Running the 24 Hours of Lemons with as little time and effort as possible

Tom
By Tom Suddard
Jul 2, 2021 | Mazda, Miata, 24 Hours of Lemons | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Build a new seat, install the fire system, replace the pads and rotors, change the wheels and tires, piece together a working radio system,  and add a livery. Oh, and we should nut and bolt the car while it’s up in the air. We’re in pretty good shape!”

Normally you’d say that a few months before a race. Or a few weeks. Or, if you’re a real procrastinator, mere days before it’s time to go out on grid. 

Despite knowing better, we were cutting it even closer: We’d just unloaded our Miata in the Sebring paddock for a 24 Hours of Lemons tech inspection and were proudly discussing the to-do list with the team. This was zero hour, the time to launch the operation. And we were wildly unprepared to do so. 

Meet the Zero-Hour Miata, our method of going endurance racing without any spare time in our schedule. Could we do everything wrong and get away with it? Or would all those hard-learned endurance racing truths prove to be absolute? Let’s find out. 

We Sold Our Lemons Car

We’re no strangers to endurance racing or to the 24 Hours of Lemons in particular. This budget-oriented series for horrible cars is always a mainstay on the GRM event calendar, so we signed up for the Sebring date as soon as we left the COVID-19 vaccination site. What better way to return to public life, we figured, than by enjoying one of our home tracks with a series that feels like family?

One problem with that plan: We didn’t have a car. Sure, we had our Volkswagen Fox, but it still sported a blown engine from our disastrous attempt at racing Daytona’s high banks with ChampCar.

Despite being parked in the corner of the shop for nearly a year, we hadn’t touched it—and neither had any of our teammates. Put simply, everyone had better things to do.

So we punted it, selling the broken Fox on eBay to free up time for other projects. And while wishing the Fox’s new owner the best of luck felt great, the realization that we no longer had a Lemons car didn’t. 

So we called Johnny Cichowski, owner of Nine Lives Racing and member of the unofficial GRM Lemons roster. 

“Hey, so, the Fox just sold.”

“Sweet! I always hated that car!”

“Yeah, us too. But we need to figure something else out for Sebring.”

“Let’s take Doorknob! It’s totally ready to go on track.”

Meet Doorknob, Our New Lemons Miata

What’s Doorknob? Here’s the back story: The folks at Nine Lives Racing needed a Miata shell to use for product development. When a free one fell into their laps, they went to work: Doorknob is forever scarred by the weeks of sawing and drilling that added most of the shop’s Miata products to its catalog. 

Once the prototyping was done, Doorknob faced a reckoning: Find a new purpose or leave—and “leave” doesn’t mean a happy ending for a hacked-up Miata shell. 

Doorknob arrived at Sebring with a rather formidable to-do list: Install a fire system, fit a radio, go through the brakes, add stickers and, oh yeah, reconfigure the seat. Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

So the crew scavenged a junkyard drivetrain and enough suspension components to make Doorknob drivable. They installed a gigantic cage that left plenty of breathing room for any driver, then christened the previously anonymous Miata with its name: Doorknob, because everybody gets a turn.

And everybody did. Doorknob quickly became a Road Atlanta veteran, with Johnny, his employees, and even total strangers running the Miata at track days. The windshield was deleted during that period: Johnny got hot during a Georgia summer, and a few minutes with a Sawzall delivered a fresh, cooling breeze through the cockpit. Now Doorknob was officially enlisted in its next big adventure, the 24 Hours of Lemons race at Sebring International Raceway. 

The Zero-Hour Deal

Free cars usually come with strings attached, and Doorknob was no exception. Johnny was blunt with his terms for the deal: “We can race this thing, but I don’t even have time to tow it to the track. You figure that out, and I’ll meet you there.” Like us, Johnny had zero hours to devote to this effort—yet he wanted to race. 

Fair enough. We’re pretty sure Chip Ganassi doesn’t drive his own hauler, either. 

We started a group chat and assembled a full driver roster: GRM’s Tom Suddard, Johnny Cichowski from Nine Lives Racing, Chris Cobetto from NASA’s Mid Atlantic region, Wayne Presley from Very Cool Parts, and Jesse Spiker from Spiker Motorsports. Keeping us on track was Nine Lives’ team manager, Andrea Cichowski. She keeps their sponsored drivers focused on winning, and in theory she’d provide the same support for this effort.

Then, over the span of a few days, we realized what we’d just signed up for. It started with a fresh look at the Lemons rulebook and then a fresh look at Doorknob. One problem: Johnny didn’t have time to read the rules, and we were 500 miles away from the car. We played a weekslong game of rulebook telephone as the race steadily marched closer, adding more and more jobs to the car’s to-do list. 

[How to build a road racer in eight easy steps.]

