Evan J. Smith
January 12, 2014
Photos By: Josh Russell

Track time—as true track dawgs, we're constantly after it, hunting down seat time like hungry wolves. And recently, thanks to Team Peak, we participated in our first 24 Hours of LeMons race at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois.

Feeling like a race car driver, I loaded my gear and flew to Autobahn, located in Joliet, Illinois, that's about 40 minutes south of Chicago. I arrived at the track eager to meet the crew and to get a look at the Fox GT we'd be racing. This LeMons event, titled "Doin' Time In Joliet," was not actually 24 hours long, but rather a 14.5 hour enduro, spread over two days and consisting of 9 hours of competition on Saturday and 5.5 on Sunday. We'd be racing on the ACC South Circuit, which is 2.1 miles in length, with 15 turns and a nice 1,850-foot straight. It's a technical track that we ran not too long ago.

"Peak signed on this season as an official sponsor of the 24 Hours of LeMons series, providing product rebate discounts to LeMons competitors and running three online sweepstake programs—with the grand prize of each being an all-expense-paid trip to a 24 Hours of Lemons race weekend," said Josh Russell, Peak promotor. "The winners also receive a spot as driver on (Peak's) LeMons team to race in the Peak Marketing Tools '89 Mustang 5.0L GT alongside a Peak-sponsored pro driver or celebrity guest. The promotions have paired prize-winners with teammates like Traxxas TORC Series Off-Road racer and former motocross champion Ricky Johnson and Peak NHRA Top Fuel dragster pilot TJ Zizzo," Russell added.

The prizewinner at Autobahn was Jack Wilson from Eloy, Arizona, who came along with his wife, Sondra. Jack owns Performance Bearing, manufacturers of custom ceramic bearings for racing applications.

"At age 70, Jack also happens to be a lifelong racer, having driven in off-road, motorcycle, sprint car, midget, dirt modified, and SCCA. But this was his first LeMons racing experience, having entered the sweepstakes because he thought it ‘sure sounded like a lot of fun,'" said Russell. Also driving was Bryan Emrich and Brian Bohlander of Peak, NHRA Top Fuel driver TJ Zizzo, and your humble scribe.

Our team of hot shoes consisted of (from left) Brian Bohlander, Jack Wilson, TJ Zizzo, your author, and Bryan Emrich (not shown—see French toast photo, p. 119).

With five drivers, we'd get plenty of seat time and enjoy the camaraderie of enduring two long days of racing, along with all the challenges of competing in a mostly stock Mustang for 14.5 hours. As you can imagine, making the car last for 14.5 hours would be just as challenging as moving through the pack. "Getting Peak professional drivers involved with low-buck, grassroots racing is a perfect match to the passion and lifestyle of Peak's wrench-spinning, do-it-yourself kind of customer," added Bryan Emrich, senior vice president of marketing for Peak.

Equally important to our success was Crew Chief Bart Nelson, mechanic and race strategist Eric Debord, and our chef, Robert "Chef Bob" Kasinecz.

Zizzo never had any previous road racing experience, and it had been years since Wilson was on a road course, but you would have never known it after watching them wheel the GT. Wilson had spent his adulthood wheeling sprint cars and other race machines, and we figured if Zizzo could handle 10,000 hp in his dragster, then our 225hp '89 GT should be a breeze. And it was, as Zizzo was smooth, and his lap times dropped with every session.

"Our low-buck Fox 5.0 is pretty quick and well sorted out, plus it is reasonably light and balanced," said Russell. "We run it with 17-inch wheels with Nitto NT555 tires, a Craig's List-purchased 5.0L with cam/headers/exhaust, 73mm MAF, 24-lb/hr injectors and a Tremec T5. Brakes are mid-'80s 73mm SVO calipers in the front, Thunderbird Turbo Coupe discs in the rear, and it has race pads all around. It's fun to drive and it gives you a great sense of American pride to freight train the imports in the long straights."

On Friday, we got the car teched in, mingled with the crew, and even got some track time. Knowing how fragile stock parts can be, we went about our practice carefully, only taking a half-dozen laps (each) to feel the car and get a sense of the track.

