Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Beater to 24 Hours of LeMons Racer in 10 Steps

Success at the 24 Hours of LeMons is difficult and arguably the most difficult part is turning your beater into a competent endurance racer. The Latch-Key Kids team has managed to keep our Chia Neon in the top five in as many events. Here's how we did it.

At this point I assume you've picked a junker, organized your rag-tag gang of drivers and memorized the rules. Now let's get started.

1.) Strip the car. I know this sounds simple, but this is key. Getting out as much weight as possible will only make you faster and gentler on tires and brakes. Glass and steel are heavy. The Chia Neon lost nearly 150 pounds from street car to fully trimmed (with cage) race car. Gut the interior, remove all the glass but the windshield, and gut the doors (except driver's) the trunk, and the hood. Resist the temptation to remove anything on the body that appears structural which is probably most things welded to the unibody. The Chia does have a heater core and blower fan which more spartan competitors have pitched. Our thinking is that in case of rain the front defroster could be useful. Removing wiring also save pounds but randomly hacking off wires will cause problems. Tread carefully and try not to remove too many ground wires.

2.) Get creative making go fast parts. This is the engineers favorite thing about LeMons. You can do just about whatever you want, so long as you don't spend money. Relocate the battery rearward with BMW or Mercedes trunk located battery cables sourced from the junk yard. Make a ghetto cold-air-intake with a used cone filter and PVC pipe fittings. Fabricate a hood scoop out of the catalyst heat sheild. If you don't enjoy mangling rusted scrap into semi-useful hop-ups perhaps you should try vintage racing.

3.) Install a legal cage, seat, and belts. Books have been written about doing this competently so I can't explain all of it here. Choosing a car that other people like to race increases your chances of finding a kit or even a used legal cage. Building your own from straight tubes isn't simple. If you don't have the skills seriously consider farming it out to local race shop. The money is worth spending when you find a Pontiac Parisian rubbing the passenger door at 80 miles an hour.

4.) Add some selective reinforcements. This step isn't as necessary as it once was. Behavior at LeMons has improved tremendously since the first demo-derby we raced at Flat Rock in 2007. Still, strengthening your car's weak points can prevent incidental contact from becoming a long pit stop. Where to reinforce requires some intimate knowledge about how fenders and bumpers tend to crumple against other cars. Find someone who has gone circle track racing your car. The Neon has three horrible weak points. First, the bumpers are held on by sliding plastic mounts that releases under compression. Removing the plastic brackets and using lag bolts secured the bumpers. Another flaw is the tendency of the front fenders to bend down onto the tires at the slightest provocation. A cut tire is expensive and time consuming. To hold the fenders up I fabricated support plates that extend out from the strut towers. Both have held up marvelously. Last, the upper radiator cross-member is flimsy and cracks the radiator end-caps as it deforms. Welding one inch L-stock to the back side of the cross-member and tying that bar back to the strut towers keeps the radiator off the engine. We then wrapped the cross-member in roll-bar padding and zip-tied the radiator to it. All the reinforcements should fit neatly under the body work.

5.) Scour the interwebs. Hopefully you paid well enough less than $500 to afford some second hand go fast parts. Craigslist, ebay, and forums are great places to find performance parts on the cheap. Lowering springs are great investment and Chinese made no-name brand parts should fit your budget. Sure the quality control is nonexistent, but it survived the previous owner perhaps its one of the better parts.

6.) Double check everything. Get the car up in the air and check all the suspension, drivetrain, fuel, and exhaust parts. The suspension should be tight without torn bushings or wobbly ball joints. Fuel system leaks are the quickest way to disqualification, make sure all the vent lines are present with no cracks. Is the fuel filler pipe rusty? With a full tank of gas sloshing around that's a problem. In my mind, much of this falls under the envelope of safety. Replacing wheel bearings keeps detached wheels from harming other drivers. We've listed such expenses as safety items on our BS inspection budgets without trouble.

7.) Scour the bone yard. Hopefully you picked a car that was popular, about eight to fifteen years old with no resale value. If so, the junkyard is your best friend. LeMons BS inspections are looking for shiny new parts that look like you spent money. Junk yard rusty bits may go unnoticed. Its also a good idea to pick up some second hand spares. Having electrical sensors, a radiator with some hoses, and fuel injectors on hand at the race have made the difference between getting a trophy and going home on Saturday.

8.) Install radio and water bottle. Radio communication is priceless in an endurance race. Its nearly impossible to keep a pit strategy together if you don't know when the car is coming in and what it needs. Driver hydration makes it much easier to last two or more hours in the car. LeMons races usually can't go 45 minutes without a yellow so you will find time to use it.

9.) Add your theme. Supposedly you earned your spot on the grid by convincing Jay and co. of your kick-ass theme so don't hold back now. A LeMons quality paint job can be made with just some rollers and a gallon of Lowe's sourced rust-oleum. Thin it out and put on two or three coats. When securing foreign objects to the surface of the vehicle use bolts or rivets to make sure they stay on.

10.) Test it. LeMons races usually offer a Friday test so use the opportunity to make sure the car shifts, turns, and stops. If not, at least you've got Friday night to rig it back together.

Assuming you've made it this far, hopefully you're ready join the other hundred or so fools on track. We'll talk about making it to the finish soon enough.

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