I lied to my mom about having health insurance. That is my one, solitary regret about the entire exciting, challenging experience of turning a $300 junker into a real live race car.
The reason I and my very talented Make: Way teammates, Brett Doar, Sloan Fader, and Tom Jennings, turned a $300 crapbox into a race car in the first place is so we could be a part of Jay Lamm’s 24 Hours of LeMons — a racing series open to anyone with a metabolism, a modest entry fee, and a car that costs less than $500.
Car Buying on a Skateboard Budget
Finding the right car is the first real challenge of the race. Your gut instinct is to buy the fastest thing you can find, but that would be a mistake. The 24 Hours of LeMons is an endurance race, with 14 hours of driving over two days, covering about 400 miles on a challenging track, in the middle of a hot May.
A car’s durability under these grueling conditions is more important than its speed.
We looked for gently used, well-maintained vehicles. Most had one or more serious flaws; others were so tired they practically had a blinking KILL ME NOW light on their dashboards. What we ended up with was a boring but extremely well-maintained 1993 Ford Escort LX.
Now, the car wasn’t fast — only 88 horsepower and an automatic — but it seemed capable of lasting the race, and we would do all we could to help the speed. Plus, the Escort is an extremely common car, so parts are cheap and plentiful. At $300, it was the perfect place to start.
Converting an economy runabout into a racer is largely a process of removal. Weight is the enemy of performance, so the first step was to gut the car of anything unnecessary: carpet, seats, insulation, door panels, hatchback, glass, you name it. The less those 88 horses have to drag around, the faster we’ll go.
Once the car was lightened, we started in on performance enhancements. For better weight distribution, which leads to better handling, we moved the heavy battery to the rear of the car. We removed the catalytic converter and most restrictions on the exhaust system, replacing them with a simple Cherry Bomb-type muffler. The only actual “racing” part we used was a free-flowing air cleaner, courtesy of MAKE contributing editor Mister Jalopy. As with the exhaust system, opening up the intake of a motor is a quick, cheap way to free up an extra horse or two.
If we wanted to be the tortoise that beat the hare, we needed to stay on the track, and one of the biggest factors conspiring to get us off the track would be heat.
First we tried mounting two radiators atop the ventilated hood. This failed, and taught us a valuable lesson: on a cheap car, everything is designed to perform to spec, and not a bit more. That means the water pump can happily pump water as far as it needs to go, but God help you if you try to go an inch farther.
In the end we remounted the radiator to its original position, but added a secondary fan atop the hood and a dedicated transmission cooler made from an old A/C condenser. At the race, in 80-degree-plus heat, while many of our more sporting competitors were spewing geysers of steam, we didn’t overheat once.
Safety equipment doesn’t count toward the $500 limit, which is a good thing, as you don’t want to cheap out on your roll cage, tires, or brakes. We were lucky enough to have the free services of a professional welder, Mike Garcia, to help us assemble our cage. There’s a reasonable amount of contact in the race, so in addition to the cage to protect us, we reinforced the flimsy body, especially around the radiator. We also added a racing seat with a five-point harness, which, along with helmet and full fireproof racing gear, is a requirement.
Makers, Start Your Engines
We barely finished the car in time for the race. We had little time to practice, because the car was illegal for road use, and finding places to drive it was difficult.
The first laps of the race were both terrifying and exhilarating. Once the green flag waves, the nearly 90 other cars on the track storm like angry wasps, passing and trying to pass within inches. Every driving instinct you have is set into a panic by events you normally associate with big, expensive trouble: shrieking tires, the sickening sound of crunching metal, the smell of burning rubber — but once you realize there are no insurance numbers to exchange, you start to get into it.
There’s plenty of contact in the race, and the track is quite technical — not very fast, but lots of hairpins, S-curves, and the like, so the speed disadvantage of our car wasn’t so pronounced.
We were only off-track once for mechanical woes, when the front wheel flew off while I was driving, which is actually less terrifying than it sounds.
In the end, we came in 33rd out of nearly 90 cars — beating out many more obvious pieces of sporting machinery like V-8 Mustangs, BMWs, and even an Alfa Romeo. It was a far better result than I ever would have expected.
The maker crowd and the backyard, greasy-handed auto enthusiast crowd have a fairly large divide between them, which seems absurd, considering how many maker skills go into a project such as this. I encourage all makers to have a go at the dirty, loud side of making things, and the 24 Hours of LeMons is a great way to do it. See you on the track — we’ll be turbocharged next time around.
Make: Way, MAKE magazine’s official racing team: makewayracing.com
» 24 Hours of LeMons: 24hoursoflemons.com