Randolph Meyers has his weekend mapped out. He’s going to spend it driving around — and around and around and, he hopes, around even more — Brainerd International Raceway in a 20-year-old Mazda 626 that has been painted lime green and outfitted to resemble a spaceship in the animated TV series “Futurama.”
Along with his wife, Erin, and longtime friends Jason Kieger and Brian Jones, he’ll be competing in the 24 Hours of LeMons, a lighthearted take on the legendary endurance race 24 Hours of Le Mans — except using cars that could be politely called “lemons.”
“They’re beaters,” Erin said more bluntly.
“This is a very MacGyver-y kind of thing,” she added, referring to the title character of the 1985-92 TV show who concocted elaborate devices out of everyday objects. “We’re talking about transmissions that have been fixed with gum and tape.”
The event is as serious as it can get when it comes to safety — the cars have to be outfitted with safety gear that meets NASCAR standards — but is overtly silly in every other aspect. Not only are the entrants encouraged to decorate their cars in an outlandish fashion, but they also don costumes that fit the car’s theme.
There’s a $500 limit for the value of the car. (That doesn’t include the safety gear, which costs several times more than the vehicle. Nor does it include decorating.) Randolph found the Mazda with about 220,000 miles on Craigslist and was able to talk the seller down to $300 and a couple cases of beer. The beer is important; the $500 limit also includes any adaptations done to make the car run better, but by the rules, money spent on beer doesn’t count. That left them $200 in the budget.
“If this were a real race car, we’d replace the shock absorbers and suspension system,” Randolph said. “But we obviously couldn’t afford that. I thought about cutting down the springs, but that might have screwed up something else that we didn’t have the money to fix.”
He isn’t sure how long the car had been sitting, but the license plates had expired.
“It ran,” he said, still sounding a bit surprised. “I had to jump it, but it ran.” Stopping was another matter — it wouldn’t, but that didn’t bother him. “I’ve done a lot of brake jobs over the years,” he said.
The engine “is not horrible,” he said. No test runs are allowed, so they won’t know for sure what the car is capable of until the green flag starting the race is waved at 10 a.m. Saturday, but after tinkering with the Mazda, he thinks it could hit 100 miles per hour.
Just not for long.
“If we redline it [push it hard], it won’t go for 24 hours,” he said. “Actually, I don’t think it would go for 24 minutes.”
The race is won by the car that completes the most laps. Thus, the goal is to find the sweet spot where the car runs as fast as it can without disintegrating around the driver.
“I don’t think we’re going to win unless every other car breaks down,” he said. “But we’re just out to enjoy it.
“We don’t take any of this too seriously.”
A team effort
The four team members have been friends since they met at White Bear Lake High School.
Randolph is the team captain, partly because entering the race was his idea, and partly because he was willing to turn the garage behind his St. Paul home over to the project. Both he and Kieger, inveterate backyard mechanics since they were teens, have dealt with reclamation projects before.
“The first car I bought when I was 16 didn’t run,” Randolph said.
The two of them will be sharing the driving with Erin, who knows nothing about mechanical matters but is looking forward to getting out on the track.
“We’re having our midlife crisis early,” the 35-year-old emergency room doctor, who practices as Dr. Erin Dancour, said with a laugh. “We have all known each other for about 20 years, since we were high-schoolers. We are now middle-aged parents with responsible jobs and lives, so we decided that we needed to start automotive racing immediately.”
Jones, another non-mechanic who specializes in “here, hold this” contributions to the project, will act as the support person in the pits. If something breaks, it will be his duty to round up whatever is necessary to repair it.
“The first thing we’re going to do when we get there is find a junkyard,” Randolph said.
He learned about the races, a number of which are held throughout the country, via the gear-head network and went to Joliet, Ill., outside Chicago, to watch one last year. As soon as he got home, he started trying to talk his friends into returning there as contestants.
“Then I heard that they were holding one in Brainerd this year, and I knew we had to do it,” he said.
There will be other Minnesotans taking part in the race, but in scrolling through the lists posted online — drivers and support crews have to register and attend safety briefings — he thinks theirs is the only all-Minnesotan team.
“We have to do Minnesota proud,” Erin said.
Beyond the safety requirements — which go on for pages — the race’s rules exude snark. For instance: “Whiners are not eligible to compete. If you believe that you might be a whiner, please check with a domestic partner, guardian or health care professional before getting the rest of your team kicked out of the race.”
The entries are divided into classes: one for vehicles that have a chance of winning, a second for cars that have a shot at finishing and a third for those that don’t have a prayer of making it to the end. The class assignment are made by the race organizers during the safety inspections. (If you don’t like their decision, see the rule about whining.) Randolph thinks his team’s car will end up in the middle class.
“I’d rather be in the lowest one because then I think we would have a chance to win,” he said. “But I think the judges will realize that this car has a pretty solid reputation.”
There are also a number of other prizes. One that he would just as soon avoid goes to the most heroic repair.
“At Joliet last year, a car blew its engine, and they managed to replace it,” he said. “It took them all night, but they got it back on the track. Another car’s wheel came off — not just the tire, the entire wheel.”
Randolph not only expects the car to make it through the entire race, he’s counting on it. The pickup truck that’s his everyday vehicle has gone on the fritz, but he’s been so busy scrambling to get the race car ready he hasn’t had time to fix it. “So I’m going to have to drive this [race car] to work Monday morning,” he said.
Because they couldn’t afford to make any major alternations to the car — not counting making it resemble a spaceship — it’s still street legal. In fact, Erin said, it exceeds what’s required by the law.
“You need to have a seat belt,” she pointed out. “Well, we have a NASCAR-approved five-point restraint system.”
Nonetheless, Randolph plans to leave a little early that morning to allow for any possible delays.
“I’ll probably get pulled over, not because I’ve done anything wrong but because of the car,” he said. “A policeman is going to see this and say, ‘What on earth?’ ”