This story appears in the April 20 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
At the 24 Hours of LeMons race last September, it took only eight hours for the first car to catch fire. Air-crackling, totally engulfing, awesome fire. The car was a black 1988 Pontiac Fiero, and Merv Cohen, a jeweler from Chicago, was driving. "All of a sudden I felt a lot of heat, and it got real bright inside the cockpit," he recalls.
"I looked over, and yep, we've got flames." Or, as a driver who was tailing the Fiero describes it, "the car looked like a volcano had erupted inside it."
Cohen took the only sensible action: He scurried out of the car, grabbed a fire extinguisher from his cockpit and put out the flames himself. "It was nothing real serious," he says. "I had fun with it."
Fun is the name of the game at the 24 Hours of LeMons, which should not be confused with the legendary French contest, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where million-dollar cars run every June. This is LeMons. As in "lemons." Junkers. Beaters. Jalopies. You can drive any car you want -- as long as the wreck isn't worth more than $500.
Plus, we're not in France. We're in Toledo.
"Fun is the first, middle and last tenet of this event," says LeMons owner/founder Jay Lamm, who owns a custom publishing company. "Why the hell else would you race $500 cars?"
The accessible price and friendly vibe have turned this 52-car motor marathon into a do-it-yourself fantasy camp. First run in 2006, LeMons is now a 10-race series (next up: Reno, Nev., May 23-24) that attracts everyone from stone-cold amateurs hoping for a first feel of asphalt to low-level pros seeking a carefree day at the track. "Our speeds are lower, but it's the same excitement and adrenaline," Lamm says. "It's racing. And racing is racing."
When the green flag starts the LeMons junkers, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, the Toledo Speedway swarms with everything from BMW coupes to lumbering Crown Vics. The $500 spending limit (which doesn't include fees of $500 per team, $100 per driver and $75 per crew member) is enforced by a panel of judges, and it virtually guarantees that cars have 10 to 20 years of use and at least 100,000 miles on them. Many have parts from junkyards. Some have paint schemes colored in by Sharpie markers.
But what the cars lack in amenities, they make up for in imagination. Mechanics and engineers from Pratt & Miller, the storied Michigan race shop that fields entries in the real 24 Hours of Le Mans, have sheared the roof off a black 1987 Toyota, creating a Supra roadster. The car steadily passes the competition, its engine emitting a shockingly even hum. "What we do every day involves million-dollar cars," says team member Brad Buenting. "This is way more fun." Adds Lamm: "We're really no different than Formula One. They have their arbitrary set of ridiculous rules, and we have ours. F1 is for guys who have $100 million. LeMons is for guys who have $1,000."
A crew of concept-car designers from GM has converted a '91 GMC Sonoma into a replica of the six-wheel truck from the first Rambo flick -- complete with machine-gunning mannequin. "Your first stint driving here is nerve-racking," says Nick Greiwe from Sylvan Lake, Mich., who is one of six Rambo chauffeurs. "When you get out, your whole body is tired. You're sweating head to toe. That's when you realize how intense it all is."
Any car that veers into a barrel or rams another ride gets waved to a penalty area, where punishments are decided via dartboard. Some unlucky vehicles earn retribution from the Arc Angel, a friendly blonde woman in white wings who hobbles cars by welding a metal farm animal to their roofs.
But what drives otherwise responsible citizens to this LeMons silliness? "Half of the guys always wanted to race wheel-to-wheel but were afraid they'd screw up," Lamm says. "At LeMons, everybody screws up, so there's nothing to be afraid of."
Toledo's lax noise ordinance makes this the only LeMons race not divided into 12-hour segments, and by nightfall the endurance factor has kicked in. The track loosens up as 18 of the 52 teams work frantically in the pits. Cars have crashed, engines have blown. Some idle crew members grab wrenches to help rival teams, while others sneak off to nap.
By 7 a.m., a full half of the field labors in the pits. Eight cars circle the track without hoods. "At this point, everyone's just trying to survive," says Isaac Rife, an engineer from Royal Oak, Mich., who's driving a neon-green Dodge Neon with 265,000 miles on it. Early on the Neon was hitting 75 mph in the banking, but now it's laboring with one working gear. "It's like a Rocky fight," Rife says. "We're just slapping each other in the face, waiting to see who's going to be the first to fall down."
While there's plenty of carnage on the track, LeMons tradition calls for even more. At noon, after the drivers vote on their least favorite car, the offending ride is confiscated from its owners and spectacularly destroyed for the crowd's amusement. "At one race, we had a 32-ton excavator peel a BMW like it was an onion," Lamm says with a big grin. "Greatest thing I've ever seen." This year's sacrificial ride is the Rambo truck, which has acquired a rep for reckless racing. With good humor, the members of Team First Blood pummel their creation with axes and sledgehammers. Then the doors are ripped apart with the Jaws of Life. The crowd goes wild.
When the checkered flag finally waves, at 3 p.m. on Sunday, the Supra roadster reigns supreme, having circled the track 2,121 times. First place wins $1,500 -- paid in 506¼ pounds of nickels. "Man, that's a pain in the ass," Lamm says. "I'm really regretting that we didn't choose dimes."
Even the losers win. A 1987 Dodge Daytona blew its engine 16 minutes into the race; the team then spent 23 hours 44 minutes fixing it. "We weren't going to win, but by god, we were going to get this car running," says team captain Mike Taylor, an ER doctor in Charleston, S.C. They got it going just as the checkered flag waved. "When the car started, everyone around us cheered. It was actually more fun than if we had raced the whole time. It was a huge victory."
Because at LeMons, racing is racing. Even when you're not racing.