Project: Baptism by Fire

As a car guy I bought my first car when I was 16, a barely running Mitsubishi Galant VR-4, overpriced and with tons of potential. It turned out that this potential would lead nowhere so I ended up selling the car to a friend for a big loss. The ordeal wasn’t a complete loss though as I learned that I did actually enjoy working on cars- that car required a lot of work- and that I was way more interested in driving and racing than I was in being a mechanic. I then set out to find a more practical project so I bought my second Galant. I still own it but it’s not finished, and I came to a second revelation during the build: I don’t want to go fast on the street. It’s just too scary. Police, other drivers, deer, there are just too many reasons to avoid it. So what’s the solution to this? A track car. But again a problem arose: I’m a college student and college students have no money. I spoke to my brother who is also an avid gear head and CarRacer, the guy who races the the JDMVette and we came up with the 24 Hours of LeMons series as a solution. Considering that my problem was that I couldn’t afford a real track car, what could be more perfect than a race where I’m not allowed to spend more than $500 on a car? The rules require a four person team so my brother and I agreed to team-up with a few of our friends. Once we committed to actually doing these races our first decision had to be what car we should get, so I talked to CarRacer since he had some experience. He recommended that we get something light with a small engine to save on gas that we know will be reliable. He recommended a few options like the Dodge Neon or even BMW’s even though they aren’t well liked by the competition because they are so good. So we bought a Mercury Grand Marquis. The car is big and heavy, and has a 4.6L V8. It will be bad on gas, it will go through brakes and tires quickly, it won’t handle well and it won’t be that fast. But we don’t care. At this point, we are all car guys who have never raced against other cars let alone on real race tracks. Our goals are not to win or even do particularly well but they are to get a taste for racing and have fun doing it.

The car: my brother works at a metal fabrication shop as a design engineer, and one of the other engineers there was telling my brother about an accident he had just been in in his 1995 Grand Marquis. My brother was familiar with the car and asked him what he was going to do with it, and when he said he was going to scrap it my brother instead picked it up for the $400 his coworker would have gotten from the scrap yard. With an obvious abundance of parts for these cars and the good condition that it’s already in, this is an easy starting point that won’t require extensive prep aside from safety.


The drivers front headlight is gone, and the doors don’t open properly. The worst part of the damage is that it seems to have caused a leak from somewhere in the cooling system, and the repairs for that will have to come out of our remaining $100.

Here is the reason we got the car. The strong running V8 will be one less thing that we don’t have to worry about preparing heavily.

The interior is actually in beautiful shape, and since we have to strip it anyway hopefully the sale of it will help us increase our budget for modifications.

Being a fan of lists, here is what we have to do to prep the car:

  1. Strip the interior
  2. Remove glass
  3. Install the roll cage
  4. Install the seat
  5. Install the harness
  6. Wire the car (especially the interior and kill switch)
  7. Fix the coolant leak
  8. Replace brakes
  9. Replace tires
  10. Acquire parts (brakes, tires etc)
  11. Paint for our theme

We have picked a theme that I don’t want to reveal until we are completely prepared to race. What I will reveal is that it will not involve any sort of police reference, as this has been by every other Ford Panther platform team in the world. I also won’t put anything on it that makes the car “bigger.” For some reason it just bothers me

when people attach things to the exterior of their car even though that’s sort of the spirit of this race. With whatever money we have left we hope to install a manual transmission from a Mustang because it will be more fun to drive, but this won’t be realistic. With that kind of money though, what will be realistic is police package suspension from a Crown Victoria, which is not particularly expensive. The cage won’t be a big deal because as I mentioned, my brother works at a fabrication shop where he will be able to get tubing at cost and works with professional welders who have race car building experience. My father has a degree in electrical engineering so he will be able to help with the wiring. Our real problem now is not having a space to work on the car. It’s located in Buffalo so working on it in the near future is out of the question. If we had some place to work on it, we would likely have it ready by early May, but our goal for now is the June 16th race at Summit Point Raceway. I have a very optimistic goal of 3 days of all-day labor to make it so we only have minor “fine tuning” to do. CarRacer says we can do it and enter the race, but we won’t finish the whole thing. I’m sure he’s right, but I’m also sure we will end up not slapping it together at the last minute. Updates on the project coming as soon as they happen!

Ghetto Racing Body Kit

We made quite the addition to our Chevette endurance racer this week. I’m not sure you could call what we did an improvement, in fact I think most people would say that it’s probably not anything close to an improvement. We made our own body kit for the car.

