24 Hours of Lemons is the most fun you can have with a cheap, terrible car
Like any great idea, the 24 Hours of Lemons was dreamt up among a group of friends aimlessly chewing the fat. Back in 2006, a group of auto magazine editors, which included “Chief Perpetrator” (read: founder) Jay Lamm and “Assistant Perpetrator” Nick Pon, set out to create an inexpensive wheel-to-wheel racing series. “Even if you wanted to compete in Spec Miata, there was still a large financial—and time—commitment.” says Pon. “We wanted to remove that.”
Pon and his friends had also competed in the Bay Area’s Double 500—a 500-mile rally in classic clunkers costing less than $500. The group wanted to take that idea to a track in an effort to elevate the challenge. The result: a twenty-four-hour endurance race, on a paved road course, featuring on-track competition between spray-painted sub-$500 crapcans. The 24 Hours of Lemons was born.
At first, Pon and friends thought the challenge might be too difficult. “That inaugural race, we had like 30 cars show up,” recounts Pon. “We expected like two cars to be running at the end.” This was hardly the case, as much of the field completed two full two trips around the clock, surprising the founders. Lamm, Pon, and the rest of the troop set to work building their burgeoning series.
Aside from the length of the race, 24 Hours of Lemons doesn’t have much in common with professional endurance racing. For starters, the true victors of the weekend are not those who cross the line first, rather, those who do it with the most style. “We have an overall winner trophy, but that’s not the one people want,” says Pon. Their Index of Effluencey (a lampoon of Le Mans’ Index of Thermal Efficiency)—which is calculated by rating how terrible the entry is versus how high it finished—is the highest honor. “We don’t care if you won in a BMW, but we may award you the Index if you finished tenth in an AMC Hornet.”
So what’s the go-to car? Anything, really, providing it was street legal when produced and it costs less than $500 (not including safety equipment, brakes, and wheels/tires). If Lemons judges deem that you spent more than five bills, they may permit you to run but will likely assign negative laps. A spec Miata could start the race, it just might be six hundred laps down before the field even takes the green flag.
The race vehicle also needs to pass Lemons’ safety inspection. Participating racers are required to have a six-point or higher roll cage, a race seat, race belts, an onboard fire suppression system, a kill switch, and either a completely stock fuel system or pro-quality fuel cell. Drivers need a helmet, a head-and-neck restraint, and fire-resistant race gear. Despite the goofy name, odd premise, and overall buffoonery, this is still door-to-door racing and needs to be taken seriously.
Outside of the car, though, things get far… less serious. Perform any cursory web search on Lemons cars (or click here) and you’re bound to see some wild builds that routinely rub fenders out on the race course—a 2001 Mercedes Benz C230 rescued from the scrapper only to have a rotating cement drum stuffed up its trunk, a junkyard V-8 swapped Porsche 944 with a 1977 Chevy C30 nose job, a 1993 Chrysler LeBaron replete with hood scoop and roof-mounted airfoil. Not to mention all the rides so heavily grafted in cardboard and paper mâché that it’s difficult to tell what lies underneath. The dress-up doesn’t stop there, though, as crew members get in on the nonsense by donning matching costumes. In fact, the regalia has grown to be such a spectacle that the Lemons organizers recently debuted their newest prize: The eBay Motors Halloween-meets-Gasoline Trophy, which awards $1000 to the team that’s best decorated, from car to crew.
Trophies aside, the real juice behind Lemons’ international popularity is the camaraderie and lack of barriers that the founders originally set out to take down. In the paddock, teams are competitive, but jovial, welcoming, and willing to lend a hand whenever teams face a catastrophe—which they often do. Rosters comprised purely of family members or best friends might mix it up with ranks of professional drivers eager to wear their party hat for a weekend of low-pressure curb hopping. No race-licensing requirements, no practice. All you need is a valid driver’s license, at least one co-driver, and any number of crew members to get your jalopy across the finish line. “You can have a driver that ran Le Mans and the guy who does his landscaping on the same team,” says Pon.
Don’t have a landscaping guy, or any friends, for that matter? Lemons offers the cleverly-titled OKStupid matchmaker service, which provides a prospective driver’s info with the roster of team captains. Also on their website, numerous guides and FAQs to quickly take you from Lemons novice to an exceptional expert on the unexceptional. Just over 15 years since their debut event, the 24 Hours of Lemons series is currently on the schedule for 20 endurance meets in 2022, from their first race of the season, in March at NorCal’s Sonoma Raceway, to their finale in December at Road Atlanta.
Every event is open to spectating, as well. If you’re a fan of failures, the Lemons group offers several road-going and static shows throughout the year. Lemons Rally is half waypoint competition, half scavenger hunt, all fun. Concours D’Lemons is a sarcastic counterpunch to golf-course car show snobbery featuring all things dilapidated and malaise. There, you can win awards like “Soul Sucking Japanese Appliance,” or “Rust Belt American Junk.” “If you’re not into the racing thing, you can still have fun with crappy cars,” says Pon—no doubt something he and his crew have been doing for two decades.
Whether you’re an amateur, a pro, interested in spectating, or simply an admirer of all automotive atrocities, visit 24hoursoflemons.com for more info.