More fun than NASCAR: 24 hours of racing at LeMons

As for the name LeMons? It’s a play on the 24 Hours of LeMans, the fabled French race, and lemon—a.k.a., the car you don’t want to own.

IN THE PACK: 124 cars squeezed onto the track, including a rare Hudson Hornet (right).
IN THE PACK: 124 cars squeezed onto the track, including a rare Hudson Hornet (right). –George Kennedy

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The rules are simple: Buy a car for $500 or less, make it look funny or absurd, and try to race it for an entire weekend. It’s called the 24 Hours of LeMons, and it’s a little more complicated than the description. But if you’ve ever wanted to go racing and don’t have the resources or experience, this is the grassroots series you’ve been looking for.

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I originally wrote about this series several years ago, and when fellow journalist Kamil Kaluski informed me a seat opened up on the Park Bench Racing Team, I jumped at the chance.

Team leader Andrew Lawton bought the team’s Buick for $350 and has used it in 10 races, turning it into quite the ride. As for the name LeMons? It’s a play on the 24 Hours of LeMans, the fabled French race, and lemon—a.k.a., the car you don’t want to own.

Once you purchase a suitable, inexpensive car, you pull out the entire interior. The Park Bench Buick features an optional supercharged V6, which was sourced from another salvaged Buick.

LeMons does not limit spending on major safety-related items, including a roll cage, brakes, wheels, tires, and fuel cells. You can extract a lot of performance out of quality brakes and tires.

NECK AND DOG: The Park Bench Buick, gaining on a Suzuki in a hot dog stand. —George Kennedy

Our vehicle was called the Park Bench Buick because there’s a literal park bench on the back, AstroTurf flames on the hood in a flame pattern, and bark mulch glued to the trunk lid. Unique and comical designs are encouraged.

After several Sundays wrenching in a Southampton garage, the Park Bench Buick was loaded into a trailer and dispatched to New Jersey Motorsports Park, about an hour West of Atlantic City. LeMons races are run all over the country nearly every weekend. There will be races at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut on Aug. 12-13, and in Loudon, NH, on October 21-22. For more information on those races, check out 24hoursoflemons.com.

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Friday is devoted to unloading, prep, tech inspection, and for some teams, practice. Saturday and Sunday are race days—8 hours on Saturday and 6.5 hours on Sunday. We awoke Saturday to torrential rain—not ideal for racing.

Rafal Wroblewski, our first driver, was commenting on the poor conditions almost from the get-go. But the Buick, with its strong Camaro-sourced brakes, was excellent in the rain. Rafal was perfect behind the wheel, and in a field of 124 cars, the Buick ran as high as second place.

While Rafal was driving, I was able to take in the rest of the field. There was a Nissan 240SX made to look like the Inspector Gadget car, a Hudson Hornet with fenders removed, a VW Beetle with a Honda V6 and big-rig smoke stacks out back, and a Suzuki with a hot dog stand built around it.

Kamil took over for Rafal. We were running around eighth for most of his stint. Then came my turn at the wheel. No track day training could have prepared me for the madness that would follow.

The first 30 minutes felt like an eternity. All senses were constantly taxed, as I wrestled with the car in the rain and learned its limits, looked and listened for other cars, smelled for spills or overheating engines, and occasionally checked the gauges.

The next 90 minutes flew by. After two hours, I was dragged out of the car, and following Andy’s stint, we finished the first day in eighth place overall.

The second day brought clear skies and a mostly dry track. Rafal and Kamil both had strong shifts before I took over. Our team continued to hold its own, but the dry track allowed the BMWs to finally put their full power down.

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Nearing the end of my two-hour run, I had two instances where I took a turn too wide and put wheels onto the grass. This would be a good time to talk about the penalties. There are a plethora of rules, but the main rule is, don’t crash, don’t drive like a jerk, and if you lose control, you’re going to get a talking to.

When you do something stupid on the track, a flag worker—one of about a dozen volunteers spread around the edges of the track—will wave a black flag and point at you. That’s your signal to go into the pits and take your medicine from the race marshal.

Andrew took over, and took on exactly enough fuel to finish the final two hours of the race. Of the field of 124 cars, we finished 14th overall and fifth in class. That’s typically not high enough to get you any award, but LeMons is different, and the race offers unique awards for various feats or especially crappy cars that mange to finish the race. The Park Bench Racing team earned the “Judge’s Choice Award,” for its clean, fast driving in the rain on Saturday. The judges appreciated a big, American, front-wheel-drive family sedan doing so well as other teams were spinning out left and right.

There aren’t many places where drivers and teams with no formal training can take part in real endurance racing. These are mostly die-hard wrench-turners who don’t take themselves too seriously. LeMons races are longer than NASCAR races, compete with more cars on the field than NASCAR—and the sense of community here is incredible. Other teams offer up food, or even a spare part if you need it.

Packing up the Buick, Andy asked, “So, what do you think about Thompson in August?” As if you have to even ask.

THE PARK BENCH BUICK TEAM (left to right): George Kennedy, Kamil Kaluski, Rafal Wroblewski, Andrew Lawton. Kamil is holding the Judge’s Choice Award.

George Kennedy is a freelance automotive journalist and automotive expert. You can reach him at George.h.kennedy.iii@gmail.com and on Twitter @GKenns101.