Eat My RustThe 24 Hours of Lemons: Where demolition derby meets race track
It wasn't the 24 Hours of LeMans. No, when the editors let me out of my cage, I get to cover the 24 Hours of LeMons. It's the opposite of prestigious. And by no means famous. But the race, held at Altamont Motorsport Park in Tracy, California, promised to be so comical that I absolutely had to be a part of it.
Early last October, 34 beaters, all purchased and race-prepped for a mandatory max of $500, gathered at the track to see how long they could survive. Sister mag Sport Compact Car invited me to be one of seven drivers, running a 1990 Celica ST. Not a European car, I know. But driving with SCC put me on the track with some pretty impressive Euro-relics, such as a 1990 Volkswagen Golf GL Wolfsburg Edition dicing with the likes of a BMW 2002, a 1986 Alfa Romeo Milano, and a 1990 Saab 900 Turbo.
Up until race day, I was using adjectives like 'fun' and 'funky.' Upon arriving at the track, however, some of the American land-boats evoked nothing but fear. Our little crap-can was outfitted with a Takata five-point roll cage, although we slacked on the door beams. This, pulling up next to a crumpled 1979 Chevy Camaro with the team name 'H8' crudely spray-painted on its sides. I had been naively rehearsing my role: here was a chance to drive on a track, which I always accept, and showcase my competence as a female driver. All I could obsess on now was my pending performance-the thought never occurred that I could meet with death or dismemberment. Luckily, the HJC HX-11 helmet and Alpinestars race shoes were reassuring.
Thank goodness there was qualifying and penalties for overly-aggressive driving. To enter, the cars had to endure the Old-Lady Mannequin Slalom and the Baby Carriage Braking Test. Participants staggered back and forth between plastic patio chairs set up with mannequins, and stopped as abruptly as possible when the judges hurled plastic strollers in front of the cars. Demo-hungry drivers were black-flagged and penalized by spinning the Wheel Of Misfortune. On this board were items like the Grille of Damocles-a metal plate welded to the grille with spikes mounted toward the radiator (for the rammers). For those driving like hogs, officials would also do such things as weld a steel air brake, in the shape of a pig or rooster, to the top of the car, or weld training wheels to the sides. Or, if it came to it, they would zip-tie a cassette player inside the car, looping such classics as Billy Joel's greatest hits and Chicken Soup for the Soul. These guys weren't messing around.
The best part about racing a car worth only $500 is that you don't care if you hurt it. It was the first time I was on a track where I could perfect a well-placed slide into the turn and not worry too much about stepping out and kissing another driver's quarter panel on the exit. I even heard a 'big car' driver hysterically laughing as he rammed me from the side. I came into the pits to find my team staring. I thought I had made a mistake. What I did was post the best lap time of the team. Well, they made sure to best it after that-they couldn't have a chick crash the party.
The race didn't last 24 hours. It was 13 hours over two days, with 14 survivors. And after the dust and shrapnel cleared, our team took third. The People's Curse award went to a 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora, which was summarily destroyed by women with pick-axes and then flipped upside down. People's Choice was a 1986 BMW 535i, raking in the large sum of $1,000. And affectionately, the organizers awarded a 1963 Mercedes-Benz 190 a $500 prize just for being so darn classy. Completing the most laps was a 1982 Toyota Corolla, winning the first-place prize of $1,500. The payments were dished out in burlap sacks of nickels.