"On the one hand, they've obviously got some sort of cheater cam," I yelled above the roar of the Fox-bodied Mustang's burbling V-8, as the drivers' girlfriends flashed cleavage and blew kisses in our general direction. "But on the other hand, they did give us a case of Budweiser. I really don't see any problem here."
It's good to be the king, or at least someone with ready access to another man's girlfriend's boobs. This past weekend I was in Kershaw, South Carolina, judging the cars at the first running of LeMons South, the latest iteration of the 24 Hours of LeMons — a 24 hour-ish endurance race with one special caveat. You can't spend more than $500 on your car. Beaters of all stripes, dents, leaks, odors, and vintages enter. The car that throws the least rods (i.e., the winner) is paid $1500. In nickels. But always remember: Racing is cheating. Even with a prize purse that barely covers fuel costs, LeMons competitors cheat their asses off.
Just like any other form of motorsport, plenty is done to ensure fairness. The $500 limit only applies to the car, drivetrain, and suspension. All safety-related items (wheels, tires, brakes, roll-cage, harnesses) are excluded from the price cap. So after a LeMons car passes a real tech-inspection by people who know what they're doing, they must submit to the "BS Inspection." This is where half-drunk cross-dressing yahoos (me and Jalopnik's Murilee Martin) decked out in judicial robes and wigs and swinging rubber mallets painted to look like gavels determine just how much more than $500 a given team actually spent on its car. For every $10 over the limit, a team is penalized a lap. Meaning if you spend $200 on a new set of Bilsteins, we ding you 20 laps. But racing is cheating. No matter the severity of the penalty, there'd be cheating galore. And why should the teams have all the fun? Why not the officials? LeMons founder Jay Lamm — who concocted the race over "way too much beer and Chinese food" — thought having crooked judges would add a certain Southern fried je ne sais quoi. Did I mention we had a bribe jar?
But how on earth did I wind up in South Cackalacky? I only fell in love with LeMons while covering the Arse-Freeze-Apalooza in December of 2007. Held at Thunderhill in Willows, California, the high was 37 degrees. My hands got so numb from holding a camera that I broke my vow of never stepping foot in a Wal-Mart (I needed gloves). But for an unrepentant pistonhead like yours truly, the action was scintillatingly hot. Within an hour of the starting gun, two Alfa Romeo Alfettas had run their natural course and blown up (one tossed a rod, one blew an oil pump). The two teams didn't know each other, but they scrambled and built one good engine, tossed it into the best car, and kept racing. In fact, the new doubles Alfa team finished the race in 45th place! You sure as hell don't see that in F1, let alone NASCAR. I was sold; hook, line, and sinker.
The weeks following the Thunderhill race consisted of long, drawn-out IM conversations between Mr. Martin and myself. We were absolutely entering a car in the next California LeMons race. Every imaginable vehicle was considered — including a first-gen Infiniti Q45 — before we eventually settled on a 1984 Volvo 244 sedan that fell into our lap for $100, complete with "Happiness is a Scruffy Dog" license plate frames. However, while a 244 could (probably) finish the race, it wasn't exactly going to compete. But Martin remembered a saying of his grandfather's: "There's two kinds of racers. Cheaters and losers."
We began dreaming up all sorts of exotic cheats. Like hiding a nitrous system inside a fake battery. But all the tricks we knew were from drag racing, essentially the exact opposite of what was needed for a long, hard-fought endurance competition. Our "V8olvo" did wind up with a Holley-fed Ford 302 and a five-speed (all for less than $500, we swear it) but our team only managed to come in 15th out of around 90 entrants at the May 2008 Altamont LeMons Race. Obviously, we weren't cheating hard enough. Disappointing, sure, but the V8olvo will be contending again in this year's Arse-Freeze-Apalooza. But before that happens, I had to fly to Kershaw and judge the cheatin' bastids.
Remember, racing is cheating, and they're all cheating. But some were much worse at it than others. Take the #8 car, Team Inmates Running the Asylum's Miata. The LeMons officials simply referred to it as "The Spec Miata." These poor guys did every single thing wrong, namely bringing an actual race car to a $500 junker race. The first thing we would do when a car entered our court was ask for their BS story. Usually it went like this: "My sister's boyfriend robbed a liquor store with it, totaled it in the subsequent police chase, and we got it out of impound for $160." Complete rubbish, but at least they took the time to tell us a good story. LeMons judges appreciate a well-crafted lie. But the Spec Miata guys didn't even try. First, they copped to owning a Miata shop. Future cheaters take note — it's a cardinal sin to admit to a LeMons judge that you're professionally involved with the particular car you're trying to sneak in. Here's another tip: Don't let the judges see you running circles around every other car on the track during practice laps. The Spec Miata guys did that, too.
The Inmates also didn't have their story straight. At first they claimed they bought the 1990 Miata for $900 and then sold its hard top for $400. Sadly (for them) they had told another team that they bought the car for $900 and sold the hardtop for $900. That's two stories. And they had no paperwork documenting any of it. Then I climbed under the car and saw a bright yellow pair of the infamous Bilstein shocks. "Those were part of the optional sport pack back in 1990," an angry team captain snapped at me. "You want me to believe that these shocks are 18 years old?" I incredulously asked. You can guess his answer. And their case was essentially closed. The final nail in their coffin — aside from them being jerks — came when they didn't even try to bribe us. That's insult to injury so we dinged 'em 200 laps. Jay Lamm wanted to hit 'em with a 500-lap penalty, but it was early in the day and we hadn't gotten our arbitrary cruel fully on.
