By Andy Kress
INTRO: The 24 Hours of LeMons (not to be confused with LeMans) is a series of tongue-in-cheek endurance races held all around the country for cars worth no more than $500. The race organizers actually emphasize and reward mechanical creativity and fortitude, the true enduro racer never-say-die spirit, and THEME. Theme is big — everything from team name to car decoration and costumes.
At the same time, they tend to de-emphasize the outright winning — in equal parts because they want to keep the red mist down (for safety reasons) and deep down inside it interests them less than the truly goofball side of automotive life. Nothing pleases them more than seeing the most improbable mechanical assemblage (helpful if it resembles a car) soldier on bravely lap after lap, and then (beyond all expectation or reason) actually finish.
In the beginning, the racers were lame and the cars even lamer (hence, the outsized concern about red mist). However, the series has steadily evolved to the point where a substantial percentage of the entry is well prepared (a relative statement, to be sure) and well-driven by experienced racers. At the top of the field, the racing is serious and close!
It is all a
tremendous amount of fun. Naturally, this is a perfect venue for
underappreciated (more correctly, perhaps, super-depreciated)
Alfa Milanos, and in July a New England Milano actually won it!
ALFA VINCE ! ! ! ! Alfa wins at Stafford Springs! — The Scuderia Limoni Milano Verde posted the first-ever Milano victory in LeMons racing history, and only the second Alfa Romeo LeMons winner. Yee-haa!
The Scuderia Limoni 3.0 Milano Verde team of Brian Shorey, Lon Barrett, Tom Carlo, Andy Kress, Greg LeBlanc, and Devin Verry (Kevin Redden begged out of the second half of the season after the New Hampshire event) won this year’s Stafford Springs “LeMons” endurance race! The team has been chasing a victory for four years. I have been fortunate to crew with the team (a great bunch of guys) and, for the last two events of this year, drove as well — for which I am eternally grateful. It has all been more fun than I can ever convey — but I can honestly say it’s a lot more fun when you win. Maybe Charlie Sheen is right?
This was the tenth race for the team, the last one of the year … and the best one ever! Before every event, Brian says (with all sincerity), “I think we can win one of these” — and this time he was actually right.
Not only did we win, but we were 96 laps (50 minutes) up on the 2nd place car — a 5.0 Mustang. I believe that this is a new record for win “dominance” in the 24 Hours of LeMons! Unfortunately, we were involved with the old record too — it was the 72 laps hurtin’ the Kielbasa Kids Honda put on us two years ago at the very same track.
We won it using the strategy we always run: Don’t be the fastest overall (like we have a choice)! This time, our best lap time was only about 1.5 seconds slower than the very fastest cars — but that is a lot when the average lap time is 34 seconds. Stay on the track and out of trouble — this is an endurance race. We stay on the track as much as we can to keep adding up laps. No black flags for time penalties, long driver stints, quick fueling/driver changes, and no mechanical problems. Push through traffic when you can but don’t put your neck in a noose to do it. Let the faster cars go by, don’t fight them for position. (Brian actually encourages point-by’s so both drivers will know who is going where, but as far as I know he is the only one who does it!)
It has been a tough year for the team and the car. It had run well at New Jersey and Loudon, but niggling troubles along the way had pushed it down to finishes that were way below our hopes (I hesitate to use the word ‘standards’ in this context). Then, at Summit Point (the third event), the track suited the car and it was running very well all weekend. A couple of issues on Saturday had knocked us down in the standings, but they had been resolved and it was running really well, clawing its way back up the standings. But at mid-afternoon on Sunday, it just quit. Nothing spectacular, no fuss, no muss — just no run. We made “fixes” and the car fired right up, only to come back in on the hook after 20 minutes, then 10 minutes, then 8 minutes. It was 3 pm on Sunday afternoon — and we said basta! A long, hot, disappointing weekend spent in West Virginia. Sheesh! So far, we are 0 for 2 there — 2 DNFs. As much as we love driving there and the car seems well suited to the track, that track does not like us! Personally, I had a gas driving the car, my first time on that circuit at Summit — a wonderful circuit and the car was great on it. FYI, the Karussel turn at the top of the bridge straight — the best!