Investing some time was inevitable: Johnny broke his deal when he and a neighbor spent a weekend fabricating a Lemons-legal windshield, installing a battery kill switch, and bolting on a full aerodynamics kit to cover some of Doorknob’s jagged holes due to missing bodywork. 

Let’s be clear: This is not the right way to go endurance racing. We’ve written at length about the prep and the time needed for a proper effort. But when you’re desperate to get on track and can’t break away from your day job, this is what your team will look like. 

Case in point: This exchange happened one week before the race.

“Hey, did you know we need a fire system for Lemons?”

“OMG, Doorknob doesn’t have one?? I thought you said it was a track car!!”

“Yeah, I just figured we’d jump out if it ever lit on fire. I was never worried about saving the car.”

“….”

Staying Safe by Installing a Fire System

We’ll pause here to give SPA Technique a shoutout for sending us a fire system that was way more than the car deserved and getting it to us in less than a week. To reiterate: This is not how you should go racing.

We’d planned to install that fire system at our shop, where Doorknob was scheduled to make a detour on its way down to Sebring one week before the event. Then life got in the way. The race was scheduled for Mother’s Day, causing two members to drop out. John, a member of the Nine Lives Racing team who had never raced before, joined us to bring our driver count back up to four.

After weeks of cringing every time we opened the group chat, we found ourselves driving across Florida to Sebring with a fire system, tools, spares and a shiny new set of wheels from König. Coming down from Atlanta were Johnny, Andrea, John and, most important, Doorknob. Chris Cobetto trusted this endeavor enough to buy a plane ticket for the flight down. 

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

This was the worst plan we’d ever had, but the trucks were pointed at Sebring and it was too late to turn back now. 

Catfished: Wow, It’s Ugly

“The photos in the chat really don’t do justice to just how ugly this car is in person.” 

Those were the first words spoken when Doorknob rolled out of the trailer onto Sebring’s concrete paddock. And that’s before we realized the hidden surprise inside. 

See, Miatas have a notoriously difficult time accepting a wide driver’s seat, so Johnny fabricated his own out of an aluminum plate. Then he poured a fireproof foam seat insert so he fit perfectly. That was all good, but he didn’t think to ask anyone else for their measurements. His custom seat wasn’t tall enough for some of our team’s drivers. Racing a horrible car in Lemons is funny. Dying in the process is not.

There was no way we’d be able to find and mount a new seat before tech inspection, so we came up with another plan: Johnny would take his short seat and his fabrication skills over to Sick Sideways, a Sebring-based professional race team and builder of many fast Miatas. There he would try his best to make the seat safe for every driver. 

Doorknob’s seat wouldn’t pass tech without some drastic surgery, so we crashed Sick Sideways, the local Miata race prep shop, and borrowed some fab tools. In the end, Doorknob’s seat gained the necessary head restraint. Now it could revisit the tech shed. Photography Credits: Chris Tropea

Two hours later he returned, and the result was abhorrent: He’d grabbed an old Kirkey seat from the Sick Sideways attic, cut off the top 8 inches, and welded it to Doorknob’s seat with a healthy dose of additional reinforcement. This was the equivalent of dynamite-fueled mountaintop removal when the goal was just to relocate a few bushes. But while it was insane, it was also damn clever: The result was a safe seat that fit all four drivers, so we bolted it into the car and turned back to the to-do list. 

Changing brakes was easy—we’ve worked on a Miata or two over the years—so within a few minutes we had fresh rotors and Pagid RSL29 endurance racing pads installed. We updated the livery by slapping stickers all over the car to make it even uglier, while installing the radios took 5 minutes thanks to a well-worn Nerdie Racing car harness that had been zip-tied into more cars than we can remember. 

[10 endurance race essentials (that they probably didn’t mention in driver school)]

There was one biggie left: the fire system. This turned out to be a pleasant surprise, as Johnny had yet again broken his zero-hours deal and called SPA Technique to get dimensions for the bottle mount. He used some aluminum scraps (and some free time with the Nine Lives Racing CNC router) to build beautiful brackets for the fire bottle, nozzles and pull handle. Everything bolted right into the car, allowing us to complete a fairly professional installation in less than an hour. 

Dirty, sweaty, exhausted and standing in a paddock spot littered with self-tappers, brake pads and tools, we rolled Doorknob through Lemons tech and B.S. inspection 30 minutes before the deadline. It passed with zero issues, zero penalty laps and a Class A assignment (the fast class, and the natural home of a Miata). It felt like a victory, but the race hadn’t even started. 

We parked Doorknob for the evening, stepped back, and fully realized what we’d gotten ourselves into. We were going to race a bone-stock Miata: stock springs, 200,000-mile stock shocks, stock bushings, stock engine, stock air box, and even the OEM catalytic converter. And we were going to race this car for two days on one of the most grueling tracks in the country. 

