Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Hook... (Part 1)

It all started with a simple question...

"Have you ever heard of the 24 Hours of Lemons?" he asked.

"No, what's that?" I replied.

"Check it out, look it up on the web. It's a lot of fun".

And with that the seeds were sown. Had I known at the time where this would lead, I would have run away screaming. But no, later that evening I went and looked it up, thereby inadvertently sealing my fate for the next several years.

The person on the other end of the line was David Swig, son of another prolific auto enthusiast Martin Swig. I was on a business trip visiting Philadelphia, and David was calling to ask if he could forward my contact info to a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. They were doing a piece in support of a new event he was organizing called Motoring J-style, a car show for Japanese only cars.

It seemed my self depreciating write-up on the entry form had caught his eye. The car I wanted to enter, a rare 1967 Datsun RL411 SSS (the one with 96 hp dual carb 1600 shared with the Fairlady roadsters) was no show car. It came out of a yard full of junk in Sacramento where it had sat for over a decade under a pile of parts and a few tarps with most of its windows and windshield busted out.

When it came into my possession, I washed it, glued in a cracked replacement windshield, changed all the fluids, replaced a few parts and started driving it again as half of my primary vehicle team (the other being an MGB found under similar circumstances). I say primary vehicle team, because you need one old car to drive as you fix the other. Between the two, I usually get to work on time year round.

Needless to say, I was slowly scraping the worst warts off the thing, but it was hardly show car quality. And I liked it that way. It attracts lots of attention with its bona fide beater scars and well worn ex-pizza delivery car character. But would it be good enough for J-Style, or laughed out of the county? After all, I regularly beat on it, and take it camping up in the Sierras where I grew up. Elevations past 10,000 feet on old logging roads that have KILLED lesser vehicles, like Jeeps, Broncos and Blazers. This thing was a beater that somehow always made it home.

In my youth (like, at age 7!) my younger sister and I learned to drive in a car just like this one on the very same dirt roads, with a very crazy uncle drinking beer in the passenger seat. As I grew up, I got better at driving and dreamed of becoming a rally-racer when I grew up. But life, oh LIFE, got in the way and set me on parallel roads, never quite able to get on the racing track, pun intended.

The Datsun took more and more beatings at the hands of several uncles, to the point where it was no longer recognizable. At one time while Boonie-crashing on Banner Mountain it ended up in Greenhorn Creek outside Grass Valley sunk up to its roof in water. It caught fire on the Golden Gate Bridge, it was pummeled by garbage trucks in San Fransisco, lost it’s hood on the Bay bridge (they continued on without stopping), it raced up and down the dirt road canyons of the South Yuba River and was rear ended more times than I can remember. For the first few years of its life, every time it got a paint job, it was immediately rear ended. So they eventually quit painting it in hopes of avoiding the wrath of the "smash-your-car" gods and we named it the "Stevie-wonder-car".

In the early 80's the car was finally borrowed by a weird friend of my uncle Steve, whom I help get it running. And as I watched it disappear down that driveway in Nevada City, I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. That day it was stupidly walked away from and given up for dead when it broke down on the Bay Bridge and never seen again.

I never forgot about it.

This set me on a 15+ year quest to find another one just like it. And eventually I found the one I was looking for. We named him Bluebie.

I was surprised when David called and asked if I could do an interview about Bluebie for the show. “You mean I’m in? You know the car is UGLY, right? It looks much better in photos than standing next to it. Seriously”

“That’s ok, we are looking for all kinds of cars, not just show-queens. You really take that thing up into the Sierras? Look into that 24 Hours of Lemons thing. Our race car will be at the show, come check it out.”

Later, I got a call from a friend saying there was a photo of Bluebie in the Drive section of the newspaper. I was proud and embarrassed at the same time. In the photo, the areas where the blue paint has worn off and the original white paint shows through make it look like the car is shining. It feels like a lie.

At the show I saw the Motoring J-Style MR2 Lemon, and thought “Holy Crap! That thing is a mess! Cool!” That’s when I got that strange itch in my giddyup, and I looked up the Lemons website again when I got home. From the moment I saw the youtube clips I heard my calling.

The 24hours of LeMons it turns out, is the antithesis and tounge in cheeck parody of the famous 24 Hours of Lemans endurance race. Only in this race, the cars cannot cost more than $500. Their website says it best;

"Nasty. Brutish. Not Short Enough.

The crowd. The spectacle. The pall of blue smoke and roasted clutch discs. In all motorsport, no event captures the universal human need to whale on old crapcans and hoover down greasy barbecue like the 24 Hours of LeMons.

Each LeMons race is for cars purchased, fixed up, and track-prepped for a total of 500 dollars or less. But before reaching the grid, you'll have to survive trials like the Personal-Injury-Lawyer Anti-Slalom, the Marxist-Valet Parking Challenge, and the Wide Open Throttle Rodthrowapalooza. Twelve hours into the race, the car voted People’s Choice is called in and awarded a cash prize; simultaneously, the car voted People’s Curse is called in and summarily destroyed. At the end of 24 hours, a gala awards ceremony plies the survivors with trophies, plaques, and four-figure purses in canvas bags full of nickels. What's not to like?"

LeMons... LeMons...

Visions of LeMans style starts and fireballs danced in my head...

All I needed was yet another car...

Next: The Line... (Part 2)

From The Beginning - The Hook... (Part 1)

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