Heading west out of metro Washington early that Friday morning, they were just four friends with nothing more than a $500 car and a dream of racing. Well, plus a loaded RV, a cargo van, a U-Haul trailer, a pickup truck, a spare motor, an engine crane, a jackstand, a full set of $150 high-performance racing tires (plus two spares), four fireproof racing suits and helmets, assorted power tools, a couple of laptop computers, a WiFi hotspot, a barbecue grill and a cooler full of steaks, chicken, eggs and thick-cut bacon.
Oh, and also: a standalone bar, three kegs of Fat Tire Amber Ale, one kegerator, 31 / 2 cases of canned beer (in case the kegs went dry), two cases of Fireball cinnamon whiskey, a stereo, a laser-light-show system, a dance cage, some neon spray paint and magic markers, several strands of outdoor lights, one men’s scuba suit (complete with snorkel and mask), assorted neon wigs and various rave-party-themed costume paraphernalia.
But leaving all that aside, they were just four friends with nothing more than a $500 car and a dream of racing.
Some 90 minutes later, as the caravan pulled into the paddock area of Summit Point Motorsports Park, each of the four members of team Vicious Regress — ringleader Matt Bartlett, 43, of D.C.; his girlfriend, Barbara Hale, 42, of Alexandria; his Chinatown neighbor Max Self, 33; and Dale Cruickshank, 57, of Broadland, Va. — had to be wondering, to varying degrees, just what in the holy creation they had gotten themselves into.
Were the four of them (none of whom had ever raced a single lap, whether in a racecar or any other motorized vehicle, in their lives) actually going to take turns getting behind the wheel of their stripped-down, rave-painted, 90-horsepower, four-cylinder 1980 Chevy Monza — or what was left of it after half the roof was cut away, the interior gutted and all unnecessary parts, such as the catalytic converter and muffler, removed — and race for some 141 / 2 hours that weekend against another hundred or so fellow amateurs with similarly disposable cars on a real 2.2-mile racetrack with 22 turns?
It certainly appeared so.
Across this great land, on splendid weekends such as this, there are NASCAR races full of $300,000 ground-rockets, hospitality tents, jam-packed grandstands and network TV cameras.
And then there is the race our four intrepid heroes were heading to — “24 Hours of LeMons” (yes, that’s LeMons with an “o,” pronounced like the fruit), which is essentially what NASCAR would be if you stripped away all the money, the pretensions and the fans, and added copious amounts of twisted humor and spot-weld ingenuity.
This certainly seemed like a good idea when Matt hatched it as a self-admitted “midlife-crisis endeavor” back in the spring. A West Point grad who runs his own defense-consulting business in D.C., he had run out of ways to satisfy his adventure jones after trying, and completing, every Tough Mudder and Venture Quest obstacle race in the mid-Atlantic. That is until someone told him about the 24 Hours of LeMons circuit (motto: “All it takes is a beater, some buddies and lots of big lapses in judgment!”), which happened to be coming to West Virginia in June.
Well, who wouldn’t want to be a real racecar driver for a weekend?
“He brought it up to me a couple months ago: ‘Want to race a car?’ ” Barb recalled. “The part I like is overcoming my fear and just doing it — that sense of accomplishment. It could kill me, I guess. But anything can kill you, right?”
The idea was intriguing on its face: The central concept of LeMons is that your car cannot be worth more than $500 — before mandatory safety upgrades, tires and brakes. You race for 10 hours on Saturday and another 41 / 2 on Sunday, and the car with the most laps at the end wins the grand prize of $1,500, paid out in nickels.
Picture a junkyard full of abandoned junkers. Now, picture those cars brought back to life, wearing Halloween costumes and racing around a track hundreds of times. And if you get “black-flagged” for any improprieties, such as bumping another car or passing during a yellow flag, you get hit with any number of assorted hokey penalties — from having to make a replica of your car out of Play-Doh to being driven around the paddock to apologize to your fellow competitors while shrink-wrapped to your roof.
Sounds fun and simple — with an exceedingly favorable fun-to-cost ratio — right? Where else can you have that much fun for an entire weekend for just $500?
But if it was really so cheap, then how on earth — at the end of a weekend that saw team Vicious Regress limp the Monza valiantly around the racetrack 108 times, despite all sorts of mechanical calamities and her inherent unfitness for such labor, finishing 86th out of 97 entries before her engine died a noble death in a haze of white smoke and backfires — did Bartlett’s post-race accounting arrive at a total financial outlay of $9,174.43?
Well, you can start with the rave party.
From a single race in 2006 at Altamont (Calif.) Motorsports Park — the brainchild of a local auto journalist named Jay Lamm — the 24 Hours of LeMons circuit has grown to include, in 2013, a total of 19 events in 12 states.
In that inaugural race, there were 33 cars and 165 drivers, most of them Lamm’s buddies. But by 2012, the LeMons races attracted around 2,900 cars and 8,900 drivers. (At $500 to register a car at each race, plus a $100 fee per driver, with a minimum of four required, it adds up to a nifty profit.)
