This race is only for lemons. 2 Windsor, Ont., men put their car to the test

The suspension is shot, it tops out at 130 kilometers an hour and the inside is a wreck: It’s Buckle Up Buckaroo, the racing car put to the test on the track by two Windsor, Ont., men recently.

You might be thinking, this sounds pretty far from the ideal race car. You’d be right — it’s a lemon, and it joined 89 others on the track for 24 Hours of Lemons, the endurance race for cars that are barely hanging on.

As organizers bill the race and its mission, “Racing isn’t just for rich idiots… it’s for all idiots.”

“It’s not driving, it’s racing, right? It was quite an adrenaline rush. It was intimidating,” said Michael Schmidlin, a member of a two-person team, with Grant Smith, that raced the 2006 Chevy Cobalt.

“At one point in time, I almost didn’t want to go back out for a while because I wanted to calm my nerves, you know, but it was a good time.”

‘Racing for all idiots’

The pair raced on May 11 and 12 on the GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Mich. for 24 Hours of Lemons: The Rust Belt GP.

As fans of auto racing will know, the name is a reference to the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in France. In this case, it’s actually a misnomer, as the Michigan race, one of many held across the country, has cars on the track for about 14 hours over two days.

Smith says he grew up watching races and it had always been a dream. He had done demolition derbies in the past, but he was looking for a bit more longevity in the race. They’ve been working on the car since 2019, and throughout COVID when they couldn’t cross the border to participate.

Buckle Up Buckaroo is the 2006 Chevy Cobalt that brought Grant Smith and Michael Schmidlin to Michigan for a “lemon race:” A car race for the bottom-of-the-barrel cars. Schmidlin and Smith say the race was a great time and plan to return next year.

Buckle Up Buckaroo is the 2006 Chevy Cobalt that brought Grant Smith and Michael Schmidlin to Michigan for 24 Hours of Lemons. Schmidlin and Smith say the race was a great time and plan to return next year. (Michael Evans/CBC)

“Being on track, there’s nothing else quite like it. It’s a huge, major adrenaline rush,” Smith said.

According to the rules, each car must have cost the team no more than $500 to purchase.

From there, teams including Smith and Schmidlin make safety modifications — and of course, there’s no price cap on safety. That includes a racing seat, six-point harness, roll cage and fire suppression system like you’d find in other race cars. Teams can make other modifications to make the car more competitive.

But in the case of Buckle Up Buckaroo, the team made almost no other changes.

“We didn’t modify the engine in any way,” Smith said. “We’ve got some newer tires and stuff like that, check the brakes, but we didn’t do anything — like oil changes, spark plugs and that was about it.”

The sound track to getting the car race-ready was a steady mix of Bob Seger, Metallica and heavy metal band Ministry.

‘There were 10 cars that we beat’

Then, they hit the track.

It was both of their first times participating in a lemon race. At full speed, the Cobalt reached about 130 km/h, pretty much “maxed out,” Smith said.

The finished 15th from last place, or 78th. Their best lap time was 2:12 seconds. That compares to a time of 1:47 for the first-place car.

“Being 15th from the bottom was not a big concern for us because it was pretty fun. Five of the cars didn’t race, but that means that there’s 10 cars that did race that we beat,” said Schmidlin.

The inside of the 2006 Chevy Cobalt that Grant Smith and Michael Schmidlin drove in a recent “lemon race” in South Haven, Mich. The cars must all have cost $500 or less to buy before the race, but are heavily modified for racing safety.

The inside of the 2006 Chevy Cobalt that Grant Smith and Michael Schmidlin drove in a recent “lemon race” in South Haven, Mich. The cars must all have cost $500 or less to buy before the race, but are heavily modified for racing safety. (Michael Evans/CBC)

The car held up over the two days, a “surprise” to Smith, he said. Their families were on the sidelines cheering them on.

While the race is lighthearted in presentation, Smith says it’s all business on the track. Their car was rated a “C” — unlikely to complete the full race time.

But other cars received A or B grades, indicating they were a more competitive class of vehicles — although that, too, can be taken with a grain of salt.

“The Class A guys… they would go by you within inches.”

But it wasn’t a total wash for the team: Smith and Schmidlin received the Judge’s Choice Award, saying it was “pretty fun” to get an award in their first race.

“They like watching us because we took a very long time on a fuel stop. It took us like six minutes to get five gallons in the car,” Smith said.

“But they also liked the fact that we were only a two man team and we were… apologizing, especially when you get a black flag: we’re sorry.”

Smith and Schmidlin are already planning for next year.