Design Concepts enters 24 Hours of LeMons race!

November 21, 2013

I absolutely love the wacky stuff we get to do around here. Kent Kallsen - our vice president of engineering – and I entered a 24 Hours of LeMons road race a couple of weeks ago.

If you’re not familiar with the 24 Hours of Lemons, it’s a Car and Driver sponsored parody of the iconic 24 Hours of LeMans endurance race held in France. Like it’s more famous brethren, the 24 hours of Lemons is wheel-to-wheel endurance racing in race-prepped cars on world-class road courses – in this case the wonderful Road America course in Elkhart lake, WI. With just one tiny difference. 24 hours of LeMans features multi-million dollar cars. In a 24 hours of Lemons race, teams are limited to spending a maximum of $500 on the vehicle. As you can imagine, this leads to some – shall we say – interesting race cars and unpredictable racing. In the words of the 24 Hours of Lemons web site – “racing’s not just for rich idiots – it’s for all idiots”. Clearly we belonged.

   I really wish I could take credit, but entering wasn’t my idea. It was floated by   my good friend and former Design Concepts' client Ken Martin – CEO and   President of Cibiem. I should have known I was out of my league a while ago when Ken took me for a ride in his new Porsche and while chatting casually away he hit an easy 100mph. On a freeway on-ramp. While passing a car on the right. Anyway, Ken sort of lofted the idea on a dare - not really thinking I'd accept. I accepted, not really thinking he was serious. Kent signed on not really thinking either of us knew what we were doing. Of the three of us he was the only one who was right. Before we knew it we had a team web site, a team name (Udder Chaos) and a team theme. Because just like performance art or your teen years, 24 Hours of Lemons cars need a theme. We were off and running. Well not exactly running. More like limping along.

Joining us on Team Udder Chaos were:

Elmer Santos – Engineering Group Manager at General Motors
Scott Uttech – Project Engineer at Bruno Assisted Living
David Moore – Mechanical Engineering Manager at EBR Systems
We were fortunate enough to have Aaron Zetwick (a Coworker of Scott’s) - sign on as a mechanic as well.

We were a notable team in that none of us had ever done any road racing before. Scott (the Stig) Uttech was our ringer - he's a very successful sprint car racer although as Scott pointed out that's done on dirt and is a completely different style of racing in completely different cars. Details, details. Beyond Scott, our experience level dropped off rather precipitously. Ken had his Porsche, Kent had been to a driving school, Dave Moore has raced go karts and Elmer and I offered up we'd played a racing video game once or twice. We figured that left us more than qualified. So in February with the unexpected (and perhaps somewhat naïve) blessings of our spouses and against anyone's better judgment we hit Craigslist. We eventually found a 1996 1st generation Dodge Neon that had formerly been used as a dirt track racecar before being put out to pasture. Being put out to pasture was kind hearted. It probably should have been put down. But the Neon actually proved to be a good choice – as it already had a nice stout roll cage and much of the extraneous stuff had already been stripped out of the car. It was a bad choice as much of the extraneous stuff had already been stripped out of the car – and – well it had been used as a dirt track racer. The old cowboy phrase “ridden hard and put away wet” was pretty apt. We should have been suspicious when the previous owner jumped at our offer of $325. We later learned the car had previously sold for $200. Scoreboard.

In the words of the 24 Hours of Lemons web site – “racing’s not just for rich idiots – it’s for all idiots." Clearly we belonged.

My wife expressing optimism - or incredulity - on the day we picked up the car. I know it looks rough. In person it looked worse.

As the summer began we started to put substantial time into getting our car 'ready' for the race. If we had any advantage it was the use of the awesome Design Concepts prototyping shop.

 The $500 cost limit only applies to the price of the car any components related to performance or reliability. You are free to spend whatever you want on brakes, tires, wheels and safety equipment. So after determining that the rear brake lines of the car had been severed and crimped off a few feet before the drums we opted for new brake lines. Like pulling on a sweater thread before we were done we had new stainless steel calipers, disks, rotors, drums and racing pads. It may not have been fast but the Uddermobile could stand on it's nose. We wedged in a racing seat along with engineering some slick provisions for adjusting the seat position to accommodate our various heights. We removed the power steering, replaced the exhaust, added towing provisions and cut down the drivers’ side door to make it easier to bail out in the event the whole thing went up in a ball of flames. With our remaining $175 of “go fast” money we cobbled a cold air intake that Kent scavenged and adapted from a minivan at a local junk yard. We grafted on a rear stabilizer bar we bought off Craigslist, solid mounted the front engine mount and replaced some rotting suspension bushings.

Kent contemplating our to-do list. Perhaps if we spray some Windex on it, everything will be better.

