Endurance Racing With Cars That Belong in a Demolition Derby

Start with a $500 car. Cheaper is fine, but no higher. Then decorate it outrageously. Maybe with a giant rubber ducky, or a flying pig. Now put it on a racetrack with scores of other half-broken art-cars — and drive it fast as hell for 14 and a half hours.

That’s the formula for 24 Hours of Lemons, a grass-roots race-carnival held since 2006. What’s the grand prize for completing the most laps? A rusted trophy. Sometimes, you get a big bag of nickels.

Jay Lamm, the ringleader of this circus, hatched the idea during a weekly lunch with car buddies at a Chinese restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. Nearly 15 years later, Lemons is a multimillion-dollar franchise held in dozens of cities across the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

It’s a real race, but winning is mostly irrelevant. What is actually tested (and celebrated) is the ability of resourceful hobbyists — armed with only basic tools and their wits — to revive a worn-out vehicle for a weekend of low-rent, high-speed high jinks.

In arguably his most masterful act of provocation so far, a year ago Mr. Lamm changed the sacrosanct laws of Lemons. He put up $50,000 to create a prize for the first pure electric car to win any 24 Hours of Lemons race. To up the ante, electric cars are exempt from the $500 limit. (For all cars, that $500 mark does not include safety gear.)

Mr. Lamm said the electric vehicle prize would be paid exclusively in nickels, delivered to the winner’s driveway by a dump trunk.

Of the approximately 15,000 cars in Lemons races since 2006, only two have been electric. A converted half-century-old Datsun 1600, equipped with a 23-horsepower forklift powertrain, was quickly pulled from the race. It was too slow and a hazard for the rest of the field, which averages 55 to 60 miles an hour during a race.

A second team fielded a 1981 Plymouth Horizon TC3 wired to golf-cart batteries. Battery chargers previously used for Chinese crop-dusting drones were stationed in the team’s pit area. Errant electrical fields attracted an army of fire ants, which swarmed the lining of the driver’s race suit right before he put it on.

“Ants are biting the driver’s gonads, and he stays on the track anyway,” Mr. Lamm said. “That’s what I call dedication. Or a personality disorder. Or maybe both.”

What led Mr. Lamm to stage a battle between E.V.s and gas cars in the world’s least prestigious racing series? Nothing other than the very survival of his tribe of wrench-turning weekend racers.

Mr. Lamm sees the writing on the wall for internal combustion and believes that hands-on enthusiasts need to embrace the potential of motors, batteries and inverters as a new form of automotive self-reliance. “We’re currently on the path to being marginalized wackos with a crazy hobby,” he said.

Endurance car races are won not on pure speed but on stamina. “You can’t be off the track for more than 60 to 120 seconds, refueling or recharging as the case may be,” Mr. Lamm said. “You mathematically aren’t going to win.”

Today’s E.V. batteries go for 200 miles or more, about five times the distance needed for a typical American commute. But when accelerated to racing speeds followed by hard braking, again and again, those battery packs last perhaps a single hour. Gas cars can tank up in seconds and return to the track for another couple of hours. But recharging an E.V. commonly takes minutes or hours.

The only solution to winning Lemons in an E.V. is to engineer a battery-swapping apparatus and show up to race with a truckload of spare batteries. The approximate cost for the required set of five or so battery packs could easily exceed $100,000, twice the purse.

Besides, battery-swapping for electric cars is an unproven technology. Nio, a Chinese car company, is trying to build a battery-swap network in China. It’s doing so with a $1.4 billion investment from the municipal government of Hefei, the largest city in Anhui Province. Better Place, an Israeli start-up, raised roughly $800 million for battery-swapping infrastructure before going bankrupt in 2013. Tesla tried battery swaps but gave up. Could the low-budget Lemon racers succeed where giant companies failed?

It’s doubtful. Mr. Lamm announced the $50,000 Lemons E.V. prize a year ago. Since then, no one has tried to win in a pure electric vehicle. Maybe his mountain of nickels is safe.

Then again, there’s Michael Bream, a two-time Lemons winner with gas cars. In his first victory, in 2010, Mr. Bream’s 1989 BMW 3-Series ­beat 100 other cars at Buttonwillow Raceway in Bakersfield, where Southern California’s gutsiest speed-shop mechanics compete.

