Lemons High Plains Drifter 2023

This is the second Lemons race this year at High Plains Raceway. This one is different than the one in June. This one is not only 24 hours of racing (the other was 14), this one is 24 hours straight. Like, as in, the 24 Hours of LeMans. Only with shitty homemade race cars instead of that state-of-the-art stuff the pros race.

This race starts at noon on Saturday and ends at noon on Sunday. Being the least important member of this team, my only responsibility is to drive the car. So I wasn’t involved in getting the car past its technical inspections – two this time, one of which is for the lights that are required for overnight racing, as the track has no illumination. The only inspection I had to worry about was for my protective clothing. Regular readers may recall that I had difficulty with this last time.

Most of the rest of the team were at the track on Friday, to “test and tune”. I let everybody know I’d be rolling into the paddock at a leisurely 9 am on Saturday. That should leave me plenty of time to pass tech and get up to speed on whatever drama was going on.

Kevin greeted me on my arrival, then promptly ran off. Next, Mike said “Good morning” and asked if Kevin had filled me in on what happened last night.

The guys made some considerable upgrades to the car. We had a new homemade dashboard and upgraded instruments. Last time, I couldn’t read any of the instruments due to the way they were mounted. All I could see was glare. The new dash and gauges looked like a big improvement. Anyway, Kevin put in some laps yesterday. I don’t know how many, but not as many as anyone had hoped. Kevin encountered a clutch problem.

Long story short: in order to change the clutch, they had to take the engine out of the car. All this work was done in the paddock, which is a giant unlit parking lot that is half paved, half stone. The guys worked until 2am, pulling the engine and transmission, replacing the clutch, and reinstalling the engine and transmission. They managed this in about seven hours. A Herculean effort.

At some point while the engine and transmission were not in the car, we had to get our lights inspected. They wanted us to drive the car to the inspection station. This was problematic, as the car was up on blocks, wheels off. Not entirely as a joke (this is Lemons, after all), they put the front bumper, with all the lights, onto our little wagon and wheeled it to inspection. Where the team was promptly informed that our lights were so weak there was no problem. We have the normal headlights and a couple of smaller ones mounted low in the fascia. Some other teams have the sorts of giant light bars you see on rally cars.

Everyone was pretty excited about our chances this time. Last time, we ran about 200 laps. The engine never worked properly, as we had no high cam (where all our power is generated). With a properly working engine and a dry track, we should be able to knock 15 or 20 seconds a lap off our previous times. If we managed to keep the car working, we’d have a real shot at victory. Last time, the judges put us in class A. This time, we would be in class B and have no penalty laps. We were psyched!

I put my driving suit on and borrowed a HANS device and headed to the pavilion. Since last time, I bought some Nomex fabric and Nomex thread and had a local seamstress make the repair. My only concern was my socks. The labels had been laundered off ages ago.

This time, the inspection was not nearly as rigorous as last time. I suspect I’d have passed inspection even without the repairs to my suit. The inspector verified that my helmet was not aged out, and noted the labels on my suit, underwear, and shoes. She asked about my socks. I said, “They’re Nomex, but the labels are long gone.” She said I was good to go and applied the sticker to my helmet indicating I was good to race.

Next, I was introduced to our guest crew member for the race. Chris is a Toyota engineer who flew out from Kentucky for this race. Kevin, Mike, and Dan had met him last year on the One Lap of America race. He told me he’s participated in about 25 Lemons races. The idea would be to pick his brain to the greatest extent we could, looking for tips, tricks, and best practices.

Also in attendance were Kevin’s parents, who flew in from Texas for the event.

I wasn’t too concerned when I’d get to drive. I probably have driven many more laps at HPR than the rest of the drivers combined. Chris has never been here before but did watch a couple of my videos and put in about 30 laps on his simulator. It would be good for him and Mike and Dan to get some laps in while it was still light. That works for me.

Kevin was first behind the wheel. After about half an hour, he radioed in complaining of issues. At first, I thought he said he was having a problem with the shifter. This was nothing I bothered worrying about. Being the least mechanically inclined crew member, the best way I could help would be to stay out of everyone’s way.

A few minutes later, our car was delivered to us on a tow line behind the tow truck. The guys jumped right in and diagnosed the problem. It didn’t have anything to do with the shifter. Instead, we had overheated the engine. (I didn’t make any recordings or notes of any of these technical discussions, so if I say something that is wrong or stupid, it’s entirely my fault.)

We were running with a tachometer, speedometer, fuel gauge, and a bunch of idiot lights. In this instance, for some reason, the coolant temperature idiot light never came on. Kevin had no idea the car was overheating until it was too late.

My first thought was, “Well, that’s it. We’re done after 17 laps.”

Then Mike had me help him pull a little trailer to the front of the car. We had a spare engine on the trailer! This engine came from our parts car (which I didn’t know we had). The engine had well over 200,000 miles on it, but it was a working engine. We’ll “just” swap the engine. (Again, to be clear in this context, “we” means “everybody but Dave”.)

From underneath the car, Mike yelled out “Start the clock!” It was 1:59 pm. Almost exactly five hours later, the car started. After another fifteen minutes of final preparation, we sent Chris out for some laps. I’d call it another super-human effort, but, as I often say, “It’s always easier the second time.” With a bit more practice, maybe they can get an engine swap down to three hours. (I kid. Hopefully, we won’t blow another engine very soon.)

Kevin ran through a bit more than half the fuel, so we had Chris do half a dozen laps and come into the pits for refueling. Before he came into the pits, he complained that our car number on the hood produced extreme glare on the windshield, so we should unplug it. The glare made right turns far too exciting. This was our first pit stop using refueling jugs that should make things faster, but it turns out the neck of the jug doesn’t fit. And the other jug we had was leaking. So we got perhaps a gallon of fuel into the car. Still, Chris should be able to run for an hour.

It was now dusk, more or less. Thirteen laps later, Chris called in: “The engine is blown.”

He said the car was smoking quite badly when it failed and he was concerned about fire. He had unbuckled himself and was a second or two away from flipping the switch for the fire suppression system when he decided it wasn’t a car-b-que, so he buckled himself back in and waited for the wrecker.

A quick look around the car gave us a good idea of the damage. There was a fair amount of oil in the engine compartment, and the exhaust pipe had a little puddle of oil and water in it.

Eight hours into our 24-hour event, we had managed to log a bit over an hour of racing, or about thirty laps. Mike, Dan, Eric, and I didn’t get to drive.

That’s racing!