Now since this is endurance racing with a $500 budget limit and the car is also a Chevette, we couldn’t just order a body kit made for our car. That meant getting creative. Getting creative in this type of situation usually means finding a part that has dimensions in the neighborhood of what you’re looking for and then cutting, hammering, melting, and mangling it to suit your needs. This body kit was no different. Our starting point was going to be the rear bumper left over from an old circle track car body. Why the rear bumper? That was the only part that wasn’t completely destroyed from the body and it also happened to be the part we got for free from the race team before they threw it in the dumpster.

Now that we had plans to give this rear bumper new life as a front air dam, some modifications were in order. These bumpers are actually two pieces of urethane that are riveted together, so our first step was to drill out those rivets. Once that was done, we used a jigsaw to cut the bumper in half lengthwise. After that, we flipped it upside down to get the ideal shape for test fitting on the car.

Once we were satisfied that it mostly fit, we riveted it on. We also snagged a few side skirts that the circle track team was tossing out and slapped those on the side while we were at it. In true ghetto body kit fashion, we left everything unpainted.

We figure this whole ensemble is good for at least 20 ponies to the wheels, thus almost doubling the power of the 1.6 liters of fury this car is packing. If we’re feeling brave we may slap some stickers on there to add a bit more top end power.

$500 Racecar Roll Cage Construction

Our intrepid race team completed one of the major requirements for building a $500 racecar this weekend, construction of the roll cage. It wasn’t an easy task but having the proper tools, reading the rules eleventy times, and making sure to measure at least once made the job a whole lot smoother.

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Poor Man’s Car Rotisserie

I needed to finalize the preparation for the roll cage installation but was having trouble welding the bottom of the subframe connectors on the drive on lift. The lift was making it tough to get the welder positioned correctly under the car to run a bead. I fought it for quite a while to no avail. After quitting for the night, inspiration hit. I had remember seeing the build log for a car on the 24 Hours of LeMons forum. The builder was most likely constructing some mishmash of cast off automotive parts and was using a tube frame to keep the big parts from falling off. He must have encountered the same issue so he ended up using a chain hoist to lift the entire frame off the ground to finalize the welding on the car. It looked like a great solution to a problem we had in common. He had one luxury I did not though, high ceilings. I never thought architecture would factor into the building process of our car. Luckily, I only needed to weld a small portion so I only need a small solution.

I ended up bolting a chain to the drilled and welded bumper mounts and lifted the car with an engine hoist. The car was surprisingly light without the drive train and was rather easy to get high enough to create adequate working space. Accomplishing the required welding was far easier and the picture alone was worth a small chuckle. The next step is this build will be to start installing the roll cage structure.

Best worst idea

Endurance racing crappy cars naturally produces failure at an astonishing rate, so much concern for contingency plans is required.

The thesis for our Chevette racer has been pretty simple, light weight, good handling and simplicity. Power output has been an afterthought as high horsepower engines are actually detrimental and stress the drivetrain and produce a lot of heat that must be dealt with to ensure endurance reliability. Our stock 1.6 liter motor has two digit horsepower output so we are basically immune from any of those concerns. This doesn’t eliminate all our concerns about failure though, failure to pass anyone becomes a valid concern. Passing cars is obviously extremely rewarding and a major source of fun in racing. All of this concern has lead to the best worst idea for our team and the Chevette car.

Make the jump to find out the solution to all of our problems.

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Curing cancer Lemons style

Endurance racing with very cheap cars has a tragic pandemic that has affected every mechanic and driver, cancer. This is cancer of the chassis, more commonly known as rust. It is the bane of every person who spins wrenches on one of these crappy race cars. It makes almost every facet of working on these cars a huge pain in the ass. Broken bolts, rounded nuts, seized parts, and keeping your tetanus shot up to date are just a few examples of such frustrations.

Luckily for cars, there is a cure for this blight. A sawzall, some new metal, and a welder make a potent combination for dealing with this issue. Here’s how I cured a portion of the floor on our Chevette racer. As shown in the fuel cell installation, I basically suck at metal working and don’t have anything beyond basic hand tools for metal work, so I made the repair panel as simple as possible. I didn’t want complicated bends (read: any) so I cut out enough of the floor to allow me to use a flat piece of metal to create the patch.

After that, I used an air powered tin snip to roughly shape the 18 gauge sheet metal to fit the newly created hole.

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