As the season finale Stafford Springs race drew near, we were in a real quandary as to what our problem was — and of course how to fix it. There were other maintenance issues to deal with, but for sure this had to be found and resolved before the race. It became the focus of our prep efforts. As time wore on and no fault was found, a little panic started to color our perspective. It seemed to be ‘heat soak’ related, but it was unclear what was failing. After the failures, we had swapped ECUs (3 ECUs!), and with each one the car started, ran well, and then eventually died. Swapped distributors, the car started and ran fine, and then died. So not the ECU, not the distributor. Of course, in the garage back in Boxborough, the car ran flawlessly — even idling for 30 minutes with the hood down and heat gun on the coil — nothing. As part of the diagnostic program, we took the car to the AONE autocross, let it idle most of the day and then flogged the living daylights out of it to see if it would fail so we could diagnose the problem. The car ran flawlessly. Dammit!
Since one of our fuel pumps had died at Summit, we decided to go global in our efforts to cure the thing. Our plan was: new fuel pumps (we have two installed, one for redundancy), moved to the spare tire well in the trunk (away from exhaust heat). New coil, different crappy used ignition module and combi relay. Re-tighten all the grounds we can find. Tighten up all the electrical connections we think might be the issue. Load car, drive to Connecticut, and keep our fingers crossed. Solid plan.
Saturday was excruciatingly hot — in the high 90s. Cooling and hydrating the drivers was going to be a major consideration, especially since we were planning on 2½-hour driver stints. It had been a problem at Summit and these conditions were worse. We figured that, if the car was going to die in the heat, it wouldn’t take long. This would be the third race on our tires, but they looked like they would make it. The car had handled and stopped beautifully at the autocross. We were confident that the car was as ready as could be. Re-torqued lug nuts, washed windshield. Waited. It was a little unsettling because all of the other teams had their cars up on jack stands, working furiously … we were wondering what we had forgotten! We were pitted with our Milano friends from Long Island — Team Pro-Crash-Duh-Nation. This time, they showed up with their truck, transporter, AND the biggest motor home I have ever seen. Greg Seferian had brought a bunch of his company’s engineering interns along as support crew — interestingly, most of them were on the Stony Brook University SAE Baja team, so were fairly experienced wrenches. With Greg’s Milano up on jack stands and the kids swarming over it, we were beginning to feel a little inadequate! Ah, screw it — we just enjoyed the breakfast his team provided and watched the show!
The number of entries was a little down this year, only 56 teams. But our old nemesis “Goin’ Nuclear” (Nuclear Power, the other white heat), AKA “The Kielbasa Kids” Honda Civic was there. So we (the Alfa contingent) knew we were in for a dogfight at best, an ass kicking at worst. Those guys are sooo fast. There was a hopelessly optimistic team “French Toast” there with a Peugeot 405 Mi16 (their engine blew 23 laps into the race!). There were surprisingly very few BMWs and the ones there were pretty slow. There was the usual collection of Volvos, Hondas, Toyotas, a gaggle of Firebirds, the Mustang — the usual bunch of little crap cans that you can’t recognize without their badges. There were 3 or 4 Saab 900s, some of them very fast. There were Porsche 924s (one REALLY fast, one REALLY slow and did not make it onto the track until Sunday), a Pontiac Grand AM, Saturn, Fiat 131 (also, inexplicably, very fast), a bunch of Olds Cierras? Cutlasses? — stuff like that. The “Speedy Cop” team was there with their MR2/Camry V6/Lancia Beta lookalike and their honking big yellow American iron V8 whatever-it-is monstrosity jacked way up on 22” wheels. In other words, the usual collection of amazing automotive junk — some of it mind blowingly fast. Some of it mind blowingly scary.
