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|What I Did Last Weekend: The 24 Hours of LeMons New England, Part 2|
|Written by Jim Brennan|
|Sunday, 19 July 2009 03:50|
The 24 Hours of LeMons is a series of events held throughout the country, and the circus made a stop in Connecticut during the weekend of July 11, and 12. This spirit of the event is to make racing available to almost everyone, with cars that are suppose to cost no more than $500, and to make it so it's not taken all that seriously with teams donning costumes, and cars that are of questionable taste at best.
As you know, I formed a team of amateur race car drivers, mechanics, and groupies, together with running the oldest car at any LeMons event (so far). On Friday night, my team drew numbers to see how the rotation of drivers would play out. I drew number 1, which meant that I was the first driver to go out on the track on Saturday. However, before anyone was allowed to drive, we would first have to pass the tech inspection, and then we would have to pass the bulls**t inspection. Wait, what? Ahh, the bulls**t inspection, in which two judges, dressed in robes and wigs, pronounces your car worthy of running this event, and determines whether or not you are cheating in any way, either by overspending on performance enhancements, or that your car was purchased (and subsequently upgraded) to go over the $500 limit. If the judges find that you have overspent, they assess penalty laps; one lap for every $10 you exceed the limit. Oh, but you can decrease your chances of getting a penalty by bribing the judges, and they take anything from cash, to liquor, to posing with your nearly naked girlfriend for pictures. Unfortunately, our team breezed right through BS Inspection, with zero penalty laps, without having to bribe anyone. It was tech inspection that was our problem.
On our first time around at the Tech Inspection point, we failed straight away. Our driver's seat wasn't securely anchored (well enough) to the inspectors liking, and they were right. We had to roll the car back into our assigned pit lane, and tighten down the reclining mechanism and the seat back (We didn't go with a one piece racing seat because of the different drivers), but it still wasn't tight enough. The seats were welded into place, so I knew they were staying put, but I had to convince the inspectors. They were convinced about the seat, but the kill switch didn't work, and we failed a second time. The switch worked when we had a generator, but we had to install an alternator because it crapped out, and the switch didn't do its job. My mechanic, Johnny, and car expert extraordinaire, Katherine, worked it out so the switch performed as advertised.
With the Inspections finished, the teams (all 58 of them) lined up to go out onto the track. It was around 11:00, and the organizers were running a little behind. I was dressed in my second hand NASCAR driver's suit that was once used by the Ken Schrader team from 2005, with AT&T as the main sponsor. I also purchased a racing helmet as a closeout, along with driving shoes and gloves that were also closeouts. As I sat in the car, all strapped in, my mind was filled with racing images that I have witnessed during my youth. It was nothing like I imagined, yet it was more exciting than anything I could have ever hoped for. As we were parading around the track single file, so the track officials could perform some transponder testing, I realized that this was the very first time I was on a race track in a competition. Then I noticed that one of the cars was stopped by the edge of the first turn. It was one of the cars that is in my class, a rather interesting Peugeot 504, with a PRV V-6 transplant, favored to win the Index of Effluency trophy. Man, that's going to be a long day for them.
The green flag fell, and we were off, only I was being passed, by almost everyone. Cars were passing me on my right, on my left, and were right on my tail. Is the engine running? Did I stall? Am I in gear? I was racing, but it seems that my car is the absolute slowest car on the track. And why not, since it's a 46-year-old car, with a stock muffler system, powered through a two-speed Powerglide automatic. It's not built for speed, but as it turned out, it was built for reliability. As I made my way to turn one, another handling trait of the Corvair made itself known; oversteer! I owned Corvairs in the past, and I was actually comfortable with this trait, like visiting an old peculiar friend after so many years. What I wasn't prepared for was that running through those sweeping curves on the track as I was making steering corrections all the way through. This became even more pronounced during the infield excursions, as the course was exceedingly rough, enough to chatter your dentures, and tear up your suspension, but the car handled this section well. Turn five lead to the fastest part of the track, in which we utilized the banking. All the cars that I held up behind me came roaring around, two, three, sometimes four cars wide at the banking. While you couldn't hear my engine, those glorious Alfa, Toyota, and BMW sixes made deafening, yet melodic noises while they charged around my little 'Vair.
I was out on the course for a little under an hour, when I felt the little pancake six starting to lose power. Not much mind you, but at the start of the race, I was able to do 66 MPH on the fastest part of the track. Now, after heating up the track, it topped out at around 60, and I radioed in that I'm losing power. So I came in, and Johnny and the crew could not find anything wrong. We made a driver change (Andy) and I was out for the day. Now I'm not going to go into great detail on how the five other drivers handled the course. Let's just say, they all spun out at least once. You see, the independent rear suspension of the early Corvairs used a swing axle arrangement, with one universal joint for each side. This was very similar to the set up used by Mercedes-Benz for their sports cars in the fifties, only the weight distribution was much different. What happens is that under a heavy load, like cornering under speed, the outer axle actually lifts the car, and the tire rolls under the rim, losing traction. This was illustrated with this car all weekend, with the rear tires coming in worn on the rear edges.
The 24 Hours of LeMons is part car race, part circus, and nothing illustrates the circus better than the penalties issued to the participants who are black flagged for contact, spinning off course, or generally driving like maniacs. Andy, who was the first to spin, elected to sit out for 15 minutes, rather than suffer the humiliation of taking a penalty. Penalties of the past include "Mime your Crime" in which you have to have mime makeup applied, and you have to "Mime" your driving style to the audience. There is also "Fashion Show" in which you have to wear a dress, wig, and fake boobs, and use a mega phone to announce what you did. Then there is the barn yard, which we experienced firsthand. Carmine, who was our third driver, performed a spin in front of the grandstands, and the judges said we needed a trophy, in the form of a pig, welded to the roof of the Corvair. After it was installed, Carmine signed it, and added "The Big Ragu." Our fourth driver, Todd, had to paint a scene as his punishment, and Katherine had to apologize to a cone for damaging it.
However, it was Mike Musto, as our sixth driver, who really got hammered. You see, the chief justices keep track of how many penalties a team racks up, and Mike did a pirouette, again in front of the grand stands, and we were told that the car had to be parked for two hours. It was time to feed the team, and that's where Katherine had an idea. Why not feed the track officials? So she piled platefuls of food (bratwurst, marinated chicken, pasta salad, condiments, and of course something to drink) and sped off with Andy's son. We got the radio call shortly afterwards that we were cleared to go back onto the track. It was the coolest part of the day, and Mike was making up laps, and running the fastest laps--well, fastest for our car that is--of the session. He was like a robot, lap after lap, after lap. Many of the contenders were either out of the race, or broke down so many times, that they were out of contention. Our car? At one time we placed as high as 19th, out of 56. When the race was called at 9:30 PM because of rain, we finished the first day at 22nd, and first in our class.