The bumblebee zipped down the road at 75 mph Sunday afternoon.
Wait – it wasn’t a bumblebee. It was a souped-up clunker painted with yellow and black stripes.
And it wasn’t a road – it was a 2.22-mile race track in the shape of a long squiggly L, in an enormous open area somewhere in one of South Carolina’s vast pine forests north of Camden.
Welcome to lemon car racing, where Halloween and Mardi Gras meet NASCAR, and where teams that survive compete to see how many times they can go around the track in 24 hours in a race called “24 Hours of LeMons” – a spoof on the legendary French endurance sports car race at Le Mans.
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It’s actually more like Burning Man
Phil Greden, judge
“It’s actually more like Burning Man,” said judge Phil Greden, 49, of Denver, referring to the annual Nevada festival that prides itself on what its founders call “radical self-expression.” Kershaw’s race Sunday was one of more than a dozen such affairs held annually nationwide.
On the track Sunday, vehicles whizzed along, signs and paint jobs identifying them variously as helicopters, Wonder Woman, a taxicab or a crab. There was one with a segment of an airplane wing and one with a Norweigian flag. Most were sedans with a few pickup trucks thrown in. One appeared to be an alien.
Unlike NASCAR, with its ear-splitting jet engine roar of 140 decibels, the noise level Sunday was more like that of a playing card strapped to a bicycle wheel, magnified about 10 times – loud but tolerable.
120 mph Top speed of the fastest cars
The top speed of the fastest cars ranged about 120 mph on the straightaways. NASCAR speeds top 200 mph.
“It’s an opportunity to do something adventurous and a tad dangerous, to drive a car really fast – and a whole lot of silliness,” said Tim Finley, 35. He was one of four drivers racing a 1990 Mazda Protege decked out in blue and yellow, a reference to the Minions, those goggle-eyed movie creatures shaped like blood pressure pills.
“Basically, it’s an endurance race. People do two-hour-long stints of racing,” said Finley’s fellow driver, Dallas Varwig, 31, of Columbus, Miss.
After a parade and block party in Camden on Friday night, more than 100 cars started the Kershaw race Saturday morning. By race’s end Sunday afternoon, maybe 50 or 60 cars were left. That wasn’t surprising. After all, the race’s rule book states: “Your car may be destroyed at any time.” More likely, it will just wear out at the average 75 mph clip around the track.
These are grocery-getters, just cars people have found in a junkyard and dropped an engine in.
Tim Finley, driver
“These are grocery-getters, just cars people have found in a junkyard and dropped an engine in, ” Finley said. “Look!” He pointed to the helicopter car zooming by, its chopper blade wobbling in the wind.
Some cars, participants admit, really don’t belong on a track; their drivers and team are there for fun. But most cars have teams that include skilled mechanics, people who love to tinker with engines and anything else that has to do with a car. Most teams are made up of old friends or family, or people just united in their love of the off-beat and speed.
Skillful drivers can propel a team to victory in the various prize categories, including one class for cars that don’t belong “anywhere near a race track,” Greden said.
Still, Greden said, “A good driver in a slow car can still do pretty well.”
And, Greden said, “It’s very, very difficult to be the overall winner in this race. You cannot make a single mistake. If you come in to make a 30-second repair and your tools are locked in the trunk, you will not win. The teams that are trying to be No. 1 are trying every bit as hard as a Formula One or NASCAR team.” Most drivers are talking to their teams on a two-way radio, he said.
A major victory Sunday belonged to a team called Knoxvegas Lowballers, who drove a 1990 Geo Metro. It made a winning 293 laps – some 644 miles. For that, they won $400 – paid to them in nickels, more than 100 pounds of them. Like other cars, the Geo Metro was equipped with a transponder that notified a judge’s computer each time it completed a lap.
For all the foolery and fun, race drivers are required to wear fire-retardant racing suits, gloves and boots, along with crash-certified helmets. They are to be protected by a metal cage and strapped in with a high-quality harness. Cars must have quality brakes and tires.
It’s very rare to have anyone hurt. The sky’s the limit on how much you can spend on safety.
“It’s very rare to have anyone hurt,” Greden said. “The sky’s the limit on how much you can spend on safety.”
Teams are not allowed to spend more than $500 on the car itself. To ensure the cars really are lemons, judges inspect each car before the race. Expensively upgraded cars aren’t allowed to participate.
Katie Mitchell, 27, of Cocoa, Fla., was one of the few female drivers in this weekend’s race. Along with other members of her team, she drove a 1949 Nash on a late 1960s model Corvette chassis.
“We don’t know how many laps it did, but on Saturday it got hit on a straightaway and rolled over on its side,” she said. “Today, our rear suspension shattered, and we ended up with the tires shredded.”
Asked what the letters “NSF” painted on the side of the car stood for, Mitchell grinned and said, “Non-sufficient funds.”