For LeMons racers, to live and die by the wrench

With its dull patina and liftgate plastered with stickers, the black Volkswagen Rabbit looked like any other hard-bitten economy car from the early 1980s. But beneath the familiar lapine exterior, dark forces were at play.

The air in the shop grew thick with the sour pong of burning metal.

The Rabbit was little more than a shell of its former self – its interior stripped to the metal, not a floor mat or a stitch of upholstery in sight. Bolted to the dash, or what used to be the dash, was a slab of aluminium studded with a dozen-odd gauges and toggle switches. And welded inside the cabin was a massive tubular steel cage that wouldn't have seemed out of place at the Daytona 500 or a demolition derby – or perhaps a combination of both.

For the black Rabbit, as for any car with aspirations of competing in the populist motorsports phenomenon known as the 24 Hours of LeMons, the massive steel tubes could very well spell the difference between life and death. At a fighting weight of just 1,500lbs, the stripped-down Rabbit could be a nasty creature, especially when negotiating a turn at speed. “Because it's front wheel drive, if you lift off the gas in the corners, it will eat you alive,” summarises Denzil Wessels, one of its pilots.

Despite LeMons’ tongue-in-cheek name and the sense of absurdity that surrounds it, the DIY race series is fraught with the very real dangers that pervade motorsport: slamming into a concrete barrier at 90mph; getting rammed by a competitor’s car resembling a giant sardine can; or any of various other misfortunes that might manifest when piloting a twitchy, stripped-down Volkswagen through a corner.

To combat such scenarios, Wessels and his teammates, Jeff Moss and Todd Psick, were toiling in earnest in their San Jose, California, garage, preparing the black Rabbit for the following weekend's 24 Hours of LeMons event at Sonoma Raceway, located about 80 miles to the north. With the clock ticking, there were still a number issues to resolve. First among them was fabricating a metal brace that would stiffen the underside of the Rabbit's chassis and front suspension to improve handling.

LeMons ground rules stipulate that teams may spend no more than $500 on the initial purchase of their car, but there is no cost limit on devices that would contribute to a car's on-track safety – equipment like roll cages, brakes, wheels, tires and suspension components. So while Moss acquired the Rabbit for free from a neighbour in the San Jose suburb of Los Gatos, Moss' electronics manufacturing company, the team's sole sponsor, has so far invested about $5,000 in high-performance brake rotors and calipers, shock absorbers, springs and the like.

Wessels, a project manager for a wireless networking company, is also no slouch at the art of welding. Dressed in his weekend outfit of dark blue coveralls, a pair of thick leather gauntlets and a high-tech helmet to shield his retinas from the blazing arc, he set about finishing the brace. As the welder sizzled and spat, a blue glare reflected off Wessels' helmet, and the air in the shop grew thick with the sour pong of burning metal.

After sewing up the last seam, Wessels unclamped the brace from the vise and handed it to Psick, the team's resident mechanic. Psick grabbed a spray can from a shelf and stepped outside to a fenced-in area behind the garage. As he applied a perfunctory coating of black paint to the newly welded brace, he explained that while he makes his living as a finish carpenter, he has some bona fide automotive chops. Earlier in his life, he managed a service station, and worked as a member of a pit crew for a dirt track racing team. He eventually joined forces with Moss, the team's founder. “I'm a naturally gifted mechanic,” said Psick, as he gave the spray can another rattle. “It's nice to be able to use God's gift to help somebody.”

Trading the spray can for a cordless impact wrench, Psick bolted the brace to the Rabbit's underside. Moss, meanwhile, took his turn at the welder, fabricating a bracket which would secure a puncture-resistant gas tank, called a fuel cell, in the Rabbit's undercarriage. In the event of a crash, the fuel cell – which consists of a tough, foam-filled rubber bladder housed inside a rigid aluminium box – would reduce the possibility of a spill and a fiery end for the black Rabbit and its driver. (LeMons requires all drivers to wear fire-resistant suits, gloves, shoes and underwear, but it was not yet stipulating fuel cells. The black Rabbit’s keepers, however, were not taking chances.)

The team carefully positioned the fuel cell in a rectangular opening cut in the Rabbit's belly. Moss set his bracket inside the opening, and proceeded to weld the Rabbit, the bracket and the fuel cell together. Psick pressed a spirit level up against the fuel cell and noted that the alignment was somewhat off, to Moss' mild chagrin, upon which Psick deadpanned that the misalignment could in fact improve the car's cornering ability, depending on whether the turn in question was a right- or left-hander.

The team's technical and mechanical skills were beyond impressive, yet the prevailing mood in the shop was one of good-natured fatalism. Asked about their chances of winning, there was a round of stifled laughter, followed by a collective clearing of throats.

“The field is a mix of guys who want to cheat, guys who want to go fast and guys who just want to drive an old Dodge Dart,” Wessels explained. “To win, you have to be kind of angry, and make ten-minute driver changes. We do it for fun.”