Laps of Honor
Racing a pair of Mustangs in the 24 Hours of LeMons for a good cause
It all started at Mustang Week 2018. I was walking through the indoor portion of the show, inside the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, and I came across two gorgeous Mustangs from Innovation Performance Technologies (the same cars gracing this month’s cover). I got to talking to the company’s head guy, Jon Marshall, about the cars and getting them photographed for the magazine, and the conversation quickly turned to the Mustang parked outside and what he was planning to do with it.
The “Rustang” is a heavily patina’d ’67 hardtop that looks like hell, but with a full-tilt race car chassis, ’cage, and engine, it runs like it looks. Meaning, as Carroll Shelby liked to say, it runs like hell. It turns out Jon and his guys had raced the car many times in the 24 Hours of LeMons and ChumpCar events, which focus more on fun than outright competition, as teams usually dress up the cars and themselves in progressively ludicrous “outfits” with the goals of just finishing and having a good time. As a veteran of several of these hilarious road races, I knew what he was talking about, and when the phrase “we have an open seat” escaped his mouth, I all but tackled him to make sure Mustang Monthly occupied that seat. They were also taking a 2.3L EcoBoost-swapped Fox-body as a second team car.
But it wasn’t just about having fun in someone else’s race cars. Marshall is currently in a top secret position in the military and his buddies are almost exclusively veterans, with a few still active and all associated with veterans charities. The ultimate goal was to raise money for the US Veterans Corps, which builds homes for wounded vets and their families.
Fast-forward a few months, and the team gathered at Road Atlanta on, appropriately enough, December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day). Joining us, thanks to Editor Kinnan and contributor Richard Truesdell, was Emily Compagno of Fox News, who brought along a Fox News crew to film our race for a segment on Fox & Friends (which aired in late December 2018—see the clip with this story on mustang-360.com). It was pouring rain and in the high-30s all weekend, so the conditions were miserable, but the company was awesome.
The drivers were Jon Marshall, Mike Ellis, Eric Stebner, Anthony Von Canon (who was the latest recipient of a new home after enduring several life-threatening injuries that earned him a few Purple Hearts in Afghanistan), Emily Compagno, and yours truly. While the initial plan was to race both cars, when the weather turned especially nasty on Saturday morning (Friday was practice, Saturday and Sunday was the race), the decision was made to park the faster Fox-body in favor of concentrating on the Rustang. Again, the goals for the weekend were to have fun and to earn donations for each lap completed for the US Veterans Corps. We succeeded on both counts.
Road Atlanta, if you’ve never been, is perhaps the most dangerous road course in the country, with blind curves and a blind hill crested at serious speed. When you throw rain and patches of ice into the mix, it can be positively deadly. Thankfully, the Rustang had working windshield wipers and a sort-of-working defroster, and the team brought some rain tires with plenty of tread left, so while the track was still treacherous, it became a lot of fun once the nerves settled after a few practice laps. Especially when you’re banging around with all levels of crap-cans decorated like sharks. Or a Minion. Or…it’s hard to describe some of them. And there were a few drivers there with the goal of winning, meaning they drove like they were in the Indy 500. Meaning they drove like jerks.
The rules are pretty strict about contact among race cars, but you know how it goes—it happens! The “penalty box” is a tent where, when they call you in for some supposed infraction, they fine the team with any form of humiliating personal trauma like standing in the pits yelling at people for speeding while holding a sign that mocks the driver and team. Or wearing a very unflattering LeMons-dictated costume and dancing through the pits to some wretched song from the 1970s. Or a Bieber tune. Or they just park the car for an hour to make you think about what bad thing you did.
When the cars left the pits Saturday morning and the race started, all hell broke loose as the inexperienced drivers ended up in the grass and mud. Team Rustang, with Marshall leading off, just hung back and waited for the field to thin before stepping it up. As more and more cars went off track, some crashing hard enough that they were done for the day, everyone backed off enough to conserve their cars (it was a two-day race after all) and the field settled into its groove. Except for the wannabe Mario Andrettis in the mix—they still drove like jerks. One guy, with a shark fin welded to the roof of his junk Mercedes, earned everyone’s ire. We knew Emily was one of us when over the radio she yelled, “Who’s the a#@hole in the shark fin car? I’m going to kick his a@#!” Jon looked at us and said, “We just gave crack to a drug addict,” meaning she was officially addicted to road racing and a member of the team.
