Flying around the corner, a couple of older neapolitan-colored BMWs jockey for position as they race by the pits. The odd pair might seem out of place on most race tracks but so would the pirate ship and Batmobile chasing them.
No, these are not your average race cars and this is not your normal race and that is exactly what makes the 24 Hours of LeMons so much fun to watch. Imagine the famous 24 Hours of LeMans endurance race in France, now replace the multimillion-dollar cars and crews with a car worth $500.
The event, a nationwide series of endurance races, pits amateur drivers against each other in less than superior race machines. Honestly, most of the vehicles on the track were probably headed to the junk yard weeks earlier. The team who keeps their car running throughout the race and completes the most laps wins-- a bag full of nickels.
The rules stipulate that every car entered into the race can't cost more than $500 before including safety equipment, brakes and tires. How hard is it to find a race car for $500? Very easy -- over 100 cars entered this race. The event has become so popular, LeMons mastermind Jay Lamm says they will expand from 10 to 20 races next year.
Greyman Motor Club
A couple of years ago, Dave Jaskwhich, a doctor from Summerville, and his friends were sitting around when someone mentioned this outrageous race. One thing led to another, they built a car and traveled 12 hours to Ohio for one of the races. Their race lasted for about 15 minutes before their car broke down. Next time they entered the endurance race, the results were much the same.
Not defeated, the team set out to enter the race again and purchased a BMW. Another, originally purchased for Jaskwhich's daughter, quickly became the second race car.
So Jaskwhich, a group of friends including doctors, lawyers, wives and other professionals spent their weekends for the next couple of months building the ultimate speed machines. First, the cars were stripped of their interiors and many spare parts including most of the windows to save weight. The engines were tested, the brakes checked and safety gear added before they finally painting them pink, white and brown -- or neapolitan.
As race week approached, Jaskwhich approached me about embedding myself with this ragtag team of racing weekend warriors. How could I resist a weekend spent next to a hot track while living out of a tent!
After packing my gear, I set out for the Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw for what looked like a crazy race. As the 24 Hours of LeMons website states -- "In all motorsport, no event captures the universal human need to whale on old crapcans and hoover down greasy barbecue like the 24 Hours of LeMons."
The 24 Hours of LeMons
When I got there I was greeted by the most eclectic group of people. On one side of the pit area, a group of brand new Porsches were lined up next to a large tractor trailer complete with buffet line, tables and garage. On the other side was a tent village built around a mix of RVs, portable carports and grills.
After checking in and staking your claim to a piece of real estate among the masses, a test run around the track and a visit to the judges are in order.
The judges are a pair of interesting men who wear black robes complete with a sombrero and trooper hat. They are at every 24 Hours of LeMons event and very knowledgeable about cars. They are there to make sure the car falls under the $500 mark and you are not cheating.
Judging can be more accurately described as a Halloween party with presents. Teams drive up dressed in a theme to match their cars often carrying gifts to please the judges and hopefully get their cars passed without any penalty.
Bribes are not only legal but expected by the judges as their table of goodies was overflowing with food, drink and even fireworks. As the judges explain, everyone tries to cheat a little to get their cars performing better, the level of the bribes usually coincide with the level of cheating being done.
Some cars raise more suspicion than others as they try to pass racing suspension or new engines as original equipment. A Lightning McQueen inspired Volkswagen Jetta caught the judges attention.
"This car was machined from pure billet cheatonium," claimed one judge as they sarcastically badgered the team. Some teams made it without penalty through inspection while other incurred the wrath of the judges and were penalized laps. One team was given a 100-lap penalty for what the judges called very suspicious parts and a bad job of covering it up.
The Greyman team rolled into the area dressed to sell ice cream. The neapolitan-theme paint job was starting to make sense. Handing out ice cream bars and a bottle of fine liqueur, the team passed with no problems. It didn't hurt that they had come in dead last every other event they entered.
Racing teams spent the rest of the day fine tuning the cars and testing them on the track. By nightfall lamps dotted the landscape as crews made final adjustments to their vehicles while others fired up the grills and some even projected race-inspired movies onto tent walls.
Saturday morning, the scene became a little more serious as drivers traded in the costumes for fire suits and helmets. After a quick drivers meeting, teams made last minute checks and headed for the track.
Over 100 cars of all makes and models covered the entire track. Many were missing body parts like roofs, some added on body parts like airplane wings but few resembled the original car that rolled off the assembly line years ago.
As the green flag waved the roar of the engines filled the air as drivers stomped on the gas. At this point you might have visions of NASCAR or movie scenes from the "Days of Thunder" as cars rushed by at high speeds. No, this was more like rush hour on I26 after work. Bumper-to-bumper traffic speeding up only to quickly stomp on the brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of them.
After a couple of laps, the air was filled with the smell of overheated brakes along with burning clutches and rubber as these drivers raced from corner to corner only to slam on their brakes again. Eventually cars started dropping like flies. Wreckers were busy all morning pulling cars off the track. Those that limped into the pits were usually leaking fluids and smoking as they headed for their make-shift garages.
A couple hours into the event, a quarter of the field of cars were in the garage while others pressed on around the track.
The Greyman team fared much better this race except for an early black flag that sent car #96 to the penalty box for reckless driving. The penalty box is as funny to watch as it is punishment for the driver. Jaskwhich who spun out of control around a turn was forced to read President Obama's recently televised speech to the schools for a group of children gathered around his car. Or the "Fascist Indoctrination of the Children" as the penalty was called.
Soon drivers were changed and the pink, white and brown car was speeding around the track again.
Each of the 10 Greyman drivers spent about half an hour on the track before switching with the next person. Usually the stops included switching drivers, checking tire pressure and giving car #69 a push to get it started again. Car #96, though newer and faster, experienced problems with brakes and black flags so it spent less time on the track and more time under a tent being fixed.
The pit area was full of families during the race. Darci Jaskwhich said she has been going to races with husband Dave for a couple of years now and it is a family affair. Children run around playing ball behind the tents while everyone else works together getting the cars ready. Between driving shifts, the drivers become parents again making lunch and making sure everyone is taken care of before hitting the track once more.
That is what it is all about for Dave Jaskwhich and his racing team -- getting out and having fun racing with family and friends.
When the race was finished, the Greyman Motor Club did not take the checkered flag but both cars did finish. A point of pride for the women -- their car finished higher than the men's newer faster car.
All that's left is to get the cars ready for the next race in April. All that testosterone and bbq made me want to race as well. My friend had this old Gremlin that would have looked great designed like a big camera lens. We would have been as quick as a flash -- get it? I better stick to photography.