A Rookie's Guide to Entering the 24 Hours of Lemons

Want to partake in the world's best-known junker endurance racing series? Here's everything you need to know.

James Gilboy

If you're familiar with the 24 Hours of Lemons, odds are you know it as a junker endurance racing series, with $500 cars adorned in silly liveries. I think we're clear what the gist of Lemons is, so let's be clear about what Lemons isn't.

  • The 24 Hours of Le Mans.
  • 24 hours of racing.
  • $500.
  • Easy.
  • Fair and objective.
  • Free of public humiliation.

Imagine instead that Lemons lasts about 14.5 hours, costs thousands of dollars, and can be an unforeseen pain in the unfortunates. The judges bend the rules for either their own amusement or a suitcase stuffed with SpaghettiOs. Some rules, if broken, yield the most arbitrary, embarrassing public punishments imaginable, be it welding a metal animal to your car's roof or forcing the offender to jog laps of the paddock backward whilst singing "I'm a Little Teapot." If this somehow doesn't deter you and at least three of your friends, then you're already Lemons material.

Should you want to experience Lemons for yourself, here's everything I discovered from setting up a team of rookies and entering the B.F.E. GP Lemons event in Colorado.

If you want to experience the insanity of Lemons vicariously, you can read about my B.F.E. GP experience here: A Rookie at 24 Hours of Lemons: Finding Fulfillment, Community, and Satan in My First Endurance Race

You Need a Team

Rafi Ward

What's a team? Four to six people with a (feasibly) $500 car. Whether the team forms around an existing car or comes together to build a new one will depend on your approach. The former is the cheaper option but relies on a decent, already-caged car being available for sale. On occasion, turnkey cars surface on the Lemons forum. Worst case, you could always trawl the paddock after a race looking for teams that want to unload their problems onto another group of schmucks.

Starting anew lets a team build a race car on the platform of their choosing, but unless you have the fabrication skills to do the roll cage and other preparation yourself, expect to spend thousands of dollars to have someone else build what you can't. It'll be hard to limbo under the $500 bar after spending $100 on a car and $3,000 on its cage; recouping value by selling off the window regulators and glass won't offset enough of your costs. Expect to eat penalty laps if you overspend, and keep every receipt to convince the judges that you're more fiscally responsible than you are.

I stumbled down the former path after a chance meeting with Rafi, the owner of a race-ready Cadillac Deville. It was built and successfully raced in Texas last before changing hands for a $1,100 pittance—officially a $100 car and $1,000 in safety gear. With a foot in the door, I helped Rafi search for additional drivers to fill out the mandatory minimum team size of four. Hard as it may be to believe, it took months to find just two more people able to commit to a Lemons race. Former BMW master technician Rick and experienced SCCA racer Marcus completed our rogues' gallery.

It's important to consider what each person brings to the team when building your crew. Don't invite people you can't trust to be helpful to the team effort. Rafi has the car, Rick has the truck, trailer, and tools, and Marcus has racing experience and a set of neck restraints for the team to share. I brought a motherlike worry about safety gear.

Speaking of which...

You Need Safety Gear

Tom Gilboy

Assuming you have your car in order, the next hurdle is the safety gear required for racing. Helmet, boots, fire suit, gloves, underclothing, and neck restraints. This is a place where you can share as much gear as possible to save money, provided your teammates don't mind each others' cooties, but there is one corner that can't be cut: The rules mandate two suited-up team members attend to refueling, hence you'll need two full sets of gear that meet the specifications outlined by Lemons.

Of course, the ideal is brand-new racing equipment for all parties. If your team is comprised entirely of investment bankers, by all means, stimulate the racing gear industry. Expect to spend $7,000 if you buy brand-new sets of equipment for four people. If you're anything like me and don't own pharmaceutical stocks, that's far too much money to spend—teams often equip themselves for a fraction of this price.

One caveat: Racing gear expires. Buying minimum-spec used gear like an SA2010 helmet may force you to update again in a couple years to SA2015 standards. Neck restraints often cost more than a helmet, and many have five-year service lives rather than the ten you may get from a helmet. Fortunately, they are the single most shareable component. Fire suit standards have remained somewhat stable for over a decade now, and getting up-to-date used gear is easy.

