Converting an economy runabout into a racer is
largely a process of removal. Weight is the enemy of
performance, so the first step was to gut the car of
anything unnecessary: carpet, seats, insulation, door
panels, hatchback, glass, you name it. The less those
88 horses have to drag around, the faster we’ll go.
Once the car was lightened, we started in on
performance enhancements. For better weight
distribution, which leads to better handling, we
moved the heavy battery to the rear of the car. We
removed the catalytic converter and most restrictions on the exhaust system, replacing them with a
simple Cherry Bomb-type muffler. The only actual
“racing” part we used was a free-flowing air cleaner,
courtesy of MAKE contributing editor Mister Jalopy.
As with the exhaust system, opening up the intake
of a motor is a quick, cheap way to free up an extra
horse or two.
If we wanted to be the tortoise that beat the hare,
we needed to stay on the track, and one of the
biggest factors conspiring to get us off the track
would be heat.
First we tried mounting two radiators atop the
ventilated hood. This failed, and taught us a valuable lesson: on a cheap car, everything is designed
to perform to spec, and not a bit more. That means
the water pump can happily pump water as far as
it needs to go, but God help you if you try to go an
In the end we remounted the radiator to its
original position, but added a secondary fan atop
the hood and a dedicated transmission cooler
made from an old A/C condenser. At the race, in
80-degree-plus heat, while many of our more
sporting competitors were spewing geysers of
steam, we didn’t overheat once.
Makers, Start Your Engines
We barely finished the car in time for the race.
We had little time to practice, because the car was
illegal for road use, and finding places to drive it
The first laps of the race were both terrifying and
exhilarating. Once the green flag waves, the nearly
90 other cars on the track storm like angry wasps,
passing and trying to pass within inches. Every
driving instinct you have is set into a panic by events
you normally associate with big, expensive trouble:
shrieking tires, the sickening sound of crunching
metal, the smell of burning rubber — but once you
realize there are no insurance numbers to exchange,
you start to get into it.
There’s plenty of contact in the race, and the
track is quite technical — not very fast, but lots
of hairpins, S-curves, and the like, so the speed
disadvantage of our car wasn’t so pronounced.
We were only off-track once for mechanical woes,
when the front wheel flew off while I was driving,
which is actually less terrifying than it sounds.
In the end, we came in 33rd out of nearly 90 cars
— beating out many more obvious pieces of sporting machinery like V- 8 Mustangs, BMWs, and even
an Alfa Romeo. It was a far better result than I ever
would have expected.
The maker crowd and the backyard, greasy-handed auto enthusiast crowd have a fairly large
divide between them, which seems absurd,
considering how many maker skills go into a project
such as this. I encourage all makers to have a go
at the dirty, loud side of making things, and the 24
Hours of LeMons is a great way to do it. See you on
the track — we’ll be turbocharged next time around.
Photograph by Sally Myers
Safety equipment doesn’t count toward the $500
limit, which is a good thing, as you don’t want to
cheap out on your roll cage, tires, or brakes. We
were lucky enough to have the free services of
a professional welder, Mike Garcia, to help us
assemble our cage. There’s a reasonable amount
of contact in the race, so in addition to the cage to
protect us, we reinforced the flimsy body, especially » 24 Hours of LeMons:
around the radiator. We also added a racing seat
with a five-point harness, which, along with helmet
and full fireproof racing gear, is a requirement.
Make: Way, MAKE magazine’s official racing
Jason Torchinsky (
jasontorchinsky.com) is an artist and
tinkerer living in Los Angeles with his partner, Sally.