Start Your Engines at the “24 Hours of Lemons” Race Series
Adrenaline meets absurdity during a two-day race
Dawn breaks cold and shrouded in fog at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on a mid-October Sunday, as folks slowly emerge from their campers. The scene is eerily reminiscent of the classic horror flick “Dawn of the Dead,” which only seems apropos for the Halloween Hooptiefest, the Granite State’s stop in the nationwide “24 Hours of Lemons” race series. By the 9 a.m. start time, the thick mist burns off, and a spectacular autumn day greets close to 100 race cars and teams of drivers assembled for Day Two of the weekend event.
The rising sun seems fitting as well, given that these cars and trucks are enjoying a resurrection of sorts. None of the vehicles careening around the dozen turns of the 1.6-mile road course are in their prime. Far from it. By rule, none should have cost more than $500. Most have been modified drastically post-purchase, with safety gear and souped-up engines and burly suspension systems installed. Many sport crazy paint schemes and festive ornaments, including giant skulls and skeletons and ghosts and ghouls. It looks strangely like a demolition derby, but with drivers intentionally trying to avoid one another at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour.
Meanwhile, the central garage on the speedway’s infield is a beehive of activity, with cars and drivers and mechanics and support staff all buzzing about. A pink sedan, labeled the Snouty Audi, rolls by, followed by a bright red race car sporting large fins and a tail.
“The Swedish Fish — we love those guys,” says racer Matt Farides, who flew in from California for the event. “Everybody’s got their own persona.”
Based loosely on France’s famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Lemons is, at its core, an everyman’s endurance event — the winner isn’t the first across the line but the team that accumulates the most laps in a confined period of time. In the original Le Mans race, teams plow through the night, going 24 hours straight. Several 24 Hours of Lemons events follow this format, but many have to abide by local ordinances that prohibit nighttime racing. That’s the case at the Halloween Hooptiefest, which divides the race over two days, with a total of roughly 16 hours of track time.
No one, though, is feeling shortchanged. In fact, the overnight break allows for some hijinks that are as much a part of the event’s attraction as time behind the wheel.
“We’ve had raves right here in this garage, with smoke machines and flashing lights and a huge sound system” says Farides, sporting a silver wig, magenta vest, glitter sunglasses and yellow tiger-print pants. “You find people who are here to have a good time instead of to be competitive.”
Surprisingly for the uninitiated, long-time participants say the pit-area lunacy is actually toned down during this 2020 edition, as Covid-19 pandemic precautions put a damper on some of the more “extreme” activities.
“But we still have our hot tub,” says racer Christian Ward from Las Vegas, showing off his squad’s inflatable liquid oasis.
The race predictably features the high-pitched whine of high-performance engines — “It’s a sensory assault,” says Ward — filling the bowl of the speedway, and the dynamics on the track are intriguing. The Hooptie-fest is a delightfully weird mix of NASCAR, Burt Reynolds’s “Cannonball Run,” and the campy Roger Corman/David Carradine project “Death Race 2000,” with a healthy dose of Hanna-Barbera’s classic cartoon “Wacky Races,” and the campy British new wave film “24 Hour Party People” thrown in for good measure.
Essentially, the 24 Hours of Lemons brings together a ridiculously eclectic (and eccentric) mix of vehicles and drivers, from seasoned veterans to first-timers. Competitors come from every corner, white collar and blue collar, the wealthy and those of more modest means. The result is an environment similar to racing through downtown Nashua during rush hour, at full throttle.
“All you need is a driver’s license,” says Amanda Tully of Long Island, the 40-year-old owner of a 1994 BMW 325i and the Mome Rath racing team (named after flower-like creatures from “Alice in Wonderland”) that narrowly missed defending its 2019 Hooptiefest title, finishing second to the Scoobie Doobies. “That’s it — a driver’s license.”
Asked if racing was an addiction, Tully, who has been competing in the series since 2014, chuckles: “It might be a mental disorder. We’re primarily having fun, hanging out with our friends, and then we do some racing,” she says. “We laugh constantly.”
A sampling of team names — Our Mid Life Crisis, Boston Whiners, Wrecktum, B.A.R.F. Motorsports, Missing Lug Nuts, The League of Legitimate Nigerian Businessmen, Skeleton Crew, Fools With Tools, Old Guys With Angry Wives, the Three Mulleteers, Blue Balls of Fire, and We Audi Be Faster — reveals the event’s tongue-in-cheek and often irreverent vibe.
“I’m convinced there are a lot of people here who, if they didn’t have this, would be running an underground criminal enterprise,” quips Ward, with just enough of a gleam in his eye to give you second thoughts. “We get people from all walks of life, but the common thread is that these are all problem-solvers.”