“The fear of failure and humiliation has kept 99 percent of car nuts away from traditional racing,” Lamm said, explaining the race’s appeal. “By practically guaranteeing failure and humiliation, LeMons has pretty much taken the sting from it.”
LeMons races have become so popular, in fact, that Lamm — whose official title is Chief Perpetrator — and his staff have to be selective in regards to whom they let in. The racetracks can only accommodate so many cars. So what gets your application past the organizing committee and your hooptie to the starting line? Creativity and fun. Which is to say, a good theme.
Somewhere along the way, the LeMons circuit became a traveling Halloween show, where, that weekend at Summit Point, a 1993 Mitsubishi Eclipse decorated to look like a turtle (team name: “Turtle Eclipse of the Heart”) might go wheel-to-wheel with a 1971 Sea Sprite boat mounted to a Chevy S-10 pickup chassis and a 1999 Subaru Forester done up as a school bus.
Matt and Barbara quickly decided on their theme: a rave party. The Monza, purchased for $200 from a group in Charlotte that had raced it once in a 2011 LeMons race, would be painted with wild, bright colors. Their paddock would morph at night into a rave, complete with a dance floor, a handmade dance cage, a fully stocked bar, a laser-light system and loud, pulsating music. Oh, and – somewhat incongruously — a scuba suit.
“I was at a rave once,” Matt explained, “and some guy was wearing a scuba suit. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Once we decided to do this, I knew I had to get a scuba suit.”
Their team name would be Vicious Regress, an obscure philosophy concept the meaning of which Matt defines as “the solution to the problem is the problem itself.” For example, “the solution to a hangover is to keep drinking.”
Their application sailed through. As for their utter lack of racing experience, that was hardly viewed as a negative.
“Beginners aren’t as bad as guys that know enough to get in trouble,” explained rules official “Judge” Phil Greden, who serves as “Chief Justice of LeMons Supreme Court.” “The worst drivers are the ones with enough skills to get going really fast before they wipe out.”
From a starting point of $200, the price of the Monza, the costs soon started to rise exponentially.
Matt is an occasional car-tinkerer who, in 2002, rebuilt a 1973 Land Rover Series-3 109. He paid $305 for a Holly carburetor and installed it himself. The sign-up costs for the LeMons race came out to nearly a grand. Since the Monza had been raced in a LeMons race before, he thought he had a free pass on all the safety equipment.
But the organizers had recently toughened the safety standards, so Matt had to get a new roll-cage and racing seat installed. Add new brakes and tires, and the safety add-ons came out to $3,400.
On the Friday of each race weekend, cars must pass two inspections — a tech inspection for safety, and an under-the-hood “B.S.” inspection to make sure you didn’t go over the $500 limit. Violators are docked one lap for every $10 over the limit. Having gone $5 over — with his $200 car and his $305 carburetor — Matt knew enough about LeMons culture to know the inspectors could be bribed, preferably with a bottle of alcohol, to look the other way at minor cost overruns.
As team Vicious Regress pulled in for inspection, Matt wore, per LeMons tradition, his scuba suit and Hale wore her rave-appropriate miniskirt and neon pink wig. Drivers from other teams gathered around to check out the Monza, part of an ill-fated Chevrolet line that lasted from 1975 to 1980. Its Iron Duke engine is widely ridiculed in auto circles as one of the weakest ever built.
“Is that a Monza?” one fellow competitor marveled.
“Is that an Iron Duke?” another chimed in. “Holy crap.”
But the Monza passed her B.S. inspection — thanks in no small part to the bottle of Fireball whiskey that was passed along to Judge Phil — and was a faulty brake light shy of passing the tech inspection. Just get that fixed by the 10 a.m. Saturday start time, Judge Phil said, and team Vicious Regress would be good to go.
That wasn’t going to be a problem. Matt may not have been the best mechanic in these paddocks, but by gosh he could change a busted brake light.
To a man — and a woman (Barb being one of about a dozen females out of a total of around 400 drivers in the race) — the members of team Vicious Regress had one goal: to finish the race. But in hindsight, that faulty brake light was like a sign from the racing gods that very little that weekend was going to go as planned.
Before the Monza had even hit the track, someone noticed one of the brand-new $150 tires had a flat. (“You gotta be kidding me,” Matt said. “These tires have zero miles on them!”) Off came the flat tire, on went one of the spares.
They took the car out for some practice laps on Friday with the brake light still dark. She ran fine, except for the fact the brakes felt very unresponsive.
For three of the four drivers — everyone but Matt — it was their first time driving the Monza. (“I was trying to come off [the track] at the end,” Barb reported afterward, “and I kept trying to reach for the turn signal!”)
And for one of them, it would be the last time behind the wheel. Dale, older and burlier than the rest, decided after his practice run that his size made it too uncomfortable, and he would relinquish his racing laps to the others. It worked out well in the end, because one of the kegs needed some carbon dioxide, so Dale soon headed off in search of some, returning an hour or so later as a conquering hero.
