September 25, 2022

Millville, New Jersey — From the glitz and glamor of Formula 1, to the thrills of NASCAR, to the feat of human endurance that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, motorsport has thrilled and delighted gearheads around the world for generations. But this summer, far from the cathedral-lined streets of LeMans, France, another kind of race was taking place just outside the small town of Millville, New Jersey: the 24 Hours of Lemons.

“It all really stemmed from the fact that you could make the ‘Lemons’ pun against ‘LeMans,'” said Jay Lamm, co-founder and ‘lead author’ of the event. “I don’t think we would have done it if that pun hadn’t been available – it was so tenuous.”

There’s only one guiding principle in Lemon Racing: No team is allowed to race a car that costs more than $500. In other words, only lemons are allowed.

The drivers traveled to Milville, New Jersey, for the 24 Hours of Lemons.

Michael Dobuski/ABC News

Anyone with a driver’s license can register for one of more than two dozen annual “Lemons” races that take place across the country. “Associate author” Nick Pon said new visitors to Lemon Racing will find that a quick mind will often take you further than a fast car.

The Millville Race, known to the Lemon world as “The Real Hoopties of New Jersey,” featured a colorful assortment of race cars at the June 11-12 event. Attendees included compacts like a Star Trek-themed Acura Integra, a VW Golf modified to look like a Dominos pizza delivery car, and a Saturn SL2 nicknamed “Sadturd,” for its toilet theme. BMWs of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Hondas and Volvos were common. American iron was also well represented, with a My Little Pony-themed Chevy Camaro, a handful of Ford Mustangs, and even a late 1930s Buick making an appearance. One team even brought in a convoy of Cadillac Brougham sedans, filled with elaborate chandeliers hanging from fenders and roofs – a reference to the cars in Kurt Russell’s 1981 film, “Escape from New York.”

The man responsible for judging each car’s racing ability is Eric Rood, also known as “Justice of the Lemons Court”. On the Friday before the Millville race, teams roll their cars into the event’s main garage, where Rood, dressed in a judge’s robe and Hawaiian lei, gives his appreciation. At one point, Rood deems a Dukes of Hazard-themed orange BMW 3 Series “too good looking” and “too clean” for the weekend race.

“I decree that this car is lame!” Rood shouts, which is greeted by a chorus of “lame!” from the rest of the bustling garage. He then takes a hammer to the hood of the BMW, and another lemon organizer spray paints a red “LAME” stencil on the rear fender. The driver is given a handful of penalty laps – putting him behind the peloton when it comes time to hit the track – but he is still allowed to race.

In addition to a $500 car, teams must pay a $1,550 entry fee for each race and have a Lemons competition membership ($75). Even still, keeping races relatively cheap is fundamental to what Lemons organizers say is their goal for the race series, according to Lamm. He said it all started in 2006, when he and his friends worked as automotive journalists.

“We were all constantly going to a lot of very expensive, self-satisfied, self-referential high-end automotive events,” Lamm said. “It seemed like they took themselves very seriously and they were very, very interested in establishing a hierarchy of who was ‘the most awesome’ versus everyone else in the automotive world.”

Lamm said he then started calling racetracks, pitching them the idea of ​​a race that would only feature cheap cars that were to be driven by him and a dozen of his friends. “It took about 15 phone calls for one that didn’t hang up,” Lamm said.

The Lemons rulebook requires every car to be equipped with a full roll cage, racing harness and on-board fire extinguisher system, among a litany of other requirements. Likewise, drivers must wear a specialized head and neck restraint and fire-resistant clothing, as well as a full-face helmet. Safety equipment is not included in the $500 valuation of each car.

PHOTO: Eric Rood and other race organizers decide whether entrants' cars are worth $500 or less.

Eric Rood and other race organizers decide whether entrants’ cars are worth $500 or less.

Michael Dobuski/ABC News

As with any racing series that has been around as long as Lemons, accidents do happen.

“We had, uh, a little accident that destroyed the car a bit, and we had to build a new race car. I mean, it kind of dashed our hopes of running a few more races the rest of the year. ‘year,” said David Eckel, one of Cheesebolt Enterprises’ pilots, recalling an incident a few years ago. But then the team got a phone call from the company that built the cage. of the original car, looking to build a new one.

“And I said, ‘what? I didn’t order a roll cage. And they said, ‘uh, oh, well, you have to talk to this person because they donate a new roll cage so you can build your next car,'” Eckel recalled. “You know, it’s like a thousand dollar item to do that. And I was upset.

“You know, I’ve made lifelong friends with this stuff, and that’s really what it’s all about,” he said. From there, it really is the most satisfying part. And the part, I think, that will ultimately be Lemons’ legacy is, you know, those people who can talk about it 40 years from now in the nursing home.