a healthy dose of 3-series Bimmers – one of which was topless and sported my favorite team name, ‘Holy Shit its Cold’. Amen, brother!
Next up in the car for us was big Bob McIntire, who wheeled the little Rabbit around the track with ease. Being heavy and strong enough to actually lift the rear end of the Rabbit off the ground can come at a weight penalty, but Bob Mac understands the concept of inertia and uses it to his advantage. Hence part of the reason why he blasted straight through one of the painted tire barrier chicanes, giving the front of the Rabbit a white rattlecan racing stripe.
One of the few girls non compos mentis enough to take the wheel of a LeMons car was fellow ZZ Über Das Driver, Kat Pearl, who reliably ate up laps while her flip-happy hubby, Trav, prepared to drive without getting into trouble. She piloted the GTI into darkness and gave the controls over to Trav just before 6PM. Our two neighbors, The Crash Test Dummies – a 3-series BMW with a dummy sitting shotgun flipping the bird – and Team Festivus – a Subaru Impreza with a huge aluminum pole protruding from the roof – were running within a few laps of us.
Besides a near disastrous t-bone hit in the passenger door, Trav ran circles around his competitors and kept clear of any penalties. I took the track for the last couple hours of the night. The first few laps were insane. I was getting passed left and right and couldn’t get into a groove. One lap a turn would be fast and dry, the next there’d be a streak of mud and rocks across it.
Carnage abounded. Lights spun in my rearview mirror like a disco ball. Besides our minor collision with the CRX, the crest over turn one also hosted a violent rear-ender between a Neon and a Datsun 280Z and a spectacular rollover involving a puke-yellow Datsun B210. Thankfully, everyone involved came out unscathed. It was clear that poor visibility, fatigue and thirst for post-race brews was setting in. I held things together and kept the Rabbit on course. By the end of the night we were in 25th place. A few minor mechanical issues and frequent slow pit stops hindered us, but we were happy. At least we made it through the first day.
Sunday brought sunshine, warmth and a dry track. Timmy C started and was running solid until “Saabs Gone Wild” lived up to its name and gave Timmy the old dive and punt in the rear end, spinning him into the mud midway through turn one. Bob Mac put in an extremely impressive stint where he actually hung with the Mazdasaurus for several laps; an accomplishment in its own right. But the Mazdasaurus was living on borrowed time. Its insane speed, exhaust note and incessant corner diving earned the loathing of everyone, so the Mazdasarus met its demise in the iron jaws of a John Deere excavator.
And unlike the BMW 740i that got crushed in the last Altamont race and managed to do a few limping laps afterward, this People’s Curse wasn’t coming out alive. The excavator tore the mechanical heart right out of the Mazdasaurus and dumped it on the lawn. The crowd chucked lemons and roared in approval of its public execution. There was no mercy for the Mazdasaurus.
Meanwhile, Trav was on the track earning the kudos of race officials and fans alike. The speed he carried through the second chicane was almost scary, enabling him to pop off a 1:16.8 lap – the eighth fastest of the weekend. Not bad for a heap with horsepower in the double digits. He went so fast, in fact, he cracked the header clean in half, resulting in a deafening exhaust note for the last two hours of the race. Thankfully, we weren’t black flagged for the exhaust, but on the first lap of my last stint, I was black flagged after getting hit and spun down the face of the Cyclone. At first I thought I just hit the curb too aggressively, sending the Rabbit into a spin. I pulled into the hot pit. The official leaned over.
“Recognize your friend behind you?”
I looked in my rearview mirror. It was that blasted CRX again. Only this time our shenanigans were caught by the referees. Even though he hit me from behind, I feared the worst. Metal shavings in the engine, a shock collar where I didn’t want one and Lamm only knows what else. The official looked at his watch. It was twenty after two.
“What time does this thing end?” he asked.
“Three o’clock, sir,” I responded.
“Well you’re lucky. Don’t let me see you again.”
The battle-worn Rabbit thundered its way back onto the track with more audible authority than a Harley. In the end, car 19 finished 19th, but in a race like the 24 Hours of LeMons, simply finishing is an achievement worth celebrating; just ask the guy in the MR2. He was so excited to finish that in the last straightaway of the last lap, he inexplicably flipped the car on its roof. Jay stood in disbelief and shook his head.
“And we were so close to having one day without a rollover. So close.”