Originally published in the Winter 2014 quattro quarterly
In my last column I recounted how the adage “Old age and treachery will defeat youth and exuberance” was creeping into my daughter Alex and my favorite past time, often labeled as an obsession: performance driving. This fall the opportunity presented itself to once again explore the applicability of these famous words on a racetrack.
The driving enthusiasts’ community is a tightly knit fraternity (and sorority) where the common passion for motorsports unites its members through a network ready to provide advice, support, spare parts, and often a seat on a race team. Alex’s network of fellow motoring addicts flagged that a team of two Peugeot 405 Mi 16 called the Punisher GP needed a driver for the 24 hours of LeMons at New Hampshire Motor Speedway the weekend before Halloween. Asking her if she was interested had the same response when we asked her brother Giovanni Jr if he wanted a steak dinner after completing 60 days of hell and starvation known as Army Ranger school: YES!
Another Punisher GP team member ran into a scheduling conflict giving me the perfect opportunity to get that last fix of track time before snow tires season started. The 405 Mi 16 always had a soft spot in my heart from the time I encountered one on a back road in Connecticut during a spirited drive in my 1985 4000 quattro on an early weekend morning. We enjoyed playing lead and follow through the winding roads, not racing but savoring two nimble automobiles from neighboring European countries.
The 24 hours of LeMons is a two day endurance race with teams of four drivers per car. The race is run during daylight with the nighttime allowed, and often essential, to fix the wounds on the war chariots—essential because the vehicles can’t have a value of more than $500. The value formula permits significant creativity like peddling non essential parts and deducting the sell price from the amount paid for the automobile, and safety equipment including full roll cage, race seat, harness, (brakes fall outside the limit) but keeping these clunkers in running shape is as much of a challenge as running fast laps.
Cars need a theme to register in the race, making for very interesting designs and additions that included a vehicle with a witch on a broomstick secured to the roof in full Halloween spirit and another with a large rat tail tied to the rear bumper. An additional component contributing to the fun factor is that, in order to race in the 24 hours of LeMons, you don’t need a racing license from an accredited organization such as SCCA or Skip Barber: you buy one from the LeMons organization. Which makes the field of drivers very diverse not only in vehicles but in skill, experience…and lack thereof.
The theme of the Punisher GP team was the Paris-Dakar rally—cars were adorned with the appropriate symbols and colors. The team captains, Paul and Mark Llanos had set up a strategy where three racers would drive on each day to minimize pit times. The other team members would be the pit crew helping with drivers’ changes and refueling the cars. Alex and I shared pit crew duty on day one; all was good with only minimal mechanical repairs and pit action on par with the best Le Mans teams…or almost so.
Paul and Mark figured that putting Alex and I on the track at the same time would add more spice to an already hot event. We were scheduled for the first three hour stint on the second day giving us the chance to put those starts’ tricks learned from Skip Barber’s legend Bruce MacInnes into action.
Linda, my wife, came up Saturday evening to see us in battle on Sunday morning. Over dinner she recounted her answer to a question asked during a recent physical exam regarding potential stress-inducing events. “None, besides my Army Ranger son rappelling out of helicopters, training to lead his platoon into combat, and my husband and daughter racing cars, none whatsoever…”
Leaving the hotel in pre-dawn darkness, Alex and I shared notes on the fast lines perfected over the many years of driving this New Hampshire racing landmark. Paul and Mark had spent the prior evening checking and tuning the Mi 16s to get them ready for another day of battling. Strapping into the seat gave us that comfortable feeling of getting into the Zone, with Steve McQueen’s famous words in Le Mans coming to mind: “Racing is life... everything before and after is just waiting”. It didn’t matter that the car was not McQueen’s famed Porsche 917 AKA the “widow-maker” but a Peugeot Mi 16. The Zone was there and real!
After the first day, the top field included a Volvo 240 wagon with a Ford 302 engine and an Alfa Romeo Milano that had undergone a last minute drive shaft replacement on Friday night after the practice session. They and the other faster teams were let on the track for the warm up laps first, followed by the rest of the clunkers re-pieced together during the night hours.
Years of performance driving and of imparting classroom and in-car lessons made the process mechanical: use the warm up laps under yellow to understand the car’s personality, caress the wheel to identify the best steering touch, appreciate its character in different parts of the track, gently warm up the brakes and tires, become one with the machine through full body contact with the seat, and evaluate your surroundings.
When the green flag came out, the fun and mayhem started. Within a few laps, just like in the HPDE schools, groups of drivers with similar skills congregated in running packs. And we quickly learned the cars to stay away from!
Safety is stressed at every aspect of the race, penalizing teams from infractions including unsafe refueling while the driver is in the car, passing under yellow, and contacts with other vehicles. Punishments included time in the pits with a reprimanding talk for first offenses to pumpkin carving and fetching food for the organizers for repeat offenders.
As for treachery versus youth, treachery got the edge. Only one of my three paint swaps, and the most gentle of all, was detected and penalized with a reprimand that I expedited through a verbal and visual “mea culpa” learned over the years of interacting with the legendary track master Uncle Bill at Watkins Glen. But Alex’s much lighter two taps and alleged passing under yellow were caught with the associated extended time in the penalty box. And for lap times—too close to call!