Tom took the first stint at noon — he has developed into our “lead-off hitter” and a damned good one. These starts are always a mess — 56 (sometimes way more) cars bunched up two-abreast for the start, and then all hell breaks loose for the next 30-45 minutes until the herd starts to thin from attrition and driver error (it’s hard to keep your nose clean there). It is so hard to keep out of trouble because half of the drivers (the bozo half) on the track are trying to win a 14-hour race in the first 30 minutes. The other half are just trying to stay out of the carnage. Even after the first wave is culled, the traffic stays really heavy and it is difficult to stay out of contact. Tom has developed a real skill at negotiating this mess safely, PLUS he put up the team’s fastest time of the weekend during his stint. Team Pro-Crash-Duh-Nation was really moving too. “Goin’ Nuclear” did just that — the Honda just flew by everybody and was in an easy 1st. Not only is the car really fast, but they are good drivers, able to keep it moving through the heaviest traffic. They are always a top contender. The Limoni Milano was running really well — we were in the top 5, and the PCDN Milano was 2nd. When the first half hour had passed and the car hadn’t died, we started to think we had solved the heat problem. When the first hour passed and it still hadn’t died, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Things were looking good. Tom came in on schedule, HOT and red as a lobstah. He was sweating so badly even the harness belts were soaked through.
Flawlessly quick fueling by Devin Verry, and Brian was belted in and off. He had the worst of the heat to contend with as well as a track full of loons. He had his ice-filled camelback water bladder under his suit to cool him and he was moving well through the traffic. Then good news! Goin’ Nuclear came off the track! I happened to be walking by them as they were diagnosing. “It’s completely out of water”. “Try starting it so I can add water.” Ruh, ruh, ruh — little puffs of steam coming out of the radiator filler neck! Blown head gasket, blown engine! They are really competent, but even if they could fix it, they were down for a long count. All of a sudden — the chance for an Alfa 1-2 finish looked real.
Then, oh no! Alfa disaster struck — the team PCDN Milano crashed hard into the wall. Frank was high up in the oval going around a bunch of slower cars when one of them suddenly drifted up the oval. Frank instinctively flinched and twitched the wheel up as well — into the marbles and then instantly hard into the wall. Rear end first, then front, then slid down the straight and spun onto the infield. The hit was hard enough to break the seat back brace lock. The passenger front bumper was off, and sheet metal was pushed onto the tire. The rear quarter had taken the worst — rear quarter panel flattened, trunk pushed in, floor all crunched up (the battery in there was sitting at a 30° angle). Most of that was quickly rectified, but the car would not refire. Running around like madmen, they determined that one of the coil leads was dead. They quickly diagnosed and fixed a faulty connection. Then they tore off and pounded out what body work need “fixing” and sent Frank back out.
As he was backing out, they realized that the passenger rear wheel now was toed out about 3” - the de Dion tube had been bent. Man-o-man — what a mess! Me, I would probably have written the weekend off right then. But Team PCDN jumped into action. In a heartbeat, the car was up on jack stands. Lon loaned them the biggest pipe wrench I have ever seen. They got under the car with an oxy/acetylene torch and had that de Dion red-hot. They had a temporary heat shield under the CV joint, and put out a couple of fires under the car — no big deal. They cut off an awning support pipe for a lever, put it over the pipe wrench, and three people pulled and pushed. Nothing. Then an amazing thing happened — the Goin’ Nuclear team guys started showing up. One big, burly member was under the Milano pulling on the wrench with all his might, which looked like a very bad idea to me. They continued to assist, even at the expense of their own team’s needs.
More flame, tow straps tied from the de Dion to SUVs, and trucks pulling on the wrench — some joy, but not enough. Then, finally, they put the wheels back on, put the car back on the ground, and ran the tow straps through the spokes to add leverage to straighten out the de Dion. The truck on the front straps pulled the wheel toward the center. The truck on the rear straps pulled away from the center. WOW! Amazingly, it came out pretty good. I sell Compomotive wheels and I really like them for a number of reasons, but I have to say that I was pretty impressed with the beating they took!
As Frank started to drive away, CLICK CLICK CLICK. The CV joint was toast — from the crash or the torch it was hard to say, but it was DEAD. While taking that apart, they discovered that the wheel bearing was destroyed. Then they realized the half shaft was bent! It was bent so badly that spinning the wheel moved the rear rotor on a wobble path through the caliper. This thing just kept getting worse. We loaned them a half shaft and a wheel bearing and they were back in business. All in all, the process set them back 3 hours and 10 minutes. Greg belted in and went out — they were back in at 36th place and way back in laps. Later on, Greg said, “Our fastest laps were done in my stint right AFTER Frank kissed the wall. So I guess Frank’s hit-the-wall-hard setup was the hot ticket. Three degrees of toe-out on the right rear is good — everyone should try it — it really helps turn in on left-handers. After the race, we looked further and saw that the anchor for the right side watts linkage was cracked and racked right through the chassis.” I have to say that, in my opinion, this was a heroic fix of the first order.