Race Day: Taking a DNF 45 Minutes In?

Why did we elect to strap in the car owner for the first stint? A chef should always be the first to taste their food—especially if the food might be poisonous. So we belted in Johnny, wished him luck, and sent him out into the Lemons field. 

Shockingly, Doorknob did great—for the first 45 minutes. Then Johnny disappeared from the track, eventually returning to the paddock hitched to a tow truck: “It overheated and now the engine won’t turn over. I’m so sorry, I killed it.”

Well, at least we hadn’t invested too much time before our weekend was cut short. Still, we figured, we should go through the motions of diagnosing the overheat and the no-crank condition, even though we knew the answer would be, “Engine seized; winch onto trailer.”

We’d been on a streak of good luck so far: fixing the seat, passing tech, starting the race on time. And somehow that luck held out. The overheating was caused by a radiator hose that had popped off, so we fixed it by reinstalling and tightening the hose clamp. The seized engine, fortunately, turned out to just be a disconnected negative battery terminal: Somebody forgot to tighten it after installing the shutoff switch. We managed to fix Doorknob in 10 minutes, then sent Chris Cobetto out for the second stint. 

Visiting the Penalty Box

There’s something you should know about Chris: He’s a Real Racer™. Being the director of a NASA region means you get plenty of track time, and Chris has used that time to win three Spec E30 national championships and seven regional championships between Spec E30 and American Iron. He holds lap records at multiple tracks. 

All this skill and experience meant he was woefully unprepared for Lemons, and he earned his first penalty 10 minutes after getting into the car. The Lemons judges told him to stop dropping wheels off the track and sent him back out on course. 

Then the radio crackled with Chris’ voice again: “I hit somebody. Headed to penalty box.”

Well, at least the car was still moving under its own power, right? We marched back to the penalty box to see what the car—and the Lemons judges—had in store for us. The car wasn’t bad, just had a banged-up bumper, fender and splitter. But the judges were giddy: They’d now met with a national champion twice in 45 minutes, and he deserved to be punished. 

So 24 Hours of Lemons founder Jay Lamm passed Chris a megaphone, haggled a bit about the exact wording he expected to hear, then asked John to give Chris “the Prom Queen.” For this penalty, the offending driver sits on his car’s cage and is slowly driven around the paddock screaming about how bad he is through the megaphone. Chris got a slightly different assignment: Due to his lovely voice, he’d be required to sing his lines. 

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Lemons prides itself on clean racing. As Chris Cobetto, one of our teammates, learned, too much aggression on track will be rewarded with lengthy, creative punishments. Photography Credit: Colin Wood

That’s why the entire paddock was treated to a duet featuring Doorknob and a three-time national champion singing, “Fly me to the mooooon, and don’t fuck up like me. Be a better driver than I am, and don’t destroy the Nine Lives Racing splitter.” 

Catchy, right? After 15 minutes of Chris serving as prom queen, we wisely removed him from the car and sent out John, our rookie driver, for his stint. 

Surely never racing before would be a handicap, right? Wrong. Because the 24 Hours of Lemons rulebook rewards caution above all else, and because we’d already spent more than an hour off track between two penalties and a mechanical failure, there wasn’t much to be gained by posting the fastest lap times. 

That’s why John did great, running times within a few seconds of ours and keeping his nose clean. For more than an hour John ran clean, consistent laps. We were starting to relax and even took a lunch break while he was on track.

Then the radio brought more bad news. “Okay, I got black-flagged. See you all in a few.”

The judges weren’t happy to see us again. That said, they were far more understanding when John, a total novice, spun the car on track. Our penalty was assigned by a giddy judge shouting to another, “Hey, do we have Bob Ross with us?”

Surely they don’t mean that Bob Ross, right? Wrong. 

In short order we were handed paint, paintbrushes, and a Bob Ross instructional book that claimed to turn any aspiring painter into an artist. The penalty: We had to stay off track for 1 hour, or until we completed one of the tutorials from the book using poor Doorknob as the canvas. 

 So we went to work, assigning each driver a color, choosing the simplest painting we could find, and then decorating Doorknob’s trunk lid with happy little trees. Fifteen minutes later, we’d signed our work and were allowed to return to the track. 

The Tow Truck: Our New Best Friend

Tom was up next in the car, and the following hour of racing passed by without any other incidents. In fact, Tom was in the car long enough to get curious about Doorknob’s remarkably low fuel consumption. 

“Hey, it’s still at two-thirds of a tank; we should really have used more fuel by now.” After some back-and-forth over the radio, we made the call to continue driving until the car hiccuped. Past experience with Miatas at Sebring had taught us that they’ll run at least a lap at three-quarter speed once the fuel level drops low enough to uncover the pickup in hard corners. 