While Barb lit the grill and Max began assembling the dance cage that would be the centerpiece of that night’s rave, Matt went to work on the brake light. It was shortly after 7 p.m., but by 8:30, when he finally paused to eat a steak, it still wasn’t fixed. He changed the bulb, checked the wiring. Nothing. He took a look around the paddocks at all the hard-core mechanical work going on.
“Those guys are over there swapping out an engine,” he lamented, “and I can’t get the brake light to go on.”
This being LeMons — and not, say, LeMans — it took nothing more than swallowed pride for Matt to walk over to the paddock next door and ask for help. Luckily for him, that paddock happened to belong to Scott Glenn, a master auto mechanic from Ashland, Va., and his brother Stacy, an electrician. It was also their first LeMons race.
After some flashlight-powered investigating, they determined that the brake switch had failed. Scott could get the brake light lit if he could get his hands on another brake switch or even a clutch switch. Matt went around to the other paddocks in search of one.
“Would a door switch work?” he finally came back and asked.
And so, a guy racing a 1984 Toyota Celica GT-S took a door switch bummed off a 1987 Mazda RX-7 and rigged it — using a zip tie and a hose clamp — into a brake switch for a 1980 Chevy Monza.
“At no other race could you walk up to the guy next door and say, ‘I need help,’ ” said Stacy Glenn, shaking his head. “Anywhere else, they’d be like, ‘Naw, man, I’m trying to beat you.’ ”
But the trials and tribulations for team Vicious Regress were only getting started. As the music started thumping and the laser-lights blinked and danced and an assortment of characters from paddocks near and far climbed into the cage one by one to the hoots and hollers of the swelling crowd of grease-stained ravers, the Monza sat there and rested, as if steeling herself for the Herculean tasks she would be asked to perform the next day.
At 9 a.m. Saturday, an hour before the green flag would drop at Summit Point Motorsports Park, this was the state of the Monza: She was up on jacks, the hood open, the two rear tires off. A Starbucks cup sat on the roof and a plastic fork in the wheel-bed. Matt was underneath the car, cursing.
“Drama,” Barb explained succinctly.
As it happened, the Monza’s brakes had bigger problems than just a faulty light. The pressure valve in the rear brake line had failed, causing all the fluid to leak out. Turns out, they had run those practice laps on Friday with essentially no working rear brakes.
And so, back to the paddock next door went Matt, looking for some more help from Scott Glenn, who — as the sound of revving engines roared all around them, the race having started at 10:03 a.m. — eventually rigged up some working brakes by plugging the brake line and bypassing the valve.
At 10:21 a.m., 18 minutes late to the starting line, the Monza was finally on the track, with Matt behind the wheel.
At 11:16 a.m., Matt came off the track for a driver switch. “Man,” he exclaimed, “I got passed by a boat!”
At 11:27 a.m., Max hit the track.
At 12:02 p.m., Max came back with a problem: The gear shifter was completely loose from the transmission. “I tried to downshift into third,” he said, “and the shifter went right up into the dash.”
And so it went. Scott tried to spot-weld their shifter to the frame, but it soon came loose again. Matt went off in search of a piece of steel to reinforce it and Scott spot-welded it again. This time it held, but by that time, they had lost nearly three hours.
“This car,” Max said at one point to no one in particular, “is a piece of crap.”
Barb got her turn behind the wheel — “I just don’t want to wreck the car or get black-flagged for being too slow,” she said — and returned with everything, including herself, in one piece.
But then, calamity struck. At 7:46 p.m., 14 minutes before the end of Saturday’s 10-hour session, Matt limped her back in, white smoke pouring out of the hood and the sound of backfires pop-pop-popping. “It won’t shut off,” Bartlett said.
It was pretty much over at that point for team Vicious Regress. The engine was blown, and while Matt had gone to great lengths to bring along an extra, it would have taken him all night to get it in, if he could do it at all. And that would eat into the rave time. When Sunday dawned — following an epic rave that lasted until 3 a.m. – our four intrepid heroes had conceded defeat.
Matt had no regrets. And secretly, he had already started making plans to do another LeMons race in Charlotte in September.
“Next time, it will be 100 times easier. We’ll know what to bring, what not to bring, and we won’t have to shell out so much money up front,” he said. “The racing out there was so exhilarating. You can go pay 300 bucks for the ‘NASCAR experience’ and drive a racecar around a track three times. But that’s nothing compared to being out there with 100 other cars and racing around a track for two days — even though I was terrible at it.”
Even after the mysterious flat tire and the faulty brake light and the busted brake-line valve and the shredded gear-shifter and the blown engine — even after all that, there was still one last indignity that would befall team Vicious Regress and their valiant little Monza.
Late Saturday night, they were pushing her toward Scott Glenn’s paddock next door, in desperate hopes — futile, as they turned out — that he could get the engine running again. Matt was outside the driver-side door, leaning in, his hand on the steering wheel, guiding her in.
All of a sudden, the steering wheel snapped off in his hand, column and all. Everyone else just gasped or stared blankly, wondering the same awful thing: What if that had happened on the track?
But Matt just looked at the steering wheel in his hand, smiled and made a mental note: Next time, make sure the steering wheel is on right.