After a second Lemons victory, this time at Sonoma Raceway in 2011, he was ready for a higher challenge. “I don’t know where my brain got the idea, but it hit me,” he said. “Let’s try to do an electric Pikes Peak car.”

The annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, held since 1916, follows a steep, tortuous route with 156 turns — often through blinding weather — to a 14,115-foot summit. In 2012, Mr. Bream entered his 1995 BMW M5, with the original straight-six engine replaced by an electric motor granting 900 pound-feet of torque.

On his inaugural run, the electrified Bimmer stunned the high-octane Pikes Peak crowd when it completed the 12.4-mile ascent in less than 12 minutes. On that day, Mr. Bream beat Nobuhiro Tajima, the hill climb racer known as “Monster.”

“As soon as we crossed the line, it was confirmed,” Mr. Bream said. “We tapped into the great equalizer with this electric stuff. All of a sudden, it was Lemons on a world platform.”

Four years later, he gave up his day job, selling Gravity Skateboards, the company he founded and ran for 23 years. “I needed all my attention on the E.V. business,” he said.

That business, EV West, is a hideaway Wonka-like workshop on the edge of a nondescript industrial park in San Marcos, Calif., 35 miles up the coast from San Diego. It’s where iconic muscle cars and European classics go to become all-electric beasts. On any given day, the company’s sunbaked parking lot might hold a converted 1954 Volkswagen Beetle waiting for Ewan McGregor, Tony Hawk’s electrified 1964 Corvette, or a classic VW bus prepped for Zach Galifianakis.

When I spoke with Mr. Bream in July, his team was frantically moving between celebrity conversions, selling D.I.Y. electric components and building a ground-up, all-electric salt-flat racecar in the vintage 1940s belly-tank style. A month later, Mr. Bream took that vehicle, the Electraliner, to the Bonneville Speed Week 2020 and its famed salt-caked racing bed. It took eight runs, but his team left a grueling week in Utah with a land speed record of 229.363 m.p.h. for the class of electric vehicles weighing about 2,000 pounds.

Winning Lemons with an E.V. will be more difficult. It will require an ultra-durable endurance car and an apparatus capable of speedy battery swaps. Blueprints don’t exist.

There are other potential electric Lemons contenders. Jason Appelbaum is the founder and chief executive of EverCharge, a Bay Area company that installs E.V. charging equipment for multifamily dwellings and fleets.

“A pack swap is not easy. It’s a very serious engineering problem,” he said. His team is working on it. “We’re not close,” he acknowledged. Mr. Appelbaum is also a Lemons laureate, taking honors in 2018 with his gas-powered 1987 BMW 325 with “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” livery. (The answer painted on the car’s hood: 42, of course.)

And there’s Richard Hilleman, who ran the megahit John Madden Football franchise for four years starting in 1991. He worked on more than 100 video games, including racing titles, for almost 35 years at Electronic Arts before joining Amazon Game Studio in 2016. He also leads the seven-time champion Rattlesnake Electric Sports team, which has spent 20 years racing F.I.A. Category V electric karts that can hit speeds of 135 miles an hour.

Mr. Hilleman won a Lemons event in 2017 in a 10-year-old Prius hybrid. “There is no enjoyment in life greater than passing a Mustang on the outside of the carousel at Sears Point in a Prius,” he said.

Mr. Hilleman, who converted a Porsche 550 Spyder in the mid-1990s, warns teams against building homegrown, high-voltage battery packs. Rules for the Lemons E.V. prize, which he helped set, are “safety measures that can be quickly understood and reliably implemented when lives are literally at stake.” To repeat: A mishandled Lemons electric challenger could kill somebody.

Mr. Bream, the front-runner, hints at a run in fall 2021. “We are on a mission,” he said, launching into a passionate monologue about zero-emission motor sports.

But first he’ll have to go up against a field of fiercely competitive and highly skilled amateur racers. Their $500 cars might look ready for the junkyard, but that belies the meaning their mechanic drivers place in those vehicles and in internal combustion as a way of life.

“I think it’s underestimated how gnarly that Lemons scene is,” Mr. Bream said. “If somebody wins that race in an electric car, it will change a lot of people.”

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