24 Hours Of Lemons, Thunderhill 2012: A Beginner’s Perspective

This post originally appeared here, at Hooniverse.com.

The sun rose over the rolling hills of golden winter wheat and filled my tent with light.  I rustled, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and thought, “Holy shit!  I’m first on the track today!”  This was my first-ever Lemons event and I was…um…nervous. 

When Pete sent me the invite just two weeks previous to join Team Killer ZomBees (You may remember the ZomBee itself as the Hooniversal Car of the Year for 2011), I did what any rational, self-respecting person would not do: I said yes.  What follows is my attempt to describe what the 24 Hours of Lemons was like.


Let me start by thanking Pete and Team Killer ZomBee for the opportunity.  The team was great, everyone got along, and we all pitched in to accomplish the ultimate goal, which was to finish the race.  I have tried once or twice to assemble a team and car of my own, but between logistics, travel, and expense were just too many hurdles.  “Arrive and drive” was probably the only way I would have been able to experience this fantastic race.

Ahh, the race.  Thunderhill is the home of Lemons, so lots of teams show up.  How many?  180 teams entered the race, and most of those started.  A few crapped out before we took the green flag, but most were on the track.  When we did take that green flag, it was my crazy ass that was at the controls of the ZomBee. Apparently, it is customary to put your least experienced drivers in the car first.  There may be some sensible reason for this practice, but I am convinced it’s just a cruel joke. 

The race was scheduled to start at ten o’clock.  I was suited up and strapped in at around 9:45 and on the track well on time.  Unlike most racing I have seen in the past, there is no pace car.  All the cars get on the track under yellow, they check to make sure they have contact with each car’s transponder, which counts laps and other data, then they just throw the green flag. 

For me, the green flag was thrown about halfway down the front straight.  At about 10:04, it was thrown much sooner than I expected.  I noticed it as some menacingly loud lemon came screaming around me in a fit of rage.  “Oh shit, green flag!  Quit f***ing around!  Let’s go!”  So, I mashed the throttle and bombed into turn one with what seemed like 35 other cars.  I was gaining on one or two, but most were gaining on me and I thought that this may be where I die.  Somehow, all those cars made it through turn one (not sure how, because I had my eyes closed most of the way – kidding, kidding.) and we were racing. 

[image source: http://www.murileemartin.com]

Driving the car in live, green flag action was just about exactly how great you would expect it to be.  It is exciting, exhilarating, intense, and crazy fun.  The mission is to get around the 2.88 mile track as fast as you can without spinning, going off the track, or crashing into somebody.  If you meet those requirements, then the mission is to do it again, and again, and again…for two hours. 

For those two hours, your body is subjected to noise, vibration, exhaust fumes, brake fumes, extreme heat, and the stress of trying, with all the focus you can muster, not to die.  My body was subject to one more stressor: I had to pee.  Since temperatures were forecast to be in the high 90s, the P.A. announcer had been giving constant reminders to keep ourselves hydrated.  I heeded those reminders with great zeal and drank far too much water before getting in the car.  it was about lap 4 when I realized I had to go.  When we were under green, it was pretty easy to ignore the building pressure in my bladder, but when a yellow flag would fly, my focus returned to my urgent calling.  My shift was scheduled for two hours, though, and I was determined to do my job. 

After 90 minutes of mixing the thrill of live action racing with the misery of Kegeling back nine hectares of urine, I realized I couldn’t go any farther.  Somewhere in the middle of my last lap, which was under green, I drifted off into planning my exit of the Bee and subsequent dash to the Port-O-Potty.  Before I went out on the track, Pete told me that if my mind started to wander from the task at hand, I needed to get into the pit, so, with no warning to the team, I dropped into pit lane, pulled the car into the pit area, and tested the quick-release system on the car’s 5-point racing harness.  The team quickly figured out what was wrong as I ran off, helmet and all, to answer nature’s long overdue call. 

The team strapped in the next driver and we were back to racing in good time.  Team ZomBee continued on for the rest of the day almost without incident.  One penalty lap for leaving the paved portion of the track, and one wreck near the end of the day were the only obstacles the team dealt with.  The wreck was the ZomBee giving a pit maneuver to another car.  The Bee survived, the other car did not fare so well.  We changed the tire and reset the toe adjustment after racing hours and were ready to go in the morning. 

When you join a Lemons team, you go into it with full knowledge that the car might die or crash before you ever get a chance to race.  I knew this and was prepared for anything.  Well, almost anything.  What I did not expect was to be in contention.  The ZomBee was assigned to class “C”, which is the slowest class.  In that class, we finished the first day in third place of 38 cars.  It was very exciting.  Going into day two, we figured that if we could keep the car running and stay out of trouble, a top five finish was a real possibility. 

I did not start the day in the car on Sunday.  My fellow newbie Dave did.  He did a great job and brought the car back to me in one piece.  We were still in third, knocking of the door of second when I strapped in.  While the team’s motto, which was shouted at each driver as he left the pit, was “Don’t die!”, my personal motto in the car was, “Do your job.”  In this case, my job was to complete laps at a respectable speed and not wreck or incur a penalty.  Mid-way through my day two shift, I felt much more comfortable in traffic, passing cars, letting other cars pass me, and generally driving with the aggressiveness required to “Don’t die!”  Several times, though, I found myself pushing too hard, or getting too close to another car in a high-risk, low-reward situation.  When that happened, I repeated my motto aloud. 

Things went well, and I signaled “last lap” to the team.  Between turn 8 and 9 of that last lap, a broken car was drifting across the roadway trying to get out of the way.  Several cars in front of me passed him on the inside and I followed.  He must not have seen me, because he pinched me hard toward the dirt.  I may have scuffed him as I went by, or I may have dropped a wheel off of the pavement for a split second.  If I missed either or both, it was by sheer fortune.  Nobody complained and no black flags come out, so I guess I was lucky.  I completed the rest of the lap and turned into the pit. 

Upon finishing what would be my last shift in the car, and after the next driver departed the pit area, a huge wave of relief/success/accomplishment/joy rushed over me.  I raised my arms and let out a big whoop, knowing that I had done my job.  The team was in second place (the previous second place car had mechanical issues) with two drivers and 4 hours left to go. 

[image source: http://www.murileemartin.com]

Team Fiero Libre was behind us in third and the Soccer Moms Caravan was leading.  Over the next four hours, the ZomBee did its British best to hang onto second, but ended up falling behind the faster Fiero.  The Soccer Moms outclassed all of us, winning by some 17 laps.  As the day wound down, I found myself rooting for the Bee itself. By that time, I had a lot of confidence in our drivers and was just hoping that the little MGB that could actually could.  It did. 

[image source: http://www.murileemartin.com]

Team ZomBee finished the race in third place in class “C”.  I’m making a note here, “Huge Success.”

There are many negatives to a Lemons race.  Heat, filth, noise, fumes, stress, and fear come to mind.  These aren’t just while you are in the car either.  They go on all day for two days.  The negatives, however, are outweighed tenfold by the thrill, camaraderie, excitement, and sense of accomplishment that wash over you during this crazy weekend. 

I will follow up with a picture dump post later.  For now I must again thank Pete and Team ZomBee for providing me with one of the greatest experiences of my life.

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