By the end of Saturday, with an ice storm on its way, the team made the decision to call it and load up for the icy trip back to IPT’s base in North Carolina, which was under a full storm warning with ice and threatened road closures. Many teams made the same choice, so we didn’t compete on Sunday. But again, the goal was not to win. It was all about fun and charity, and on that front everyone was successful. We introduced newbies Emily, Anthony, and Eric to road racing, and they are hooked. Because we didn’t technically “finish” the race, we’re reassembling the team to compete at the ChumpCar race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the weekend after the 55th Anniversary of the Mustang celebration, on April 19-21, 2019, and possibly the one at Daytona the weekend before the 55th.
Come cheer us on if you’re hanging around after the 55th, and try not to make too much fun of us when we end up in the penalty box. This time, we’re there to have fun again, but from the front of the pack!
About the Cars
As you can read about in this month’s cover story, Innovation Performance Technologies is manufacturing brand-new, turnkey Mustangs under the new Replica Manufacturers law that they worked with SEMA to pass. The Rustang is essentially one of their S models, with Maier Racing bolt-on chassis parts, including a Panhard bar. For racing, the team upgraded the front brakes a little bit and installed the necessary safety equipment like a full rollcage, Recaro racing seat, onboard automatic fire system, and more to keep the driver safe. The engine is a 347ci small-block with Dart heads, 10:1 compression, and a decent-size roller cam that makes around 400 hp at the crank. The torque curve is nice and flat, which is what you want in an endurance road racing engine. The transmission is an awesome Tex Racing T101 four-speed that allows clutchless shifting—Marshall told us to “break the shifter off when you’re driving it.” Try as I might, I couldn’t break it!
The 1986 Fox-chassis car has won 46 NASA American Iron races over the course of its life, so it is well sorted out, but after SEMA, the team decided to yank the V-8 and replace it with a new 2.3L EcoBoost turbo-four. With some help from Petty’s Garage, they had the car built in a mere 18 days thanks to the tireless effort of IPT’s Crimson Sanders and Rod Sthlosser. Putting 400 hp to the wheels, the Fox is quite a bit faster on track than the Rustang. Too bad we couldn’t race it this weekend. Next time!
What is the 24 Hours of LeMons?
Racing of any kind is expensive, no matter if you’re talking about go-karts or IndyCars. It’s a fact that racing breeds intense competition, and that creates people that will spend a fortune to beat the other guy for a $5 trophy. The 24 Hours of LeMons and similar events like ChumpCar were invented to help combat this phenomenon, and bring with them a comedic aspect that is out of this world. Here is the LeMons mantra as outlined from their website:
What is the 24 Hours of LeMons?
An endurance road racing series for cars that cost $500 or less.
What’s a $500 car?
It’s a car bought and track-prepped for $500 or less (not including safety equipment, brakes, and wheels/tires).
Do $500 cars really exist?
Absolutely. See a $1,000 car on Craigslist? Bring $400 cash and a 12er of Old Milwaukee. Nine times out of 10, you’ll be driving it home.
What cars are eligible?
Pretty much any four-wheeled machine that was street-legal when made and passes our safety inspection today. Smog, insurance, or title aren’t required.
What if I spend more than $500?
If our judges decide you spent over the $500 limit, they can assign negative laps to your standings. Your cheaty-ass Spec Miata will still start the race when the green drops—it just may be working Lap -629.
What kind of special equipment is required?
Cars need a legal six-point or better cage, a race seat, race belts, an onboard fire suppression system, a kill switch, and either a 100 percent stock fuel system or pro-quality fuel cell. Drivers need a legal helmet, head-and-neck restraint, and fire-resistant suit/gloves/shoes. See the Rules to get the particulars.
Mustang Monthly’s conclusion
By the time you add all the safety equipment, not counting the driver’s stuff, you’re going to have at least $2,000 in the car unless you do everything yourself. So it’s not super-cheap, but it’s about as cheap as you can get for a 24-hour endurance road race car. Plus factor in the hilarity factor and it’s cheap fun.
Helping Out Veterans
The main goal of this event was to raise money for the United States Veterans Corps. In their words: “We are a corps of military and first responder veterans performing hands-on community service with a mission deployment attitude. Our mission: to participate in community service projects and events in the military and civilian community.” Please check out their website (myusvc.com) and contribute what you can. Editor Kinnan was racing in honor of deployed Police that were lost in combat operations.
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Photography by MaryBeth Kiczenski