LeMons: The Le Mans for clunkers

What should become of an old wreck that is past its prime, was painfully slow to begin with and appears to be destined for the great scrap heap in the sky?

People have a lot of weird car stuff they want to try, and LeMons gives them a place to do it.

It could be donated to a charity or sold to an auto recycler, but the inspired choice would be to send it off in a blaze of glory – or maybe just ablaze – racing against similarly wretched bits of better-forgotten automotive history.

This is the way of the 24 Hours of LeMons, a spoof on the precision-engineered seriousness of France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the gruelling endurance race that has some of the world's most prestigious automakers – Porsche, Audi, McLaren among them – vying for bragging rights across various categories of competition. LeMons is not serious, and pits some of the worst cars known to humankind in a competition whose goal is hilarity, not outright victory.

Though it is a national phenomenon in the US, each LeMons race assimilates the character and culture of its surroundings. The result, from Northern California to New Jersey, is full-blown pageantry. Carolina Motorsports Park, in Kershaw, South Carolina, was the setting of a recent two-day LeMons race, winkingly dubbed Southern Discomfort 2013, where an outsider could absorb Southern drawls and an enthusiasm for driving just about any car as fast as it can go.

For such a slap-dash enterprise, the LeMons rulebook is exacting. Each team consists of four to six drivers, and a car must cost no more than $500 to acquire and prepare for the race. For safety items like a professionally built roll cage, fire extinguisher, Nomex racing suits, helmets and racing seats, there is no spending ceiling.

The $500 limit on actual car-related spending, however, puts no limits on imagination, nor does it change the arbitrariness with which LeMons judges classify cars for competition. If judges think a car looks fast, it will be placed in a fast class, which is more difficult to win and yields less prize money. If a car looks terrible enough to bring shame on its drivers’ progeny, it will be marked for a slower class, which is theoretically easier to win – presuming the car survives to the finish line. Safety rules are ironclad, but judges can be bribed, sometimes successfully, with booze and other favours, provided the rule-flouting is not too egregious.

After a long winter, LeMons racers in the Southeastern US were ready to get their smoke-belching rust heaps back on the track for the season opener in Kershaw. There was a Mazda Miata dressed like a Star Wars landspeeder (in flagrant violation of LeMons' no-passenger rule, C3PO occupied the front passenger seat). There was the Spirit of LeMons, a one-off cobbled together from a mid-1980s Toyota van chassis and an old Cessna fuselage. There was also the ToyoHog – a Harley V-Twin-powered Toyota Prius – and a late-1980s BMW E30 coupe with the slant–six engine from a 1965 Dodge stuffed between its front fenders.

"You get all kinds of weird stuff," said Phil Greden, a race judge in charge of inspecting cars' safety equipment. "People have a lot of weird car stuff they want to try, and LeMons gives them a place to do it."

After a day filled with the bleating flatulence produced when substandard cars, lacking factory exhaust systems, are driven hard, the track fell silent at night. Beers were cracked and barbecue smoke drifted over trackside campsites, and the business of tool sharing and story swapping began in earnest. Mechanical work was largely shared among teams whose rivalries softened under the night sky.

"Our chief competition is those guys in the '64 Ford Fairlane," said Frank Thomas of Houston, Texas. His team, Escape Velocity Racing, was campaigning the car he drove in high school, a 1964 Dodge Dart.

(The Fairlane challenged the Dart's slant six with a more powerful small-block V8, but in the end, larger displacement could not rescue Team Fairlylame. Pitted against the Dart in the ad-hoc "Class of '64" classification, the Fairlane would lose, its more powerful motor succumbing to numerous mechanical issues.)

At dawn on the second day, camp was silent, with only the husks of empty beers testifying to the previous night's technical collaboration. One by one, unmuffled exhaust pipes barked, signaling the arrival of a new day of racing. By 09:00, cars were at full song, accompanied by squealing brakes and valvetrain rattle as their softly sprung, often unwieldy chassis approached corners faster than common sense would allow and accelerated out of them with puffs of oil smoke trailing them.

As with any race, a LeMons event concludes with an awards ceremony, but not with the sterling trophies or Mumm champagne typical of Formula 1 podiums. The winner of the speedy Class A receives $400, the middling Class B $500 and the outright pathetic Class C, $600, all paid in nickels. There is also the coveted Index of Effluency award: $601 worth of nickels bestowed to the team who finishes the race in a pile of automotive ineptitude so dreadful, its survival surprises even the seen-everything judges.

LeMons' judges found the Spirit of LeMons airplane car to be the race's most eligible beater, securing the Index award for its build team, Speedy Cop and the Gang of Outlaws. The actual race winner was, quite literally, a heinous rust heap: a completely oxidized old Chevy Monte Carlo dubbed Moldecarlo. Other teams were disqualified on ersatz infractions.

By next year, such awards may have been forgotten. In a LeMons race, pushing such terrible machinery past thresholds long-ago exceeded is, ultimately, its own reward.