Meanwhile, back on our channel … Brian came in and it was my turn to go out. I had my camelback under my suit. It was now 5pm and I was hoping it would be cool enough for me survive my turn. It had been difficult for me at Summit, and I was worried about this. One thing I had not anticipated was just how physically demanding this track is. Most of the drivers I had spoken to hate this track — now I know why.
The bad news is that it is short — only about ½ mile long. Typical lap times are about 34 seconds. The AONE autocross was longer!
The really bad news is that it is all really hard work and there is no rest time (see above, about the short course). The surface is very bumpy so, while you are all tensed up, literally working your ass off trying to control the car, the track is making it worse by bouncing you all around. Our car does not have power steering and the lateral loads are very high. The steering wheel constantly fights you hard. The oval is actually fairly flat — not like the Karussel at Summit which has quite steep banking so the loads are more vertical. Here, the loads are very horizontal and it is all you (me?) can do to keep your head up off your shoulder. The lateral loads at this track are extreme, constant, and you are fighting the car every second. Even with the belts so tight you can hardly breathe, it’s hard to keep yourself in the seat.
My plan had been to drink during the yellows, but all of the yellows were very early on. Then it was uninterrupted green racing. Plus, even at yellow speeds, I realized I would not be able to one-hand the car to work the drink tube with the other. There just is no straight part long enough to do that. You are always in hard cornering situations. This was going to be bad. For a while it worked okay — I was slowly coming to terms with the track. I was starting to get more comfortable, more analytical, working out what really needed to be done to be fast … and then my body just started to give out. Hard to say, but true. I could not fight the wheel effectively any more. Worse, my focus and judgment were getting very bad.
I thought I could tough it out, but finally I realized I was becoming dangerous on the track. With a solid lead, I did not want to be the one who threw victory away for pride. After a bunch of slow and weaving laps trying to find the microphone button, I called in that I needed to come off the track and Lon should get ready for an immediate driver change. The change went smoothly. I woozily wandered over to the fuel filler side, fire extinguisher in my hand. All I can say is that we were lucky the extinguisher was not needed. It took me a long time to recover. Amazingly, during my horrible, shortened stint, we picked up 4 laps over second place.
Meanwhile, Lon was on the track and flying. For the most part, traffic had thinned so he could really push the car, lap after lap. By 8 pm we were 43 laps up on second. As the evening wore on toward the scheduled 10pm stop, there were a couple of wall hits, which slowed things down with long yellows. On the second one, a Saab 900 “convertible” (sedan with top sawed off) hit the wall hard enough that the driver had to be cut out of the car. Then the fire truck was called off the grounds for a real-world problem and the race was called at about 9:30 for safety reasons. Lon came in exhausted. His camelback was flat — not a drop in it. I asked him how he had managed the oval for all those laps — he admitted that he finally gave in and let his head flop over on his shoulder. A tough night, but at the end of it, the car was 63 laps up on second place!
At the PCDN Milano camp’s Saturday night Pasta feed, there must have been 50 people, maybe more. Most congratulated us on our progress. The “Goin’ Nuclear” guys were adamant that we should push for a new record for the 1st- to 2nd-place gap. Or, we could just stop driving at 3:00 on Sunday and let them hold the record — that would be cool too. We were a little uncomfortable with some of this discussion — there were over 4 hours of racing left and a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong — so we just focused on staying out of trouble and finishing in first.
Sunday morning started overcast and rainy. There was some hope that the rain would stop by noon so we could race in the dry, but that did not happen. At least it wasn’t as hot as Saturday.
Most of the field had revived itself and was back on the track. The Honda had a new engine. The Peugeot had a new one too — made up of parts from their blown one and from another one that they bought overnight. There were a lot of other heroic fixes as well. Very glad we were not one of them!
