Disclaimer: Eric Rood was paid to sit on the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court for this race, punishing drivers for their misdeeds and generally doing his best to maintain order on the racetrack.
This past weekend at Road America saw the closest finish in 24 Hours of LeMons history with Mark’s Harder LemonAid taking the win in their BMW E30 a scant 2.6 seconds ahead of the second-place Landshark Acura Integra. The previous holder of closest finish came from one of the super-early Altamont Speedway races, where Black Iron Racing won by just 7.4 seconds from Circus Maximus. It’s a remarkable feat for a 14-1/2 hour race, but the insanity was not relegated to top two teams; the top four finishers were separated by 61 seconds total, a previously unheard-of closeness.
While posting live coverage Sunday here on Hooniverse, I was doing my best to make heads and tails of the four teams’ (LemonAid, Landshark, Back to the Past’s Nissan 300ZX, and Team Fiery Death!’s Toyota Celica) strategies to figure out where they’d end up on the final lap. My back-of-the-envelope math was sketchy at best and assumed a lot of things, some of which I was wrong about and some of which I was only partially wrong about. Follow the jump for an analytical look at the closest LeMons race of all time.
To make sense of the finish, you really must see how each of the cars got to be in contention at the end of the race. Below is a handy chart laying out each car’s pace and stint length from each day. What it doesn’t show is the pit times and in/out laps, but for the most part, driver change times (including an out lap) were between 7:00 and 8:00 with most competitive crapcans teams having a plan and solid execution on stops. Here’s the chart.
|LemonAid (Avg. Speed)
|Landshark (Avg. Speed)
|Back to the Past (Avg. Speed)
|Team Fiery Death (Avg. Speed)
|LemonAid Length (Laps)
|Landshark Length (Laps)
|Back to the Past Length (Laps)
|Team Fiery Death! Length (Laps)
One of my favorite aspects of LeMons, in contrast with other racing series, is that LeMons places no restrictions on stints. There are no driver maximum times and no minimum times for fuel changes, allowing teams to run as long as they’re able and to maintain their own balance between speed and efficiency. So you’ll notice a lot of variety in stint lengths and pace.
Saturday found LemonAid not expecting to compete with the Midwest Region’s usual suspects, so they made sure each driver got a stint and had some fun. Unconcerned with fuel mileage because of the shorter stints, their E30 clocked the fastest average speeds of the final four on Day One, but the two additional driver changes and an early black flag for contact ultimately cost them two laps. They managed to hold together, though, while many of the expected frontrunners broke and they climbed the standings to P4 by Saturday’s checkered flag. Some simple number crunching told the team a two-lap deficit could be overcome by pushing and stretching stints out to give just three driver changes Sunday.
Interestingly, Team Fiery Death! led at the end of Saturday. You’ll notice their average stint length equaled that of Back to the Past, yet their average speed was much higher. If you look through the final timing sheet, you’ll also notice that their Celica had the slowest best lap of the four, which shows how consistently hard the team pushed all weekend. Handcuffed by a relatively small fuel tank, Fiery Death! nonetheless held on to the lead at day’s end over. On Saturday night, it looked like they would duke it out with Back to the Past all day Sunday. A black flag in the middle of the day cost them some time as well, but it likely would not have given them a full lap’s lead at day’s end and so was largely a non-factor.
Back to the Past had meanwhile run a clean race Saturday while logging relatively slow-but-consistent lap times. Their first two stints clocked in at 41 laps each, significantly longer than Fiery Death!, with whom they’d been running very closely all day. The Houston-based 300ZX team ran two short stints to close out the day, making sure they didn’t run out of gas, which would have ended their chances of winning. Their conservative strategy worked out well and left them in second place at the end of the day.
But the real surprise from the day came from Landshark, whose team ran an incredible 57 laps before their first driver change, which tabulates out to well over three hours. A small-displacement engine, a huge fuel cell, and some very experienced club racers on this team combined to give them the chance to run the long race. The car didn’t seem too capable of running quick laps with its drivers handcuffed by making mileage runs and one fewer driver change ultimately saved them probably a full lap. As we’ll see shortly, it was all part of the team’s plan as they would start P3 on the Sunday’s grid.
Sunday brought more tight racing with each team trying to hang around and have a car at the end. Unsurprisingly, each car by far ran its fastest stint at the end of the race, but that very nearly cost LemonAid a win. We’ll look at those closing laps a little closer, but let’s see how each team got there Sunday.
Starting P1 on the grid with Back to the Past and Landshark immediately behind, Team Fiery Death! gave up the lead to Back to the Past on the opening lap. They instead focused on running their own race until, about 35 minutes into the race session, a Plymouth Sundance Duster oiled down the track from Turn 11 all the way to the paddock. Circulating under caution allowed the frontrunners to stretch their opening stints a little longer. Unfortunately, Team Fiery Death’s opening driver missed the double yellow flags at the caution period’s start and came in for a quick passing under yellow penalty. The Celica would push even harder Sunday, but the resulting losses in fuel mileage led to them making one costly additional fuel stop.
Back to the Past’s first-lap pass and their ensuing lead looked strong Sunday morning, although Fiery Death! appeared in the rearview shortly after the full-course caution lifted and racing resumed. The 300ZX pitted from the lead at the end of the first stint and returned to it after Landshark cycled in for their first driver change 11 laps later. Almost immediately thereafter, the Nissan collected a spinning car. While the other driver claimed fault, Back to the Past still lost a few minutes making sure the damage was only cosmetic. However, they took advantage of being in the paddock by topping off the fuel tank, a wise move and a good lesson to black-flagged teams competing for the win. That additional fuel stretched the stint to 51 laps, which came incredibly close to giving them enough wiggle room to reach the end on one more stop. Had the contact come 15-20 minutes later, the race result may have been very different.
