An amateur car race and a party collide

An amateur car race and a party collide

SUMMIT POINT, W. Va. 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, 3 1/2 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.

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 Washington; his girlfriend, Barbara Hale, 42, of Alexandria, Va.; his Washington 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 14 1 / 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 the idea as a self admitted midlife crisis endeavor back in the spring. A West Point grad who runs his own defense consulting business in Washington, 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 cheap jerseys / 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. 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.