Tom again led off and did a great job keeping us out of trouble in the rain and moving through the field. A lot of other teams didn’t fare as well. Everyone seemed okay as long as it was actually raining, but once it let up and the track began to dry, cars started to shoot off everywhere. Lots of slides, spins, crashes, and near misses. Tom had driven a little more conservatively, but still moved us up over the second-place Saturn, increasing the separation. Team PCDN Milano had been moving up as well (the word ‘conservative’ is not in their lexicon).
At 2:15, Tom came in for a quick can of fuel and driver change, and Lon was back on the track. 2¼ hours to go. By now, everyone on the team was holding his breath. So close with such a huge margin! The Goin’ Nuclear guys laughed and said we could probably come in at 3 pm and still win the race. All I could think of was the unknown, undiagnosed, and possibly unfixed failure at Summit Point. The car had been running perfectly there too — until it stopped.
From then on, the race was pretty much uneventful for us. Lon drove hard but carefully, trying for an even 100-lap separation. The Saturn had a catastrophic suspension failure and was out, moving the ‘Sub-Orbital Space Monkeys’ Mustang into second. When the checkered flag flew, I felt even measures of relief and elation. (Note: Brian did the math and breathed a sigh of relief at 4:15.) It had seemed such a slam dunk for such a long time that it was hard to not feel relief — it was over and nothing bad had happened. Elation over achieving a goal that we all wanted for so long, but had always seemed so far away. In the end, we finished 96 laps ahead of the 2nd place Mustang. Perhaps most amazingly, the Team PCDN Milano finished in 15th place. They had been flying all day Sunday. Greg said they had been pushing for a top 10, but just ran out of time.
Never having been in this position before, what followed was new for us. We had to push the car to “parc ferme” for after-race tech inspection. It was clear from comments made that the judges suspected we had not made a stop for fuel or driver change all day. Judge Phil asked if we had a ginormous fuel cell in the car (there is an upper size limit in the rules), and who was the iron man who drove for over 4 hours (looking at Lon in his soaking wet bright red driver suit).
Sure enough, Jay Lamm (the top lemon) spent what seemed an inordinate amount of time in the trunk examining our stock fuel tank in its stock location. Then he checked the tires for tread wear ratings, looked into the engine bay, etc. He must have confused us with some sneaky NASCAR dudes. The funny thing is that the car is legit per the rules and was nowhere near the fastest. At best, our fastest lap was probably 10th or so fastest, and not even close to the fastest times. The thing that irked me the most was that Jay made what I considered to be some snide comments along these lines at the awards ceremony. I felt that took away from our achievement … but I’m getting over it. [Note — Jay makes snide comments about every car; I’m not sure why Andy was so offended. Jay actually admitted that he had finally gained some respect for Alfas and their ability to hold up so well under hours and hours of abuse and punishment. —Brian]
One of the nicest parts of the weekend was the applause the car got. Many of the competitors came to us and seemed very genuine in their congratulations and happy that an Alfa had won.
Our winnings — besides everlasting glory in the annals of Alfa racing (???): $1,500 worth of nickels. 15 boxes of $100 each in nickels.
In some ways, it was an odd weekend for us. Everything was calm with nothing out of place. Emergencies happened to the other guys. As the weekend wore on, it seemed like the final result had become inevitable.
The car had run absolutely flawlessly and without incident. Well, on Saturday Tom got whacked from behind so the car is now a little shorter, but that was the only consequence. The teamwork was flawless — everyone did his job to perfection. Once we were in the lead, every driver had increased our separation. During Sunday morning prep, we were rotating the tires front to rear and Brian discovered what looked like a nail in the tread of our right rear tire. He pulled out about two inches of aluminum rivet shank to the accompaniment of LOUD hissing as the air rushed out. It was clear that the rivet had been in there for quite a while because the head was quite worn. Yet, up until Brian pulled it out, the tire pressure was perfect. Some days are yours and there is nothing you can do to ruin it. The whole weekend had that sort of feel. The topper was when Greg noticed (on Monday!) that the commemorative shoulder patch for this event clearly was an omen for the team. If any of us had actually looked at the thing on Saturday morning, we never would have worried for a moment!
(Click on the thumbnails below for a larger view, and then