Farides, a wiry 39-year-old electrical engineer driving for Tully’s Mome Rath team, has participated in 50 of these Lemons races. The real attraction, he says, is the common denominator that almost everyone mentions — the race engenders a rare and special sense of camaraderie.
“This has become a nationwide family for me,” Farides says. “We’re just a bunch of car nerds building stupid sh*t.”
Ward, an Air Force officer who flew in to race with the New Jersey-based 3 Pedal Mafia and goes by the nickname “Mental” (“Mental ward, get it?”), readily agrees.
“It’s very competitive out there,” says Ward, pointing to the track. “But in here, in the garage, it’s family. If someone has the same car, and they need something, we’ll help them out. The idea is, let’s get them out on the track and have some fun.”
Nodding toward Tully, Ward chirps: “Last year, we gave her a spare engine so she could beat us.”
“Thank you,” replies Tully demurely.
However, it’s still racing, which results is some garage-bay gamesmanship. John Delaney, a 42-year-old from Long Island with Hit ’Em With the Hind, admits he’ll tell rivals if he has the necessary parts for a fix, but will make them wait to allow his team’s 1998 Ford Ranger truck to catch up in the standings.
“You don’t want to be in the garage,” says Delaney with a conspiratorial shrug of his shoulders, acknowledging that the 24 Hours of Lemons is a race of attrition.
That’s exactly why everyone is willing to lend a hand. Everyone wants to see these race rigs on the course, not in the paddock.
“Lemons karma is real,” says Farides.
As Farides spoke those words, another electrical engineer — 41-year-old Brian Hirth from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and a member of All Rhodes Racing who was admittedly nursing a hangover, strolls past and asks: “How you doing, man?”
“If I was doing any better, you’d have to put me down,” replies Farides with a wicked grin, as a beat-up Subaru idles past, the driver giving everyone a middle-finger salute.
An absurd variety of vehicles crowds the track, resembling a Halloween bag stuffed with candy. Almost every make produced during the past 30 years is represented, from high-end models like BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, Lexus, Volvo and Saab to Mitsubishi minivans, pick-up trucks, Subarus, Hondas, Mazdas, Toyotas, Nissans and Datsuns, Mini Coopers, VW Golfs, Chevys, Fords, Dodges and Buicks. There are well-known muscle cars like Corvettes and Camaros, and tepid commuters transformed into race rigs. There are even luxury land yachts, like a stealth black Crown Victoria, a Cadillac, and a gleaming white 1978 Chrysler Cordoba with a dashboard reportedly autographed by pitchman Ricardo Montalbán of “fine Corinthian leather” fame.
“Well, it’s signed, and the signature says Ricardo Montalbán,” says owner Jim Sayre of Philadelphia, laughing. “But I haven’t had it verified,” he adds.
“I grew up with cars of this vintage. This is what all the cool guys drove,” he says of his prized Cordoba, which he bought in 2019, 30 years after it was involved in an unsuccessful armed robbery and sold off at police auction. “I know this car.”
The 53-year-old Sayre is at one end of the Lemons racer spectrum, a neophyte competing in his first event. Even through his Cordoba and its big-block eight-cylinder power plant broke down on Sunday, ending Sayre’s initial foray into 24-hour racing prematurely he’s in a good mood as he loads the Chrysler onto a trailer.
“I beat on this thing for six hours yesterday. I didn’t think we’d get 50 laps, and we did 145,” Sayre says with an ear-to-ear grin. “I passed BMWs and Corvettes, and I didn’t touch a car. I was so pumped. I’m sad we have to take it home early, but we’ll be back.”
Watching the lightning-quick pack of vehicles zigzag around the course — averaging roughly 70 miles an hour — it’s difficult to imagine Sayre and his wide-body Cordoba making it through 145 laps without trading paint. Experienced racers acknowledge that the most difficult aspect of the race is the jarring discrepancy between each vehicle’s horsepower and handling, and each driver’s ability to manage those traits.
“Being out there with 100 cars is impossible to describe,” says David “Woody” Huntington, a race veteran from Hancock, who was coerced out of retirement to compete for the Overengineer’d Racing squad. “The speed differential between the cars is amazing, and there’s a huge gap in driver ability. Working through traffic and racing clean is the challenge. That’s what makes it so fun. You can pass 20 cars a lap.”
Because each vehicle has a team of rotating drivers, allowing nonstop racing and more and more laps, there’s an element of unpredictability regarding how each vehicle will behave. It often depends on who is behind the wheel. In other words, drivers need to expect the unexpected.
“A lot of these cars have multiple personality disorders,” says Tully.
That’s another part of the unique charm of the 24 Hours of Lemons. Almost anyone can strap on a helmet, slip into the cockpit, and punch the gas. “This is about car buffs who want to give it a go,” says Andy Dunkinson, a 52-year-old from Manchester, England, now living in Texas, and a member of the Massachusetts-based Flying Scotsmen.