A team of four that wants to buy two sets of the absolute cheapest, least future-proof used gear can acquire enough to race Lemons for $1,500. I invested in a mixture of new and used gear for myself and managed to spend just over $1,000, though I have identified where I could have saved about $200 by buying used or sharing. What I spent appears to be the median among my teammates, some higher, some lower.

You Need a Theme

James Gilboy

Lemons may be known primarily for its emphasis on cost limitation, but the outrageous team and car themes on parade contribute to its notoriety. Your theme can be a sloppily-executed afterthought and it will still score you points with Judge Phil. We know this because we rehashed the sacrilegious theme of the car's previous team, Holy Crap Racing, which paid tribute to the car's churchgoing previous owner, Glenda Carter. In honor of the car's second race entry, we called ourselves The Second Coming. All we changed were the names on the car, which now read Rafi, Marcus, and Rick James.

Despite the recycled livery, and the fact that only two of us wore costumes (stitched together by my mother), Judge Phil was impressed. He produced a vintage camera and film to take an old-school photo that now serves as the banner image for the official Lemons facebook page.

You Need the Peripheries

With its roll cage and presumable lack of emissions equipment, your car will need to catch a ride to the race on a trailer. Borrow it and a truck from a friend, or hit up one of many truck rental chains around the country. Extra space for tools, spare parts, and machinery to support your race will be valuable, be it an engine hoist or mini fridge—we brought both.

Consider dragging along things that keep you alive such as food, more water than you think necessary, and changes of clothing. Your toes will take time to forgive you for walking an entire weekend in narrow race boots. Prepare for anything the weather forecast suggests as possible. Figure out whether you will rough it or snooze in the nearest Super 8 at night.

You Need Still More Cash

Rafi Ward

Things will break before you begin loading your car on the trailer. A hasty hood slam broke our intake piping, demanding a junkyard trip. Our makeshift fuel gauge (a multimeter hooked to the fuel level sensor) ran out of batteries and didn't tell us the car was empty. We burned out a starter trying to crank it without gas and had to peel off the intake manifold twice to replace it. The rear brake pads and rotors were metal-to-metal and had to be replaced. One brake caliper refused to yield and was replaced. This goes without mentioning what broke at the race.

Race fluids such as gas and its associated storage and filling containers are needed if you want to avoid paying scalper prices at the track's pump. High Plains Raceway demands $10.26 per gallon for 98 octane unleaded, and the octanes only go up from there. Like the water, it's all trucked in, and demands a premium.

Coolant is required to be distilled water (no antifreeze), which is cheap, and worth buying extra for emergencies. An oil change may do your car good overnight, too.

Lemons has race entry fees for your team to divide up. $600 for a car, $195 for each driver, and an additional $60 for a Lemons license—good for one year. Camping and transponder rental are $50 apiece. Car and transponder fees can be split among larger teams to save money, at the expense of paying for more driver or crew entries. The approximate cost of all of the above came to $550 per team member for us, and that was without considering bribes for the judges, which are more important if you show up with a race car as banal as a Miata or BMW. Altogether, expect to be in over $600.

I'll add up the total cost before going further. Individual expenses for my team's safety gear and miscellany reached $1,500 to $1,800 per head, likely in excess of $6,000 as a group. Teams on the barest of budgets can likely get everything but the car in order for about $4,000. Rafi swallowed most of the (minimal) car purchase price of $1,100, but one can expect to find most turnkey cars for more money, likely north of $2,000. Those interested in entering Lemons can expect a $6,000 burden shouldered between team members as a barrier of entry, and should be ready to spend even more. The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley and the tightest budgetary belts are the first to break.

You Need a Sense of Humor

Rafi Ward

Murphy's law is an adage to which there is an element of truth. You may earn enough black flags to be kicked out. Your car might suffer race-ending damage. You might not pass tech inspection. You might even blow the turbo on your tow rig before the race weekend arrives. The ability to feel schadenfreude when looking in a mirror is critical for anyone that wants to race Lemons, as is the willingness to drive a car with a paper mâché turd on the roof. If you're the neurotic type, I recommend staying home and playing Candyland on your own. Things will go wrong, and how you react is up to you.

All of the information above was gathered as part of preparing a team of rookies to race the B.F.E. GP earlier this month at High Plains Raceway in Colorado. If you care to hear about how our deal with the devil turned out, follow the link.