Want to drive in a race on a NASCAR track? No experience needed, no special license required. Want to do that?
Presenting the 24 Hours of LeMons, which is not the well-known 24 Hours of Le Mans, a Frenchy sports-car race famous enough so you’ve heard of it, but an American born and bred race that lasts 14 to 24 hours with the requirement that no car cost more than $500. The term car has a generous interpretation that includes 40-year-old beaters that have boats, missiles, and campers welded to their roofs. The team that has driven their car the most laps is hauled before unwashed scum to receive a cash prize, $500, sometimes paid in nickels, sometimes thrown at your windshield.
The 24 Hours of LeMons was founded in 2006 by Jay Lamm, a Bay Area automotive journalist who calls his race “a waste of time.” The most prestigious prize is not the most-laps winner, but winner of the Index of Effluency, which is a punk on the Frenchy 24 Hours of Le Mans Index of Thermal Efficiency. There, the prize is awarded by way of a formula that includes weight of oil, water, spares, average speed, and energy in liters of fuel per 100 km. Who knows why? — it’s France. Here, the prize is called the Index of Effluency and is best explained by Murilee Martin, who writes for Car and Driver. Martin says, “Forty-year-old cars have an edge on the Index of Effluency, LeMons racing’s top prize. Chrysler products also have an edge. And, of course, French cars have a huge edge on the IOE. When you race a car that’s simultaneously 40 years old, a Chrysler, and French...”
Introducing Escondido homeboy and 40-year-old Chrysler French car enthusiast, Mike “Spank” Spangler. He’s 42, married with one child, and a hero on the tour, having won the Index of Effluency four times. Spank taught English at San Marcos High School and raced bicycles, but that was before he understood his true calling. I called on a hot Tuesday morning. Follows is some of what he said.
“The [race] format is typically daylight hours. The circus starts on Friday around noon when tech inspections opens. They’re very serious about safety; all safety items are budget exempt. You go through safety tech and then roll a few feet forward and that’s where you go through B.S. Inspection. You have to prove you’ve only spent $500 on your car. Of course, there’s cheating. Part of the B.S. inspection is making a bribe. You bribe your way through.
“Jay Lamm and the supreme court judges are automotive journalists, so they know cars. When you have a BMW or a Miata with a turbo charger on it, lining up to somebody’s 1982 Ford Escort, both cost $500, yeah, but one of them is clearly faster than the other. So, they will class them as A, B, or C. It’s purely arbitrary. There are races for each class. Class A cars, generally, are the overall winners.
“There’s a drivers’ meeting on Saturday, typically 9 or 10 o’clock. Drivers will take to the track at 10:30. You drive all the way to sundown, which, depending on the time of year, could be 4, 5, 6, 7 o’clock at night. And then all night Saturday is the party in the pits. There’s no alcohol allowed while the track is hot. People think, ‘Oh, I’m going to go get wasted and drive.’ Absolutely not. LeMons is very serious about safety.
“But, as soon as the track goes cold Saturday night, people let loose. There are people who sleep at the track, who tent it, RV it, a few who choose to go to hotels, but Saturday night is the party. Some teams supply food or alcohol or maybe bring a live band.
“Everybody is wrenching on their car, frantically trying to get it back together. There are a lot of broken motors and things breaking in a manner you never thought possible. Fixing what needs to be fixed. The race resumes again at 9 a.m. and ends mid-afternoon on Sunday.
“However, there are occasional true 24-hour events. The event coming up on June 30 at Buttonwillow is a true 24-hour race. It’s a whole different animal; it actually turns some competitors away because there isn’t the partying. They’re grueling. It’s tough, and sometimes if the car breaks during a true 24-hour event, people will just load their trailer and go home. Instead of 14 to 16 hours, they actually race 24 hours. It’s tough. It really is. You’re up all night, you have teams of four to eight drivers you’ve got to manage, you have to...”