 








Kent wired up some racing gages and cleverly adapted an  Arduino control board to report out fuel usage and replace our  missing fuel gage. At the time that seemed a bit of whimsical experimentation, and later proved to be utterly (udderly)  invaluable. We reset the alignment for a more race friendly set  up. Finally we added some Wisconsin themed decorations,  crossed our fingers and got ready to race.

The Uddermobile takes shape!

 







Thanks to Corin - Design Concepts graphic designer extraordinaire - for the awesome Team Udder Chaos graphics!

 







And yes, the udder functions. Why not!

 








Team Udder Chaos

 







Interestingly enough, while prepping the car the one thing we  didn't really ever do was drive it. Really. The lack of title, license  plates and insurance proved distracting so other than trips  around our parking lot and a single furtive Sunday morning jaut  around the business park our Uddermobile was entirely an  untested entity.

It was some very late nights and long weekends but finally on  Thursday afternoon we called it ready, packed up and  headed off to the race.

The actual race was definitely one of the most enjoyable  things I’ve ever done in my life! It certainly started  auspiciously. In what could have been a very abrupt and  premature end to the entire weekend we snapped a timing  belt on the Friday test day. It was a bit ironic as we’d  spent a fair amount of time debating whether to replace  the timing belt before the race (and also stupidly ignoring  that odd ticking sound coming from the front of the engine.   durrrrr). The timing belt replacement on a Neon is non- trivial so  ultimately  laziness had  prevailed and  we had  decided to  chance the  race without  changing it  out. Bad mistake. Friday found us being towed back to the pits with a very sick Uddermobile. On the good side, we had actually rented a harmonic gear puller and bought a spare timing belt the night before the race so we were at least somewhat eerily prepared.

Late night timing belt replacement. In a cold, driving rain of course...

 







 It took us all night Friday to replace the timing belt (fighting us  every step of the way) only to confirm at midnight that we had  indeed bent all the intake valves. The Neon is an interference  motor but occasionally people will snap a timing belt and report  that the valves are not trashed. We were not so lucky and things  were definitely NOT looking good.

 









Biffed cylinder head with bent valves. Anyone want to buy a boat  anchor?

On Saturday morning with the actual race getting ready to start  we tore the motor down again while some of us hit the  Internet. After a frantic series of calls we found a junk-yard about  75 miles away that had a SOCH Neon head - condition  unknown. We sped off, bought the head, hurried back as the  green flag dropped on the rest of the field. Working like demons  we dropped the new head on the motor, reassembled everything  and crossed our fingers while hitting the ignition  switch. Amazingly the tough little Uddermobile fired right up -  and we were racing by 11:30 on Saturday. It was great  teamwork and a real sense of problem solving and  accomplishment. I wouldn't have traded that experience  anything.

As we each got our turn to drive I think for all of us the first couple of laps were a terrifying blur. Past that, however, you began to settle down and the remaining laps were terrifying and in perfect focus. In all seriousness, driving hard around the spectacular Road America course was an amazing rush!

 









Up and racing finally!

And some video:

[youtube]

[/youtub...

In-car video...

[youtube]

[/youtub...

Here is Dave Moore pushing the Uddermobile into Road America's famous Carousel turn:

Our little Neon did suffer from what could best be described as a “deficit of power”. We more than held our own in the corners but simply couldn’t keep up with the BMWs and Porsches in the straights. The mighty Uddermobile ran courageously - until about an hour before the checkered flag on Sunday when we were finally tripped up by some mysterious fuel pump issue. The checkered flag flew with us fittingly under the hood of the car desperately wrenching away and trying to get back out on the track.

On the whole it was a wonderful weekend – everyone got to drive the car hard, no black flags and we didn’t crash.

Even with the damaged valve train and fuel issues we finished middle of the pack (OK - really 48th out of 83 entries - that's middle of the pack isn't it???) with 141 completed laps. We certainly didn't contend but we didn't embarrass ourselves either - finishing in front of a Camaro, a Porsche 924, a Toyota MR2 and a BMW535i. Of course we got smoked by a Saturn SL2, a Lincoln Continental Mark VII and a Ford Escort. But we're not going to dwell on that.

The entire Lemons race series is tremendous. The other teams were fantastic and the spirit of camaraderie, good natured humor and fun are pervasive.

So are we done? Was this one of those bucket list, mid-life-crisis check offs? Have gotten racing out of our system? Hell no! We're already figuratively rubbing our hands in glee at the long laundry list of stuff we’d like to try doing – ranging from the simple to the wacky. We're not done by a long shot - there's plenty of stupidity left!

Stay tuned. We'll be back!