Landshark followed the same tact as the previous day with two planned stops. However, they adjusted their strategy so that instead of two long stints and a short one, they would run three even-length stints. The first two stints passed uneventfully and the Integra was quietly within striking distance after its second driver change. With a full tank, the anchor driver started his final stint saving fuel mileage, just as the team’s two previous drivers had done. We’ll see how this plays out below, but it’s also worth noting that Landshark, at one time Penalty Box recidivists, were the only of the top four without a black flag all weekend.
Finally, LemonAid’s performance deserves tremendous praise. Not only did their first three drivers pedal very fast stints, they also got good enough mileage to run a three-stop strategy and pit with about 100 minutes of racing remaining. It’s easy to point to little things in a race so tight as having a lot of influence, but it’s hard to envision this race playing out quite the same way if the early full-course caution hadn’t allowed LemonAid to stretch their 16-gallon fuel tank an extra lap. That considered, the E30 team did what all good race teams do: They take advantage of and adapt to the circumstances presented to them.
When the race’s came, all four teams found themselves hanging around. Team Fiery Death! was hampered a big by limited fuel capacity and they simply did not have the speed reserve that the other teams seem to have found. When LemonAid made their final driver change with about 1 hour and 50 minutes remaining, all three of their competitors had stopped fairly recently. Landshark had pitted first of the four and was most likely to get to the end of the race on fuel. Team Fiery Death! would have to stop one more time and Back to the Past was going to be very close.
And that’s another reason to love LeMons race: no driver time maximum, no race engineers with sophisticated telemetry, and generally no historical knowledge of other teams’ performance aside from what a team observes in a given weekend. Back to the Past, Team LemonAid had figured, was possibly good to the end on fuel so they’d need to run down the 300ZX down and pass it to win. They turned their anchor driver loose and he repeatedly knocked a second, then another second and another, off the car’s fastest lap of the weekend.
Meanwhile, Back to the Past knew they’d be marginal on fuel and couldn’t quite push as hard as they’d like, so the 300ZX’s stint was basically driven in the hope that they could hold on to the end without a stop and that the LemonAid E30 would run out of gas pushing hard to catch them. Way back in fourth place to start this stint, Landshark hardly seemed a factor, running slow laps in their own little world.
Here’s how the tightly twisted knot of the race’s final 32 laps unwound:
|Back to the Past
|Team Fiery Death!
Or, if you prefer, here’s how the lap times look graphically:
Knowing they couldn’t make it more than two hours on a tank, Team Fiery Death! cut their penultimate stint short to throw in a few gallons of fuel, hoping the insanity of the three cars now in front of them would give them a lucky break, but luck was not theirs for the taking.
LemonAid’s driver pushed extremely hard to shave 10 seconds a lap off Back to the Past’s lead until Lap 236, when the E30 blew by Back to the Past, but the lead didn’t extend. Rather, the E30 hung a few seconds ahead of the 300ZX with its lap times creeping upwards. LemonAid’s fuel light had started to flicker with more than 30 minutes remaining so the driver had to tug the reins and save fuel. Hope sprang eternal for the Z fans that perhaps it would outlast LemonAid’s E30 on fuel, but it was not to be. Back to the Past made one last quick fuel stop with about 15 minutes remaining in the race.
To this point, Landshark had trailed the leading pair by upwards of two minutes, but the team had been saving the car all weekend for the final hour when the car came to life, its driver knocking two seconds off the car’s fastest lap. Back to the Past re-entered from their fuel splash about 15 seconds behind the Integra while LemonAid ran two minutes ahead still.
And this is where it all went nuts. LemonAid’s fuel light shone constantly at this point and it looked uncertain whether the car would run out of gas and sputter to a stop in the final moments. The driver ran the entire track in in fourth and fifth gear, then just fifth gear, sacrificing all power simply to get the car to the finish line. Landshark bit into the lead hard in the final four laps with no worries about fuel and Back to the Past’s driver returned in attack mode, too.
Three-quarters of the way through the race’s final lap, Landshark appeared in LemonAid’s rearview mirror at Canada Corner and the E30 driver sprang to life, suddenly using all of the gears to get it to the checkered flag in P1. He managed to hold off the sneaky Landshark, but only just. The distance, 2.6 seconds, translates to about 300 feet of separation after 14-1/2 hours of racing.
Back to the Past finished 19 seconds back; had their one contact incident come just 15 minutes later, the team might have had enough fuel to maintain a respectable gap back to Landshark while conserving fuel late, though it would have been close. And Team Fiery Death! would gladly take back Sunday’s black flag in the hope that the lost time would have translated to win at the end.
It’s too easy to suggest that any one (or even two) event(s) would have given any team a win. Endurance racing is, by its nature cruel and unpredictable and the causality of an outcome is probably too complex to surmise what would have happened. One could say that Team LemonAid could have pushed hard Saturday and won easily, but who knows if their car would have taken the abuse of a full-tilt flogging for the whole weekend?
This is to speak nothing of the back-and-forth, tête-à-tête in Class B, where We Are Not Really From Iran’s Ford Festiva and Team Sucker Punch’s Chevrolet Camaro slogged it out in a race that also came down to the final laps. But I’ll save that for another day.