“We have one guy from Scotland, one guy from England, and two imposters from the States,” says Dunkinson in his thick accent. “Our captain said he wanted people with small brains and big wallets.”
That captain, Kevin Bolen, a 47-year-old from Acton, Massachusetts, had participated in several “track days” at established race venues, and the Skip Barber Racing School. Once he learned about 24 Hours of Lemons, though, he knew he found his holy grail — a racing outlet that didn’t come with an enormous price tag. Before long, he bought himself a 1999 Mercedes C280 for short money, and gathered a team.
It’s the perfect escape,” says Bolen. “When you’re out there, racing, all you can think about is the racing. You’re not thinking about family stress, or work stress.”
Flying Scotsmen teammate Steven Serabian, a 62-year-old rookie from Stowe, Massachusetts, chimes in, saying he only has two rules: “One, I promise my wife that I’ll come back in one piece. And two, don’t be the guy who ends the race for the rest of the team.”
Plus, he says, “This is just about the most legal fun you can have these days. If you like adrenaline, this is the place to get it.”
That addresses the second major draw of the 24 Hours of Lemons. It’s a pure, white-knuckle rush.
“This series really blends theatrics with racing,” says Sayre. “It’s fast and scary as hell.”
According to 24 Hours of Lemons founder and owner Jay Lamm, that was the idea. The race was admittedly created as a lark in 2006, when Lamm and other colleagues in the car trade publication business were putting on “much more expensive events,” he says.
At the time, Lamm jokingly suggested that the group should offer a race where the cost of the cars was limited to $500. Others signed on, and the inaugural event was an instant hit. The series has grown “organically” over the past 14 years to more than 20 events held annually, coast to coast, he says.
“Every car fan has fantasized about car racing,” says Lamm. “People are delighted to race without dealing with the aggro, bullying, Type A jerk who prevented them from trying racing before.
“We’ve created a competitive event for noncompetitive people,” he says. “In a normal competitive series with 100 cars, you have one happy person who wins, and 99 unhappy people. What’s the point?”
To keep things light, Lamm and his crew routinely serve up slices of humble pie. Racers must adhere to a strict safety rules, and organizers can pull any vehicle off the track at their discretion. Overly aggressive riders must cool their heels in the pits and wait out a few laps, the equivalent of sending a misbehaving child to sit in the corner on a “naughty stool.” One pretzel-ladened Audi, caught speeding through the paddocks, was forced to follow behind an ATV around the garage area as the driver was publicly shamed.
“The guys who run this do an amazing job, safety-wise,” says Serabian.
Time in the pits is a serious disadvantage because the fastest car doesn’t always win. These vehicles need to keep rolling to compile the most laps. Time spent in the garage translates to laps lost, but breakdowns in cars this inexpensive, and pushed this hard, are commonplace. A good mechanic, before and during the race, is essential, as is the smooth transition of drivers. Everything emphasizes the team element.
“It’s more of a chess match,” says Ward.
The added component of time — events will run between 14 and 24 hours, depending on whether a particular track allows overnight racing — can also wear down competitors. Huntington is 72, but looks 20 years younger, and that fitness pays off.
“Race car driving takes a lot of endurance, and a lot of stamina,” he says. “To drive at your limit for three hours takes a lot.”
And if 100 cars and drivers jamming the course wasn’t sketchy enough, these races are held rain or shine. The first day of Halloween Hooptiefest started in a downpour, turning the track into a king-size Slip ’N Slide before the clouds eventually parted.
“The rain makes things even more interesting,” says Huntington. “You really have to tiptoe though the field.”
And it doesn’t hurt that he actually likes the rain, he says. “Living in New Hampshire my whole life, you learn to drive in all conditions. Here, you just have to deal with it while driving as fast as you can go.”
By capping the initial cost of the race cars, the series levels the playing field, breaking down another long-standing barrier to the sport. Dunkinson says the Lemons series affords him a chance to get behind the wheel while “only” spending roughly $1,000 for the weekend (not including his airfare from Texas).
“Most people can support that,” he says. “I’ve always loved cars and car racing, and this is as close as you can get at a reasonable price.”
Due to travel expenses, most competitors at the Halloween Hooptiefest focus on the series’ four Northeast events — Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Hampshire. Jeff Wakeman, a 48-year-old administrator for Stockton University in New Jersey and a team leader of 3 Pedal Mafia, says he plans to keep racing “until my doctor tells me I can’t do it.”
“The people I see on race weekend are some of my best friends, even though I only see them a few times a year,” says Wakeman after his final laps of the day in his 1989 Honda Civic Hatchback, nicknamed The Gorilla Car. “And this track is fantastic. Just top-notch.”