Team members including Mike Meier, Alan Brattesani, Zep Brattesani, Geoff Straw and Bernhard Wagener of Davis, and Brian Doty of Stockton stand next to their car Tinyvette at the conclusion of the 24 Hours of LeMons’ Arse-Sweat Apalooza race in December. Courtesy photo


Diary of a mad LeMons racing rebuilder

By March 24, 2011

Last spring, Alan Brattesani and I — with probably a little too much free time on our hands —dragged a derelict 1969 Opel GT down from Oroville where it had sat in an orchard for 25 years.

Once it was safely tucked away under my carport, we got to work evicting the vermin, de-scuzifying it, changing the oil and spark plugs, rewiring it and getting the requisite safety gear installed.

Then we dressed it up to look like a smaller version of a famous 24 Hours of Le Mans racing Corvette, dubbing it Tinyvette.

After nine straight weeks — night and day — doing Opel yoga in and on and under that cute little car, we entered it in the 24 Hours of LeMons’ Arse-Sweat Apalooza race at Thunderhill Raceway, near Willows.

Despite the long odds, including a total lack of racing or serious wrenching experience, a motor that had not run since Reagan was president, and the pity of the race organizers, the effort was successful.

“Successful” in LeMons means a team starts and finishes a race without having to endure any of the humiliating penalties doled out by judges for the various infractions and screw-ups you’d expect from total novices racing their less-than-stellar cars.

Yes, there were problems to overcome: a dead transmission (an hour into the race), serious overheating problems and a carburetor that was falling apart. But our Davis team persevered.

The team in this case was expanded to include three more unfortunate local residents — Geoff Straw, Zep Brattesani and Bernhard Wagener — and a policeman from Stockton, Brian Doty, and by association, their friends and family.

Soon, friends and family would be thrilled again to learn that Tinyvette would be racing at Buttonwillow Raceway last December in the Arse-Freeze Apalooza.

The team, reduced to Zep, me and Geoff, had a lot of driving and wrenching to share.

As it turned out, it rained just enough to keep things interesting, and the car did mostly great. This time the transmission lasted almost a day and Geoff had to finish Saturday for us in third gear.

Day two went very well. Zep took the last stint on a wet track and in low light, and with the burden (and guilt) of his two spins at Thunderhill weighing heavily, he took the checkered flag.

After 17 hours of racing, Team Tinyvette finished in the top third of a field of more than 170 cars (third in its class). We also brought home two awards.

One was the Grass Roots Motorsports “Most from the Least” Award, which we assume is an award people would want to receive, and the second was from a nice young woman who was walking the paddock and making up awards for cars she thought deserved them. We got her “Most Beautiful Car” award. Really touching, and prized by the team.

From field-find to podium finish, not that LeMons does podiums, the Tinyvette has been a great car. It’s slow but a lot of fun to drive. It has great handling and is mostly reliable. It gets over 27 mpg highway, which is a big plus in endurance racing. And best of all, it is still in one piece, the team members are all still friends, and family members are happy for us, even amused.

So what to do now? Well, Team Tinyvette has signed up for five of the six West Coast LeMons races for 2011, starting with the “Sears Pointless” race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma on Saturday and Sunday.

Yes, we’ll be driving the same routes as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Helio Castroneves.

Should Tinyvette survive to September, it will be on display along with other notable Opels at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento.

But before our team members get too far ahead of ourselves we have to get through “Pointless” — as in Sears Point-less… Get it?

The car is ready to go and we’ve prepared a spare transmission. We’ve broken in a new driver, Craig Lowe: a UC Davis student who is fresh off final exams.

On top of all this, the rumor is there will be more than 200 cars testing their weekend endurance. Two hundred!? NASCAR runs about 40 cars, and they’re professionals who still run into each other.

Infineon is already a challenging course — curvy, twisty and hilly and with lots of walls to hit.

This is going to be interesting, and Team Tinyvete is looking forward to the challenge.

By the way, if you happen to see a Volvo wagon parked in a driveway on Whittier Drive, under a cover but with a strange lump in the roof, that could be a LeMons car sporting the remains of its theme (costume).

And that Alfa parked next to it? Could it be a future LeMons car?

Or if you see a purple and lime-green Datsun 280Z in a driveway in South Davis, ask yourself why someone would paint a car those colors, and think LeMons.

Also, if you see a hand-painted and winged Jaguar passing through town on a trailer, that’s Team Fraidycat Racing and they will be at Infineon this month.

Fraidycat captain Ed Donnelly is a student at UCD and — along with the Evil Genius of Racing, John Pagels of Davis — is entering a car again. Their MISHAT Volvo, formerly the family wagon until it (H)it (A) (T)ree, will have at least one of its drivers be a Davis resident.

Seems that Davis is full of LeMons.

Notes: Fraidycat’s Jaguar showed a 200 horsepower reading last week, while Tinyvette came in at 89 hp. … Rain or shine, the race at Infineon is on. One rule for racing LeMons — no car can cost more than $500 to acquire and repair for racing. Safety equipment does not count against the $500. … Meier is retired from UCD, Wagener is the owner of Route 66 Karting in New Mexico and hopes to start a karting service in Davis. Straw manages Unitrans. … visit http://24hoursoflemons.com for more on this weekend’s race and the sport of racing retreaded automobiles.

Mike Meier

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