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Clash of Clunkers Puts Speed Freaks on Racetrack in $500 Cars

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June 3 (Bloomberg) -- “After the third penalty, I’m supposed to kick you out of the race,” says the judge with the handlebar mustache to a driver in pit lane. “Tell you what, the pond behind the track is stocked with trout. Go buy a fishing pole at Wal-Mart and if you pull out a fish, I’ll let you race.”

The contestant, in a beat-up Honda Civic, sputters angrily, then nods. So goes the 24 Hours of LeMons, where endurance car-racing meets the theater of the absurd. There are 50 cars battling for dominance on a western Michigan racetrack. Make a mistake and it’s the judges’ way or the highway.

With 23 events around the U.S. in 2010, this amateur series offers wheel-to-wheel competition, with all the burning cars and hot tempers found at professional races. The hitch is that no vehicle can cost more than $500. This is a race of clunkers.

LeMons, a play on the famous 24 hours of Le Mans in France (Lemons, get it?), is open to any would-be-racer/imbecile with the gumption to put together a junker and a team. Thankfully, the $500 limit doesn’t include safety equipment, tires or brakes.

The race actually runs 15 hours over a weekend. The car that completes the most laps in the period wins. It’s the second day and I’m wearing a fire-proof racing suit, awaiting my turn. Another member of my team, BuckSnort Racing, is powering our 1987 BMW 325e around the 1.88-mile GingerMan Raceway, near Lake Michigan.

The BMW is equipped with a roll cage and five-point safety harness. It’s also got deer horns sticking out the roof, a toy deer head on the hood and a bearskin hanging out the back. BuckSnort’s theme is a rolling hunting cabin.

Sea Monster

Competitors include a Volvo wagon painted like the car in “Ghost Busters,” a Buick with a Styrofoam sea monster thrusting through the hood, and various Dodge Neons, Chevy Camaros and Pontiac Fieros. Teams include The Tools, Skid Mark Racing and Team Fiery Death!

My team is a mostly family affair, with Richard Horbal, a Michigan doctor, his wife Linda, son Tim (a Toyota Motor Corp. engineer), nephew and ace mechanic Ben Machnee and wife Jen, and the Scherzers, an Austrian couple. They’ve kindly taken me on as a racing guest. Five of us take turns driving several hours each. We’re currently in 14th.

LeMons, now in its fourth year, is the brain child of Jay Lamm, a former auto journalist.

“The idea was to take the stress out of winning championships, and just race around the track as fast as you can,” he said. Lamm encourages racers with a sense of humor, and he prefers entries that are rather, well, hopeless.

Flaming Ford

Take for instance the Ford Thunderbird that’s spent most (okay, nearly all) of its time in the pits undergoing last-minute fixes. It finally makes it onto the track during the final half hour of the race -- and then promptly bursts into flames.

The organizers’ favorite part is coming up with creative penalties for offenses like running off the track or passing under a caution flag. Culprits tend to lose time and self-respect.

There’s the “Marcel Marceau,” where the offending driver has to don a beret and white face paint and mime his “crime.” Or the math challenge, where the team must work out an equation in permanent marker on the car itself.

Yesterday BuckSnort took three penalties, including one for contact with another car. Our punishment was having an iron rooster welded on the roof and, later, the addition of a bright orange tire bolted up there as well -- sticking straight up. Certainly didn’t help our aerodynamics.

Good Brakes

Ben pulls into the pits after two hours of very fast laps and I jump in and buckle up. The BMW’s interior, seats and side windows have been ripped out to save weight. Quick in corners, its steering is terrific and the brakes are good.

The speedometer doesn’t work, but it feels fast in the straights. Perhaps, say, 60 mph. It’s thrilling to charge through traffic, diving into corners surrounded by three, four or even five other cars, looking for openings.

Thus far I’ve avoided penalties or crashes and pass car after car. Then a matte-black Honda CRX zips by. It will eventually win, clocking 416 laps.

Racing, I’m finding, is the art of simultaneously looking ahead at oncoming corners, behind you in the rear-view mirror at oncoming cars, and to the sides at corner workers waving caution flags. It is multitasking at speed, with second-by-second opportunities to screw up, crack up or blow up -- LeMons gets its share of wrecks, like one at Infineon Raceway, where a car ran into a wall, flipped and then caught fire.

Racing Change

No such antics for me. When I turn the car over to Tim (who will run one of the fastest laps overall), the vehicle is unscathed and I’m jacked on adrenaline.

Watching the final laps from a hill, we’re in 13th place as Tim battles neck and neck with the Track Pillagers, the Buick with the sea serpent (which has long since broken off). Finally, the checkered flag. Twelfth is ours.

Cheap beers are popped open and the motley crews assemble for the awards, with categories like “Most Epic Fix” and “I Got Screwed.” And $1,500 for first place -- awarded in nickels. At LeMons, even the winner is punished.

For more information on the 24 Hours of LeMons, visit http://www.24hoursoflemons.com or call +1-510-655-5980.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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