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LeMonade

March 2, 2009

I’m so anxious that I think I may have wet my pants.  Unfortunately, I can’t rotate my head downward enough to confirm this fear.  A quick pat-down of my Nomex race suit finds no wetness, so at very least I can feel confident in the liquid-retaining power of the fireproof material that’s bundled about me.  I’m snapped out of my reverie by the waving of my temporary teammate’s gloved hand.  The car is ready to get back on the track.

Three hours earlier, I arrived at Motorsport Ranch on a blustery February day to cover the 24 Hours of LeMons Gator-O-Rama for Houstonist.  The LeMons series is a circuit of car races around the country consisting of $500 cars.  Teams have a lot of character, and the similarities to the art car crowd are not unfounded, except that these maniacs drive these cars at unsafe speeds instead of cruising down Allen Parkway.  After watching the race from various vantage points in the early afternoon, the Evel Kweasel team was ready for me to take a turn in their prized 1982 Toyota Corolla.

Unlike any 80’s Japanese econobox I’d ever encountered, this one has a full roll cage, a fuel pump kill switch, and a steering wheel smaller than a pie plate.  Climbing into the cockpit was not a task for anyone with a huge amount of personal pride; being harnessed into the racing seat also brought me in very close physical contact with these guys who I’d only met hours before.  One of the race organizers provided me with a red, Nomex-lined race suit, matching shoes and gloves, and a white helmet with the LeMons logo wrapping around it, furthering the idea that this was a real, honest-to-God car race.

Of course, I already knew this by the time I got the wave to go: in fact, the wheel-to-wheel action I’d seen from my safe, journalistically detached perspectives was what was really causing my anxiety.  (Even writing this, two days later, my palms have begun to sweat and I can actually feel my heart rate climbing.)  Races have winners, and observers are the people in the grandstands surrounding the pit row where the Corolla now sits.  By crossing the concrete barrier between the pits and the spectators, I’ve ceased to be an observer: I’m a racer now.

Only the race car isn’t moving.  I’ve stalled it.  The combination of push button starter and my trembling left leg have caused me to stall the car.  And stall it again.  And again.  Finally, the guys give the car a rolling start, I find 1st gear and pop the clutch.  Success! I roll slowly toward the pit exit and find 2nd gear.  But a race track employee is flagging me down.  Is there a limit on the number of times you can stall the car before everyone realizes you’re a phony and they haul you away? No, she just needs to see my driver-only wristband.  But I’m trying to manage the wonky synchros of 2nd gear, steer toward the right hand turn that leads out of the pits, and control my metronome heartbeat.  I fumble my limbs around my shoulders like an epileptic making the Sign of the Cross before finally tugging my glove upward enough to display the yellow wristband.  She waves me through before I stall the car again.  I won’t stall it again all day.

I round the right hander onto the backside of the track.  The Corolla wails like a horrific chimera of a Harley-Davidson and an angry infant, shrill and blaring at the same time.  The car owes its voice to the loss of its exhaust system (everything back of the headers) about 10 laps into the race, before my wheel time began.  The blare becomes a drone as I shift into third and begin to learn the track.  Fortunately, a yellow caution flag waves on my second lap, allowing me to take a more leisurely pace without having to worry about other racers passing me or vice versa.  I settle in behind a red Ford Taurus and learn the turns. Soft right, chicane, right, hard left, hairpin, hard right, hard right, long soft left, right, straight, hairpin, repeat.  I’m close on the Taurus’ bumper, and I’m starting to look anxiously for the yellow to drop so I can pass him.  When the caution is finally lifted, I’m reminded of the difference between a regular Taurus and a Taurus SHO.  The Yamaha V6 lights up and he’s blasting down the straight, forever out of my reach.

Now the racing begins in earnest.  The faster cars are flying by me.  A gold MR2.  A blaring red Miata with a curly pig tail.  A huge Infiniti Q45.  I’m trying not to let the passing affect me, but it’s an ego blow after getting my hopes up under caution.  I focus on my lines.  I shift rarely, 3rd gear providing the torque to power out of the turns.  The brakes are mushy but adequate.  I make some tire-squealing approaches to the back turns, getting faster each time.  I navigate the traffic that occassionally builds near the chicane without tail-ending anyone.  My confidence is building.  Ahead, I see my quarry: a orange BMW 3-series.

The 3-series is loping along at an even slower rate than I am. I’m zeroing in on the Beemer, cutting tighter turns, waiting to brake and accelerating out of the turns with purpose.  I’m on his bumper as we enter the chicane, dodging right and juking left as we approach a right hand turn.  A sharp left looms ahead, after which the track narrows.  I want to avoid the claustrophobia of the narrow stretch leading to the horseshoe-shaped turn ahead, so the left is my chance.  I mash the gas and sneak inside my orange nemesis.  It’s a sharp turn to take such a narrow line on, but the Corolla’s forgiving chassis has given me reason to believe that this won’t be a huge mistake.  I hope. I squinch my eyes shut as I rocket through the turn.

No sound.  No crunching metal.  A vibrating orange shape in my rear-view mirror shows that I have successfully passed the BMW. Big exhale. But now I’ve waited too long to brake for the right-hand hairpin.  Slam on brakes, crank the wheel right.  Squeal squeal squeal. Lift gas. Correct. Mash gas.

After making the pass, I realized that my playtime probably needed to end soon.  I was getting passed a lot, and I didn’t want to hinder the Evel Kweasel team in the standings.  I signal out the window that I’ll make one more lap, and cruise into the pits soon thereafter.  I immediately regret turning the fuel pump switch off.  I want to go back.  I want to keep risking life and limb three weeks before my wedding, because this is a peak adrenaline experience unlike any I’ve had in years.  But the pit crew is coming to unbuckle me, and I have a story to write, not a race to win.  It’s time to get back on my side of the concrete barrier.

Racing is fun, but it’s not where I’m meant to be.  This is where I’m supposed to be: sitting in my office, writing about the experience.  And I’m supposed to be in one piece for my blushing bride’s sake, so I think I’d rather risk a keyboard injury than figure out just how well the roll cage in a $500 car holds up.  Race on, fellas, and I’ll see you again in October.

Once more for the record, a huge thanks to Nick Pon and the Team Evel Kweasel boys for making this all happen.  You ROCK!

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3 comments

  1. Hey, GBB: like your blog.

    taras


  2. Mike Hon sent me your adventures of LeMon. It was interesting and well written … thanks

    jim


  3. I just like watching the vid so I can see you wiggling around with your suit.



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