The LeMons series is a true home for budget-minded racers. I saw a wide array of vehicles with some wacky themes. Oldtimers would say it's a throwback to a simpler era. There was a fun, laid-back energy to the event; virtually everyone I came across was pleasant and clearly having fun. There was no sense of having to perform for sponsors or worry about winning big bucks. In the drivers meeting, officials made it clear that anyone can be flagged or penalized at any time for "BS" or simply driving like a moron.

"LeMons loves coming to Autobahn Country Club because hey—it's a country club, and we're definitely not country-club material. It's sort of like Caddyshack, minus the gopher and plus about 8,000 gallons of gas," said Jay Lamm, the chief perpetrator of LeMons.

Goin' Green: Day 1

With nine hours on the plate the first day, our plan was to run hard, but be aware of the cars around us and stay out of trouble. Nevertheless, on green, trouble came quick. I was first up and after just a few laps, I got caught wide in a fast kink and spun the car.

I felt like a complete bonehead. I was pissed (at myself) for pushing too much. I didn't want to be "that guy"—but I was. Crap! Spinning, contacting another car, or going "off," could easily damage the car and cost the team time or the entire race. Plus, I now had to take a mandatory trip to see the LeMons officials in the pits. I knew it wouldn't be pretty.

Finishing my spin (a perfect 360, mind you) I dropped Second gear and kept the GT going without losing much momentum. I saw the Black flags and headed in. After receiving my stern talkin' to by the LeMons officials (where I sat in penalty box and felt great shame), I was sent back on track with a much-improved sense of reality. I drove smooth, kept it clean, and even passed a few more cars than passed me.

Next up was sweepstakes winner Jack Wilson, who kept us moving forward, save for the shunt when he was cracked into by a Chevy Chevette. Again, the black flag dropped on us (yes, that means you must pit), even though it clearly wasn't our fault. Mr. Chevette driver even admitted to officials it was his doing, and later came over to beg for our forgiveness. He even told us what the officials said: "What were you thinking trying to pass a Mustang with a Chevette?"

One by one, we cycled our drivers through the car, Zizzo, Emrich, and Bohlander. Bryan and Brian were the fastest pilots. We each drove twice throughout the nine hours. I was about to take over for a third session to finish the day, but when 6-foot, 4-inch Brian Bohlander got out of the car, he inadvertently bent the seat adjuster, locking it in the full-back position. Some say I'm vertically challenged (at 5 feet, 7 inches), so my legs didn't reach the pedals. Unable to fix the seat quickly, we refuled the GT, got Bohlander strapped back into the car, and he double-stinted to get us home.

Due to the random starting order of this type of event (all cars are on track when the race starts, so the lap-one order is based on how you cross the start/finish line once the green flag drops), we started back in the pack and worked our way carefully up to 24th (out of 78 cars). More importantly, we had a strong-running Peak Mustang, and our only maintence was a brake and tire swap. Pleased with our position, we were ready to attack.

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Goin' Green: Day 2

Since the Mustang lasted 9 hours (which equated to 212 laps around the 2.1-mile track) we were confident that it could go another 5.5 hours. While every racer wants to win, our goal was to finish the event and maybe score a top 20 position. We saw a lot of teams experience random failures late on Saturday, so we didn't take anything lightly.

Wilson drove first on Sunday and kept it clean. I jumped in after an hour and followed suit. Then one by one, Bryan/TJ/Brian advanced our position place by place before Wilson climbed in for the final nail-biting hour. At one point we cracked the top 20, but another incident (not Wilson's fault) with only a handful of laps to go caused us to pit, and more importantly, it cost us valuable time. Despite getting back on track quickly, we slipped to 21st, where Wilson brought the Peak Mustang home, only one lap behind the next competitor. We completed 349 laps, ran a total of 733 miles, and our final finishing position was P21.

I'm incredibly proud to have been a part of this team. I believe we all felt the same sense of accomplishment, as we ran true for the entire event. We ended the 14.5-hour adventure with a strong Ford Mustang, full stomachs, and the satisfaction of completing the mission. I made new friends, ate like a king, and spent a few hours road-racing a Mustang—what could be better?

For more photos and info on 24 Hours of LeMons racing, check onlite at musclemustangfastfords.com and www.24hoursoflemons.com.

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