Jay Lamm: The Clown Prince of Automobiledom
Jay Lamm has just the antidote for the concours stiffs and race wannabes who take themselves just a wee bit too seriously.
If Pebble Beach is the sublime, then the Concours d’LeMons Monterey is the ridiculous. Where else would you find a tiny wheelbase VW bus running in tight circles while popping wheelies to the cheers of the crowd? Or a mortally wounded Trabant coughing cute little clouds of blue smoke as it hobbles up to the award stand? Or awards like the one for the “French Legion of Horror” class, featuring a basket of nylon stockings, chocolate bars and Lucky Strikes?
If you’re twisted enough to have read Mad magazine as a kid instead of comic books, the Concours d’LeMons is your kind of car show. And you can thank Jay Lamm and his partner Alan Galbraith for this kind of comic relief amid the sanctimonious proceedings of Monterey/Pebble Beach week every August. Held on the confines of Toro Park near Salinas – spiritually about as far away as you can get from Pebble Beach – the competition is indeed fierce, with internationally inspired categories such as “Unmitigated Gaul,” “Needlessly Complex Italian,” “Der Self-Satisfied Krautten Wagen,” “Kommunist Kar,” “Soul Sucking Japanese” and “Rustbelt American Junk.”
The concours is organized by Galbraith and his wife, Melissa, who license the LeMons name from Lamm’s company. Galbraith also runs the Billetproof series for pre-1963 hot rods. Galbraith met Jay at a LeMons racing event and, after getting kicked off the track for bad driving, they became friends. That’s when Galbraith came up with his “good car show for bad cars” concept. This is the second annual LeMons event during Monterey weekend. Another LeMons concours was held in March at Infineon Raceway in San Francisco.
While Jay is getting much of the limelight this weekend, this is his firstever LeMons Monterey event; he had a racing conflict last year. It’s also Lamm’s first time to don the official hayseed straw hat and judge’s lei.
“What’s particularly awful about this car? Everything!” says Lamm as he gleefully marks a judging sheet for a clapped-out, faded-blue Fiat with suicide doors.
“What year is it?” fellow judge Dick McClure asks.
“Who knows?” shrugs the owner, Dan Lennon of Berkeley, sitting on the sill of his sunroof as he mashes the little Italian horn with his foot.
“It’s a Fiat 600, but I call it a Superleggera for racing.”
“I got from downtown San Jose to Morgan Hill on one and a half gallons.”
“Ohhhhhhh, so he’s greeeeeen too,” says McClure to the crowd.
“Plus I recycled my hang tag with my car information from the Concorso Italiano yesterday,” says the owner.
“So on the negative side, he went to the Concorso Italiano,” says Lamm to the crowd.
Such is the repartee between LeMons judges and the contestants, and given the obligatory bribes – last year, someone offered a Fiat 124–shaped cake and another offered a song about their Nash Rambler – LeMons has become a fun diversion from the many other events taking place on the Monterey peninsula.
Established car guys can win, too. Wayne Carini, host of Chasing Classic Cars on Discovery HD Theater, proved that. He rented a truly deplorable but very unusual Volvo 1800ES custom Targa wagon from a local Monterey car dealership, replete with rust holes, ratted-out seats and dusty cardboard boxes in the back filled with loose parts. On-board mice are suspected but never spotted. Under the hood, though, bags of Swedish Fish candies and beef jerkies are used to curry the judges’ favor. Despite the fact that an attractive female competitor in a Volvo offers small bottles of vodka with blue and yellow ribbons as bribes, Carini still manages to ace the class.
The winner of the Ass Engined Hessian Sled Class is a 1959 Volkswagen van that served as a prison and eventual tomb for a Wyoming bear that became trapped in the van while searching for grain that had been stored inside. The decomposing bear eventually rotted out the floorboards of the VW, leaving the entire rear passenger area open to the elements. Such provenance makes it an easy favorite for the discerning judges.
How does one become the clown prince of automobiledom? Especially when renowned automotive book author and journalist Mike Lamm is your father?
“As an automotive journalist for 25 years, I drove every fancy new sports car, went on press trips to Germany, ran in historic races, had the Pebble Beach pass. I’d been coming to Monterey every year for probably 15 years.” says Jay. “Then it just hit me. It was too crowded. I had seen the same cars and the same people for years. Why am I here? Plus there seems to be this canon of must-cars in the car hobby – the Alfa 8C, Jaguar XK 120, Shelby Cobra and Ferrari 275 GT. You don’t see a lot else.”
He points to a shiny, well-maintained purple and gold Mercury Marquis. “Chances are, the guy who owns that car loves it to death, but he has no place to show it off. The hobby’s gotten so formal and structured over the last 30 years that people are looking for something outside of the canon.”
Lamm’s friend, Martin Swig of California Mille fame, helped Jay get his first satirical car event off the ground – the Double 500 rally in 2001. The concept was 500 miles in a $500 car.
Shortly thereafter, Lamm hatched the idea of the 24-hour track race for $500 cars, which became the 24 Hours of LeMons. “It never crossed my mind that anything was going to come out of this. The first race was supposed to be just me and 12 of my buddies – a onetime deal. I rented a race track and they gave me enough money to cover the costs.”
Lamm attracted 32 cars to that first event at Altamont Speedway near Tracy, California. He expected them all to break down after a few hours, but to his surprise many of them hung around and people were keen to do it again.
“THE BILL FRANCE OF LEMONS RACING”
Racing success has led to a full-time career for Lamm. The LeMons race series has expanded into 21 events, coast to coast, from January to December. Fueling that success is the fact that no experience is necessary. The first-timers actually make better race drivers than the guys with SCCA stickers on their helmets, says Lamm. “We make it very difficult for the people we call Type-A Holes. We try to change their attitude by making them dress up like mimes or follow a VW bus for 10 laps.”
Success, though, has brought on challenges. “We love to present the image of two idiots in lawn chairs doing this, but in reality we’ve got five full-time people, half a dozen contractors and plane tickets every two weeks.”
Has the race series and concours caused resentment on the serious side of the car community, especially here at Monterey? “If there’s anything that’s ripe for a stick in the eye,” says Lamm, “it’s Monterey weekend. To their credit, the guys I know from Concorso, Pebble and The Quail have all been extremely kind and open-minded. They get it. They realize we’re not threatening the Pebble Beach franchise.”
“There is a percentage of people who don’t get it,” chimes in Dick McClure, “but that makes it even better. If we don’t offend at least 10 percent of the attendees, we’re not doing our job.”
Back at the LeMons judging, Lamm and McClure are admiring the overspray under the hood of a Pinto.
“That’s factory,” says Lamm. “I love the UAW artistry of those blotchy, uneven welds.” “And look at the ’70s aesthetic of that interior,” says McClure. “The fabric on the inside doesn’t match the doors.”
“That’s definitely factory,” says Lamm.
And so on.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.