Another on-track blunder meant another visit to the penalty box. This time, the sanction involved some arts and crafts. Trust us, Bob Ross fans, somewhere in there is a squirrel. Photography Credits: Colin Wood

Not Doorknob. 

After a single hiccup through Bishop’s bend, Doorknob shut off on the back straight and wouldn’t restart. Tom coasted to the break in the wall at Turn 17, but it wasn’t enough to avoid yet another trip to the paddock behind a tow truck. We fueled the car, strapped in Johnny, and crossed our fingers. Would stint number five be the first one we completed without any unplanned stops?

Oh Yeah, There Was a Fire

We finally ran a stretch without incident. Alert the media. 

Johnny completed Doorknob’s first-ever Lemons shift without any mechanical failures or black flags. So it was only fitting that the next stint would be full of mayhem. We put Chris in the car, it caught fire, and he got black-flagged due to an off-course detour while he radioed back, “I think I’m on fire!” 

The Lemons judges told us to park Doorknob for the rest of the day and “have our good drivers talk to our bad drivers about how to behave on track.” Fair enough, we figured. We ended our day an hour before the checker, but that was fine with us: Doorknob needed work after a day at Sebring, and now we had an extra hour to fix it. 

First up, the fire: Turns out running with an old, stock catalytic converter is a bad idea (duh) as ours clogged, then exploded and shot red-hot catalyst all over the transmission tunnel. Maybe we didn’t have a fire in the traditional sense, but we could see how this might have seemed like a harrowing situation from behind the wheel. Johnny borrowed a welder from a nearby team (thank you, South Paw Customs) and welded up the now-empty converter case to reseal the exhaust system.

Next, the crash. Chris had broken the splitter, so he earned the privilege of bending back the splitter mounts and installing our spare with John’s help. After an hour of work, Doorknob’s nose was no longer booped and our front downforce had returned. We replaced a broken bolt to reattach the front anti-roll bar, too.

With the problems repaired, we moved on to the normal post-race maintenance: A sticking right-front caliper was replaced with a good used one from our spares inventory, while we rotated the tires and bled the brakes. By 8 p.m. we were ready to race again, and hopefully on track to have a better day on Sunday. 

Success, Kind Of

As Sunday morning dawned and we woke up in our paddock campsite regretting Sebring’s famous two-for-one margaritas, we knew we were doomed. After four trips to the penalty box, any screwup would likely mean getting sent home. But maybe, just maybe, the grueling trial by fire we’d put ourselves (and poor Doorknob) through had taught the team how to act. Perhaps today would be a good day. 

Sorry for the boring story to follow, but it was good: We spent Sunday driving cleanly, working on pit-stop strategy, and posting faster lap times with every stint as we fought for bragging rights on the drive home. 

Our only visit to the penalty box came late in the afternoon, when Tom pushed the braking zone before Cunningham Corner just a bit too far. Turns out that while the Lemons justices can be harsh, they can also be exceedingly understanding: Our punishment was to leave the car and take a bathroom break, as that was deemed to be the cause of the distracted driving. Tom then posted Doorknob’s fastest lap of the weekend, proving that proper race prep involves more than just setting tire pressures and checking the oil.

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

After an uneventful day, Johnny took the checkered flag and we cheered as Doorknob crossed the finish line. We’d failed miserably, finishing 28th overall and 16th in our 29-car class. But we’d also spent the weekend racing at Sebring, hanging out with our friends, and endlessly mocking each other for the penalties we’d racked up and the mistakes we’d made. Plus, the car drove onto the trailer under its own power, and that’s always a win. 

Despite this being the least prepared we’d ever been for a race, it was still a blast, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. Had we really gotten away with the Zero-Hour Miata? Draw your own conclusions, but we’ll answer the question this way: It is indeed possible to go endurance racing with extremely limited resources—just don’t expect to run up front. 

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Comments
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Floating Doc (Forum Supporter)
Floating Doc (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
6/14/21 12:40 p.m.

You had fun. All of you got laps at Sebring. The car was on track at the finish and drove onto the trailer. 
 

And we got to read a typically well written and fun article about it all. 
 

In it's own way, I'd call this a win. 

Johnny_at_NineLives
Johnny_at_NineLives GRM+ Memberand New Reader
6/14/21 2:20 p.m.

wait... cris had the fastest lap.. 

spacecadet (Forum Supporter)
spacecadet (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
6/14/21 4:41 p.m.

“The photos in the chat really don’t do justice to just how ugly this car is in person.” 

That's saying a LOT.. cause every photo I've seen is FUGLY..

laughed a lot at this article, great job!

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