You may be asking yourself why they bother. Why put so much time and effort into cheating when even founder Jay Lamm describes the race as a "waste of time." Sure racing is cheating, but LeMons isn't really racing. It's Burning Man gone retarded, a beer-soaked monument to high school shop class. And this is where you're wrong. Obviously, the nickels provide little motivation. But every other puzzle piece is present. Problem solving, driver skill, team work, metal-crunching surprises, wheel-to-wheel action — it's all there, in multicolored spades. To quote Willie Sutton, who, when he was asked why he robbed banks, said, "because that's where the money is." LeMons my friends, is racing in its purest form. And racing is cheating.
That Miata wasn't even the half of it. One team showed up with a purple flaked-metal 2001 PT Cruiser. "Who's your best liar?" I asked. The gentleman that raised his hand informed us that the car was a $1228 salvage title but that it had been sold to a corporation for $0. That story smelled real fishy. After ten minutes of me waving my gavel around and not believing a single word he said, we finally got to the truth: He owned the corporation and had sold the car to himself! But see, we appreciated his chutzpah. Trying to get by on the legal technicality (a corporation is a separate entity from an individual) was innovative. His outside-the-box thinking almost had the penalty reduced to a very lenient 40 laps. Unfortunately for him, we opened the hood and found a twin-scroll supercharger. Oops! 70 laps.
Not all the Southern teams were as — how to put this nicely — naive. There's a reason that NASCAR was born in the South. In order to sneak half a ton of white lightning past the revenuers takes craftiness, creativity, and cojones. Case in point being Punisher Racing and their Chevy Caprice cop car. These dudes knew how to cheat. Not only did they bribe us with John Powers whiskey (a particularly smart choice), they also waited until after we declared them "clean" to inform us of their Impala SS club affiliation. And while their excellent on-track performance and third-place finish removed all doubt that the 350 small block was at least a 383 stroker with lifters, the motor was filthy and plain looking when we eyeballed it. Meaning their cheats were well-hidden. I'm chalking it up to this race being the first time Carolina Motorsports Park had seen anything like LeMons, but at least a third of the teams had power-washed their engines. Bad move.
I'm not here to rain on parades. I fully understand the impulse to clean a gangrene engine, especially after wrenching on the hunk o' garbage for months and months. Pride comes into play. Foolish pride. We California kids have had nearly three years of LeMony goodness to get our grifts down pat (the first LeMons race took place in October, 2006). Our Southern compatriots were relative virgins. Another all-too-common error was spending the $16 for a dozen gallons of house paint and bothering to make their cars look nice. Wrong. You can bet your Junior Johnson Pork Cracklings that we judges came down pretty hard on pretty cars. But some teams had no trouble beating the system.
Take Team Lemonjello and their FC RX-7. The Mazda looked like trash and they'd cut the roof off, morphing it into a rusty RX-7amino. The dirty, dull, brown paint helped, too. But the instant we heard the car we knew there was some big league cheating going on. However, the car was a rotary and we had no way to visibly tell. Audibly, it was a completely different story. Carbon-fiber apex seals, bored-out ports, hidden turbo — something was making it growl. We just couldn't see it. So I asked, "Am I to believe that these are the original apex seals?" All I got back was a blank look and, "What's an apex seal?" Brilliant! Could he be telling the truth? Absolutely not, but other than the menacing engine note, the car seemed to be a basket case. Maybe it was running rich? Three minutes after they left with zero lap penalties we were informed that this team had their own RX-7 tuning shop. And they beat the Punisher Racing Caprice by a single lap, taking down second place. What clever, cheating bastards!
Contrast the above with Team Ponticrap's rough-looking Fiero. The car was beat to hell and back and most of its engine was quite dirty. But the manifold was super clean and all the bolts holding it down were spotless and shiny. We knew just by listening that they were cheating (probably a cam, at least). Team Ponticrap probably would have gotten away with their deceit, except that our constant judicial pressure caused one of them to blurt out, "Look, I've got 10 Fieros. I know what I'm talking about!" That's all we needed to hear. 10 laps. Still, that's not much of a handicap and if their Fiero was as hot as it sounded they could've easily made up the laps. Unfortunately for them, the team was stocked with aggressive hoons. After collecting no less than four black flags, the team had to go see Lamm, and he wasn't happy. The team captain flashed a $100 at us. "This is way beyond money," and with that the Ponticrappers were booted with an hour to go on Saturday.
For some teams, however, the bribes (or lack thereof) really did make a difference. Take TAJ Escort Service and their Ford Escort GT. Before the judging officially got underway, Lamm suggested that Martin and I wander the pits and intimidate the teams. The TAJ crew immediately started shoving beer at us, something of a pre-bribe. They were scared, and with good reason. These guys were cheating their fireproof underpants off. From a tower brace to a K&N air filter to a sway bar the size of my wrist, this car was rigged with all sorts of go-fast contraband that cost way more than $500. We informed them that they were doomed. When the TAJ boys finally did roll through our kangaroo court, they'd taped $5 bills to each illicit part. Martin and I were suddenly (kinda) convinced by their story. Maybe all these cheater goodies really did come with the car? By incurring no lap penalties during judging the TAJ car was able to crack the top 10, finishing a very respectable 10th overall.
And remember that Spec Miata? The winning car ran 512 laps to the Spec Miata's 313. Unless you take away the 200 lap penalty. In that case the Miata did 513.